Game Design

Lessons from my latest playtest

I recently changed the theme and reconfigured quite a few of the elements of the game. It took a lot of thinking outside of the box to get the game to where it is now. Some of the biggest changes include:

  • I changed the theme from a Roman Republic to Empire type game, to fictional anthropomorphized animals of a woodland nation. (Think Animal Farm meets Redwall. [I’ll post some of the concept artwork in a future article!])
  • I made the Incident Cards that the nation will face more structured around different types of behavior and more open to multiple ways to resolve them. Some can’t be resolved, you’ve just gotta suck it up and try to improve your resources.
  • I’ve split up the cards that you use to form policy into tiny Input and Output cards. Now, players have many options to choose from when forming a policy.

After playtesting this version of the game recently, I noticed a lot of balance issues that need to be remedied:

  • The game is still too long. I’d like it to be about 45-60 minutes and I think it’s about 60-90 minutes. I’m going to look for ways to make things go by more quickly.
  • Incidents are still too difficult for players to solve. I’m going to soften the blow a bit on them.
  • Having twice the number of Outputs as Inputs is a great balance to form policy.
  • Outputs don’t provide enough resources, I need to up the ante on all of them.
  • It’s difficult for players to hit their conditions to Overthrow the government. I’m going to work on reducing the criteria they have to meet, and possibly allowing multiple criteria options. (You can Overthrow the government after x types of Incidents are resolved OR you get x number of a resource or unit for the nation.)

I’m excited, as this game is coming together well. These tweaks are minor. The concept artwork is fun! (I’m going to make the General of the Armies a frog, you guys!) After all this time, I’m glad to see this take shape.

The biggest challenge so far here is that I have to create 6 unique, challenging, and punishing (but balanced) forms of government—one for each type of character that you can play in the game. That means that I have to create 6 mini-games on top of the core game!

I definitely bit off a large chunk of work here. It’s taking a while to chew, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Stay tuned for some early concept art!

Game Design

A Game of Faces: Why I Recently Changed My Game’s Theme

I’ve been developing a game since the summer of 2017. It’s now autumn in 2018 and I think I’m only halfway to the finish line. Developing a game is a marathon, not a sprint. Come with me…on a magical journey through time as I detail the timeline of my…uhm, magical tabletop journey.

This is another post about killing your darlings.

Summer 2017


After playing a short game of Rome: Total War (which means roughly 6 hours), I think it would be fun to play a tabletop game centered around the politics of Rome. But instead of focusing on the Roman Empire, I wanted to make a game that centered around playing the part of a senator during the late republic trying to navigate through a rocky political landscape. I wanted to make a game where every player came from a different background (retired centurion, foreign ambassador, mensarii tax collector, etc), and they all have a different way in which they’ll overthrow the republic and replace it with their own type of dictatorship. I get to work.


I created a prototype: handwritten index cards and stolen assets from other games. The game is large, it has policy cards for players to use, which allows them to in turn build structures and grow resources (including military and navy), all to solve crises that face Rome (think event cards which affect all players).

It didn’t work out well. I made a game that was not winnable and was hard to work with. Population was equivalent to Rome in the time of the republic. How do you track that? Do you have chips which equal 100,000 people so that you can track the population of Rome at that time? (Which ranged from 500,000 to 1 million at any given point in the republic.)

I confess, I’m a history (linguistics) major and it was difficult for me to try and carve out a square in something that was clearly already a circle. But I kept pressing on.

The theme, I kept. The game, I left behind.

Fall & Winter 2017

I was excited. I started to tell people that I was designing a game, which I think was a mistake because I had no place to point anyone when they wanted to know what my game was about or what I was doing. I had no blog or website or handwritten scroll. I had nothing other than the breath of my word. (So I had nothing.)

Regardless of my eager boasting, I refined my game. In public, I talked about all of the neat things that I wanted the game to be about; in private, I wondered why I said those things and continued to develop the game.

