The Golden Ages: An Epic Civ Light

  • Designer: Luigi Ferrini
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games, Quined Games, et al
  • Players: 2-4 (2-5 with expansion, Cults & Culture)
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 90-180 minutes
  • Times played: 10, with purchased copy

I missed The Golden Ages by Luigi Ferrini when it came out in 2014, among the thousands of games that came out that year. I stumbled across it in reviews of Sid Meier’s Civilization: New Dawn among players who said they preferred it. Ten plays later, I can see how it compares favorably.

In most civilization games, any hidden elements of the board are explored rather quickly (e.g., Clash of Cultures) or the board starts out as fully visible (the first and third board games based on Sid Meier’s Civilization series of video games). A standout feature of The Golden Ages is how it handles exploration. Like Nations, The Golden Ages span four ages. You must explore at the start of each of the four ages, and get one tile: a 3 spot L-shaped tile the first age, then a 2-spot tile in subsequent ages. This enforces a pacing throughout the game of gradually exploring the world, a pacing that seems much more thematic than other games’ approach to this.

One element that did initially put me off was that the map is actually the world map, randomized; you could put together the actual world as a puzzle. In fact, twice I picked up the game at my FLGS and put it back because of this. But the style of the map doesn’t affect gameplay and has grown on me.

After placing your tile at the start of each age, you decide where to place your capital (in ages 2 through 4, you can opt to leave it where it was the prior age). Like Vinci or History of the World rather than most other civ games, you will play multiple civilizations over the course of the game. Here too you can decide, 10 of the 25 civilizations only give you one-time bonuses (such as a free thematic tech, e.g., Writing for Phoenicia) but most give you lasting abilities (Rome lets you take a building without an action, and Roman players often stick with Rome for more than one age).

Each age will comprise 4 or more turns. Each turn you can choose from 8 available actions, 4 having to do with colonists (you have 3 colonist meeples each age) and 4 other actions. Meeple actions:

  1. Artist – Remove an upright colonist from the map and place in the Agora (a separate card) for 3 victory points.
  2. Builder – Remove an upright colonist from the map and place it in the Agora and select a Building from the marketplace (which contains 1 Building per player) and add it to your playing card.
  3. Explorer – You may move as many spaces as your technology allows (one at the beginning, two with Carriage, three with Rail, anywhere with Flight). If no opposing city is there, you may build a city (place a cube) and collect income (1 per cube placed to start, 1 per Game resource). Place your colonist flat.
  4. Soldier – You may move as many spaces as your technology track allows. If you end in a square with a competitor, you may pay to attack. The game limits military from dominating; you may attack only 4 times, paying an escalating cost each time: 3, 5, 8, and 12 gold. The outcome is certain (the attacker always wins) but the amount of VP to be gained is variable – you draw a Glory token which will range in value from 2 to 6 VP (kept hidden from other players). After the attack, place your colonist flat. (See the designer diary for more on this design.)

The colonists give the game a strong worker-placement vibe, though the innovation here is that workers are limited by their geographic position on the board. Moving to the Agora as an Artist or Builder becomes a way to return workers to the capital, so that you can move them with the capital in a future turn.

The other 4 actions are limited by money or cards rather than by workers (colonists):

  1. Buy a single technology, provided you have its prerequisites (to the left of it in its row on your player card). The final tech in each row gives you an immediate VP bonus. Many early techs provide you an extra cube (so that you can continue to found cities). At the end of the game, techs in the first column provide 0 VPs, the second column 1 VP, the third 2 VP, and the fourth 4 VP.
  2. Buy a Wonder and take its immediate effect, if any (marked with a lightning bolt). Wonders in and of themselves aren’t worth VPs, though two cards provide VPs per Wonder.
  3. Activate a building or Wonder for its effect, turning the card upside down. Buildings and Wonders provide discounts on tech or provide money or VP for certain conditions (e.g., Library provides a discount of 2 when buying a tech, and Granary provides 1 gold for each of your upright colonists). Effects can be used one an age; at the start of the next age, all will be turned face-side up.
  4. Declaring a Golden Age is the unique mechanic. Once you have played all three of your colonists, you can declare a Golden Age. You choose which of the remaining History’s Judgment cards will provide VP at the end of the era (five are randomly drawn at the start of the game), trying to choose one that benefits you disproportionately from your opponents. You flip your city wooden column upside down so that its 2-gold sticker is on top. If everyone else on their turn declares a Golden Age, the age ends; if anyone else takes a different action, then you will collect 2 gold pieces that turn. You will continue to collect this bonus until all players declare a Golden Age. At the end of the game, the last Age provides everyone a single turn before ending the game, much to other players’ frustration.

