Thursday, December 18, 2014

Game night: Fiasco -- Bad Habits

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we played a game of Fiasco using Nick Wedig's Bad Habits playset. It's taken me a while to get to writing this up, so I may have missed some details.

Our characters:
Agnes Agnew, a 20-something serving her court-mandated community service by doing bookkeeping and technical work for the convent
Sister Mary Sofia, an 81-year-old nun who is not entirely in possession of her wits
Sister Mary Tyler Moore, a 78-year-old who is blind
Sister Mary Mary, Sofia's 45-year-old half sister who was pushed into joining the convent by their father to keep an eye on her sister

The story begins with the death of Sister Mary Francis, who had been the oldest nun in the convent. Mary explains to Sofia that she is now the oldest. Sofia pushes her way through the EMTs who are taking Francis's body away in order to take the "Oldest" button that Francis wore on her habit.

Father Thomas, the priest at the convent, attempts to console Sofia despite the fact that Sofia is not actually that upset over Francis's death. Tyler criticizes her for taking the "oldest" button, but Agnes breaks up the fight.

Tyler delivers a bag of communion wafers to Agnes, who is -- unbeknownst to Tyler -- lacing them with drugs from the convent's pharmacy and selling them on the street. Agnes calms her by putting on a record of her favorite song, "Call Me Maybe."

Mary has been convalescing in the medical wing after falling and breaking her hip. Agnes rolls her out into the courtyard where the cell phone reception is better so that she can upload a video of Francis's last drug-addled moments to her popular "Crazy Nuns" YouTube channel. They discuss the sorry state of the convent's finances, and Agnes offers to get the books in order and secure a lot more donations if Mary gives her free rein over the accounts.

After Agnes leaves, Mary discovers that Pope Francis has been commenting positively on her YouTube videos. Sofia comes by and, unfamiliar with smart phone technology, declares the tiny videos to be a miracle. She insists that Mary should make some videos of her discussing her views on The Gays as a form of outreach.

Sofia excitedly tells Tyler about the miracle of the videos, but Tyler is upset since her blindness prevents her from seeing them. While in Tyler's room, Sofia sees the stash of spiked communion wafers and, assuming they had just been misplaced, takes them.

Tyler goes to talk to Father Thomas about the crisis of faith she is experiencing -- how could a loving god prevent her from seeing the miracle of the videos? Thomas is unhelpful.

At her weekly conference about her community service, Agnes convinces Father Thomas to give her more leeway over the convent's finances. He says he believes that God is working through her to bless the convent.

Agnes baits Sofia into going on a dramatic homophobic rant by talking bluntly about the date she is going on with her girlfriend. Mary films it and upload it to the YouTube account.

Sofia goes to Father Thomas to insist that he fire Agnes because of her sexual orientation, but Thomas doesn't want to rock the boat, having just expressed so much confidence in her. Sofia storms out, screaming up and down the halls "Agnes is a homosexual!"

Tyler is upset at Sofia for being disruptive.

Agnes embezzles a bunch of money from a forgotten bequest in order to put on a huge bash for Francis's funeral. She receives a press release announcing that the Pope will be attending, in order to pay a visit to the convent that was producing that great YouTube channel.

Worried about how the new publicity will reflect on the convent, Mary frantically tries to delete the video of Sofia's rant. As she's doing this, the Pope arrives and sees on her phone a video of Francis's rant in the hallway. She gets upset, but Mary convinces him to at least stay for communion.

Father Thomas asks Sofia to help give communion. She adds the bag of spiked wafers to the tray.

The spiked wafers cause pandemonium as everyone at the funeral gets very high. The drugs cure Tyler's blindness, causing her to regain her faith. The Pope starts making everyone there saints. Tyler knocks over some candles, starting a fire.

Afterward, there are many videos of the chaos uploaded to YouTube. Talking to the police, Agnes blames it all on Father Thomas.

In the end, Agnes becomes a gay rights celebrity. She is not convicted for her role in distributing the drugs, but her career is over. Mary is offered a contract for one season of a Tosh.0-style show on Comedy Central. Tyler loses her sight again, and gets excommunicated. Sofia becomes a noted anti-gay campaigner, appearing frequently on Fox News, and exposes Agnes's corruption. Eventually, Sofia has a change of heart about gay rights and renounces her old views.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Metatopia 2014 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Call Myself A Designer. PART 2

Part 3: The Monsters Focus Groups

I was underly terrified about these. Mental illness is a very personal thing and it's not really socially acceptable to talk about. And here I am, a brand new designer, wanting to tackle it head on.

I really want this game to exist, for selfish reasons. One of the best lessons I learned in DBT is that being selfish is sometimes necessary. Burning bridges with people who aren't good for your mental health, needing to take breaks, knowing your personal limitations and not budging on them. These are all things that society frowns on.

So, going on the fact that the con was so open and engaging, and that everyone in attendance was totally amazing, I took a firm stance. I'm going to be selfish and make this work.

Friday evening comes and I had just got out of James Mendez Hodes' super fun AfroFuture. I tried to take a minute and switch gears to be *serious*. Then it came to me.

Hi, my name is Cheyenne Rae Grimes, and I have anxiety and depression. If you have similar issues and wish to disclose them, fantastic, no judgement. If you don't wish to disclose this information, fantastic, no judgement.

Best choice I could have made. It set the correct tone. It created a safe space. It let the participants know that they were now in a world where such things are openly discussed. And the next hour blew my mind in all the right ways.

I gave my basic ideas (which ended up being described as wanting to punch my irrational thought in their faces) and what ideas I did have. I then asked the participants to answer why they were here at this focus group. So many ideas were tossed around; making sure there was distance between you and your monster, Nordic LARP style breaks during and aftercare worked into play, figuring out what the monsters actually were. Then, the giant mind fuck was thrown out.

What if you were the monster?


So beautiful, such a great way to make it a personal struggle.

The next night, following a lovely IGDN dinner at the tasty indian restaurant attached to the hotel, I set back up for the second night. I started out the exact same way, this time with a bit more confidence. I threw out the ideas from the previous night and this group RAN with all the ideas.

Ideas of give and take of wins and losses based on playing both your character and it's monster. Does harm taken on one side actually mean a victory on the other side? Hell, a media guide and soundtrack even began to come out. And then people followed me to a table in the bar area to keep talking about it.

You know who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it's said his heart grew 3 sizes that day? Pretty sure the only thing containing my heart was my rib cage. Thanks so much to every member for these focus groups, with every fiber of my being. I have so many ideas, so many things to play with, and I am fully committed to making this game a reality.

This may seem like a slightly brief writeup, but this was more of a personal perspective shift for me than just a write up. I also needed to take 4 days after returning home to write this out. This was one of the best emotional experiences I've had in quite awhile.

In my last post, I will wrap up the playtest and panels I did and who this con means for Glittercats in the future. Thanks for baring with me, which is just a really big deal.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Metatopia 2014 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Call Myself A Designer. PART 1

(This post is a bunch of brutal honesty from inside my head. I'm pretty good at writing out the anxiety that I feel internally.) 