I realized a major issue: it was too much. There was too much resource management that players would have to deal with, too many rules they’d have to remember, too many crises which had turn-by-turn effects that they’d have to implement.

The Takeaway

Do you know how I realized most of this? By play-testing the game. Whatever you do, print things out and play them by yourself and with people that you trust. Do it often. Do it when the game doesn’t have a clear win condition. Do it when you don’t understand what the hell you’re making. Do it when your game feels absolutely right and you love it.

If you ever run into my situation, where you want to add so many fun elements to the game, stop. Strip down your game its core elements. Figure out what emotions you’re trying to evoke out of your game. What are you trying to get your players to experience? Build on that. Don’t add mechanics that you enjoy just because you enjoy them. Many people would rather play an hour-long game that is easy to learn and hard to master over one that is quite the opposite.

Summer 2018 to Now

A year had passed and I still had nothing to show for it, save a plain sort of prototype. This is why I felt disappointed about telling my friends that I was designing a game. I love talking about tabletop games and, well, pretty much any creative endeavor that I’ve experienced or that I’m creating. Talking about imagination stokes a fire in me. The issue is that people may not be so enthusiastic when you keep talking about something and have nothing to show for it. Or in my case, you are hesitant to show anyone anything because the game isn’t “right” enough.

I also had realized that I had outgrown the theme of my game. I kept trying to fit this wonderful experience in a box of Roman diplomacy, when I really wanted to branch out and develop something with a unique, intriguing theme.

As of about 3 weeks ago, I shed the Roman Republic-to-Empire gameplay and decided to create my own land. A republic where players are people of power who influence the senators from the shadows and ultimately one player overthrows the republic to instill their own government…which is built in their favor.

More to come on this. More to come on the artwork, on the assets. I’ve play tested my game about 10 times with another person so far over the year that I’ve been developing it. I’ve play tested it about 15 times by myself. It’s not nearly enough. I need to get more hands-on time with my game.

I will, but on the plus side: the gameplay and the mechanics of the game feel right for the first time in a while. I think it took me about a year to figure out what game I was developing in the first place. I had a lot of ideas swirling around in a cloud and after dancing with these ideas for a year, I’m finally making it rain.

Right now, I’m working on a rough draft of a rulebook. I’m pinning down what assets are necessary for the game (tokens, boards, cards, etc), and I’m starting work on the artwork.

It’s all exciting, but I’m not fooled for a second to think that I’m even halfway done here. Back to work.

Game Design

Eurotrash versus Ameritrash Games

In my last post, I briefly mentioned that Century: Golem Edition was a “Eurotrash” game. Let me explain…

All that talk about insulting another culture and you go after a whole continent?

In the tabletop community, there are two styles of game—both with loving nicknames, mind you: Eurotrash games and Ameritrash games.

Both are insulting, but what’s the difference?

Eurotrash games are, as you guessed it, typically more popular with European tabletop game players. These games focus on mechanics which are, although air tight, typically end in whomever gets more victory points is the winner, with multiple ways to get victory points.

These games focus on the mechanics and the balance over the theme and artwork of the game. They make sure to have a solid system with its mechanics and themes applied well, versus telling a well-thought out story. Not saying that these games are bad at story-telling, but that’s not their focus. These games want to make you think strategically, puzzle-like, and develop many plans of attack and counter-attack in their systems. In the end, those with a mind for problem-solving prevail.

Think of games like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan.

Ameritrash games are quite the opposite; they focus on the artwork and telling a great story to the players over having wonderful gameplay mechanics that force players to dig their heals into chess-like strategies. Not saying they’re horrible with their mechanics, but that’s not their main point. These games want to try to emerge you into a world of role-play, where you may need to keep your identity secret. The better you are at getting into the story and figuring out how to advance it through whatever mechanics (bluffing, attack vs defense battle mechanics, etc) are within your world. These types of games are typically more popular amongst the North American tabletop community.

Think of games like Coup, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Spyfall.

Neat, what’s the point in this though?