Unlike most traditional civ games, your economy is not powered by the resources controlled but by the resources you grab each turn (think of the need to attack each turn in Risk in order to gain a card): controlled resources are instead eligible for VPs. . This motivates you to constantly expand. Resources include game (animals), wheat, rock (minerals), and gems. For instance, you start the game with the technology Hunting, which lets you take 1 Gold every time you take control of a region with game. Metallurgy will provide 1 Gold per rock, Engineering obsoletes Metallurgy and provides 3 Gold per rock, and Computer Science provides 2 VP per rock you control when you discover it (silicon, I assume). Agriculture, Medicine, and Genetics provide corresponding abilities for wheat. Gems are a bit different: first, in a nice bit of design, there are no gems on the map to start the game; the second-level tech Currency provides 2 Gold per gem controlled, Economy 4 Gold, and Rocketry (on a different tech tree) 3 VP for gem. Gems become something to fight over (though one player found it unthematic that gems aren’t worth anything without a tech).

I typically prefer civ games where military comes in at the end, as the map tightens; here, there are good early cases for military, due to civ and Wonder powers. In one game, I lost by a huge amount after misjudging the military option: with each subsequent attack costing more, I didn’t have the finances to carry my plan through to completion. The movement/military tech branch doesn’t affect battle outcomes, which seems very unthematic; in another game, where I had concentrated on wonders, I defeated two neighbors with flight while I hadn’t invented the wagon yet (guerilla warriors, I suppose).

The randomness of the History’s Judgment cards and your 4 Civilization cards and your Future Technology card provides high variability from game to game while giving you an ability to strategize. As one of my sons observed, these cards really force you to play differently from game to game. The game has an expansion pack, Cults & Culture, and a promo pack of additional Wonders is available. So far I’ve only used the expansion to play 5, adding no new rules; it may provide more replayability for games with two players.

The Golden Age action in itself is a fascinating mechanic. For one, it keeps the game from getting bogged down; while you will have expanded your civilization’s range of possible actions (through Buildings and Wonders and amassing gold), you typically won’t want to use all of those actions. One play was won by a player who always declared the Golden Age first, carefully choosing History’s Judgement. In one of my plays, I choose to launch attack after attack after the Golden Age was declared; everyone else pulled in 2 gold pieces per turn, but I amassed Glory so that I could buy the Porcelain Tower wonder. (I won that game, but I’ve lost the last 5 times!)

So how does The Golden Ages compare to Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn? My youngest son (12 years old) loves New Dawn and vastly prefers it, because it is highly evocative of Civ 6, his favorite video game at the moment. My eldest son (25 years old, for whom I got New Dawn as a Christmas present) likes the replayability of The Golden Ages. Because the Golden Ages uses VPs, there seems to be more varied ways of winning, where New Dawn is a race to achieve 3 out of 6 objectives. New Dawn is a game of optimization around its focus row. The Golden Ages is a game of constraints and careful management.

I’ve played 5 times with 2 players, once with three, and twice with four and five players. The BGG community says the sweet spot is 3-4 players, which seems right to me. With 5 players, the game still played in under 3 hours (after rules explanation). Even better, in one 5-player game, the first and second-placed players both took completely different strategies: the winner stayed as Rome the whole game and built lots of buildings; the runner up built no buildings but set the pace for each turn and declared every Golden Age but the last. (I came in third.)

For the full rules, see BGG.

As a Luddite who still prefers Vinci to Small World, and who would always suggest Vinci to someone who suggested we play Risk, I find The Golden Ages to be much more thematic than Vinci and with much less downtime. Since it minimizes combat (to no more than 4 attacks per player), The Golden Ages may displace Vinci altogether for me. It’s hard to do a civ-lite well; the inherent contradiction in the form is that the first Civilization board game (Avalon Hill) and the Civilization video games are epic affairs, and light board games are un-epic. The Golden Ages squares this contradiction far better than most civ lites.

This game is for you if:

  • You enjoy civilization games.
  • You prefer VP-driven games to 4X games.
  • You don’t mind some military combat, but don’t want to play a wargame.

This game is not for you if:

  • You dislike games with military conflict. It’s meaner than 7 Wonders, as you lose regions you settled and resources you controlled, while never devolving into a straight-out wargame like History of the World or Vinci. (Though one woman in my game group who typically avoids more conflict-oriented games didn’t find the military overpowering, even after my sneak attack on her.)
  • You need more chrome than wooden cubes and cylinders. (Try Clash of Cultures!)
  • You need strong theme. One of our players initially derided it as too abstract, before warming to it. Some on BGG find the art off-putting and say that the lack of English on the cards takes them out of the theme. (Try Kevin Wilson’s version of Sid Meier’s Civilization.)

The Fall of the Gamebook and the Rise of Interactive Fiction

One out of five adult Americans with online access (90% of the population) have ever read any gamebooks, such as Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, or solitaire RPG adventures such as the Tunnels & Trolls series. These books definitely reflect the 1980s, when publication peaked: those 35-44 years old (kids in the 1980s) are most likely to have ever read a gamebook (39%), compared to just 18% of those 45-54 years old and 30% of those under 25. While classic gamebook lines are being relaunched (e.g., Endless Quest and Choose Your Own Adventure), the genre is unlikely to return to its heyday.