Part 1: The Social

I arrived on Thursday evening and was terrified. Sure, there were people I had met before but I was *alone*. My GC partner in crime was in Pittsburgh and sadly, my two best friends who make up Growling Door Games were unable to attend, so alone I went.

Now, I've never been one to get starstruck. I've dealt with famous people before in other jobs before, mainly theater. But there were going to be people there who wrote some of the games that I just love to play. Then my ride arrives from just picking up Cam Banks and I do my best to not fret. I had met him at Gen Con earlier this year and I had no need to worry. See, this was my first con from inside the industry. I had always been a fan, a volunteer, a friend of the designer, just a gamer. Now, I have two games that my name will be on and I'm a member of a group of designers. To say I felt like an imposter is a wild understatement.

I'm naturally a rampant extrovert when I feel like I know what I'm doing. This was a weekend of huge steps into the unknown and all I could do was hope that it wouldn't break me.

We get to the hotel and I meet a few people who I know from online and settle into finding people to relate to. Robert Bohl gets my first shout out of the con for helping me by being the first person to engage with me. The evening proceeds, more and more people are introduced to me and I flex my schmoozing muscles for the first time in quite a while and, of course, I'm a rock star at it. In theater, that's about 25% of the job. Be it with other professionals, donors or audience members. So, this is old territory that just needs an update in my mind.

The evening progresses into a huge amount of fun, putting faces and voices to IGDN members and writers of games and systems that I love. Ran into Sarah Richardson pretty quickly into the evening and was very glad to find a comrade in feeling slightly awkward in the newness of this all. Everyone was excited. The feeling in the room was electric and I at least got the sense of even if I turn out to suck as a designer, I would at least meet a lot of awesome people.

Once the big board was up and the room was open, I went to do what I had been dreading: look to see if anyone had actually signed up for any of my games. Three were full and the last one only had one seat left. I nearly pissed myself. I took pictures of each sheet and sent them to Stentor as I was doing a crazy happy dance.

Part 2: The Kitten Lasers Playtests

Friday rolls around and my first playtest of Kitten Lasers was at 11am. I made myself eat breakfast and get there early to set up. We jumped into character creation and it was so nice to have actual people there to prove that somethings were broken. It's very hard to see that on your own and sometimes asking friends to point out flaws is a bit hard. There were things that stood up, somethings that crumbled.

And it was OKAY.

It made me happy to have players who were happy to be there show me what needed to be fixed. Everyone loved the theme, loved character creations, was happy to give ideas how to make the mechanics flow better. It was a great atmosphere.

On Sunday, I did my second playtest. I went ahead and changed all the things that fell apart. We got through character creation, bidding, the first scene and the second bidding phase. Everything I had changed now worked and I got to actually see what else needed fixed. I can't even express how grateful I am for this experience.

We have a game. That will work.

That people want to play.

(This is a picture of the players of the very first playtest. Thanks so much to you all!)


I will continue on about the rest of my impressions of the con later. This was just such an emotional experience for me that I still need processing time.

Look forward to the dramatic conclusion!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Greetings and Salutations!

It seems it's about time to introduce myself.

Hi there, I'm Cheyenne Rae Grimes. *waves*

I am the newest member of Glittercats and I am beyond thrilled to be apart of this awesome company. Stentor and I have been incredibly close for the last 4 years now. We met through playing a game (well, kickball to be exact) and we have been gaming together ever since.

About myself. West Virginian by birth, currently an Ohio resident. I originally went to school for theater and work as a stage manager for several companies in Georgia and Florida. Due to unforeseeable health issues, I gave up the profession and am now going back to school for psychology. I love cats, contra dancing, giggling as I beat the pants off of you at heavy strategy board games, knitting, karaoke and being overall adorable.

I grew up loving video and board games, but didn't start playing RPGs until I was in college. Around 2009, I began playing any indie narrative game I could get my hands on and started attending cons. For a few years, I helped run the board game meet up aspect of Obscure Games (now City of Play) in Pittsburgh.

Moving to Cleveland has been a huge step for me in becoming a game designer. I started GMing games again, mainly through Games on Demand and got involved with IGDN through working at cons. I also just became an Ambassador for Double Exposure's Envoy program. All of these things are incredible and it's amazing to get the opportunity to work with all these great companies and the people associated with them.

Soon, I will have a Fate core hack published in the Fate Codex with Nicole Winchester. Besides working on two titles for Glittercats, I will also be working with Michelle Lyons-McFarland on A Comedy in Five Acts, the follow up to her wonderful A Tragedy in Five Acts.

Gaming has been such a fantastic step back into the world of creativity for me. It's a well needed return and I so look forward to where it takes me. I will be attending Metatopia this weekend and can't wait to report back on what I was able to take in.

So super excited to be on the Glittercats team!

(Here's a picture of me schooling a kitten. Enjoy!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Beards Not Bombs: A party game of protest slogans

We've all seen protest signs in the format [good thing] not [bad thing]! We also know that activist groups tend to be fractious, with splinter groups objecting to the main group's framing of the issue. In this game, you'll play improbable activists coming up with clever protest slogans.

Flickr/Thomas Anderson

Using a radically non-hierarchical democratic process, pick a starting player. That player should declare "I'm a [cause] activist. [A] not Bombs!" Another player should then jump in and declare "Well, I'm a [different cause] activist. [B] not [A]!" A third player would then say "well, I'm a [yet another cause] activist. [C] not [B]!" The causes for which you are activists can be as ridiculous and fanciful as you like, and the slogans are likely to become increasingly absurd as the game progresses.

The most important rule is that the two items in the slogan must either alliterate or rhyme. So the first player could be (among other things) a facial hair activist chanting "Beards not Bombs," or a mothers' rights activist chanting "Moms not Bombs." Alliteration should alternate with rhyming -- so the second slogan could be an eccentrics' rights activist ("Weirds not Beards!") or a pro-condiment activist ("Mustard not Moms").

There is no winner in this game -- just play until you get tired of it.

Monday, August 18, 2014

GenCon GM report 3: Fiasco -- Science Comics

The third GenCon game was another round of Fiasco. This time we used Nick Wedig's Science Comics playset.

Not this one, the evil one.

Our characters were:

  • Sir Captain Super Tight Pants, a superhero with the power to create clones of himself
  • Sir Captain Super Tight Pants 3, one of SCSTP's clones
  • Thuddy, the son of the evil Dr. Thunder who doesn't know who his mom is
  • Tear Duct, one of Dr. Thunder's minions
  • Static Cling, another of Dr. Thunder's minions, who SCSTP has declared his archnemesis (not realizing he's just a minion)

Our story begins as SCSTP-3 is driving his getaway van, having just stolen the Unobtainium that is necessary to power Dr. Thunder's weather control device. He is roaring down the highway through the Arizona desert outside the trailer park where Dr. Thunder has his lair, when he runs into construction and traffic grinds to a halt. This allows Thuddy, Tear Duct, and Static Cling to approach on mopeds. SCSTP-3 tries to escape through the sun roof, but Tear Duct's power of inducing weeping causes him to lose his footing and drop the Unobtainium into an irrigation ditch beside the highway.

