Something a little different: The Resistance in Math Class

Hello everybody! Between a bruised tailbone (ow), a sinus infection, finals week, and heading to Canada for a conference, I’m a bit behind on reviews. However, I just had a paper published by PRIMUS (Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies) that was on using The Resistance in a discrete math course. We’re allowed to post our accepted manuscript on our institution and link to it for free, so it’s right here for you to check out! We’ll be back next week with the reviews, but until then, I’d love any comments you have on the paper and other ways to bring games to the classroom.

Review: Elysium

elysiumboxOh man, it’s finally here. From the moment Croc of Space Cowboys showed me a few prototype cards and explained the column mechanism to me at last Gen Con – and that was it, we didn’t play the game or anything – I knew from pedigree alone that I was eager for this game. Matthew Dunstan, designer of the underrated Relic Runners, together with Brett J. Gilbert, designer of Divinare, and from the team that brought us Splendor and Black Fleet? I’ve finally had some time to sink my teeth into the final product, and there’s always a concern that I’ve over-hyped a game for myself… Did that happen here? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

elysiumposeidonComponents: Somehow, Space Cowboys have managed to improve their dedication to components since Splendor and Black Fleet. Although Elysium doesn’t have the awesome miniatures and vibrant board of Black Fleet, the tokens and player boards are very well done, each of the eight gods has a different artist (!), and – finally, guys – each deck’s space in the insert is roomy enough to accommodate sleeves, even Fantasy Flight’s thicker ones. Finally! Some will balk at the $60 MSRP for a card game, but this is a pretty involved, well-developed game, with some wonderful components. And that’s nothing compared to games like Nations, for example.

 

elysiumquestsAccessibility: What I really like about Elysium, is that just as in games like Castles of Burgundy or Dominion, the central rules aren’t very complex – in fact, the main rulebook is pretty short. Instead, the complexity comes from the special abilities on the cards in the game. Since you only see some of the cards at a time, you can sort of ease yourself into it. I agree with the rulebook’s recommendation to not play with Ares, Apollo, or Hermes your first game – I would also tell you to not play your first game with four players (three is probably ideal). The reason for this is that the cards are all laid out in the middle of the table for an open draft each round, but the number of cards is 1 more than three times the number of players. For our first three-player game, ten cards per round was already a lot to digest – I wouldn’t want to do thirteen. After you’ve played the game some, you realize there are many repeated effects, and that you can easily catch what a card does from the icons once you’ve internalized them. You’ll probably play badly in the first game, too – money is tight in this one, and so are the options available to you as you give up columns – but we didn’t feel ‘punished’ or like the game was keeping us from being able to do anything when we played poorly. The game is also fairly short, which helps – you can just play again!

One complaint we did have is that there are lots of icons, and they’re not necessarily easily connected to their actions, unless you really buy-in to the mostly irrelevant theme. For example, the lyres for transfers might have made more sense as down arrows (since your Domain is above your Elysium). Having a separate appendix for the card effects helps a lot, though. Overall, I would put this around the level of Castles of Burgundy or 7 Wonders – a simple core for a relatively short game, but with lots to grok regarding special abilities once you dive in.

 

elysiumaresDepth: There are two central mechanisms to this game, in my opinion. The first is that when taking cards or quests (which determine turn order, income, number of transfers), you basically have to “give up” purchasing power by indicating what color of cards you can no longer buy that round, after each move. This is a horribly agonizing decision, because you could easily end up being stuck taking a Citizen (a wild card for scoring with no powers, and a VP penalty for using it), or an Incomplete Quest (with much weaker abilities). It’s a brilliant concept and allows not only for super-tense decisions, but it also allows you to completely skip the early grind of games like 7 Wonders and Imperial Settlers where you have to build the resources first to get the amazing cards. Any card in Elysium is theoretically available right from the very first turn, and that’s awesome. You still have to manage your resources – very carefully, actually – but this lets you dive right into all of the cool cards without what I’ll call “in-game setup time.” That’s a feat unto itself!

The second central mechanism is that when you take cards, they go into your Domain where they have special powers, but to score points for you, you have to transfer them to your Elysium, where they become powerless. This leads to its own set of difficult decisions, but it’s also very tightly intertwined with everything else, since the Card and Quest abilities are related to how many transfers you can do, and how many you can afford (going to Heaven costs money, you know!). And creating Legends in your Elysium (basically, sets or runs) has its own challenges as you race to be the first to complete a certain type of Legend.

Both of these mechanisms make the game far more interactive than its most obvious comparison, 7 Wonders. Some cards, especially in the decks of Athena and Poseidon, allow for very direct interaction. Even when those decks don’t appear, though, if you’re not paying attention to what your opponents are doing both in their Domains and their Elysiums, you don’t stand a chance. My only real complaint in this category is that, as you keep an eye on your opponents, things can become somewhat calculable in the final round. Giving up a column is also a terrifying decision that can easily lead to near-immediate regret, so if you are playing with analysis-paralysis-prone players, I would maybe not bring this one out. Ignoring that, though, this is the heart and soul of Elysium – awesome cardplay, cool combos, tense decisions, all within an hour or a little more.

One other thing I’ll say here: I’ve seen some complaints about the two-player game and that a variant is needed, because you don’t see enough different cards, and I say hogwash to that. Due to some bad shuffling, our first three-player game was devoid of Level 3 cards, and it was still a very enjoyable game, despite being weird. I never understood the people who pick out their own Dominion cards because they can’t stand the thought of there being no four-cost cards, as if the game will somehow break down. I love those fringe-case play-throughs – why would you want the game to go the same way every time?

 

elysiumgameplayTheme: I’ll never punish a game for a pasted-on theme, simply because that’s usually more enjoyable than no theme at all – I’d at least like to look at some nice artwork while I play an abstract. Elysium is supposed to be about demigods impressing the higher gods with their handiwork so that they can ascend to godhood themselves, and it really, really tries, but doesn’t quite get there in this category. The eight different artists really do make the different god decks feel unique, and the card effects tie cleverly to what each god is known for. Even the idea of moving to the Elysium and no longer being present to provide your power, but providing VP for that ascension, makes sense. But within the Elysium, you are… scoring runs and sets, and the whole thing breaks down again. While it works mechanically just fine and the gameplay is deep, I feel like the actual scoring in this game is the weak link. I wish that scoring in the Elysium was done some different, thematic, or at least more interesting way – maybe somehow laying the cards in a grid somehow, or racing on a track for each god or something, I don’t know – but as it is, it seems to be the primary perpetrator of making the game come back down to colors and numbers. And that’s not a problem for me – I love a good theme and good artwork, but I play games for the gameplay first – but it can certainly turn other people off to the game, or cause accessibility issues.

 

Fun: Despite my thematic complaints, this is an amazing game, one that I’ll be playing for a long time to come. My favorite games are short card-combo driven affairs like 7 Wonders, Dominion, and Lords of Waterdeep, and Elysium has found a whole new spin on that genre of games. I’m guessing that’s a comparison good enough to let you know if the game is for you – if you’re a theme-first kind of guy, maybe stay away from this one, but if you love great artwork, tough decisions, and card combos, then you can pick this one up blind with no regrets.

 

Space Cowboys is now three-for-three in my book. Elysium is a quick, innovative, tough game full of great artwork and cool combos, that makes great strides to overcome its thematic disconnects. For more information on the game, check out our interview with Matt & Brett!

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Ghost Stories

ghoststoriesboxIn a recent perusal of our site, I realized that we have never written about Ghost Stories. “How can this be? We love this game!” I said to myself. In fact, we almost always suggest it when someone wants to play a co-op… Or something with a little meat… Or a horror themed game… Or something they’ve never played before or you know… Pretty much always. “But Ghost Stories is legendarily hard. Wouldn’t it be easier just not to play?” I hear you saying.

Is my love misplaced? Is this game as amazing as I want to believe it is, or do I really just like getting beat up by a bunch of cards? Read on to find out.

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Ghost-Stories-materielComponents: This is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. The artwork is stunning and so very appropriate to the theme. In addition to the beautiful artwork, they really went all out with their attention to detail on the pieces. The cards are durable, not to mention gorgeous, and all the cardboard pieces (including the tiles that make up the game board) are nice and thick. In addition to the quality cardboard pieces and cards, this game boasts several nicely made, really cool-looking plastic figurines. Did I mention it was gorgeous?

 

Accessibility: This is a gamer’s game for sure, but it’s fairly easy for your average gamer to pick it up. There are a lot of rules to explain at the outset but once you get going, the game flows really well and feels really intuitive.