Contrast that with interactive fiction. Interactive fiction in the 1980s was about text adventures, map making, command-line prompts, and sudden death, but modern interactive fiction focuses on narrative, delayed branching, and meaningful choices that shape a longer story arc.

A fifth of online adults have ever played any text adventures or interactive fiction games on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, such as Choice of Games, Infocom, or Twine games. The growth is in interactive fiction on smartphones. The younger the adult, the more likely they’ve played: 45% of 18-24 year olds, 36% of 25-34 year olds, and 26% of 35-44 year olds have played.

Smartphones reshape our cognition and our attention spans in ways that should lead to the continued rise of interactive fiction vs. traditional books. Interactive fiction presents short segments of text that then require a response, a medium well suited to the smartphone era.

This Researchscape survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was fielded online from April 22 to 23, 2019. For more, please check out the slides and general methodology.

A New Sequence

I discovered an interesting numerical sequence:

     1,  2,  3,  4,  5,  6,  7,  8,  9,
 2,  3,  5,  7,  9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19,
 6,  7,  8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29,
12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 23, 27, 31, 35, 39,
20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 29, 34, 39, 44, 49,
30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 41, 47, 53, 59,
42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 55, 62, 69,
56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 71, 79,
72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 89,
90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99

I’m not sure if its properties will be useful, but it is easy to calculate.

Consider it a puzzle: can you reverse engineer how the sequence was built? (If so, mention me on Twitter at @jalanhenning.)

2018 Most-Played Boardgames

My nickels and dimes, for the year, were:

BoardgamePlays
Unpublished Prototype45
Innovation25
Secret Hitler19
One Night Ultimate Werewolf15
Battle Line13
Civscape13
Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn12
Avignon: A Clash of Popes11
The Golden Ages10
Sushi Go Party!9
Homeworlds8
Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game5
Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger5
Covalence: A Molecule Building Game5
Spin Rummy

Last year, like most years, I played unpublished prototypes (my own and my friends’) more than any single published game. (You can download Spin Rummy and Hero’s Arc, two games that I created for contents this year.)

Innovation remains an all-time favorite, always different and therefore endlessly replayable. One memorable session ended with my opponent blasting through the entire draw deck: I had never had that happen before, and I’ve played the game 54 times!

Secret Hitler being played so often reminds me that my game list is a work of collaboration: what games get played is a negotiation, depending in part on what games I can find willing participants for. Since Secret Hitler scales well to high player counts, it made it to the table 5 times, even though I’m not one to suggest it.

Similarly, I play Civilization: A New Dawn because my youngest loves it and wins often at it. It’s fundamentally a race game, but needs more variety in victory conditions to be more replayable.

I’d prefer to play The Golden Ages, my new favorite, but that is harder to get to the table, since the same son hates it.

Add in Civscape, and you can see that four of these top fourteen games are civilization games, which remains my favorite genre.

Even Sushi Go Party! makes the list for civ reasons: I teach it first as an introduction to 7 Wonders, which got just 3 plays last year, as many of my friends have tired of it. (I haven’t!)

Even though I only played 5-Minute Dungeon one evening, I immediately realized it would be perfect for two families, and it became a well-received Christmas gift.

Making a surprise return to the table was Axis & Allies (1986 rules), which my 12-year old fell in love with before growing to hate it (he’s 0-4).

Setting aside the unpublished prototypes, I played 147 different games last year, thanks to the great circle of friends that has grown up around our meetup, Suncoast Gamers.

One resolution: board games that didn’t make it to the table last year I’m going to try and give away this year, to free up some space and to get them to places where they will be better loved.

Happy gaming in 2019!

(Image of Tasty Minstrel Game’s Coin Age – not played this year! – by Daniel Thurot.)

Floored – Floor Plans for RPGs

I’ve been running an open-table Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign since September at my FLGS. One of the players earned enough loot that he wanted to buy a house in the city at the center of our campaign (Melvaunt, on the Moonsea, in Forgotten Realms, using 9 great modules from Baldman Games).

I searched for some house floor plans for RPGs, and most that I found looked like something from Zillow rather than something from a medieval setting. One from Wizards of the Coast even had indoor plumbing (not sure what level spell that is!).

Older houses had few rooms, and if they did have bedrooms there was a big bed or a few big beds. For those in North America, we don’t have any medieval construction, but if you get a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation you’ll find better analogs. Having toured Paul Revere’s house, I turned to its floor plan as an example of an upper class home in Melvaunt:

scan of floor plan of the Paul Revere House

Popular Themes for Tabletop Games

The following are common themes for tabletop games, derived from BoardGameGeek‘s categories. Pages shows the number of pages of games with this theme (out of date now, but intended as a relative indicator of popularity).