SCSTP meets up with Static Cling at a cafe to brag about having defeated him, but Static Cling reveals to him that he has more Unobtainium.

Static Cling installs more Unobtainium in the weather control device. Dr. Thunder stops by to make sure the device will be operational for the church picnic on Sunday, as he wishes to make the weather mild and sunny.

Tear Duct worries that Dr. Thunder is going over to the side of Good. She sets the weather control device to make it rain on the church picnic.

Thuddy goes to the picnic, having been told by his dad that he would finally get to meet his mother there. But the picnic is rained out, so he doesn't get to meet her.

SCSTP-3 calls SCSTP from the traffic jam and swears that he has the Unobtainium. SCSTP concludes that Static Cling must have more Unobtainium, and therefore he needs to organize another mission to steal it. SCSTP-3 agrees to do so, as soon as he can get to a place to turn around on the highway.

SCSTP goes to meet Dr. Thunder at the picnic to accept his promised conversion to Good. But the rain, and the fact that Dr. Thunder isn't at the picnic after all (he's back in his lair trying to find the weather control device so he can fix it), convince him Dr. Thunder was lying about his conversion.

Static Cling attempts to fix the weather control device, but his static powers make it malfunction, causing snow. Tear Duct is happy about this, and puts on her heavy fur villain cloak that she's always wanted to be able to wear. SCSTP-3 spots Static Cling from the highway, and steals the weather control device from him. Thuddy sees SCSTP-3 running to his car with the device, and blames him for raining out the picnic.

Dr. Thunder assembles his minions to demand an explanation. He blames Tear Duct for the weather control device's malfunctions, and de-minionizes her.

Thuddy looks through his father's contacts and finds the phone number for one "Sally Lightning," who he suspects is is mother.

SCSTP-3 gets stuck in traffic again. He pulls up next to a police car, and the officer recognizes the helpfully labeled "Weather Control Device" in the passenger seat. The police don't buy the "costume party" excuse, and they lock SCSTP-3 up.

SCSTP assembles a team of clones to attack Static Cling's lair. Just as they are about to depart, they get a phone call from SCSTP-3 asking them to come to the jail to bail him out. So they head there instead.

Static Cling sneaks into the police station and steals the weather control device from the evidence room.

Tear Duct files an anonymous tip to the police, blaming SCSTP and his clones for the weather mayhem. The police arrest SCSTP and the clones as they arrive at the station.

Thuddy calls up his mother, who hangs up on him.

In the end, SCSTP-3 takes the blame for the weather problems and serves a long prison sentence. SCSTP gets off on the weather charges, but an ethics panel orders him to stop using his cloning powers. Static Cling is apprehended with the stolen weather control device and goes to jail as well. Tear Duct tries to build her own weather control device, but it goes wrong and causes a huge drought, which (since she's still wearing the fur cloak) causes her to die of heat stroke. Rejected by his mother, Thuddy sinks into a deep dispair and takes to watching anime gerbil porn to deal with his trauma.

GenCon GM report 2: Fiasco -- Touring Rock Band II

The second game I ran at Games on Demand for GenCon was Fiasco on Sunday afternoon. We used the Touring Rock Band II playset. Our characters were:

  • Dennis "Grizzly" Bencham, a drummer who was forced out of his band due to a drug problem and wants to re-join now that he's been through rehab.
  • Jörm Svenson, a failed rocker and Dennis's rehab buddy, who is helping him care for Vlad, the live grizzly bear that Dennis used to use in his stage shows.
  • Alan Perkins, DDS, a veterinary dentist who has agreed to go in with Jörm on a scheme to market gold dental grills for large predators.
  • Steven "The Spaceman" Stevenson, a much younger and much more talented drummer who was hired by the band to replace Dennis. He has a pet tiger, Tony, that he uses on stage.
  • Jacky LeGrand, the dissolute heir to the LeGrand Records company who has just lost the contract with Steven's band.

Our story begins at Starbucks, where Dennis and Jacky both work to make ends meet. In between making coffees, Jacky is looking through a huge stack of paternity test results to find out how many more child support payments he'll need to make out of the dwindling LeGrand Records fortune. Steven comes in, and Jacky tries to convince him to bring his band back to LeGrand Records. Dennis overhears this and gets upset, as he had hoped Jacky could pull some strings and get him back into the band. Jacky reassures Dennis that they're still bros, and that he's coming to Dennis's big party on Friday.

Trying to sabotage his replacement's career, Dennis sneaks into Steven's mansion and feeds poisoned meat to Tony. Steven confronts him and chases him off, but not before Tony has gotten very sick.

Jörm pays a visit to Alan to discuss their business deal. The scheme is running low on funds, but Jörm is sure it's just about to pay off. Alan agrees to try to get some of his dentist friends to buy in so that they can afford more gold for test grills.

Steven meets up with Alan at Starbucks for a consultation about Tony's health. While there, Steven catches sight of one of the paternity tests with his name on it. Before he can read the whole thing, Alan and Dennis get into a confrontation over the fact that Dennis "stole" Alan's wife. The manager has to come out and ask everyone to leave.

Steven's curiosity is piqued by the paternity test, as his mother had always told him he was the result of a virgin birth. He goes to the clinic, and after paying a long string of fees, gets a copy of the test showing that Alan is his father.

Jacky realizes he's not going to be able to make all of these child support payments. He needs to get some cash fast. Browsing through Craigslist, he finds an ad for an investment opportunity in making gold dental grills for large predators. After exchanging a few emails with Jörm, who assures him he will see at least double his money before the 6th of the next month, Jacky PayPals him his last $65,000.

Dennis goes to Jörm to get some drugs to give to Jacky at the party, in order to get him high enough that he'll sign paperwork giving him a recording contract. In exchange for the drugs, Dennis agrees to kidnap Tony as a test subject, so that the grill business can expand from bears into big cats.

Jörm tells Alan that he has a test tiger lined up. Alan is excited, since as a result of his meeting with Steven he has already come up with the idea of doing grills for tigers too. Jörm gives Alan the $65,000 he got from Jacky, in exchange for horse tranquilizers that Dennis can use on Tony and Jacky.

Alan returns to Starbucks to get more info on Dennis, now that he knows where the man who stole his wife works. Dennis refuses to serve him, so Jacky takes the order, and Alan gives his name as "Alan Perkins, DDS." The name sounds familiar, and Jacky matches it to one of the names on the paternity tests. When he gives Alan his drink, he also slips him a copy of the paternity test showing he's Steven's father.

Steven brings Tony to Alan's clinic, where Jörm uses Vlad to demonstrate the grill concept. But Alan and Steven are distracted as they realize that they have both seen the paternity test results. Steven calls his mother to confirm it, but she denies having slept with Alan.