I think that as we innovate on tabletop games, we must think of these ideas and try to make something that blurs the lines between “Ameritrash” and “Eurotrash” games.

Also: I apologize if any of these terms offend someone. I meant them in a loving way and they are used in the tabletop community at times to describe games.

Game Design

Manage Your Project from Creative Abstraction to Concrete Reality

Your next amazing, world-changing creative idea will only exist when you create it. Seems like a no-brained concept, right? Then why do ideas fail to get past their maturation phase? There are a few schools of thought:

  • You lose interest in the idea and move on to something else
  • You get distracted by other aspects of life
  • You don’t think the idea worth going through the effort to turn into something concrete

The last bullet point in that list is a difficult one to combat, but I believe that you can push past all three of these obstacles with one thing: a plan.

Wow, radical idea. Is your entire blog going to be condescending?


No follow up to that? OK.

In today’s world, no one wants to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing. If you admit that you’re new to something, you may find just as many people who want to dismiss you as who want to help you. There are a lot of factors in your creative world that you can’t control, mostly, the opinions of the people who you’d like to consume your creative product.

What you can control, however, is giving yourself enough structure, with a well managed plan, to keep you on track so that even though this may be your first or second time creating something, you can still communicate your project timeline to people. It’s extremely important for trust. BUT with enough freedom for you to be able to stay creative and think outside of the box.

Another benefit of a plan is that your big, extensive project is broken down into manageable chunks which you can complete or delegate more effectively.

Fine, fine. But what’s the best way to do that?

Project management is an entire career for some people. But you don’t need a career to know how to manage a project. It may be good to do some research into different methodologies and figure out which is best for your project, but for creating a tabletop game, I use a variation of the Agile method.

…the what method?

The Agile method. This form of project management is typically used by software developers, including video games. The core tenets of the Agile method are as such:

  • Individuals and interactions over process and tools
  • Working product over extensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The way that I specifically translate these tenets to a tabletop game is:

  • Individuals and interactions—focus on you and your team’s (if you have one) ability to work together to share ideas, instead of plotting, micromanaging specifically defined tasks, and extensive schematics.
  • Working product—make sure that your assets speak for themselves as much as they possibly can over creating a 20+ page rulebook and making the assets barebones or far too artwork focused with little UX design. Even heavy role playing pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons have rule books which are well organized for function over form. Look at it this way, if your game normally takes an hour to play once people know the rules, if they have to constantly refer to the rulebook to remember a small detail of how the game works, try to portray that rule or mechanic in a card or token.
  • Customer collaboration—create prototypes and play test your game as often as you possibly can. Don’t assume you have a mechanic down and you don’t need to see it in action. Don’t save play testing for the times when you get stuck. Don’t think that because your game can’t be completed or won that you shouldn’t play test it. Throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks should be built into your plan. Try to play test your game at least once a month, if not more.
  • Responding to change—give yourself time to jump into that rabbit hole. You may find out that there are huge changes to your game that can make it more fun. Don’t think that because you’re exploring a different theme or a rather large change to the core mechanics of your game that you’re derailing your entire project. In fact, you’re doing your project justice by leaving yourself open to change. If you’re working on a team, being open to everyone’s creative input makes your game shine. Allow yourself the time to go on that adventure, even if you’re worried that it’ll push your deadlines back.

Exactly how loose (or not) is this “Agile method” as a plan?

In terms of creating a tabletop game, I’ve developed a variation of the Agile method. Since the Agile method (at least the one that I know) is fine-tuned for software developers, there are some aspects of Agile that I use and some that I don’t. I’ll break down, in terms of the plan, what I believe is important for you to track…and what tools you might consider using to track your project.