Pages Theme Game Examples
50+ Economic Terra Mystica Caverna Through the Ages
50+ Educational 1775: Rebellion Freedom: The Underground Railroad Evolution
50+ Fantasy Terra Mystica Caverna Mage Knight
50+ Fighting Mage Knight Star Wars: Imperial Assault Eclipse
50+ Movie / TV / Radio Star Wars: Imperial Assault Battlestar Galactica Legendary Encounters
50+ Science Fiction Twilight Imperium Star Wars: Imperial Assault Android: Netrunner
50+ Trivia Wits & Wagers Fauna Timeline
50+ Wargame Twilight Struggle Twilight Imperium Star Wars: Imperial Assault
43 Sports Blood Bowl PitchCar Formula D
42 Animals Caverna Agricola Dominant Species
41 World War II Combat Commander: Europe Memoir ‘44 Advanced Squad Leader
39 Racing RoboRally PitchCar Formula D
36 Humor Dixit Quest Dungeon Petz Galaxy Trucker
28 Adventure Mage Knight Board Game Star Wars: Imperial Assault War of the Ring
28 Word Game Codenames Paperback Beyond Balderdash
24 Medieval Dominion The Castles of Burgundy Caylus
23 Deduction Codenames Battlestar Galactica The Resistance
19 Horror Dead of Winter Eldritch Horror Legendary Encounters
18 Ancient 7 Wonders: Duel Tzolk’n Tigris & Euphrates
18 Exploration Mage Knight Robinson Crusoe Descent
18 Nautical Dominion: Seaside Le Havre Keyflower
17 Novel-based War of the Ring Robinson Crusoe Eldritch Horror
15 Political Twilight Struggle Twilight Imperium Battlestar Galactica
14 Travel Ticket to Ride The Voyages of Marco Polo Orleans
13 Math Sleeping Queens Utopia Engine Zeus on the Loose
13 Transportation Brass Ticket to Ride Galaxy Trucker
12 Aviation/Flight Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures The Manhattan Project Airlines Europe
12 Modern Warfare Twilight Struggle Labyrinth: The War on Terror Fire in the Lake
11 Comic Book Legendary Sentinels of the Multiverse Marvel Dice Masters
10 City Building Puerto Rico Lords of Waterdeep Le Havre
10 Trains Ticket to Ride Russian Railroads Railways of the World
9 Murder / Mystery Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Letters from Whitechapel Mysterium
9 Napoleonic Commands & Colors: Napoleonics Napoleon’s Triumph Manoeuvre
9 Pirates Merchants & Marauders Libertalia Friday
9 Religious Ora et Labora Orleans Here I Stand
9 Space Exploration Twilight Imperium Eclipse Race for the Galaxy
8 American West Lewis & Clark Carson City Shadows of Brimstone
8 Book Warmachine Infinity Warhammer
8 Civilization Terra Mystica Twilight Imperium Through the Ages
8 Mythology Tzolk’in Blood Rage Five Tribes
8 Zombies Dead of Winter Earth Reborn Zombicide
7 American Civil War Freedom: The Underground Railroad Battle Cry For the People
7 Environmental Pandemic Legacy Dominant Species Takenoko
7 Industry/Manufacturing Power Grid Brass Le Havre
7 World War I Paths of Glory The Grizzled Wings of War
6 Farming Caverna Puerto Rico Agricola
6 Maze Ricochet Robots Dungeon Twister Burgle Bros.
6 Music Opera Rock the Beat Schrille Stille
6 Spies / Secret Agents Codenames Battlestar Galactica Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
6 Video Game Railways of the World Age of Empires III Sid Meier’s Civilization
5 Renaissance Keyflower El Grande Goa
4 Mafia Ca$h ‘n Gun$ Nothing Personal Junta
4 Prehistoric Dominant Species Stone Age Evolution
3 Age of Reason A Few Acres of Snow Maria Saint Petersburg
3 American Revolutionary War 1775: Rebellion Washington’s War We the People
3 Civil War (in general) Sekigahara Pax Porfiriana Julius Caesar
3 Medical Pandemic Infection Zombie State
2 American Indian Wars A Few Acres of Snow 1775: Rebellion Washington’s War
2 Arabian Five Tribes Tales of the Arabian Nights Yspahan
2 Pike and Shot Virgin Queen Hamburgum Unhappy King Charles
2 Post-Napoleonic Castles of Mad King Ludwig Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Letters from Whitechapel
2 Vietnam War Fire in the Lake Fields of Fire Phantom Leader
1 Korean War Fields of Fire The Korean War Korea: The Forgotten War

 

Game Development: Developing for Gameplay, Theme, and Manufacturing

In many game companies, developers are different than designers. They will take a game designer’s working game and adapt it for publication. These changes might be intended to:

  • Improve gameplay
  • To better fit the game company’s customers
  • To meet manufacturing constraints or goals.

Developing Gameplay

The developer will first continue to refine the game. Dale Yu – the game developer for Dominion, Suburbia, and Castles of Mad King Ludwig – relates how he played Suburbia solitaire hundreds of times to refine which tiles to include in the game.

  • He changed the attributes of some of the tiles (i.e., their costs and abilities).
  • He identified tiles that didn’t work with the others.
  • He examined sets of tiles (airports, schools, etc.) to determine how they worked together and if more were needed.
  • He tested strategies that might break the game or always lead to victory.
  • He changed the game ending conditions and tweaked the rules in other ways.
  • He suggested improvements to the graphic design of the game.