Jacky goes to Dennis's party, where he finds that the only other person there is Jörm. They get to talking, and Jacky mentions this great investment opportunity in large predator grills that he found on Craigslist. Unaware of how Scandinavian names are pronounced, he doesn't connect the "Jörm" he was emailing with to the "Yorm" he's talking to now, so they both conclude that there is a competitor out there -- Jörm assumes it's Alan, trying to cut him out of the profits. Dennis gives Jacky a drink spiked with horse tranquilizers, but he overdid it, and Jacky passes out before he can sign the contract.

Dennis successfully kidnaps Tony, and brings a sedated Tony and Jacky to meet Jörm and Alan at the clinic. Jörm accuses Alan of going behind his back to start his own grill business. Dennis gets into a confrontation when he realizes that the dentist in this scheme is the guy who has been accusing him of stealing his wife, and he drives off with Tony and Jacky (as well as an un-sedated Vlad).

Jörm and Alan agree to try to ambush Dennis when he arrives at Steven's house to return Tony.

Steven comes out to find Jörm and Alan hiding in the tiger cage. They tell him that they have taken Tony to a "mobile clinic," and that he'll be returned, fitted with a grill, in no time.

Dennis arrives in the middle of the conversation. Jacky wakes up partially from his drugged state, and panics at seeing Vlad. He jumps on a mostly-awake Tony and rides him into the house. They crash through various rooms, picking up a guitar on the way, and come flying out of a second-story window. This is the most metal thing any of the neighbors have ever seen.

In the end, Jacky ends up in prison for not keeping up with his child support payments. Dennis goes to jail as well, and when he gets out he finds that Vlad is dead, so he takes up busking near Steven's house. Jörm gives up on the grills scheme and goes on to try to sell Strong Arm Lances exercises equipment at inappropriate professional conventions. Alan goes back to mundane dentistry. And Steven is mauled by Vlad and Tony and ends up in a nursing facility on a constant stream of pain meds for life.

GenCon GM report 1: Dread

Thank you to everyone who came by and bought a copy of Bunny Money Gunny at GenCon! The game got a lot of positive feedback, and I'll be announcing its future soon.

The President tries to start a nuclear war ...

In between hustling my own game, I ran a few RPGs for Games on Demand. The first was on Saturday, when we played a round of Dread: Cold War edition. My notes are a bit sketchy, but I'll try to give game mechanics in [brackets] to the best of my memory. A "pull" is to remove one block from the tower, a "no pull" is a choice to give up rather than risking having to make a pull.

Our cast of characters was:

  • The President: Harrison Ford, an actor-turned politician with secret Communist sympathies
  • The General: Isaac Westin, an ex-hippie who moved up the ranks by exploiting his contacts on the enemy side to which he was feeding classified information
  • The Journalist: Levar Burton, who witnessed the president kill a man in cold blood years ago
  • The CIA Agent: Nathan Malcolm Reynolds, a double agent protecting these great United States of America
  • The Groundskeeper: Joe Young, who gave the family fortune to his disabled sister
  • The Hippie: Wall Flower, a member of the peace movement with a "nuts not nukes" agenda

The story began with the Hippie protesting outside the gates of Camp David. When some mechanical noises interrupt the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves, she goes to investigate [pull]. She finds that several armored military vehicles painted with a hammer and sickle had driven up the access road to Camp David. She goes back to warn the guards at the gate that the communists were coming -- to which the guard dismissively replies "you're already here."

... and the Journalist tries to stop it.

The CIA Agent happens by at this moment, and since the Hippie had been a reliable informant in the past, he instructs the guards to let the hippies inside [pull], and goes to find the President.

Meanwhile, the Journalist had been waiting outside the command center bunker for hours for a scheduled interview with the President. A panicked staffer bursts out of the command center and asks the Journalist to help her find the President, because there was an emergency phone call. The Journalist, CIA Agent, and staffer all discover the President [pull] out walking his dog (a big shaggy dog named Chewie). They return to the bunker, where the President is told by the top Admiral back in Washington that Soviet nuclear submarines had slipped through the US's defenses and appeared outside five major cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, -- and the line goes dead. The President takes a big swig from his father's lucky silver flask, but not an incapacitating one [pull].

The Groundskeeper catches sight of a helicopter painted with a hammer and sickle descending over one of the fields, where the General was relaxing. The Groundskeeper turns on the sprinklers just in time for the helicopter door to open [pull]. Six Soviet soldiers and a man in a suit with a giant briefcase emerge and immediately get soaked. The Hippie sees the helicopter as well, and slips away from the detention cell at the guard station [pull] to come to the field.

When the President, CIA Agent, and Journalist arrive, they are addressed by the man in the suit. He says he has come to make a deal. If the US agrees to immediately withdraw all of its troops from abroad and dismantle its nuclear arsenal, he will call the submarine captains on his giant Cold-War-era satellite phone and give them the secret code to call off their attack. But if the submarines don't receive the code from him in one hour, they will nuke five American cities.

The President turns to the General and asks "We can spare five cities, right?" The CIA Agent sounds the alarm [pull], calling all support staff to hide in the command bunker. The Hippie comes out of the woods (not wanting to be shot by jittery Soviet soldiers [no pull]), and is hustled of to the bunker by the Secret Service [no pull].

Meanwhile, the Groundskeeper sneaks around back of the helicopter [pull] and gets in through the door on the far side. Finding the controls similar to his riding mower [pull], he takes off and hovers several yards in the air above the Soviets.

The President and the General initially decide to threaten a nuclear counterstrike. The General finds the Big Red Button [pull], which is attached to its own satellite phone connection. The CIA Agent quickly talks them into an alternative plan. His files show [pull] that the Soviet leader who is here is Alexei Dmitrovich, a dedicated Party man who has two adult sons and an estranged wife living in Leningrad. If they can get the phones reconnected, he can have his agents in Russia kidnap the Soviet leader's family to use as leverage.

The Journalist volunteers to help, as he has extensive skills with electronics and computers. He and the CIA Agent manage to sneak out of Camp David [pull] and find the cut telephone wires right under the noses of the troops in the armored vehicles, who are distracted doing the crossword puzzle in the back of Pravda [pull]. They reconnect the phones [pull].

Returning to Camp David, the CIA Agent calls his contacts [pull], and in 15 minutes they have Dmitrovich's three family members [three pulls] in custody.

Meanwhile, the support staff in the security bunker is rife with rumors about what's going on. The emerging consensus is that the President is a Communist agent, and that he's meeting with a Soviet leader to sell out the USA. They whip themselves into a frenzy and find an unlocked weapons cabinet to arm themselves [pull]. The Hippie makes her case to the army Private [pull] and Secret Service agent [pull] guarding the bunker, the latter of whom recalls that he did see a book by a "Marx" on the President's bedside table. They all march toward the field. The secret service agent convinces his counterpart guarding the President to join the rebellion as well {pull].