 

Theme: In Ghost Stories, you are a group of four ancient Chinese monks fending off the ghostly minions of Wu Feng, the Lord of evil. You use your powers and the powers of the locations around you to keep them at bay until the Evil Lord himself appears and you fight him in glorious fashion… Unless your powers aren’t enough and either you die, or the world is overrun with so much evil that it’s irredeemable.
Everything about this game feels like an epic struggle between good and evil. Ghosts come on to the board every turn and they can “curse” tiles (rendering them useless), have negative effects at different times during the game, and possibly even kill one of the players if there are too many on the board. You have things you can do to help rid the board of ghosts and, thus, rid the world of evil, but your abilities are limited. Even when you’re doing well, you feel like good is just barely a step ahead of evil, as it should be.

The theme of this game is unique, game play is inextricably intertwined with the theme, and the theme absolutely feels immersive throughout the course of the game. At no point do you feel like there’s no reason within the universe of the game for doing something… Everything you do works thematically. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better marriage of theme and mechanics in a board game.

 

Depth: What I like about Ghost Stories is that it offers almost as much depth as Arkham Horror or Mage Knight and has a similarly epic feel in about half the time without being nearly as “heavy” as either of these. At no point does this game feel needlessly complicated or get weighed down in it’s own mechanics, but you still feel like you have a lot of very important options to consider.

I think my favorite “layer” of depth in Ghost Stories is the part where each player color has a different ability (actually, they have two you can choose from at the beginning of the game). Sure, other co-op games use this all the time, but Ghost Stories takes standard co-op gameplay from a more typical co-op like Pandemic and, through a specific combination of gameplay mechanics and player abilities, turns it into a complex and beautiful Web of options that can vary wildly depending on who’s turn it is, what dilemmas they are faced with and how their abilities can interplay with others.

In addition to the interplay of abilities, Ghost Stories brags a multiplicity of opponents with different horrible abilities to attempt to thwart you, and even different incarnations of Wu Feng of which you randomly choose one at the beginning of the game. You also have quite a few options available on your turn to try to thwart the bad guys through the use of tokens, abilities and the “locations” on the board.

I really love that in Ghost Stories it feels like you almost have an infinite number of options without game play being overwhelming or slow. They have really found the sweet spot between “deep” and “easy to play” here.

 

Fun: I love this game and think it feels epic every time we play. However, There are some issues with the game that might be frustrating for some. This game is brutally hard, there are a few things that you really have to do a certain way in order to have a chance to keep the group alive, and, like all co-ops, Ghost Stories suffers from the “quarterbacking” problem.
Ghost Stories’ difficulty is legendary among gamers at this point and beating a game this hard does require certain things to keep you off the path to certain death (and on the path of “maybe you won’t die this time”). Mind you, once you do those certain things, you do have a lot of options for what you can do to potentially be successful. In addition to the above, Like all co-op games, In Ghost Stories, experienced players and those with strong personalities can overrun the game if you let them. However, I will say that the combination of difficulty and options in Ghost Stories makes it so that there is, in most cases, not one clear best move that someone can get mad at you for not taking.

 

Overall, Ghost Stories is one of my favorite games and one I am happy to play any time. I constantly try to get more people into this game because of how epic and beautiful it is. Unfortunately, it does have some drawbacks that would be too frustrating for some, including brutal difficulty and the ever-present “co-op” game problem of quarterbacking. Despite these issues, I feel that this game is a an absolute classic that I will always love and always suggest to other people.

Rating:
5star

5 out of 5

“Criminally” Underrated Games, Part 2

Today, I’m continuing our series on “criminally” underrated games that have missed their chance in the spotlight. In my experience, most games are just mediocre – maybe around 6 to 6.5 on BGG. It seems that the good games manage more than a 7.0, and the great ones manage a 7.5 or higher. These games all score below a 7 on average at BGG, but I’d rate them as 9s or 10s (and have reviewed them on the MeepleTown scale as 4s or 5s). Over 2 points difference? That’s criminal! Each entry in the series will try to explain why a couple of games are so great, and give some conjectures as to why the BGG masses disagree. (Check out Part 1 here!)

chingMadame Ching

BGG rating: 6.55771

My rating: 9 (Our review)

Why It’s Awesome: The Keltis series is a personal favorite of mine; while the namesake game is a little too ordinary, Neue Wege, Neue Ziele and Das Orakel are fantastic, and its original inspiration, Lost Cities, is still loved by many BGGers. Madame Ching is essentially Keltis given the Cathala / Maublanc treatment. Cool, unique theme? Check. Action cards and special abilities? Check. New spins on old mechanisms? Check! For me, this game hits all the right notes. Being as math-obsessed as I am, I love the distillation of the colors and numbers into the patterns on the board, and how arithmetic everything is – yet, Vincent Dutrait’s wonderful art never gets in the way of the extremely helpful graphic design, so you don’t need to be a math nerd to play. An abstract game like that, in my opinion, deserves an exciting set of chrome on top, so the “lack of thematic integration” doesn’t bother me any, and it’s there to a small degree in the Skill cards and action cards. This game has essentially replaced Keltis for me, and that was no easy feat.

Why BGG Got It Wrong: Bruno Cathala is hard to pin down. It’s partially because he partners with so many other designers, but partially because his interests seem so varied. He does the special-action thing great and comes up with cool game themes (Abyss, anyone?), yet it seems like his mechanisms are often from the classic, you could say Knizian, school of thought, and he’s even designed his fair share of abstracts, yet he’s somehow avoided the “pasted-on theme” complaints that plague the good doctor. Some games bring that game theme through more than others – Abyss has had some complaints (partially because that theme is just so dang unique), while no one would question Cyclades on the matter. His work with Ludovic Maublanc seems to be primarily been theme-driven (which isn’t a surprise, when you’re talking about the designer of Cash n’ Gun$), but as soon as you see that this is a game of colors and numbers, suddenly it’s a disappointment to many. Especially since, much like AbyssMadame Ching has a rich, exciting theme, putting a new spin on an old favorite (Chinese pirates instead of Caribbean).

I’m assuming Hurrican’s in good shape financially, but it seems like they have a bit of a marketing problem. Much like Rise of Augustus, this game’s box and components make it a little too big for its britches. The weirdest thing about this game is that except for one action card, the gems and coins are purely cosmetic, overly-complicated ways to score points – they could have just put a VP amount on each Mission tile (some give a choice of options, but you could just turn it over or something to indicate which option was chosen). This game feels like Lost Cities with a bunch of Cathala chrome, and in some sense it is, and that’s why I love it – but I think the box size and unnecessary components betray the game and make it look like a bigger affair than it is. The other strange thing about this game is that the two-player “variant” is actually by far the most enjoyable way to play the game, which does the game a bit of a disservice, since it’s my experience that the adjusted two-player rules are usually a crappy half-baked version of the game so that publishers can “lie” about player counts. Not so here – there’s an immense amount of strategy in controlling two ships, a lot of neat tricks you can’t do in a 3- or 4-player game. I actually think the game worsens with each added player, which is counter-intuitive and might lead to some bad first games and initial ratings.

 

skullSkull (& Roses)

BGG rating: 6.93242

My rating: 10 (Our review)

Why It’s Awesome: I love, love, love this game. I gave it a 4/5, but nowadays I would give it the full 5. I describe this game as Poker without the numbers. There’s no probabilities here, although you can do a bit of deduction and guesswork as players lose their “cards” (coasters). Rather, this is simply a game of making bluffs (or not), and calling them (or not). It’s an incredibly simple game, and yet one that generates laughs every single time, even after countless plays. Turns simply involve laying face-down cards that have either a Rose or a Skull, and then a round of betting on just how many Roses you can turn over without revealing a Skull. If you can pull off your winning bid twice, you win. There’s a bit more to it than that, but not much. And the game really only consists of six sets of four coasters each and six mats to put them on – to me, this is the amazing, original micro-game, not Love Letter.

I suppose if bluffing isn’t your thing, you might not enjoy this game. But I’ve found that players that don’t like Coup or The Resistance due to the heavy amount of lying seem to like this one just fine, since you’re not necessarily saying out loud that what you’ve put down, so no real lying is happening here. This is actually my favorite style of bluffing, because it feels more clever when you manage to trick someone than just saying a lie out loud (or the yelling matches that The Resistance can become).

skullrosessideWhy BGG Got It Wrong: Skull has had somewhat of an identity crisis. The initial two versions, Skull & Roses and Skull & Roses Red, had biker gangs on the coasters that seemed somewhat sexist and even racist, and really emphasized the idea that this is a “bar game,” when it need not be – even us teetotalers can love it. Then the game got a much-needed facelift, although with a bump in MSRP, and now has this amazing artwork by Tom Vuarchex (Jungle Speed) representing ancient civilizations in psychedelic patterns. The two problems with the new edition, though.