If a game does not have a good a story arc, the developer might work on creating a better beginning, middle, and end to the game.

Inconsistencies are another area where a game developer can make a difference. Sanding down the rough edges of a design, removing arbitrary differences in language and functionality.

The graphic design elements of a game help convey rules, components, and other important aspects of gameplay. These are items that can evolve through game development.

A final step is documenting the rules. Sometimes a game designer or game developer writes the rules, but these people are often too close to the game, and might be documenting it wrong – documenting earlier versions of the game play, or discussing the game in ways that are confusing to the new player. Some firms will hire independent writers specifically to write or edit the rules.

Developing the Theme

One of the jobs of the game developer is balancing theme vs. game play. Some gamers like richly thematic games and have a wide tolerance for unusual rules to better represent the theme. As the theme is refined, cards may need changed. Others may prefer a more streamlined and abstract approach.

For instance, the Reiner Knizia’ Schotten Totten is about Scottish sheepherders. It’s a very abstract game – it can be played with a 6-suited deck of cards and 9 tiddlywinks or bingo markers. When GMT Games considered the game for publication, they rethemed it to better fit their customer base of wargamers. The cards were given military ranks and the game was renamed Battle Line. Because Americans prefer a mix of more luck than many European games, GMT had Knizia add a set of 9 cards that introduced a bit more variation.

Developing for Manufacturing

Often games will need to be redesigned around manufacturing costs. The game designer may have unrealistic expectations for how many plastic figures could be used, for instance. Some of these plastic figures might end up replaced with cardboard tokens or standardized meeples.

But the manufacturing costs can also be increased, depending on the market. For instance, the first version of Axis & Allies, by Nova Game Designs, used cardboard counters to represent tanks, infantry, anti-aircraft, battleships, and submarines, as was typical of most wargames of the time.

When Milton Bradley took on the game to prepare it for mass-market publication, they commissioned plastic molds and figures for these pieces instead. (Something that can cost $10,000 per figure.)

After purchasing Milton Bradley, Hasbro re-launched the brand as a series of games and re-engineered them so that more of the figures were unique to their country, better representing the unique equipment of the different combatants. (For instance, the German tank now looks different than the Russian tank or the American tank. In the original game, only the infantry – shown above – looked different.)

Historically, game developers were not credited in the rules, but that’s changing, as people recognize the important work that developers do to transform designers’ visions into highly repayable games.

Guide to Prototyping Card Games

The secret of prototyping is to do the least amount of work you can to test the next iteration of your card game. If it’s for the first play, simply write on a collection of index cards. Just worry about the broad strokes of the game play, not all the little details. Don’t worry about naming specific cards or accurately simulating the theme. Or getting all the cards you plan to have. Just get a game that is fun to play.

Write with a pencil, not a pen. Your game should feel impermanent and easy to change. Because you are going to have to make changes—and you will want to make changes. Plan to erase and rewrite.

In fact, for your first play, don’t even think of it as a prototype. Think of it as a proto-prototype. The roughest, fastest thing you can use to quickly test the core idea of your game. Bonus points if you can use decks of cards and game pieces cannibalized from other games.

If the prototype is for a subsequent play, feel free to write over the original cards. Mark them up. Keep it rough and ready, to reflect the fact that major parts may need changed.

In that same spirit, don’t worry about what the name of the game will be. You’re a long way from that. Just give it an arbitrary code name; it doesn’t even have to refer to theme or mechanics. In fact, it is probably better if it doesn’t.

  • For instance, my game of world war, inspired by Risk, ended up being a game of alien invasion instead.
  • And my game about the age of European exploration ended up being about the Intercolonial Wars instead.
  • It is not unusual for a game to evolve changing either theme or mechanics, or occasionally both. My sports game was originally about sports superstitions before Jeff Voigt simplified it to focus primarily on the basics of football.

So a code name that refers to theme can end up not fitting. And a code name about mechanics can be wrong as well: a game I originally called “Nine” was supposed to be just a nine-card game but ended up as a board game with more cards.

If you need a bunch of names of cards, you can use the Greek alphabet, or numbers. “Spell #1”, “Weapon #9”, “Monster #3 – Goblin?” are all fine at this stage. The parameters of the cards are more important than the name: the card’s properties and capabilities. For instance, in my game Wizard’s Tower I originally had “Healing Potion – prevent warrior from dying”, “Potion #2 – strike dragon”, “Potion #3 – peek at top Monster card then return to its draw pile” and one of my favorites of all time “Potion #4 – improvise its ability!” I couldn’t figure out what it should do and decided we’d make it up on the fly and see what happened! (See challenge #14 below for more on what these became.)

Use plain language about the action the respondent is to take. You can add titles and flavor later – for instance, “Offense must discard hand” is fine for the first version of a card in a football game. By the time the game is ready to be produced, the card might be titled “Headset Troubles.”