The General decides he wants to cut a deal with the Soviets while they wait for confirmation of the CIA's capture of the Soviet leader's family. He approaches the Soviets, carrying the Big Red Button. He gives them the password he used to use in his days feeding intel to the enemy [failed pull -- tower collapses]. Unfortunately the Soviets mis-hear him, and so they shoot him dead.

The Soviet leader announces that he has changed the terms of the deal. Because the General tried to assault them and a team of crack commandos has apparently stolen their helicopter, they demand that the US give up Alaska as well in order to call off the nuclear attack. The CIA Agent makes a counter-offer: Call off the attack, or we will execute your family. The Soviet leader decides that while he could spare his ex-wife, his sons have promising careers ahead of them [pull]. So he agrees to call off the attacks -- if he can get through in time, as the hour is nearly up.

He calls the sub in New York in time [pull]. He calls the sub in Los Angeles in time [pull]. He calls the sub Baltimore in time [pull]. He calls the sub in New Orleans in time [pull].

At this moment, the Groundskeeper decides to try to land the helicopter [failed pull -- tower collapses]. Unfortunately for him, landing is harder than taking off. While swerving to try to avoid landing on the Soviet soldiers, the helicopter unbalances and crashes into the ground, killing him. The main rotor breaks off and comes tumbling toward the Soviet leader, who is dialing the last sub, outside Houston. The CIA Agent sacrifices himself [deliberately knocking over the tower] to push the Soviet leader to safety, and he makes the call in time [pull].

The President now decides he doesn't trust the Soviets, and that he should launch a preemptive nuclear strike anyway. He slips away from the staff mob [pull] and grabs the Big Red Button from the General's corpse. The Journalist spots him and dives in to stop him. [Because the tower had just been reset and this was the climactic moment, I had the President and Journalist simply play Jenga until one of them toppled the tower.] In the end, the Journalist seized control of the Big Red Button and removed the President and General's activation keys, averting nuclear war. The President's malfeasance had now been amply documented, and he was sure to be impeached.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Building vs. Upgrading, and a game called Scorched Earth

Lots of games are about building. Over the course of the game, you're creating a sort of engine that generates the conditions for victory. You start out with a few simple functions that you can perform, and as time goes on you add more and better functions. From a single corn field to a plantation processing coffee and sugar in Puerto Rico. From agriculture to nuclear power in Innovation. From a monster to an even scarier monster in King of Tokyo.

The Fire of Moscow (source)
What if we turned the building idea on its head? A while back my wife inspired me with an idea for a game called Scorched Earth. In this game, you would be a commander in charge of a slice of Russian territory as Napoleon's army advanced. Your goal would be to destroy as much as possible of your territory's assets, with the game ending when Napoleon's army starves or is forced to turn back from lack of food.

Thematically, Scorched Earth seemed intriguing. But building is a common game mechanic for a reason. It gives a game a sense of motion and purpose. Players feel like they're accomplishing something and creating something. When you're building, you're going somewhere. You're excited about the next piece you want to add and the steps you plan to take to get it.

The momentum and narrative arc associated with building suggest some problems with going the other way. I found this to be a problem with another game idea I had, a "deck destroying" game called The Fall of Greenland. In TFoG, players would begin with a big deck of cards representing elements of a Norse settlement, which they would gradually lose as calamities hit. Like Scorched Earth, the goal was to have the best stuff remaining when time ran out. In playtesting, though, TFoG fell flat. Strategically choosing what to eliminate from your deck wasn't as interesting as choosing what to add to your deck.

As common as building is, many games that seem to be about building are perhaps better thought of as being about upgrading. Building makes things bigger, while upgrading makes them better. The deck building genre, I would argue, is -- despite the name -- as much about upgrading as about building in the sense I'm using the term here. And that's revealed by the importance of being able to get rid of your early components. Dominion has a variety of cards that let you trash a card -- often, but not always, in exchange for a better card. Quarriors lets you cull a die whenever you score.

Why would you trash a perfectly good copper card in Dominion, or a perfectly serviceable assistant in Quarriors? Because the best strategy is not to build up a huge deck, but to make an efficient and streamlined deck. In these two games, you only have access to a random sample of your deck at any one time. So low-value components just dilute your ability to access your better ones. Simple components are useful only until they can be replaced with more powerful ones.

So let's apply that to Scorched Earth. Instead of just destroying your capacity, perhaps your real aim is to consolidate. If you can build a triple-size factory back in Smolensk, then you can afford to tear down the three smaller factories in Vilno, Minsk, and Mogilev (relevant map). The advance of Napoleon's army provides a clear incentive to streamline and trim the fat from your game engine.

I don't know that I'll ever develop Scorched Earth as a full-fledged game -- the theme is certainly outside my core competency, though I suppose it could be rethemed. But if nothing else it's a useful design exercise.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kickstarter bonanza -- Vici and A Duel Betwixt Us

The gears at Game Salute have cranked away and finally spat out a couple games that ran Kickstarters some time ago, landing them on my doorstep last week.

Vici is a two-player battle game, in which players command ancient armies to attack each other's camp. The designer and artist, Ben Shulman, is a friend and game design collaborator, so I've gotten to see a number of iterations of this game as it made its way toward publication. It's very cool to finally see a manufactured copy with heavy chipboard pieces and so on. The published version highlights the good work he did on designing the ergonomics of the game -- it feels clean and intuitive to play.

Vici has a nice balance of strategy and luck. There are good strategic choices to be made about where and how to deploy units, but the outcome of their confrontation is not a sure thing. The unique powers of each unit add a lot of depth. The powers are well-designed to work together -- each type of unit plays off the others, such as having special strengths when battling certain other units or being able to initiate chains of battles in certain ways. The luck element makes it hard for one player to entirely dominate the game, though it can be difficult to come back from a deficit.

A Duel Betwixt Us is also a two-player battle game, but with a very different theme. In this game, players are Victorian gentlemen engaged in contests of strength to win ladies' favor. You employ miners to produce precious ore, which you then use to purchase and construct weapons and armor, as well as carry out various extra actions. Once equipped, you can challenge your opponent to a duel with various specific rules (swords only, no armor, etc).

The art for A Duel Betwixt us is absolutely gorgeous. It has a perfect humorously old-timey look to suit the feel and appeal of the game. This is one of those games that may be worth buying just for the art. The gameplay, on the other hand, was a bit disappointing. Most of the time in the game was spent building up the weapons for the type of duel you wanted to declare. Once a duel was declared, the outcome was almost entirely foreordained -- it was easy to pick out a duel type for which you were well-prepared while your opponent was not, and the various surprise tricks that could be played added only a little uncertainty. Conducting the duel merely consisted of counting up the attack and defense points for each player. Our favorite duel was the "throw everything" duel, because it involved a back-and-forth series of choices (what do you throw, what do you hang on to) that shaped the course of the fight. It was also the zaniest, which was important because I was expecting a much zanier game based on the theme. As a final note, the box for this game was far too large -- a few small decks of cards in a box nearly a foot square. I blame Game Salute for this particular issue, as the box is the exact same size as the one for Vici (which fit it better) and several other GS games I've seen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Cards for Bunny Money Gunny

We'll have an "early edition," pre-Kickstarter version of Bunny Money Gunny available at the Indie Game Developers Network's Indie Game Showcase at GenCon next month. Check out the great card art by Cynthia Lee!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Not every game problem can be solved with game mechanics

I think board game designers would learn a lot from playing a few rounds of Fiasco.