Break up your project into phases

It helps to think of your project in phases from start to completion, to categorize them in larger stages. For example, I thought of my tabletop game in these phases:

  1. Prototype—the ‘beta’ and heavy play test phase; get your game to a point where it can be completed and winners can be defined here
  2. Design—this is a hybrid phase; you’ll want to play test quite a bit here but this is the phase where you want to collect feedback on the actual ‘user experience’ of the game; get your iconography and rulebook in a good place here AND make sure that you’re weeding out the game breaking bugs
  3. Produce—the money phase; here’s where you’ll try to get money to get your game manufactured and distributed in the next phase; you’ll still want to play test your game here but depending on your method of getting funds for your game, you may be able to open the play testing up to a wider audience; in this phase, you’ll want to figure out the cost of manufacturing and shipping; this phase is extremely important to the future success of your game and has high potential for pitfall, proceed with care
  4. Manufacture & Distribute—the concrete phase; this is where your game gets mass produced; it’s highly dependent on the success of your produce phase; and has its own logistics to work out; you’ll need to ensure the quality of your product as its mass produced and handle shipping from the manufacturer to a holding/storage facility and then to the end consumer

Define the tasks within a phase and organize them into sprints

Tasks—Now that you have an idea for the various phases of your project, think about the tasks that you’ll need to finish to complete a phase. Start one phase at a time. You don’t need to define all tasks for all phases up front. As I write this, I’m still in the Prototype phase of my project, making sure that I can make my game playable within my desired time frame of 45 minutes – 1 hour and that the game is winnable most of the time. I’ve defined what I need to do in direct but not pedantic terms. For example, some of my tasks include:

  1. Develop characters
  2. Define mid game ‘game changer’ condition for each character
  3. Lay out new gameplay and rules for ‘game changer’ conditions
  4. Develop assets (cards, tokens, etc.)
  5. Print and play test, collect play test feedback
  6. Tweak as needed, repeat until the game is winnable and appears to be balanced

NOTE: I do also think ahead a bit. It’s OK to think about the design of your game as you’re prototyping it but it’s more important to have a semi-solid game FIRST and then narrow down the design later. That’s why I’ve defined phases of my project, not to trap my thoughts into a box and then only allow myself to move on once I’ve figured everything out in that box, but to keep me just focused enough to be able to get the important things down before changing my focus to other aspects of the game.

Sprints—Once you’ve laid out your tasks, build them into sprints. A sprint is a short span of time for you to complete your tasks. Typically, the sweet-spot for a sprint is two weeks.

What that means is that you’ll want to give yourself a few tasks and complete as many as possible in two weeks. It’s OK if you don’t complete one in two weeks, you can just move it to the next sprint.

IMPORTANT: As you define your tasks and put them into sprints, write down the “definition of done” for each task. For example, “I’m done with developing characters once I’ve given a name to, created one special ability for, and defined the mid game changing trigger condition for four unique characters.

Dependencies—You’ll also want to think about the relationship between your tasks. If you can’t complete the print and play test task until you’ve completed the develop assets task, then make sure that it’s last on your list and possibly in a later sprint.

In the prototype and design phases, it’s important to be open to all ideas. For example, I recently (like, last week) decided to completely change the entire theme and story of my game.

You did WHAT?!

I won’t go into detail on that in this blog post, I’m saving that story for another time, but I will say that I am entirely more pleased and excited to play my game now. If you stick too closely to the rules that you defined when you first started your project, you’ll might not be happy with the outcome. Creative projects only work when you can pivot on a dime and make big changes as you work to complete them.

Creativity is having to build the plane as you fly it—although, I’d highly recommend against actually trying to build a plane as you fly it.

In the end, you’re the creative director of your project and you need to make these decisions. Not just that, you need to OWN these decisions. Anyway, let’s move on.

What tools do I use to track all of the junk I have to do?

There are many project management tools out there. I use Smartsheet, which is a paid software that has great project management features in a spreadsheet format. I can create dependencies between tasks and do things like show priority and task health, then calculate project health based on that.