The first is that the facelift came with a name change to Skull – which is ridiculous. Try googling this game now. Furthermore, Skull & Roses is a beautiful name, with a bit of mystique to it, that makes you curious. Now the game’s name is generic and impractical. The second problem is the one that’s been there since the beginning – all each player needs are three cards with one symbol and a fourth with a different one. $25 MSRP for what is literally a box of cardboard coasters is a hard sell. For me, though, the incredible game design as well as the amazing new artwork makes the game more than worth its price. This is probably my favorite party game – it’s the perfect time-killer when game night is pretty much over, no one wants to play another long game, but no one wants to go home yet.

 

 

I hope you guys enjoyed this continuation of the series. Got a favorite underrated game? Sound off in the comments!

Blue Orange Games Double-Down: Crab Stack and Atilla

Hello friends! Today we have two reviews for you, primarily because the games are so short and simple, there’s not too much to say. Blue Orange Games has really stepped into the gamer limelight recently, with quick, simple games that still have some meat (Battle Sheep, for example). Now they have two more kid-friendly, colorful abstracts for you: Crab Stack from Henri Karmarrec and Attila from Bruno Faidutti.

 

Crab Stack

crabstackboxCrab Stack is a game for 2-4 players that takes about 30 minutes. Each player is given 9 crabs (3 small, 3 medium, 3 large), and all of them are randomly placed on the board at the beginning of the game. On your turn, you move one crab – small crabs move three spaces, medium two, and large one – and you can only land on crabs the same size or smaller. Only the topmost crab can move on a pile, and quite cleverly, crabs can only move on top of other crabs, making the board very easy to use for different player counts without players getting confused about which spaces are actually available. One a player can’t move, he’s eliminated, and last one standing wins. There’s one more twist, though: when the pile of crabs is split into two or more, the smaller piles are washed away by a “tidal wave”, i.e. removed from the game.

crabstackgameplayFirst, let me talk about the bits. I love how chunky the crab pieces are, and I like the shape of the board and the clarity of the spaces. I also really love cartoony artwork, and Blue Orange nails that every single time. The price is also really good for how nice the bits are – $25 MSRP for a decent-sized box – card games are often that price. My only complaints about the bits are that the board folds over twice and it’s not very large, so it doesn’t lay as flat as if it only had one fold – and it easily could have done that and still fit in the box (most of the box space is taken up by the insert). The other tiniest of complaints is that the stars on the crabs look like VPs, and probably aren’t necessary.

As for the actual gameplay, I enjoyed the game quite a bit. It’s quick and simple, but the strategy isn’t necessarily obvious. I thought the logical play would be to cover up opposing large crabs as quickly as possible since they’re the most flexible in what they can cover up, but that strategy hasn’t worked for me. You also have to consider the board state, not only what’s adjacent to what but also the possibility of splitting the piles and causing a tidal wave. It wasn’t brain-burning, nor was it very long, but it was interesting enough, and something that both kids and adults can enjoy. I’m happy to have it and look forward to playing it again.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

 

Attila

attilaboxWait, I thought Bruno Faidutti only made chaotic card games like Citadels and Mascarade? On the contrary, Bruno has made a few abstracts such as the very simple Babylon, and now Attila. In Attila, each player has three pawns placed on a board of 20 squares (for example, a 4×5 grid), which is made up of 2 2×2 squares and 2 2×3 squares, allowing for some variable setup. On your turn, you move one of your pawns in an L-shape just like a knight does in chess, and then place a Scorched Earth tile on any unoccupied space, rendering it unusable. That’s from where the name is derived: Attila the Hun once said, “There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again.” When you can’t move any of your pawns, you lose, and therefore the other player wins.

I love, love, love these components. This game comes in the same embossed tin as Niya, and they’re even stackable (hint, hint, Timeline series). The pawns are nice wooden pieces, with stickers that don’t feel tacky. I really love the Scorched Earth tiles – they were pre-punched, and they have a variety of amusing artwork of freaked-out animals running away. The insert even has a fancy divider set up to fit everything in. My only complaint is somewhat a big one – you kind of have to look at the side of the pawns to see which one belongs to you (red or yellow) because the sky is the same orange-ish color in all of the pictures. I did notice a bit later, though, that the pawns for each side are curved a bit differently also, so that helps offset that problem. And the MSRP is $15, which is probably about as low as you can go for such nice bits.

attilagameplayOn the gameplay side, reading the rules had me afraid that this game would be far too simplistic. Move a knight, block a space? And I’ll admit, there’s not a lot going on here, but it’s trickier than I thought it would be. With six pawns on the board, you really have to consider every possible maneuver, and you want to make sure you don’t screw yourself with your own Scorched Earth tile a few turns later. You also have to keep in mind that you can force your opponent into ‘checkmate’ by blocking their pawns with your own, in addition to the Scorched Earth tiles – but blocking a move for them is one less move for you too, so it’s a dangerous gambit. The replayability given by different board layouts is an extremely nice touch, one that elevates the game quite a bit. I don’t think this is a game I’ll reach for on game night, but I’m more than happy to throw this and Niya in my bag when traveling and need to kill some time.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Interview: Matthew Dunstan, Brett J. Gilbert on Elysium

BrettGilbertMattDunstanI’ll never forget when Croc from Space Cowboys showed an early prototype of Elysium at Gen Con 2014, for only about five minutes. All it took was the Space Cowboys brand (I loved Splendor, and had just played Black Fleet), the designers (Matthew Dunstan, Relic Runners; Brett J. Gilbert, Divinare), and a very simple mechanism to have me drooling for 8 months. Fortunately, Elysium is coming soon (May 28th), and to help get your excitement levels up to name, Matthew and Brett have graciously agreed to answer all of my inane questions. Onward!

 

 

When we interviewed Matt previously, we got a bit of background, but despite Brett’s many blogged words, I can’t find too much of an introduction anywhere. Brett, can you tell us a bit about your history in gaming, why you became a game designer, your day job (I assume you’re not the orthopedic surgeon in Raleigh, North Carolina who even shares your middle initial), and any other fun facts?
divinare

Brett: As a child, I was always playing board games: with my sisters, my friends, my family. It was a special treat to play cards — for money! (albeit only pennies) — with my aunts and uncles at Christmas. We did make games of our own, and would often house-rule our favourite games. The instinct to design was there, but went forgotten for too long. I started designing games as an adult about 10 years ago, but only began to take the endeavour more seriously in the past 5 years. My own academic bias towards maths and sciences has got mixed up with time spent editing and designing in publishing and online retail, and that range of skills and interests have all made me a better game designer.

 

You’ve both written a lot about games, and as I understand it, have co-designed with others and belong to a larger consortium of designers in the UK. What’s your particular partnership like?

Matt: I don’t know how Brett would describe our partnership, but I think we work well together because we have different but complementary skills that are useful at different points of the design process. I usually have too many ideas, and so I’m constantly throwing them at Brett to see if any of them sound like they could work. I’m usually making the first prototype just to get it to the table and see whether the idea is worth following. Brett has a really great editorial mind (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this!), so he’s very good at taking in that first prototype and sorting it out into something sensible, and figuring out what we should keep and what isn’t working.
I think we also work well together because our co-designed games tend to take parts of each of our own distinctive design ‘personalities’, and fuse them together into something unique that neither of us could have done by ourselves.

 

Brett: I am in no way offended by Matt’s description of me as someone with an ‘editorial mind’! Games need both order and chaos; systems and surprises. Creativity is not, as someone observed, merely the finding of a thing, it is also the making something out of it after it is found. Matt and I instinctively come at the same problem on different vectors, and that’s enormously powerful, generating new insight and often shortcutting what might otherwise be a long process of iteration, discovery and (potentially) failure. And the quicker you can find out what you have (or don’t have!) the better.
Elysium is a great example of something that neither of us could have created on our own — and indeed, something that neither of us could have *expected* to create. It’s exciting to investigate ideas together and suddenly realise you’ve ended up someplace totally new.

 

relicrunnerscoverBoth of your initial ‘large’ releases, Relic Runners from Days of Wonder for Matt, and Divinare from Asmodee for Brett, have been out for a while now. What was it like, intellectually and emotionally, having a first ‘real published game’ out there for critical reception? What kind of lessons did you learn?

 

Matt: It was certainly quite the emotional rollercoaster! Looking back, I realise that I was just incredibly lucky to be working with a publisher like Days of Wonder for my first game – they poured so much creative and development work into it, and really supported the game at all parts of its life (before and after its release). I think I suspected this in some way at the time, but not as much as do now. Two lessons stand out it my mind: firstly, the lifecycle of the majority of games is very short, and you only really have a few brief months of the limelight before the next wave of games come out! It really is very difficult to get something that has staying power. Secondly, designing games that straddle the line between more casual family players and more hardcore ‘gamers’ is very difficult – more difficult than either end of the spectrum I would think. I think there were a lot of players who had the wrong expectations for the game – that either it would be lighter and a bit closer to Ticket to Ride, or that it was going to be a more deeply strategic game (like Five Tribes would be!), and so there was some disappointment when it turned out to be neither of these things. That being said, a lot of people have written really nice things about the game, so I am happy that some people are still enjoying it!