Fiasco is a story-focused one-session roleplaying game, in which you collaboratively tell a story about a wacky heist gone bad. In various sessions I've been a tea importer who dressed up as a mall Santa to destroy my competition, a cat who tried to convince the other cats to start a nuclear war with Russia, and a severed hand trying to stop my brother's clones from winning a bowling competition.

The key thing about Fiasco is that there is no win condition. By the rules, no individual can lose, nor can the group as a whole lose. Certainly there are end conditions, which determine whether your character's life turns out good or bad at the end of the story -- but it would be dysfunctional and counterproductive to the game for someone to treat those as "win conditions," organizing their approach to playing the game around achieving a specific sort of ending for their character. The rules of the game exist to support a group of people in doing something fun together.

Too often, I think that board game designers become fixated on the mechanical aspects of games. Don't get me wrong -- having solid mechanics in a game is essential. It's important to think about what kind of strategies your mechanics make possible and reward, and to adjust them if they produce dysfunctional results. But there's a limit to how much game mechanics can do. Not every problem in a game can be solved through game mechanics. If we get fixated on the idea that any undesirable strategy must be prevented or severely disincentivized within the mechanics of the game, we can lose sight of the larger picture.

A classic example of this issue is the problem of "captaining" in cooperative games -- the phenomenon of one player taking over and directing other players' moves, creating an essentially solitaire game. There are some cooperative games that inherently rule out captaining, as a natural consequence of their core gameplay (Hanabi does this beautifully). Others tack on rules to try to exclude captaining by fiat (e.g. forbidding players to explicitly name the cards in their hand, as in Shadows Over Camelot). But I've had an enjoyable time playing actual solitaire games of Pandemic and Forbidden Island -- something that would be impossible if they were mechanically captain-proofed. And I've had fun playing them with people I trusted not to captain, in social contexts that discouraged captaining. We didn't need something in the rules to force us to play nice.

Different groups will play the same game in different ways. The designer can't, and shouldn't, exercise complete control over the gameplay experience. A big part of playing most games is the informal social negotiation that occurs around the question of which strategies are legal but jerky. For example, in a recent game of Keyflower, we agreed that while it was legal to win two turn-order tiles (thus getting two ships and leaving another player with none), that it was kind of a jerk move and would be treated as such. When one player proceeded to bid on two turn order tiles, the rest of us stepped up to stop him, even when it might not have been a strictly optimal move in terms of maximizing personal victory points. We were all invested in maintaining the spirit of the game. (I should add that the person bidding on multiple turn order tiles wasn't doing it to be a jerk -- the move was taken, in context, as a sort of teasing.)

Bringing this back to Fiasco, someone could be a jerk in Fiasco. They could refuse to go along with the story, they could nitpick the allocation of white and black dice at the ends of scenes, or they could simply "check out" during the game. I've had all these things happen, and they make the game less fun. There's nothing in the rules that prohibits this kind of behavior.

The overarching goal in playing a game -- even more than racking up victory points -- is having fun together. And no game mechanic can guarantee success at that.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Updated Fiasco: You Are A Cat playset

I finally figured out the correct fonts and made a cool cover image for You Are A Cat, my Fiasco playset about being a cat. Download it here!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Game Chef 2014: Spy Party

A hand with red nails holds a bottle of nail polish bearing a hammer and sickle, with the text SPY PARTY

This year I decided to take a shot at Game Chef, a 10-day game design contest. This year the theme was "there is no book," and the ingredients (of which 2-3 should be included in your game) were absorb, wild, sickle, and glitter. My entry is titled "Spy Party."

Spy Party is a one-shot RPG in which players are communist (hammer and sickle) spies who have come to a makeover party in suburban Washington DC in hopes of exchanging intel with their undercover contacts. They must absorb fragments of knowledge from other players to figure out the USA's secret plans and weaknesses, while keeping up their cover of frivolous gossip and trying out glittery nail polish. Players paint each others' nails different colors to indicate levels of trust, while certain color combinations trigger in-game events. At the end, the colors of players' nails allow them to determine each others' fate (e.g. who is put on trial for espionage? Who is rewarded by your home country?)

Download Spy Party

Saturday, May 17, 2014


On a whim I created a Fiasco playset titled YOU ARE A CAT. We tried out a three-player game that went well.

Our story began with nearly-identical fluffy tortoiseshell cats Robin (male) and Arthur (female) stuffed into the same cat carrier on the way from the animal shelter to their new forever home. Their new human had intended to adopt Arthur, but due to a mix-up at the shelter, both cats had gotten put in the carrier. They arrive home and the human -- a single woman -- discovers that she now has two cats. Robin decides to act extra adorable to try to convince the human to keep him and not send him back to the shelter. He's in luck, as the human is unable to get through to the shelter on the phone to complain about the mix-up.

Arthur soon discovers a third cat in the house -- this one also a nearly identical fluffy tortie -- emerging from the dryer vent. The new cat introduces himself as Killer, Robin's future self come back to warn his past self against making a grave mistake. He demonstrates his future knowledge by telling Arthur not to eat a certain tasty-looking houseplant, as it is poisonous. The human discovers Killer and assumes he is Robin.

Later in the day, Arthur is curled up in the human's lap being adorable when Robin enters the room. Arthur tells Robin about Killer, but Robin is unconvinced. To try to prove Killer wrong, he eats a big bite of the tasty looking plant -- and immediately pukes all over the floor.

The next day, Robin is sitting in the human's lap while she does some work on the computer. He sees her log into something labeled "TOP SECRET HIGH SECURITY," and the screen shows "Nuclear Launch Code: password123." Robin bats at the keyboard, accidentally initiating the launch sequence, which the human quickly cancels and then shoos Robin off her lap.

Killer confronts Robin, explaining that he is Robin's future self come back from a terrible post-apocalyptic dystopia with a dire warning. Killer insists that Robin should forget all about the nuclear codes he saw. Robin denies this, and loudly proclaims "password123! password123!"

Arthur wanders by and overhears the nuclear code and asks Killer about it (though she can't remember whether it's "password 123," "password 456," or "password321"). Arthur completely believes Killer's story and becomes very concerned about what Robin might do with the nuclear codes.

That night, Robin goes back on the computer to research what "nuclear launch codes" are. He Googles a bunch of information about the Cold War, and -- lacking any knowledge of historical and geopolitical context -- becomes convinced that Russia is located just around the bend in the road that they can see from the front window of the house. He is also certain that Russia intends to attack and destroy them, and that Killer is a Russian double agent.