My recommendation is for you to use the tool that you’re most comfortable with and the one that works within your budget. Pen and paper, whiteboard and dry erase marker, stone tablet and chisel—whatever works for you. I have some recommendations though:

  • Smartsheet—provides familiar spreadsheet setting and easy to read structure, this works well if you decide to use the Agile method for your project
  • Wunderlist—free version exists which gives you a to-do list type of interface
  • Todoist—free version exists which is robust and lets you set reminders for tasks
  • Evernote—free version exists and gives you the ability to easily take handwritten notes and add photos to organize your thoughts

Thanks for reading!

Take some time today to organize your tasks into a plan—then get to it!

Game Reviews

Century Golem Edition & Field to Ferment: Rethemed Game with a Rethemed Beer

In my last pairing, I voiced disappointment with the form of cultural appropriation that happens in tabletop games with giving games that have a market, buying, or trading system a generic “middle eastern” or “Indian” theme. Century: Spice Road is one of many games which fall into that category, so I was pleased to see this game fitted with a new skin.

Really? Another scalding on cultural appropriation?

I love Century: Spice Road. It’s another European-style (lovingly referred to as a Eurotrash game) game which focuses on gameplay mechanics, balance, and having multiple strategies to gain the most victory points and win. The game focuses on collecting and upgrading different spices in your caravan that you’ll sell to merchants to gain victory points. At its core, Century: Spice Road is a resource management game. You must make decisions on whether to keep or upgrade resources to get that merchant card that you want. Merchant cards are your key path to victory in the game. Using your spices to buy 5 merchant cards ends the game, and the player with the most victory points wins.

Century: Golem Edition’s mechanics are no different from the original. The game is a “retheme,” meaning that the only difference between Spice Road and Golem Edition is the artwork and core story.

(I know the diamonds are upside down here.)

In Century: Golem Edition, you collect gems (equivalent to Spice Road’s various spices) which you can use to power golems (Spice Road’s merchant victory point cards). Here’s my recommendation if you’re wondering whether to buy this game or not:

If you already own Century: Spice Road, I’d recommend against purchasing Golem Edition unless you prefer different artwork.

Golem Edition is a great retheme. I didn’t own Century: Spice Road, although I have played it a few times, so I leapt at this game when I saw it at friendly local game store (FLGS). I think that the artwork on the cards (especially the golems) and replacement of spices (which were painted, wooden cubes) with gems (which are translucent hard plastic) is for the better. I’m glad to see this resource management and trading game take on a new life with these fantasy elements.

I played this game with one other person—this game works well with two players but can support up to six.

What is Field to Ferment and why did you pair it with Golem Edition?

Just as Century: Golem Edition is a retheme of a tabletop game, Field to Ferment is a retheme, of sorts, of a beer. It’s a beer with three different variations, which are each brewed the same way but with different types of hops added! We performed a tasting of all three variations.

Field to Ferment has three variants: one made with Centennial hops, another with Simcoe, and one with Citra hops. I love all three versions of this beer. Field to Ferment is a nice, well-rounded (but on the lighter side) ale with a great finish that reflects hops from the Pacific Northwest region. It’s brewed by Fremont Brewing, which I consider to be one of the best breweries in the PNW. This beer is interesting, because the only difference in flavor is the hop variation.

Each variation brings unique notes to the taste:

  • Centennial hops have a smooth, slightly herbal taste with a clean finish
  • Simcoe—my favorite of the three—has a strong pine flavor but also with a clean finish
  • Citra hops, to me, had a similar taste to the Centennial but with interesting citrus notes

Just as Century: Golem Edition is the same game with a new skin, Field to Ferment is the same beer with a different flavor.

I get it. But why care so much about these variations on the same thing?

You can gain a lot of insight by looking at the same thing with a different perspective. Making slight variations on the same thing, whether it’s making a small change to something that you’re creating or making a minor change to your daily routine for the better, you can stimulate yourself such that you think outside of the box. To me, this can turn a fun game with a common, Indian goods and spices trading theme into a fun, whimsical game about powering friendly golems with gems.

In the same vein, hop farmers who dared to innovate on selectively cultivating their hops have produced interesting flavors which create a trademark for a great beer three times over.

Thanks for reading! Until next time…