 

Brett: I felt very blessed: first to win the game design contest in Granollers, and then to have the prototype ‘spotted’ an Asmodee representative in Spain who took it to the team in France. They did such a beautiful job with the re-presentation of my utterly abstract prototype, and it’s still thrilling to read about people playing Divinare for the first time and enjoying it. But being published creates a curious combination of emotions: for one thing, the game is no longer “yours”; how can it be? Everyone who touches it — not just the publishers, but everyone who buys a copy and gets to take it home — inevitably claims part of it for themselves and becomes part of its story. This is just as it should be, but there is a sense of loss for the designer — at least for this one! — every bit as sharp as the sense of pride at having made something worthy enough of that attention.

 

elysiumboxLet’s talk about Elysium specifically. Matthew’s already explained that he sees games very mathematically, but Brett’s preview articles for Elysium on BGG have been written from a very thematic point of view. Brett also wrote a great blog post about Theme vs. Narrative. How did the two of you wrestle with the thematic side of the game? Did the game start with the Olympian theme or did that develop later? How has the narrative changed during development?

Brett: Just to set the record straight: Matt wrote the original drafts of all of the preview articles! We share the credit, but I applied my ‘editorial mind’ only after Matt had done all the hard work.
I definitely see a difference between theme (as gamers generally understand the term) and narrative, and to be honest, am generally not that excited by theme. If anything, themes are more likely to turn me off than on. Games tell stories, but the greatest stories are not about places and things or even people, they about ideas and experiences. Theme can be a tool for designers, a signpost for publishers, and a guiding hand for players — but it is a means to end.

 

Matt: To add to what Brett said, I think we wrestled much more with the mechanical side of the game rather than any sort of theme, and how to fit the mechanisms we had into some sort of narrative that made sense. I think the best example of this is the concept of the Elysium, and transferring cards into it. The genesis of this aspect of Elysium was mechanical – we thought that it would be interesting if you continuously had to break up the engine that you were building with the cards. Next came the narrative concern, where we tried to rationalise our mechanism, and in earlier prototypes (which were set in Ancient Rome) we saw this act as ‘promoting’ a card, and letting the person retire in the countryside somewhere once they had done their work. It was only much later, when the game was with Space Cowboys, that the thematic arc of transferring your cards to Elysium was added, but we’re glad they came up with a way to marry theme, narrative and mechanic in this way!

 

My hunch (am I right?) is that the game grew out of the “draft, then tell everyone what you can’t draft anymore” mechanism. Where’d you guys get this idea? Did you experiment with closed versus open drafting? What kind of emotions did you want this mechanism to cause in gameplay?

Matt: While I can’t exactly remember the sequence of inspirations and iterations for the game (Brett might be better!), I can definitely say that the game grew out of something that is not in fact in the game anymore – a set of dice. Now, these dice are similar to the column mechanism, but they added a second dimension, in that cards could require symbols from the dice, rather than just their colours. The mechanism where you had to discard one after each turn I think mainly came about to try and restrict the decision space players would have as they took their cards, but I can’t think of any direct inspiration other than that!
We never really experimented with closed drafting, as I think we thought that the system we had was very strong, and didn’t really need the added complication of hidden information.
From my point of view, I really like the intersection of the columns and the cards as a sort of mini-puzzle that you have to try and solve every round, with the added wrinkle that your opponents are trying to solve that puzzle at the same time (and in doing so are altering the puzzle!). It also allows different layers of emotion that comes with experience with the game; initially you really feel like the world is your oyster, until an opponent really screws you over. But with more plays, you start to see ways in which you can actually further your own cause and cause problems for your opponents, and I think this is the heart of the game.

 

Brett: To echo Matt, Elysium is not nearly as directed a creation as it might seem. Some games spring from very clear mechanical, emotional or thematic objectives, and some are lucky enough to follow very short paths to achieve them — not so Elysium! It was a long journey, with many missteps and experiments, and the only idea that threaded those many different games together, and took us from one to another, were our custom dice. The columns are an abstraction of those components, deliberately (and wisely!) robbed of their randomness by our friends at Space Cowboys.

 

That central mechanism is exceedingly clever, but wrapped around some classic tropes like differing styles of set collection, activated (‘tap’) abilities and the like – what do you have to do to keep those older ideas fresh? Is it enough to surround them with a new central concept? How do you make a cohesive, fun whole from these parts?

Brett: For me the key word there is ‘cohesive’: the best games have that quality, and one of the hardest parts of game design — perhaps *the* hardest part — is making something that doesn’t feel ‘constructed’ (and this will mean different things to different people, which only makes the job harder!).
You don’t want players to be always aware of the machinery. They have to understand the rules, of course, but, as British game designer David Brain once observed to me, games have both ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ — and the rules become obvious, invisible even, once the laws of your game make sense. The trick, then, is to question and understand your design at its deepest level, and then embrace the consequences of that understanding, even if it means ditching some of your favorite elements or ideas.

 

Matt: The one thing that I would add to what Brett has said is that I think the modular nature of the game actually has a much more fundamental impact on making the game feel ‘fresh’ than just giving players different setups for each game. Unlike many other games with similar abilities, each game of Elysium only gives players a subset of tools to play with out of everything that is possible in the game.
An important consequence of this is that in any particular game some aspects are going to be more difficult or easy to access, and this fundamentally changes the way you view the abilities. Changing one god for another has a much deeper impact on the feel and flow of the game than simply a cosmetic one, and I think this offers something quite fun and unique for well-versed players.

 

elysiumhermesThe basic design of this game opens up all kinds of possibilities for different abilities, decks, etc., but I’m guessing that the serious thought and discipline you’ve both put into design means that many concepts had to be discarded. What’s the coolest thing from development you really wish you could’ve snuck in?

 

Matt: The coolest thing from our design stage that we ended up cutting was a tricky family, that let you reuse other cards’ abilities, and use the abilities of cards that were in your Elysium. We ended up cutting these cards because we thought they would be a bit too difficult to use, but I secretly was very sad that they were going, as they definitely fit with my love of wacky combos.
If this sounds strangely familiar, that is because in development a new family had to be added to fill the hole left by the removal of our family that let players manipulate their own dice. Space Cowboys came up with the cards of the Hermes family completely independently from us — even if some of the functions were exactly the same as the cards we had previously discarded! Suffice to say, I was very happy to see the new family, and thankful that the team at Space Cowboys had found a way to make it work.

 

Brett: There were lots of nice ideas buried in all those prototypes that preceded Elysium, but the reason they aren’t in the final game is because better ideas came along to replace them. Design is making choices; although Hermes is a neat example of a different kind of choice: a really good idea that originally didn’t fit — after all, you can’t put everything in one box! I think you need to be fairly dispassionate as a designer, and remind yourself — which is hard to do, and very easy to forget! — not to cling too tightly to any one part of a game. In any case, the quality of an idea is as much about context as anything else, and just because something doesn’t fit in one game, won’t mean it can’t shine someplace else.

 

elysiumgameplayHow’d you guys hook up with Space Cowboys? (And how cool is it to have eight different artists in your game?)

Brett: Several of the Space Cowboys team are the very same people who produced my game Divinare, so I already had a connection with them through that project. We pitched our prototype — at that time called ‘Aurum et Gloriam’ — to Space Cowboys at SPIEL 2013, and sent them a prototype a week or two later. Very quickly we got an incredibly enthusiastic email from the team saying that they loved the game and wanted to publish!
Space Cowboys have done an incredible job with Elysium, and personally I love that each family has a different, and very talented, artist. How amazing is that!? Most designers have to settle for just one artist: we hit the jackpot!

 

Matt: Not much to add here, except to reflect on a sometimes forgotten positive to come out of collaboration – that is you are lucky enough to have a much larger pool of contacts and publishers to pitch to and work with on prospective games. Brett and I have been pitching together at Essen for 3 years now, and personally it is one of the most satisfying parts of working together (and yes, we have settled into different roles there too!).

 

Space Cowboys has exploded in the past year, particularly due to the award-laden Splendor. Are you concerned that people will see Elysium in comparison to previous Space Cowboys games and come away with the wrong impression, since this is more of a gamer’s game? Is there pressure to be as successful as Splendor or Black Fleet?

Brett: I am not worried one bit. Elysium is, of course, more of a “gamer’s game” than either of Space Cowboys previous games, but Splendor and Black Fleet could hardly have been more different. And that’s what so interesting about what the Cowboys are up to: they are not going to be pinned down! Each of their games is unique (just look ahead to other planned releases such as Time Stories, which is something completely new); if anything, this diversity can only help Elysium stand out all the more.