Killer offers to take Robin and Arthur around the bend to show them that it is not, in fact, Russia, and to convince them of the terrible fate that awaits them if they do not forget about the nuclear launch codes. They all slip out through the dryer vent and walk around the bend. They meet another cat, named Coby, who knows Killer. Robin accuses Coby of being a Russian agent and asks him how to spell his name in Cyrillic (to which Coby replies "spell?"). Robin sees a teddy bear inside one of the houses on the new street and takes this as proof that this is in fact Russia, since Russia's symbol is a bear.

Killer leads the other two cats through a crack in the fence into a junkyard in order to show them what kind of future awaits them. He kills a mouse, to show what they'll have to do for food after the nuclear war. Arthur is worried because the mouse has no sauce on it (unlike good wet canned food). Robin dismisses the concern, because he finds an old pizza box with cheese stuck to the lid.

Back at the house, Robin decides to launch a preemptive strike on Russia. He gets on the computer and starts logging in to the nuclear launch site. Just before he is able to enter the launch password, Killer chews through the computer cord, shutting it down. He runs away as the human -- hearing the ruckus -- comes downstairs to find Robin typing on a dead computer. She takes him upstairs and shuts him in her room to prevent further mischief.

Killer talks to Arthur about a more long-term solution to Robin's insistence on starting a nuclear war. They decide that they can get him in trouble by peeing on everything, since that is a male cat behavior. They pee everywhere in the house -- except in the bedroom where Robin is sleeping.

When the human comes out in the morning, she initially blames Arthur. However, Robin emerges and takes the pee as a sign that he should pee everywhere too. The human gets upset and takes both Robin and Arthur back to the shelter. The shelter personnel figure out that Arthur was the cat she meant to adopt, and they take Robin back.

In the end, Robin is given several rounds of gross medicine for his urinary "problem," but is then adopted by a new family. They do not have access to the nuclear launch system, but he discovers that "password123" gets him into their bank account, Amazon account, eBay, etc. With their finances ruined by Robin's meddling, they are forced to send him back to the shelter.

Arthur lives a nice life with the human. He overhears Killer telling Coby about how he tricked these other cats into believing he was from the future, and so Arthur drops a flower pot on him. The human discovers Killer and takes him to the shelter, where he is promptly adopted by a nice family.

Monday, March 10, 2014

RPG night: A Tragedy In Five Acts

Tonight we played A Tragedy in Five Acts. This was a first for everyone at the table -- I knew of the game because the designer is a friend, but I had never played it.

Our setting was a farm in Quebec in the late 1960s. The Canadian government has decided to try to beat the Soviets and Americans to the moon, and to that end has funded the building of a rocket.

Our characters were:
Rosie, the Daughter -- a competent engineer whose talents are overlooked because she is a young woman in a low position in the project hierarchy. (Fatal flaw: Fortune's Fool)
Dougal McGuire, the Lover -- an aspiring astronaut whose true love is the Moon. (Fatal flaw: Arrogant)
Farmer Pierre, the Foil -- on whose land the Canadian space program is building its rocket. (Fatal flaw: Jealous)
Werner von Grupp, the Parent -- a German janitor who pretended to be a rocket engineer so he would be pardoned at the end of World War II. (Fatal flaw: Ambitious)
Clarence Bishop III, the Authority -- an overly-trusting government bureaucrat overseeing the space program. (Fatal flaw: Overly Trusting)

With appearances by Frank the real engineer, Jacques the cow, and Francois the cow.


Scene i: Farmer Pierre comes to the rocket-building site to inquire what is happening, as he is afraid his cows will fall into the giant hole that the rocket team is digging. Clarence arrives to check on the project, concerned about where the government's money has gone. He is given an order for steel tubes in a confusing mix of metric and imperial units that suggests they have no idea what they are doing.

Scene ii: Rosie and Dougal have lunch next to the tanks of corrosive acid that are being used in the rocket construction. Rosie insists that Dougal needs to read the astronaut training manual she has prepared for him, but he demurs.

Scene iii: Werner calls Pierre into his suspiciously opulent office. Because Pierre has some practical engineering experience from repairing his farm equipment, Werner wants him to join the rocket team. Appeals to patriotism fail, but Pierre is convinced by the opportunity to defraud the government of more money.


Scene i: Clarence goes to check on the receipts for the project, and instead comes across some correspondence between Werner von Grupp and his hero Werner von Braun. Unable to read German, he takes them to Rosie for translation. In the letters von Grupp shares his rocket ideas and von Braun assumes he must be a rather dim third-grader. Rosie is alarmed, but lies to Clarence and says they are merely social correspondence.

Scence ii: Werner proposes building a 1/16-scale test rocket. Pierre insists a certain connection needs 10 wires (to bilk the government out of more money) while Rosie explains it only needs three. Pierre concludes from this that he misunderstood the numbers in English -- 10 is actually 3 and vice-versa.

Scene iii: Pierre and Werner launch the test rocket, which crashes into the paddock where most of the cows are -- leaving only Jacques and Francois alive. Dougal is upset at being left out of the launch.


Scene i: Having realized things are not quite right, Clarence has called in a competent engineering team, led by Frank. Dougal is upset that they are making him do real training and eat real astronaut food, Pierre is upset that they won't let Jacques and Francois be his interns, and Werner is upset that Frank is upstaging him.

Scene ii: In his office, Werner cuts and pastes to swap the authors' names on his and Frank's rocket schematics. Then he goes to Clarence's office and shows him all the flaws in "Frank"'s schematics. They agree that Frank needs to be fired for his incompetence.

Scene iii: Pierre and Rosie are working on the rocket while the new team takes their union-mandated lunch break. He tells her he is jealous that Dougal is going to get to go to the moon. He shows her how, if they upgrade from "10" fuel tanks to "3", they will have enough thrust to add an extra pod to the rocket that will hold himself, Jacques, and Francois.


Scene i: Clarence confronts Frank, who calmly explains that the names have been switched on the schematics, then tears them up so nobody will mistakenly use them. After Clarence leaves, Werner lures Frank outside with a fake apology. While he's distracted, Dougal (on Werner's orders) sneaks up behind him and, after some hesitation, kills him with a wrench. Werner and Dougal dispose of the body in the acid tank.

Scene ii: Rosie finds the correct set of schematics, but seeing Werner's name on them she thinks they are the old plans and rips them up so that nobody will mistakenly use them. While she is doing this, Dougal -- who has been drinking heavily to dull the guilt from murdering Frank -- wanders in and begins to babble to her.

Scene iii: Werner panics upon finding both sets of schematics have been destroyed. He calls Pierre in to re-draw the plans from memory. Pierre does so, adding his cow pod to the design.


Scene i: Dougal drunkenly confesses the murder to Rosie, and tells her "von-not-supposed-to-tell" put him up to it. She goes to confront Werner. He manages to talk her down.