It’s a natural tendency to overproduce prototypes. You know what real card games look like, and you want yours to look like that. Avoiding overproduced prototypes is a lesson that I learnt the hard way. For my early games, I would try to design the entire game upfront, getting all the details right, finding clip art that I could use, making a beautiful prototype, naming every card, making sure its capabilities were evocative of the theme. Only to find out that the ideas I had for how the game would work were wrong.

And then I was overwhelmed about the idea of changing everything. Because it was all so overproduced.

So dive in and commit to iteration.

Goal Prototyping Phase Materials
Prove the kernel of your idea will make an enjoyable game. Sketch Writing in pencil on index cards or even slips of paper.
Refine the architecture of your game, the properties and ability of cards. Framework Think about the parameters and attributes of the cards, and create a working subset of the eventual game that demonstrates key properties.
Refine the inventory of cards Periodic Table Type up the cards in a spreadsheet, size the spreadsheet cells large, and print and cut.
Think about a layout that will make the game easy to learn. Wireframes Type up the cards in a presentation or graphics program or a dedicated system like Concept Studio, Paperize, or nanDeck. Use words or common symbols and emoticons.
Refine the graphic design. Mockups Find icons from The Noun Project, Game-Icons.net, and elsewhere. Use clip art to express theme.
Determine what confuses and frustrates players. Blind Playtesting Conduct usability testing of the rules and the cards. Rinse and repeat until the game is ready for publication.
Polish the graphic design. Production Ready Iterate until the game can be published as a free PDF that can easily be learned by players on their own.

Useful Materials

The most important asset to a game designer is a notepad. Think of it as a designer diary, recording your thoughts and inspirations. Log plays and track problems with your games, as well as your ideas for solutions to the problems you observe.

Pencil and paper work fine, or you can use an app on your smartphone. Many of the games in this book were designed in Google Docs and Google Sheets.

For playtesting ideas with standard decks, consider carrying around a miniature deck of cards. Similar in size to a larger pack of gum, you can easily carry it in your pocket or pocketbook.

For dedicated-deck card games, consider buying index cards – standard size or miniature. You can use miniature if your cards don’t have a lot of properties or a lot of information on them. Alternatively, you can quickly prototype dedicated deck card games that use unusual combinations of ranks and suits by combining different decks. Buy a bunch of cheap decks with the same back so that you can create custom combos of card frequency – for instance, 3 decks will get you 12 cards of each rank.

If you like to sleeve your card games, sleeve a bunch of Magic commons (the most common cards from Magic: The Gathering booster packs) and sketch the cards for your prototype on paper and sleeve them.

I have some bead organizers from Michaels craft store that I use to store accessories. This originally started as me keeping useful pieces from games that were broken, damaged, or missing components. Then I started buying used games specifically to cannibalize, from garage sales and yard sales and thrift stores and dollar stores. Dice, bingo markers, tiddledy winks, wooden cubes, meeples, and play money are all useful prototyping components. Then I began buying pieces from parts stores such as Rolco Games, Koplow Games, and The Game Crafter.

Things to buy if you find you are serious about game design: a printer or all-in-one device (a printer with a scanner and fax), cardstock (make sure it is not too thick for your printer), a paper cutter, and blank playing cards.

Online Resources

Most game publishers put copies of the rules of games on their sites for free. So you can read the rules for far more games than you can afford to buy. If you’re interested in designing a game with a particular theme, you can use BoardGameGeek to find the highest rated games with that theme, then go to the publishers’ websites and download the rules to read. Want to design a game about wizards? Lots of games out there can give you ideas for systems of magic and for spells. Can’t afford a really expensive game? Download the rules from the game publisher’s website to learn more about it.

For imagery, Game-icons.net has over 3,200 icons that you can use in your card games in exchange for providing credit to the illustrators.

icons from Game-icons.net

The Noun Project has over a million icons; unlike the pictures on Game-icons.net, which are designed to work together in a similar visual style, the Noun Project’s icons embody a wide variety of styles, meaning two icons don’t always work well together.

There is free software that is useful, including Google Docs for writing notes and rules and Google Sheets for creating cards.

Some software is specifically for creating games:

  • NanDECK is a powerful if esoteric scripting language for creating paper card games (requires Windows).
  • Paperize.io is great for rapidly prototyping card games, though not as powerful for producing finished cards.
  • Component Studio, subscription required, is the easiest way to prepare games for printing or selling through The Game Crafter. It can also be used to generate print-and-play PDFs.

Nor should we overlook the discussion groups of game designers, who will point you to even more online resources.

  • BGDF – The Board Game Designers Forum hosts a collection of discussion groups, blogs, and contests.
  • BoardGameGeek – The Board Game Design forums on BGG range from design discussions to graphic design to discussion of works in progress, playtest requests, and contests.
  • Card & Board Game Designs Guild – A Facebook group run by James Mathe of Minion Games.

Design Challenge: Standard Deck Adaptation of a Published Game (Rummy Duel)

Your design challenge is to take a published card game and adapt it to use only a traditional deck of cards.

If you ever end up stuck somewhere with only a regular deck of cards to play with, you’ll be able to use that deck to play the game you invented!