 

Matt: I perhaps am a little more wary than Brett, as I have seen what can happen when people have the wrong impression of a game. That being said, I really think Elysium should fare pretty well, as the game plays so smoothly (and quickly) that even players expecting a lighter experience can still enjoy the game. For players on the more ‘gamer’ end of the spectrum, I think they will enjoy the depth packed into a short play time and ‘simple’ rules, a depth of play that only increases (in my opinion) over multiple plays.
I also don’t think there is any pressure to be as successful as the other Space Cowboys games – I think what makes the team so great is their dedication to put out the best quality product, regardless of what has come before or comes after. If it is successful, great, but if not, at least we can all be proud of Elysium.

 

Maybe we could end with each of you sharing one of your favorite gaming moments, and why it was so special:

Matt: I can still remember playing Kakerlaken Poker (Cockroach Poker) at midnight with a group of people (including Brett!) at UK Games Expo about 2 years ago. It must have been one of the funniest games I have ever played, especially because most of the game was about us, rather than the cards or the rules. I think I would usually resort to my tactic of offering the same type of card to a player 4 or 5 times in a row, seeing when they thought I would finally change my strategy (hint: I am pretty terrible at this game!). But really, this moment was special for the same reason most gaming moments are special for me – the people I was playing with, and how the game was merely a way to have fun together, rather than something we had to grapple with for hours.

 

Brett: I very fondly remember playing a game called ‘Super Cluedo Challenge’ with my family. The game was a mid-80s attempt to soup-up the classic game, with a bigger mansion, and more weapons and characters (including the wonderfully implausible ‘Mr Slate-Grey’). We immediately — and fairly drastically — house-ruled it, creating a game that was, in our eyes, a more perfect union of its newer elements and the original. But we kept its most ridiculous mechanism: that every now and again regular play simply stopped, and all players joined in a whacky-races-style roll-and-move dash to a random garden ornament located somewhere on a track of spaces around the outside of the mansion. On top of this madness, we gave the rooms and characters silly mispronounced names, and all scrupulously kept detailed notes of everyone’s interrogations so that, more often than not, we could all come to exactly the same correct conclusion about who, what and where at exactly the same time.
To any rational outside observer this endeavour would have looked utterly inexplicable and completely absurd. They would have been right, and they would have missed the point entirely.

 

 

What a great note to end on. Thanks again to Matt & Brett – and check out Elysium when it hits U.S. stores on May 28th.

Review: Choice Words

choice-wordsMy first introduction to Choice Words, and designer Bob Kamp, was when he reached out to me, offering to send me the game to review. I’d only played Qwirkle among MindWare’s games, and Choice Words didn’t even have a BoardGameGeek page at this point – suffice to say, I had no idea what to expect. It seems like a variation of classic games like Scattergories, but was there more to it than that? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

Components: There’s really not too much in the box – 400 cards (okay, admittedly, that’s a lot of cards), a timer, and some paper. Before you go thinking that this is a game that is somewhat pointless to purchase, as you could just make it at home, Bob made some good points in our interview as to why that might not be a good idea (lots of effort went into picking those 400 cards). My main complaint is that the scratch pads are far too small, and there are no pencils included (but mostly, bigger paper, and more of it). For $24.95 MSRP, though, not too much to complain about – that’s about normal for party games.

 

choice-words-cardsAccessibility:  Though the game isn’t yet up on BGG, the rules are here and there’s more information here. The rules are extremely straightforward: on your turn, you pick Match Play or Scratch Play. Match Play involves trying to write down the same words for three fill-in-the-blank phrases as everyone else, while Scratch Play is using a particular word in phrases that other people hopefully aren’t thinking of. Scoring in each category is pretty simple, and you play until someone gets a certain score (or until whenever, like most party games).

 

Depth: Obviously, this is a party game, one where you’re simply writing down a bunch of words and phrases. However, I was surprised by how tricky this game can be. Sometimes I would have a really long list of phrases, yet not get many points because at least one other person would always have those, and other players would come up with stuff that I really felt should have been obvious (but it’s hard to think under pressure!). Discussing what we came up with really was far more interesting than I thought it would be going in, and the meta-game during Match Play was sometimes very funny. We had a situation where two players had decided on two different answers, and both switched to the other due to thinking of the other person, so they still didn’t match like they wanted! Playing the game is certainly not difficult, and it’s a party game through-and-through, but there was more bite (well, maybe just a nip) than I expected.

 

I should also mention that in order to keep things simple, the game has a “two-player objection rule” where if two players say something shouldn’t count, that ends the discussion right then and there. That keeps things moving along, but it’s obviously a rule that can be abused. Bob’s answer was “don’t play with jerks,” and I mostly agree with him, but it’s nice when games have failsafes for awkward situations (like playing with new people). That’s my only complaint here though.

 

Theme: Let’s think of this as “immersion” (maybe I should change the name). The discussions that came up were enough to keep us interested and thinking about the phrases at hand, but there were a few times where one of us would just get stuck on a word before time was out, and that was a bit of a bummer that kind of took you out of the experience for a minute. Other than that, though, the nature of the challenge was interesting enough to keep us engaged with it.

 

Fun: While this is a party game, and it generated some laughter, it wasn’t the snorting-your-drink-through-your-nose kind of laughter generated by games like Telestrations or Time’s Up!. This was more of a thinky, interesting way to play with language – perhaps the best way to describe it would be Dixit with words and phrases instead of pictures and phrases. If that sounds appealing to you (especially you language nerds), then there’s a lot of fun to be had here, but I could definitely see some folks not liking it for exactly that reason.

 

Choice Words is a pleasant twist on classic language-related party games. It’s got a streamlined, simple ruleset, an interesting framework, and the possibility for some fun discussion and even a few laughs. If you’ve enjoyed other language games, you’re likely to enjoy this one too.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Interview: Darwin Kastle talks Star Realms, Epic

(16 of 33)I’ll never forget meeting Rob Dougherty and learning Star Realms ahead of the Kickstarter at Gen Con 2013. I was wowed to be in front of a Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Famer, and even more wowed by this tiny little game that somehow smushed my two favorite games, Magic and Dominion, into one tiny, cheap little box. A year-and-a-half later and my suspicions have been proven true: Star Realms has won several accolades, including four Golden Geek Awards and the inaugural SXSW TableTop Game of the Year. On the cusp of launching their next project, Epic, a re-imagining of an old TCG with all of the elements of Star Realms’ success mixed-in, co-designer (and fellow Pro Tour Hall of Famer) Darwin Kastle talks to us about that upcoming launch as well as recent success. Thanks, Darwin!

Normally I ask designers to share a little history, but we all know that you are a M:tG Pro Tour Hall of Famer, and an experienced game designer. Maybe you can give us some little-known factoids?

 

I used to be a dog trainer and I still do it in my free time occasionally. I have a wonderful and well-trained dog named Molly. I also used to be a ballroom dancing instructor. I was raised on a small farm in Connecticut. I have a degree in Broadcast Journalism. One of the things that really pushed me in the strategy gaming direction was winning my dorm’s chess tournament when I was in college. I used to be obsessed with the board game Titan.

 

Other than the main “killing each other should be the goal” aspect of Star Realms, what other design lessons did you take away from witnessing the rise of Dominion, Ascension, other deckbuilders, and before them, Magic and TCGs?

 

From TCGs I learned two important things. One, was that you could design a game that wouldn’t just be another game on the shelf, but would actually become something people’s lives revolved around. Two, I learned that no matter how good a TCG you make, it’s almost impossible to build the gigantic player base needed to sustain it, people are too afraid that their
rares will be worthless and that there won’t be anyone to play against.

 

Deckbuilders seemed like the perfect answer to that problem. You got the fun of drafting, deckbuilding and playing a game that was a bit like a TCG, without having to buy any random packs or worry about whether your friend had a deck. It’s almost impossible to be a dominant player at two major TCGs at once (while also having a life), which is one of the things that really got me into deckbuilders. With Star Realms, I took things a step further than other deckbuilders, by creating a deckbuilding game that would appeal to TCG players even more by having combat and yet like many deckbuilders, it could appeal to non-TCG players as well with it’s easy-to-learn mechanics.

 

To me, this seems to be a game designed to directly compete with Ascension (and wins by a mile). Is there any bad blood there?

