My players’ characters are visiting a village smithy, so I decided the local bard will sing this poem as they approach (then ask them for money!). Since our homebrew campaign world is set in Stone Age Eurasia, I changed the references to Christ and Sunday worship. My edited words are in italics. (With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)
The Village Blacksmith
UNDER a spreading chestnut tree The village smithy stands; The smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands; And the muscles of his brawny arms Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long, His face is like the tan; His brow is wet with honest sweat, He earns whate’er he can, And looks the whole world in the face, For he owes not any man.
Week in, week out, from morn till night, You can hear his bellows blow; You can hear him swing his heavy sledge With measured beat and slow, Like a cleric ringing the village bell, When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from toil Look in at the open door; They love to see the flaming forge, And hear the bellows roar, And watch the burning sparks that fly Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
He goes each tenday to the shrine, And sits among his boys; He hears the cleric pray and preach, He hears his daughter’s voice, Singing in the village choir, And it makes his heart rejoice.
It sounds to him like her mother’s voice, Singing in paradise! He needs must think of her once more, How in the grave she lies; And with his hard, rough hand he wipes A tear out of his eyes.
Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing, Onward through life he goes; Each morning sees some task begin, Each evening sees it close; Something attempted, something done, Has earned a night’s repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend, For the lesson thou hast taught! Thus at the flaming forge of life Our fortunes must be wrought; Thus on its sounding anvil shaped Each burning deed and thought!
I ran a Session
Zero on Friday for our new homebrew campaign. We had just wrapped up a
41-session, open-table campaign set in Melvaunt in Forgotten Realms, and this
time we’re doing a homebrew, closed-table campaign. Every group’s Session Zero
has different things to cover, but here’s what we found useful.
The questions I asked to better tailor this campaign:
What was your favorite moment from the last campaign? Least favorite?
What did you like in general about the last campaign? What did you dislike?
Do you want to play one character over the new campaign or play multiple characters?
Should we allow players to be resurrected or not?
Do you like creating maps?
Do you like codes and ciphers?
What kind of records are you as a team going to keep about the world and your adventures?
What types of monsters would you like to encounter?
How would you feel about a session with no combat?
How can we speed up combat? [We have 7 players, so I feel like it can bog down, though not every player felt that way.]
Introduction to any house rules. For instance:
For a player who is not present during a session, their character is assumed to be present and along for the ride but not contributing much. An absent player’s character cannot be killed.
At the end of a session, the players reach consensus on where they want to go the next session. [A complaint was how long it took them to decide which clue/quest to follow at the start of a session.]
While the DM’s guide says a permanent magic item every five levels, we are going to have some different items that come along more often.
Everyone rolls for initiative (including me as DM for monsters). High roll goes first, then combat proceeds in clockwise order around the table.
Players can postpone their turn if they are not ready. [We were already doing this.]
If the AC is obvious (humanoid wearing armor), I’ll tell the players it. Everyone will roll d20 and damage die together, ignoring damage die if they didn’t hit.
I’m going to provide better feedback into the declining health of the opponents.
Discussion of how the
world differs from Forgotten Realms or other player expectations. In my case:
There’s a shop with common magic items only, but anything rarer – even uncommon – will require tracking rumors and legends to find.
Rather than copper, silver, electrum, gold, and platinum pieces, the lands use electrum pieces universally, though their home city is unique in that it has copper pennies too. The electrum pieces are the only reminders of the wider world of the vanished empire: which city-states used the minotaur coins, the winged horse, and the lion?
After much discussion of character races and classes, I had every player tell us about their character. I had already encouraged them to think of a high concept and troubled aspect of their character’s background. Then also had to tell us how their character knows the character of the player to their right.
I’ve already tweaked the encounter tables based on what I learnt
from the session, and I have changed some of the clues and potential story
lines. For instance, while one of our past players loved riddles and ciphers,
that wasn’t something any of the current players wanted much of, so that series
of clues is being revamped.
I believe the Session Zero is going to pave the way for another
great 40-session campaign.
This represents the 129,098 campaigns created over the lifetime of the software (12 years, as it was created in 2007). As a result, you’ll see Pathfinder in second place at 18% of campaigns, due to its historic strength: it is doubtful that 18% of campaigns played today are in Pathfinder, given the loss of players to D&D 5e and the release of Pathfinder Second Edition.
D&D, across its editions, represents 47% of these Obsidian
The Top 10 systems that aren’t D&D are:
Pathfinder RPG (17.66%)
Savage Worlds (2.40%)
Fate RPG (1.88%)
World of Darkness (1.83%)
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (1.80%)
Call of Cthulhu (0.98%)
Vampire: The Masquerade (0.85%)
Mutants and Masterminds (0.72%)
GURPS 4th Edition (0.70%) (1.25% if you add in earlier GURPS editions)
Players: 2-4 (2-5 with expansion, Cults & Culture)
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:
Artist – Remove an upright colonist from the map and place in the Agora (a separate card) for 3 victory points.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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
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.
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’
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
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.)
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
enjoy civilization games.
prefer VP-driven games to 4X games.
don’t mind some military combat, but don’t want to play a wargame.
This game is not
for you if:
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.)
need more chrome than wooden cubes and cylinders. (Try Clash of Cultures!)
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
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.
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).
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:
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).
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:
To better fit the game company’s customers
To meet manufacturing constraints or goals.
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.