All posts by troypress

The Village Blacksmith (RPG Setting-Neutral Edition)

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.

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!

Questions to Ask During Session Zero

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.
  • Combat ideas:
    • 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.

Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels.

RPG Campaigns Played by System

Obsidian Portal, an online campaign management tool for RPGs, shares stats on the number of campaigns run in its system. I’ve created a Google Sheet with this data.

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 campaigns.

The Top 10 systems that aren’t D&D are:

  1. Pathfinder RPG (17.66%)
  2. Savage Worlds (2.40%)
  3. Shadowrun (1.94%)
  4. Fate RPG (1.88%)
  5. World of Darkness (1.83%)
  6. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (1.80%)
  7. Call of Cthulhu (0.98%)
  8. Vampire: The Masquerade (0.85%)
  9. Mutants and Masterminds (0.72%)
  10. GURPS 4th Edition (0.70%) (1.25% if you add in earlier GURPS editions)

The full Google Sheet is here.

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:

Unpublished Prototype45
Secret Hitler19
One Night Ultimate Werewolf15
Battle Line13
Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn12
Avignon: A Clash of Popes11
The Golden Ages10
Sushi Go Party!9
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.