 

None at all. I was a developer on Ascension and Rob Dougherty, the development lead on Star Realms, was one of the designers of Ascension. We consider those guys to be our friends; we often share booths with them at conventions and trade shows. Ascension was inspirational; it showed that it was possible to take a great game like Dominion and improve it so dramatically that you were reinventing that game genre. It helped me realize that just because I loved Ascension, didn’t mean that I couldn’t make an even better deckbuilder. Besides, I really love space battles. :)

 

starrealmscardsWhat was the reason for doing Star Realms as a separate company, rather than through Stoneblade Entertainment or taking it to another established publisher?

 

I actually created Star Realms as a tool to show to game companies that were considering hiring me, to give them a glimpse at my design talent. I showed an early prototype to the guys at Stoneblade, but they were too focused on other projects to pursue it with me. When I showed it to my best friend Rob Dougherty after I had visited a few game companies on the West Coast, he actually suggested we make our own company together and produce it ourselves. This may just have been an elaborate strategy to keep his best friend from moving away to the west coast of course.

 

Rob had suggested we partner to make a game company before and I’d never felt that we were ready, but with Star Realms we both felt we had a real winner on our hands. It helped that I knew just the guy to go into business with to make sure we would have a great digital version, Tan Thor Jen, the creator of Apprentice.

 

It’s amazing to me how low the price point for this game is. Clearly, the model has been very successful, but how did you come up with that? Most new companies, I think, would fear that the margins would be too low…  Was the hope always to make it up with digital sales?

 

It was a calculated gamble. We were swinging for the fences. We had both designed moderately successful games in the past, but the reason we started White Wizard Games was because we were committed to beating the odds and creating a successful game company with a hit product from scratch. The price point was both the risky part and a major part of the plan to hit it out of the park. Most games could sell 10,000 copies and be a success. For us that would mean we would probably break even. We needed this game to catch fire, but having such an amazing price point gave us a lot of lighter fluid. This was one of many great ideas thought up by Rob to really propel the company forward. This formula of a massive amount of game play per dollar has now become the guiding philosophy for the company.While our digital game has become quite successful, our main source of revenue is actually the physical game. At $15 for a great game with lots of depth and replay ability, we stand alone in the physical space and we’ve been selling it as fast as we can print it. Our digital game is free to download, but in the digital space there are thousands of games that are free to download. The popularity of the physical game has really helped people learn about the existence of our digital version. This has resulted in greatly increasing digital sales, but it’s not our big earner. At least not yet. :)

 

 

Speaking of digital, this game was designed from the ground up with digital in mind. I’ve found deckbuilders translate very well, especially since you can fast-forward through the rote processes of playing your cards on your turn – Star Realms even has a “Play All” button! It seems that the “discard everything, draw 5” aspect of deckbuilding games has made turns very long, but also made hand management somewhat of a lost art. One of the most crucial aspects of Magic: the Gathering’s design and tense feel was deciding whether to Lightning Bolt their 2/1 creature or save it for the 3/3 they’ll surely have later… Do you think this is a flaw in the design of deckbuilders, or a good thing?

 

It’s not a flaw in deckbuilders; it’s merely a difference between them and TCGs. You get one type of play experience when you play a TCG and another when you play a deckbuilder. For today’s busy lifestyle, being able to play a great strategy game asynchronously is a huge win for players. Not everyone has the time or the interest to sit down for a few hours of Magic Online.

 

crissieventsYou’ve also been pushing to make sure Star Realms has competitive play options. Have you seen any crazy combos or scenarios from players that you didn’t come up in development, or are the mechanics and card abilities too basic for that to happen?

 

Our decision to add the year one promo cards to the digital release of the Gambit Set has led to some really crazy plays and crazy games that we didn’t see much of in the physical development of those cards. We have a great group of digital testers though, so we had a good idea of what would happen when we released it. In all our cards, including promos and expansions, there has only been one card that I would definitely redo if I could (and we can and will!) People that play with the Crisis: Events expansion for a while will probably figure out which one I’m talking about. [Editor’s Note: My guess is Trade Mission…?]

 

On the same note, now that Star Realms has been played a LOT by many people, it seems even the highest players only have a mid-60’s win percentage. Was this surprising to you? Do you think that’s good, bad, or a just-right balance of skill and luck?

 

It isn’t overly surprising, because we pair people up against opponents that are of a similar level. While I may only win 60% of the time against other high level players, that percentage shoots way up when I face beginners. With Star Realms, you get the benefit of a high strategy game that strongly rewards skilled players, yet also has enough luck that an upset can happen any given game.

 

starrealmsartYou’ve announced Star Realms will have a new base game with an entirely new trade deck -every year-. When I tell people that, their first reaction is “Can they really make that many new cards and keep it fresh?” What would you say to quell their fears? How will the multitude of options available translate over to competitive play?

 

I would say wait and see. Up to this point we’ve always come through with a great product and we don’t intend to change that. We intentionally kept the base game quite simple mechanically. This was both to make it easy to learn and to leave us vast amounts of design space for expansions. Too many companies don’t plan enough for success, we’re determined not to be one of them.

 

Can you give us the ‘origin story’ of the development of your new game, Epic? (As well as how you decided upon such a simple name…)

 

pic2472276Several years ago, I worked with Rob at a tiny game company called EpicTCG.com, which he founded specifically to make a cool TCG that he was creating. Despite the fact that we were running on a pauper’s budget and didn’t always know what we were doing, the game was good enough to be fairly successful. The base set was successful enough to justify the release of an expansion set, we held 5K tournaments and there was even an EpicTCG World Championship tournament with large cash prizes that people had to qualify for. I have long felt that EpicTCG was the best TCG I ever played and if we were as good at our craft back then as we are now, it would have really taken off. With the success of Star Realms, it gave us a chance to do it right. The first thing we did was to decide we were going to follow more of a Star Realms model with the product and NOT make it into a TCG. With a much bigger art budget, streamlined and improved rules and the ability to have up to four players playing out of one $15 box, we feel this will be another winner.

 

 

I recently saw the preview KS page for Millenniun Blades, a game where you play as gamers playing a CCG (rather meta). There was a giant warning on the front of the KS page saying “THIS IS NOT A COLLECTIBLE GAME.” I’ve already seen people confused by the ads for Epic saying “TCG-style play.” How do you plan on combating that possible confusion?

 

This sort of thing happens with all card games in small boxes these days. With Star Realms, I’m constantly having to reassure customers at conventions that there isn’t any randomness. People are reluctant to invest the needed money to play a TCG without knowing if they’re going to like it and if their rares will be valuable. I expect Epic to blow people’s minds the way that Star Realms did, but even more: you get over 120 unique, nonrandom cards in a $15 box that you can play and draft with over and over without having to buy anything else. It’s like if someone handed you a carefully balanced, fully playable draft cube full of awesome cards and only asked you for $15.

 

 

What’s the advantage of doing a “build-decks-before-hand”, classical, CCG-style game versus a deckbuilder? Do you think the audiences are the same? Do you find yourself thinking one game is better than the other (Star Realms or Epic)?

 

One of the great things about Epic is that you don’t have to do any deckbuilding if you just want to start playing. You can shuffle up the deck and hand each player 30 cards at random and just start playing. This is one of the things that sets it apart from other TCG style card games. I do think TCG style games have a slightly different audience than deckbuilders, though with lots of crossover. Deckbuilders have a bit more structure and are usually easier to learn and master. TCG style games usually have a bit more depth and allow for even more creativity on the part of the player. One of the great things about owning your own game company is that you have the option of only working on games that you personally love playing. So it’s not surprising that I love playing both Epic and Star Realms. Star Realms is currently my favorite digital game and Epic is my favorite physical game.

 

I feel like both games have been coming from a standpoint of streamlining what’s out there, cutting the glut out of the rules until the game is intuitive. At what point in your design career do you feel you made that ‘shift’ into that mindset?

 

I always felt this sort of thing was important, but I feel that we’ve really refined it with our efforts at White Wizard Games. One of my first published games was The Battle for Hill 218,  which really displayed many of my guiding design principles: easy to learn, fast to play, hard to master and great replayability. My favorite games are ones with lots of strategy that I can easily teach people to play with me, like Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne.

 

Anything else you’d like to say about Epic?

 

Over the past year or so, I’ve had people constantly telling me how much they regretted not backing Star Realms on Kickstarter or at least buying a copy during the first print run. I hope people keep that in mind when Epic comes out, because we’ve put together a really great game and a really great product.

 

What have you been reading/watching/enjoying lately?

 

I recently finished reading The Kite Runner, which totally blew me away, a really powerful and moving story. I also just finished season two of Black Sails and it was incredible, now I’m eagerly awaiting the new season of Game of Thrones. I have been really enjoying playing Epic (it’s for work – really!)

 

Anything else?

 

Thanks for helping get the word out about the great things we have in the works!

 

 

 

Thanks again to Darwin for the interview. The Kickstarter for Epic launches soon!