Example: Rummy Duel

Rules

Premise

Rummy Duel is a fast-playing version of Rummy for just two players. It is adapted from the game Schotten-Totten, by Reiner Knizia, in which two players compete while assembling 9 separate hands of poker, trying to win 5 of the 9 hands anywhere or 3 adjacent ones, to win the game.

Setup

Deal 7 cards to each player. Deal 5 community cards lengthwise between you and your rival and end them with the draw pile, also arranged lengthwise. The loser of the last game goes first.

Rummy Duel setup

Play

A player starts by drawing a card of their choice. They can take it from the draw pile, or they can draw one of the community cards that has not had a claim staked to it (i.e., empty on both sides; see below). If they take a community card, they must immediately replace it with another card from their hand.

If the player can form any type of meld — a run (three cards in a row, of one suit or any mix of suits) or a set (three of a kind, all of the same suit) — then they may play that to their side of any community card to stake a claim to it. (Aces can start or end a run but can’t go “round the corner”: ace, 2, 3 and king, queen, ace are valid runs, but king, ace, 2 isn’t.) A meld, once placed, can’t be moved to another community card. If the current player can’t play a meld, they say “Pass” instead.

To win a community card, the player must have a higher value than the opponent: comparing the high card of a run (3 to ace), or the high card of set (2 to ace) – a set always beats a run, even a run all of the same suit. So a 2, 3, 4 run beats an ace, 2, 3 run, and a set of kings beat a set of queens. In case of a tie, neither player wins the community card.

Play continues until:

  • All 5 community cards have had a claim staked to them by one player (the player who didn’t start gets one last turn), or
  • The draw pile is empty, or
  • A player’s tally of won community cards now exceeds what a rival can win, in which case the winning player calls “Rummy” to declare their victory. (For instance, if the community cards are 2, 3, 4, 10, jack (11), and one player has won the 10 and the jack, the other player couldn’t win if they won the remaining 3 community cards.)

Each player tallies the rank of each community card they won (aces are worth 14). The high score wins. The tie-breaker goes to the player with the fewest cards in hand.

Design Diary

Inspiration

Ironically, this was one of the hardest challenges for me to complete, as I typically like more thematic games. And I originally thought Rummy was a terrible game to start with, thinking that variants of it had been pretty much exhausted, before I realized it had so many possibilities that I proposed it as an idea for the first challenge. Finally, I remembered Schotten-Totten and wondered what if it was 5 melds of rummy instead of 9 hands of poker?

Playtesting

My first rules were pretty barebones:

  1. Deal 7 cards each.
  2. Deal 7 community cards.
  3. Can draw an uncontested community card and replace it from the draw deck.
  4. First player with more points than rival can claim wins.
  5. Score is sum of community cards can claim.
  6. To claim a community card must have a higher value: high card of run (3 to 14), or high card of set (2 to 14) – set always beats run, even a run all of the same suit.

Given the width of 7 community cards arranged lengthwise, I reduced it to 5 cards upon initial play. It quickly became clear that players need to say “Pass” if they weren’t playing a meld. And once I realized the tally of the community cards I had won exceeded what my rival could claim, I called “Rummy” and won. The playtests also revealed a need to be more specific about the end cases.

On subsequent plays, I decided that drawing a face-up community card without discarding was too powerful and required the card to be replaced from the player’s hand.

While this challenge might seem simple, it’s meant to get you experienced iterating on game design without the need to create a prototype yet. So please give this challenge a try.

Playtesting Guide

The purpose of playtesting is to collect real-world experiences with your game that you can use to help you modify your game so that it better achieves your goals. Early on, you might playtest the game by yourself (solo playtesting or self-testing) to make certain that its basic framework works or to test individual parts of the game. Your friends and family members will want to play a more workable version of the game, though it is best to emphasize the goal is to learn about the game rather than win. Your target audience is approached through blind playtests, where they learn the game as your players will eventually in the real world – from the documentation and game components alone.

For a brand new idea, you want to test that the game actually works and is fun, and keep track of where ideas don’t proceed as you expect. Try to schedule time to play it through 2 or 3 times, so you can see the game under different conditions.

Come up with a list of the goals you want to accomplish during a playtesting session. Perhaps you want to test certain conditions that arise when the game is over. Or you need to test just the combat system. In such cases, you do not have to play the entire game. For instance, for one game my son developed, one of our play-test sessions involved just testing different ideas for combat, which was just one part of the game. You might want to test different scenarios: the end game, rare events, edge cases, points that have confused earlier testers, etc.

[source: https://www.slideshare.net/dmullich/lafs-game-design-8-playtesting]

Goals for playtesting, and who you should playtest with, often depend on where you are in the development of this particular game:

  • Initial idea / zero draft – Quickly get a subset of the game to the table to verify that the mechanics work the way you intend, with a proto-prototype, as it were. Just play by yourself or with a fellow designer.
  • First draft – Playtest with other designers or with good friends who won’t mind playing a broken game to see if the game works.
  • Subsequent drafts: Playtest it repeatedly with different groups to determine what needs to be refined. This is where you will spend most of your time.
  • Balancing: Send it out for blind playtests and log feedback, to make sure cards aren’t unbalanced. Play it with groups with the goal to try and break it.