Review: Doodle Quest

doodlequestBlue Orange Games has quite cleverly found a niche in the hobby – short, simple, enjoyable abstract games like Niya and Battle Sheep. This isn’t too surprising, since they started with the abstract game GobbletDoodle Quest, however, is an entirely different beast. Clearly designed for families and kids just like their other games, Doodle Quest no longer has you moving and stacking pieces but instead drawing with dry-erase markers on an ancient relic called the transparency. (My college students had literally never seen these before.) Can such a free-form medium still bring that fun and light strategy that Blue Orange has found so successful? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

doodlequestcomponentsComponents: Blue Orange has been absolutely nailing it with their component quality and quirky, colorful graphics, and Doodle Quest is no different. The artwork is clearly aimed at children and families, striking a perfect balance between simple, fun, and loud. Inside the box are a bunch of different thin sheets with challenges on them, a stiff board for each player to balance their transparency, dry-erase markers/erasers, and a fish stencil (for particular challenges). Oh, and 1 double-sided sheet of directions (yay!). I also love how the scoreboard is also dry-erase, instead of wasting a bunch of paper. Everything is top-notch quality.

If I had the tiniest of complaints on the art, it’s that the cover and spine show someone drawing a loop, which isn’t allowed in the game. A more serious complaint would be that I’d really love to have components for up to six players, as this could be a great party game. I was also surprised that rounds aren’t timed (no timer included), but it was never an issue for us. For $24.99 MSRP though, I really have no right to complain.

 

Accessibility: Like I said, the rules are a single double-sided sheet. The game is six rounds: each round, you draw a challenge sheet at random, each of which has an easy side and a tough side. The sheet has a picture and a challenge, such as a picture of sharks with the statement “Draw eyeballs for the sharks!” Each player draws dots (in this case, quite often it’s lines or shapes) on their transparency where they think the eyeballs should go, and when the drawing is over, each player overlays their transparency on the sheet and scores points on their accuracy. (Each sheet has its own scoring rules which are explained pretty easily with iconography.) That’s the whole game! It took us probably under two minutes to open the box, read the rules, and start playing with two players.

 

Depth: This is a weird category to score for this game, since we’re not exactly making “strategic decisions”. However, there’s certainly skill at play here, which is actually really great, since it helps teach kids about spatial visualization. I would expect there could be games where someone really dominates, but I was surprised how close our games were. Furthermore, you can balance the challenge by giving the experts the tougher versions. It was more challenging than I expected, especially for as long as I’ve taught mathematics (I draw at least 20 graphs a day). Replayability might be a concern, but I think you’ll have gotten your money’s worth by the time you’ve done all the challenges multiple times. I do, however, wish there was some interaction as the game is completely multiplayer solitaire, although it’s still very fun to share drawings and see how everyone did. That said, I think it would be cool to have some tokens you could collect that do things to other players.

 

Theme: This game could have had any theme, really, but I think the undersea adventure theme is very fun and they did a great job with it. The idea of making drawing into a “quest” in and of itself is just a really fun way to teach a very important skill. Even with just adults, we had way more fun with this than we expected and I think the theme played well into that; it gave us something to riff on.

 

Fun: I originally became interested in this game because I thought I might use the components to have calculus students do a “sketching-the-derivative” game with the components, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the published game. I’m not entirely surprised, but still very happy with the result: though clearly aimed at a younger audience, this is a simple, fun, very unique game for all ages. It feels like a party game, despite playing out like a strategy game – and that’s exactly where I love for my games to be. It’s a good counterpart to Telestrations, where the humor there is all in drawing terribly. This game manages to grab all of the fun and humor out of trying to draw well, which is interesting in its own right.

 

If you’re wanting to teach spatial skills, or simply want to have fun drawing, Doodle Quest packs quite a punch for a very simple, inexpensive game. Beautiful components and unique gameplay make this a winner.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Interview: Bob Kamp, Designer of Choice Words

Bob Kamp 1One unfortunate aspect of the board gaming culture of reviewers, BoardGameGeekers, and so on, is that when interesting things are happening in the “mass market” as we call it, we often miss it. I had never heard of Choice Words, a new party game from MindWare, but designer Bob Kamp approached me about giving the game a look. We’ll have a review in a few weeks, but in the meantime, check out this interview with Bob on the game’s long and winding history!

 

Tell us a bit about yourself: your day job, other hobbies, how you got into gaming, any quirky facts you want to share.

I am 48 years old. I am originally from the Chicago area, but now live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I grew fond of Grand Rapids while doing my undergraduate studies at Calvin College. GR has all of the amenities of a larger city, and you can still get just about anywhere in 10 to 15 minutes.

I am a big backgammon player. I play in a weekly league at a local pub, and I have done so for 10 years now. There is an American Backgammon Tour, which features many weekend tournaments held throughout the U.S. Michigan boasts the largest backgammon tournament on the roster. It is held in Novi each 4th of July weekend. It attracts close to 200 players and the winner typically garners more than $10,000. The tournament is run by Carol Joy Cole in Flint, MI, and her Backgammon News newsletter is in its 37th year in print.

The game is played as a match involving several games, typically an odd number. There is a doubling cube. Much skill comes from adept movement of the checkers, but even more skill is required for the doubling cube – – when to double, when to accept a double, and when to drop a game instead of accepting the double. High level players study with the aid of computer programs.

The game is a great metaphor for life. You don’t control your dice rolls, but you must use your rolls, especially the bad ones, to your best advantage. It is very much a skill game. The skill is in minimizing the luck.

I serve as an in-house attorney (DePaul University College of Law grad 1991) for Auto Owners Insurance.

I have always loved to play games. As a kid, we played cribbage a lot and also many of the traditional American games such as Sorry and Monopoly. Michigan Rummy (Tripoley) was a favorite!

 

choice-wordsHow’d you come up with the idea for Choice Words?

Let me first describe the game and that will help explain how it came to be. Choice Words features two ways to play. In Scratch Play, players have one minute to write all the phrases they can think of that involve the root word. Players earn one point for each phrase they have that no one else has. For example, for the word CENTER, answers might include center stage, centerfield, front and center, and shopping center. You take the root word and go in any direction you want. In Match Play, players choose single one-word answers to fill in the blanks on a card in an attempt to match the answers of other players. Figuring out what is likely to be the most popular answer is the key here. Players earn points equal to the number of players that they matched. For example, for ___HOUSE, will most players write “poor house,” “out house,” “greenhouse” or something else?

When first married, my wife Jill and I would spend time over dinner working word puzzles in the newspaper – the Jumble and crossword puzzles. This activity likely contributed to the idea for the game. I can remember driving home from a restaurant and remarking to my wife that a contact lens, a contact sport, a contact person, and contact paper are fairly disparate items, yet they all share that common root word. I wondered if there was a game in that concept. This was in summer 1997.

A co-worker mentioned that she like to play Tri-Bond, which requires player to determine a common bond between three items. I thought, if that’s a game, then I probably have a game too.

I starting by going through the dictionary word by word. I soon realized that it would be interesting and more fun if you could generate terms and phrases with words not just after the root word, but in front of it as well.
Alphabetically the dictionary will give you “cut-rate” and “cut throat,” but you need to do some thinking of your own to come up with “haircut,” and “shortcut,” and “cold cut.” The idea expanded to include phrases too, such as “cut and dry” and “cut-and-paste.” In a few weeks I had finished with the dictionary.

I was familiar with Scattergories, but felt that this root word concept allowed for so much more creativity and variety of answers.

On the way through the dictionary I discovered some root words that really too few associations to be used for Scratch Play (where you scratch out the ones in common with other players), and I thought what if there was another type of played where you tried to accomplish the converse?, ie, match other players’ answers. Thus, Match Play was born. CANDY is not a Scratch Play word because there are too few associations, but CANDY___ works great for Match Play. In a recent game I answered CANDYbar and was shocked when every other player had written CANDYcane. A candy cane is a seasonal item, which is brittle and sticky. Candy bar is a year-round tasty snack with filled with chocolate and peanuts and . . . well, I rest my case. The candy bar is a far superior item and answer, but on that day, with those players, I failed to score while the other 5 players each earned 5 points.

The game includes 200 Scratch Play cards featuring root words that are prolific in terms of their ability to generate lots of answers. As for match play (another 200 cards; 600 fill-in-the-blanks), the words chosen are intended to suggest several quick and ready answers, and then the trick is to choose which will be the most popular answer among the particular players at the table.

 

How’d you get in touch with MindWare? Did you shop around to a lot of publishers or did things just work out?

choice-words-cardsOnce I had the written content, I made a not-so-fancy prototype, and I met with some game agents in October 1997. I called the game “ROOTIMENTARY” – the game of common parlance, because the game is really a measure of what phrases we all use and accept as common terminology. While the agents did not like the name, (I soon changed it to “Offshoots”), they thought the game was terrific. They warned, however, that the game may be missing some plastic extruded gizmo or gadget that bigger manufacturers seem to like (since they are also toy makers as well). The agents presented the game to the several biggest names in the business at that time. This was spring 1998. The agents were unable to place the game, and then I shelved the idea for 14 ½ years.

We had played “Offshoots” at Thanksgiving with my extended family in 1997 and 1998. My wife and I then switched to spending Thanksgiving with her side of the family for many years. In 2012 we spent the holiday with my side again. Some of my relatives recalled the game and asked about it. I reported that I had given up on it.

At their urging, in 2013 I made some better prototypes and threw in a buzzer. A player may object to an answer (typically arguing the term or phrase is not common), and if a second player joins in the objection, then the answer is scratched immediately. There is no interminable arguing. The buzzer gave players the opportunity to reject answers by using the buzzer.

In November 2013, I attended ChiTag, an annual toy and game industry event in Chicago. MindWare invited me to send them a prototype, and within a few weeks they advised that they wanted to produce the game, but without the buzzer (as it should be). MindWare also preferred one of my alternate names “Choice Words” over “Offshoots.”

MindWare was my first choice for the game. They make Qwirkle, after all, which is a game my family loves. MindWare’s slogan is “brainy toys for kids of all ages,” and I think that Choice Words harnesses your brain power.

Incidentally, another game company had accepted a prototype, but they thought the magic of the game was in the buzzer (which they said was too expensive to include with the game). I think that they did not really “get it.” The magic is not in some gimmicky novelty item. The magic is in the stimulating and fun exercise involved in the game and then in measuring your performance against other players.

 

Choice Words is reminiscent of a lot of classic games like Scattegories. What makes Choice Words unique?

CHOICE WORDS is unique in that it features a 2-player objection rule. This ensures that arguments do not overstay their welcome. The game is well-paced. While typically there is debate over some answers, anytime 2 players object, then the answer is immediately scratched and it’s time to move on.

The acceptable answers are those acceptable to that particular group of players in that game. A player cannot leverage niche, technical knowledge. For each Scratch Play root word, there is a nucleus of acceptable answers for that particular group of players. For the word BAND, my peer group will accept the J. Geils Band, but my children will not.

CHOICE WORDS features root words that are basal, building blocks of our language. This means that the game gives wide berth for players’ creativity. Players are not stifled into providing answers that must fall into defined categories or that require answers to start with a particular letter.

Because there are no right or wrong answers, the game stays fresh. One hundred years ago we had BLUE ribbons and BLUE prints, but today we have BLUE tooth and BLUE ray. Earlier I had mentioned the Match Play example of CANDY___. In 1997 when I first conceived of the game, there was no such thing as “Candy Crush,” but now of course that is wildly popular and might be considered a very strong answer today.

CHOICE WORDS features a knock-out mechanic for scoring, but that’s because it’s an intuitive scoring system that makes the most sense. If you have 10 answers, but I also have 8 of the same ones, then it’s simplest and best to count that as 2 to 0 in favor of you. Of course, the scoring mechanic is not the game itself.

 

One difficulty with selling party games is that it’s often easy to play with homemade components; I have friends that know Telestrations as the “notecard game” and Time’s Up! as the “fishbowl game”. What are players missing out on when they don’t experience the whole package of Choice Words as the published version?

CHOICE WORDS isn’t easily fashioned by the casual observer. The Scratch Play words have been carefully culled and pared down to the 200 most playable. This tedious and painstaking process involved not only a quantitative analysis but a qualitative one as well. Scratch Play does not work well with just any old word. It’s no fun to think and think and not come up with any answers. The pre-selection of the base root words ensures that they are prolific and support a large number of answers. In addition, the selection of the root words is based also on the quality of them in terms of producing interesting answers. The word TREE is not included because mostly it tends to generate a list of tree types (not very interesting), whereas the word STRING is in the game because the answers it generates are more interesting. A shoe string is a very different thing than a hamstring, and you would find a string quartet in a totally different part of town than where you would find a string bikini. So too, the Match Play words have been carefully selected and even placed on the cards in a particular way so that each card is designed to generate some matches. It’s no fun if everyone matches, and it’s no fun if no one matches. Care was also taken to ensure that each fill-in-the-blank stands on its own merit, meaning that no other word on the same card suggests answers to any other (or that’s the intent at least). WHITE___ and ___HOUSE do not appear on the same card, lest players simply answer “white house” for each.

 

As a college professor, I’m always interested in ways games can be used to learn both academically and socially, regardless of discipline. I know you view Choice Words as having educational value – can you expand on those aspects for our readers?

CHOICE WORDS encourages a different style of thinking. I call it “auditory recall.” You have to hear the references in your head. If you think strictly about a CAT, you won’t probably think of a catwalk (an elevated walkway) or a cattail (a marshy plant) because they are not directly related to a cat itself. You have to hear these references in your head. Similarly, with BED, there’s a bed time and a bed spread, which are directly bed-related, but also bed rock and flower bed, which are not. You have to think beyond the literal word itself.

For the Scratch Play word BIG, I recently wrote “BIG salad.” My opponents rejected the answer, and I could not defend it. Although the reference was up in my brain somewhere, I couldn’t remember where I had learned it. Later some other friends advised me that there is an entire Seinfeld episode [episode 88] that is entitled “The Big Salad.”

A related point is that it’s not a trivia game, where you either know the answer or you don’t, which isn’t much fun in either case. Unlike trivia, the more thinking a person does in this exercise, the more loose bits of information surface. The game is great for English-as-a-Second-Language students, stroke victims, or folks suffering the onset of dementia.

CHOICE WORDS exposes differences in our vocabularies. I know that a PAPER tiger is an idle threat, but my kids may not. While the answer may not count, the cool thing is that we all may learn something new from each other in the process. “LONG in the tooth” means that someone is old. Who knew?

 

To me, some aspects of the rules seem to be inherently unfair as they can allow meta-gaming, such as two players teaming up to shout down other player’s answers even if they’re probably legitimate. But you view the game as inherently fair.. What levels the playing the field in the game and how do you deal with “meta-gaming” like the situation I described?

The game is inherently fair from the standpoint that a player cannot leverage niche, technical knowledge which only that person knows. If 2 players haven’t heard of that term or phrase, they can and should object. It doesn’t matter that the term or phrase actually exists; if 2 players at the table are not familiar with it, they may fairly object.

The rules specify “Objections must be fair. For each Scratch Play word, there will be a solid core of clearly common/acceptable answers, and then some that are less common.” Where the perimeter of that core lies is for the particular players in the game to decide. For the word CUT, certainly there can be no debate, a “haircut” or a “shortcut” are common/acceptable answers. If a player is objecting to those answers, then the player is either from Mars or the player is a jerk.

At times, no matter what game we are talking about, incessant arguing can bog down an otherwise good game. In fact, the inclusion of the 2-player objection rule is to stymie such bad behavior. Of course, 2 jerks can use the rule to their advantage. Solution: Don’t play with jerks!

 

Sometimes, the reading of the rules of the game make the fun seem impossible to understand until you sit down and play the game. Until players get their hands on their own copy, they might be wary – can you express just what makes Choice Words fun?

Everything counts! . . . words, terms, titles, phrases.
Everybody plays . . . every turn.
Everyone contributes . . . regardless of age or education
Easy . . . you already know all the answers.

The banter is generally good-natured and tends to be either congratulatory – “Good answer! I didn’t think of that” – or critical – “STRING theory? . . . sorry, I’ve never heard of that; it doesn’t count.”

The universe of answers is so broad, that usually every player will have a couple answers that no one else did. The game makes everyone feel good; like they contributed. I am reminded of the story of the 6 blind men who feel the elephant. Though each describes a different feature, each one is correct. Each has found a piece of the truth.

CHOICE WORDS provides a pot, a burner, and some broth, and the players bring the peas and carrots, so to speak. Because people have differing ages, educations, and life experiences, the gumbo comes out differently depending on who’s playing. Fun!

 

What have you been reading/watching/playing/enjoying lately?

I have been attending my weekly backgammon club, of course. I have also been enjoying The Resistance and Skull and Roses when I’m not trying to introduce new players to Choice Words. [Editor’s Note: Great taste!]

 

What’s next for you in game design?

I have been working on a trick-taking game for the past 6 months that I am really excited about. I know that you are a fan of trick-taking games, so I’ll have to send you a copy.
I also have a tabletop dexterity game that am sure will be coming to market in some form or fashion in the near future.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Choice Words supports large groups, which makes it a great game to pull out on Thanksgiving with the extended family!

 

 

 

Thanks again to Bob for taking time out of his schedule for the interview. If this sounded interesting, go give Choice Words a look!