Brandon Rollins defines blind playtesting as “When you give your game to other people with no instructions on how to play. You can choose to observe them while playing or elicit their feedback after the game has ended.”

If you are only planning on playing your games with friends, you may not need to do blind playtesting. Once the game is almost done, though, you can recruit playtesters over the Internet or give the game to acquaintances to play without you.

Steve Jackson says “good advice for any designer” is “playtest the dumb strategies.” For instance, in a game with a range of actions, what happens if a player takes the same action or two every turn? In the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, the following strategy broke an earlier version of Dominion: “In the initial stage of the game, Dominion ended when any one of the three Victory stacks were depleted. So, the Duchy Rush strategy had a simple algorithm: buying nothing if you had 0 to 2 coins in your hand, buying a Silver if you had 3 or 4 coins in your hand, and buying a Duchy if you had 5 or more coins in your hand. That’s it. This strategy totally ignored all of the Kingdom cards on the table.” The game was changed prior to publication to add end conditions and to tweak victory points to make this a suboptimal strategy.

Surviving Negative Feedback

Keep in mind when playing with people in person that it is human nature to tell people what you think they want to hear – your playtesters might give you pleasant platitudes. Make sure you emphasize the value of negative feedback and constructive criticism. If you can ask only one question, ask:

  • What one thing would you change to make the game more enjoyable?

Other good questions:

  • What confused you the most about the game?
  • What, if anything, would you change about the game?
  • What, if anything, would you make sure not to change?

As we’ve all learnt by now, people are much more caustic over the Internet. At one point, Android: Netrunner was the most highly rated card game on BoardGameGeek.com, with an average rating of 8.1 on a 1 to 10 scale. Here are a sampling of the comments of those who rated a 1 what is widely regarded as the best card game:

  • “One more example of a game loaded up so heavily on theme that the gameplay totally suffered. I really, really don’t know why this game has gathered as much popularity as it has.”
  • “This is one of the most absurdly luck based games I have ever played. Why design a game where if you don’t draw the exact types of cards you need, you lose?”
  • “Stupid ‘game’. Stupid manual. Stay away from it.”
  • “It feels like there’s way more stuff in the game than there needs to be. It might be fun if it were streamlined. But it’s not, and it’s not. The runner died on his first turn during one of the games I played.”
  • “The mechanics kill it for me… The overall dynamic means the game plays you… I don’t think you should buy this game.“
  • “Run in the other direction! Now!”

Even one of the best card games doesn’t appeal to everyone. Now, imagine the designers, Richard Garfield and Lukas Litzsinger, were playtesting the game and got those comments. They’d feel like the game was a failure, right?

Sometimes a game is not right for a playtester, or group of playtesters. That doesn’t mean it is a bad game. My game Civscape, provided below, is a simple take-that card game about the rise and fall of city-states. When I playtested it with a group of game designers, they all hated it. They wanted something meaty and mathy and strategic, like most civilization games, while Civscape is meant as a fun filler before or after the main game of the evening. I was so discouraged I set the game aside for a year. Until I heard from another playtesting group that had friends who wanted to buy their own copies. Same game: completely opposite reaction.

Apply the feedback that matches your design goals. For instance, one of my friends who is a game designer has a simple family game, and she had two different actions: one where people draw 3 cards from Deck A and add 1 card to their hand, and one where people draw 2 cards from Deck B and add to their hand, then discard 1 card from their hand. My advice to her was to make this action consistent, regardless of deck; since that met her design goals, she did, standardizing on “add to hand, then discard”.

So learn from feedback, but don’t take it to heart. Not every player loves every game.

One last bit of advice, from Steve Jackson: “If your testers say it takes too long, what they really mean is they’re not having enough fun.”

How Much Playtesting Is Needed?

How many playtests are enough? Partly it depends on how quickly the game comes together. Partly it depends on game complexity: the more complicated the game, the longer it will take to playtest. Partly it depends on the intended audience: for friends and family, a few playtests are sufficient; for people to download free on the internet, at least 10; for publication, probably at least 50. And Tom Jolly would argue you need to play a game 100 times.

I was lucky in that my game City Blocks, published by Nestorgames and available to play for free on Yucata.de, came together in one afternoon of playtesting. But it was an extremely simple game. My game Civscape Rivals (included as the final example game in this book) took over 250 plays over 4 years before I felt it was ready for publication.

Very long games can be challenging to playtest. I once rented a table at a boardgame convention and playtested the same game dozens of times over 3 days with a hundred attendees. A well-regarded game designer from a major publisher, who has multiple games in the BoardGameGeek Top 100, confessed that we were playtesting the game far more than they tested their titles.

Playtest, playtest, playtest!

As the Asmadi game featured in our cover image warns, not playtesting leaves its legacy.