Scene ii: Pierre convinces Dougal that they should launch the rocket early (so Dougal can escape to the moon, and so that nobody can stop Pierre from loading Jacques and Francois on board). Pierre plans to surprise Dougal when they get to the moon. He counts down (3, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 10, 2, 1, liftoff!), then pushes the launch button and the rocket takes off. But because it is unbalanced (from the udder-shaped cow pod attached to the side), it comes crashing back to Earth and explodes in the acid tanks, killing Pierre, Dougal, Jacques, and Francois.

Scene iii: A month later, Werner, Rosie, and Clarence appear before a parliamentary inquiry. Their incompetence is laid out for all to see. Werner loses all credibility as a scientist and has to go back to being a janitor. Clarence and Rosie are exiled to the USA to work on the US moon landing program.

Our winner, with a score of 210 (to second-place's 88), was Pete, playing Werner von Grupp. He named this monstrosity "Maple Moon Cows: The Untold Story of the Canadian Space Program."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Playtest -- The Last Two People On Earth

One of my projects is to create some roleplaying games that are specifically designed for just two players. I won't claim an extensive enough knowledge of the RPG market to claim that such games are rare, but they certainly present a unique challenge. For my first attempt, I took on a post-apocalyptic theme. The two players are, so far as they know, the last two people on Earth.

The mechanics are pretty obviously inspired by Fiasco. For the setup phase, players each roll a pool of dice, then use the numbers shown to pick items out of a table to create the scenario. The scenario defines things like the nature of the apocalypse, how the players' characters survived, and how they met. For the main game, the players re-roll their dice and use them to select scene prompts which the other player must then work into their scene. At the end, the players use their remaining dice to select their characters' ultimate fates.

In our game, we decided that the apocalypse had been caused when the government finally tried to control the minds of everyone who had been drinking fluoridated water their entire life. This didn't go so well, and so everyone died, and now packs of wild dogs roamed the ruins. Our characters were Justin Bieber, who survived due to prodigious consumption of vitamins, and Lieutenant Colonel Dolores Gripley, who had just emerged from several years in a secret government cryogenics experiment. They met while scavenging in the ruins of the Cedar St. Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh. Justin appealed to Dolores for help, because while the store was still full of food, he (as a pampered pop star) had no idea how to cook it. Dolores didn't recognize him (having been frozen during his entire career), but she took pity on him.

Accompanied by Justin's trusty dog Artie, the two set off to the park by the river to eat, when they came upon the corpses of Justin's fans who had been leaving his show at PNC Park when everything went wrong. They both fled onto the 9th Street Bridge -- Justin because the bodies were covered with bugs, and Dolores because she hallucinated that they were coming back to life. Upon hearing Dolores's story, Justin tried to go back, thinking his fans would help him. Instead of his fans, though, he encountered a pack of wild dogs. Artie ran ahead, and somehow charmed the wild dogs. Justin reasoned that just like he was famous among humans, Artie must be famous among dogs, and so the wild dogs were his dog fans.

Dolores was increasingly confused, so Justin turned on his radio, hoping to hear one of his songs so that he could show Dolores how famous he was. Instead, the radio picked up a bulletin calling for any survivors to rendezvous at the WESA studio in the Southside.

Justin, Dolores, Artie, and the wild dogs proceeded to the Southside where they found the WESA staff as well as several visiting NPR personalities barricaded in the studio. Carl Kasell was guarding the entrance with a machine gun. He confessed that he was Justin's father. He had wanted to reconnect, but he couldn't afford a ticket to one of Justin's shows. In order to verify the identities of anyone seeking refuge in the studio -- to make sure they weren't part of the government conspiracy -- the studio dispatched a team of crack investigative reporters. Steve Inskeep, who had for some reason been turned into a minotaur, came out to check out Dolores and Justin. Justin grabbed Steve's microphone and sang an impassioned concert all night, proving his identity and bringing tears to everyone listening.

In the end, everyone from the studio set out down the Ohio River on the Gateway Clipper (renamed the Gateway Bieber). Justin reveled in his new NPR-listener fan base, and Dolores fell in love with Carl Kasell.

Draft rules -- The Last Two People On Earth

Monday, February 10, 2014

RPG night -- Dread, Cold War edition

Tonight we played a round of Dread. The players were members of the President's entourage and other hangers-on chilling at Camp David. We had President Hellmutt, who had blatantly stolen the election and built a stained-glass fallout shelter at Camp David. There was his not-so-secret lover the hippie Sunshine Happiblossom, who was an activist for men's rights and a hater of all things Guatemalan. Unfortunately for her, we also had Guatemalan ambassador Sylvia Contreras-Ayala, who hoped to retire from politics to become CEO of the United Fruit Company. There was journalist Drake Johnson, who was a secret communist spy, as was Ruth Gilberg, a CIA agent under cover as a janitor. And finally we had General Prescott Wainwright, who believed strongly in getting Americans to produce as many children as possible for cannon fodder.

Our story began with the President and the General having a beer in the stained glass fallout shelter and discussing this comm-u-nism thing that the President didn't really understand. The President was getting well and truly sloshed when a marine ran in to tell him that there was a call for him from Admiral Birkbickler on the red phone in the command center. The President and General rushed to the phone, with the CIA agent and Ambassador both disguised as cleaning staff following. The Admiral informed them that he had just gotten word that Soviet submarines bearing nuclear warheads were within striking distance of New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Honolulu, and -- the phone line was cut before he could tell the President the last city being threatened. The President drunkenly marked the cities on a wall map, putting the marks in wildly inaccurate locations (such as Fargo, ND).

The other characters were waiting outside, where they saw a helicopter painted with a hammer and sickle land in the grass. Three Soviet soldiers and an older man in a suit emerged. The older man declared himself to be the Soviet Premier, here to demand the unconditional surrender of the United States. He explained that he had cut all communication lines out of Camp David, except for the enormous satellite phone that he carried with him. If the captains of the nuclear submarines didn't get a call from him with a secret code phrase in five hours, they had orders to nuke their respective target cities. The CIA agent pulled out a gun and shot the helicopter's fuel tank, causing it to explode -- but remained hidden so nobody else knew she was the one responsible.

After some back and forth, the President and General agreed to meet with the Premier at the stained glass fallout shelter. The Ambassador managed to grab the satellite phone from the Soviets to try to call for a Guatemalan helicopter to come rescue her. All of the Soviet soldiers turned their guns on her, at which point the General ordered the US marines to fire on the Soviets and ducked behind the beer fridge. The President also pulled out a gun. The three Soviet soldiers were killed. The CIA agent (being a commie traitor) took a shot at the president, wounding him in the head. The Hippie rushed to help him. The marines took the phone from the Ambassador and gave it to the General, who called Washington and ordered a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia.

At this point a backup Soviet helicopter, having seen the wreckage of the first one, landed, and four soldiers got out. The Premier rushed to the safety of his newly arrived comrades. The Journalist grabbed the phone and tried to call his communist contacts to let them know about the American nuclear strike, but the marines interrupted him. Luckily for the Reds, the CIA agent was able to dive into the meelee and complete the call. The marines seized her and locked her in a broom closet, while the Journalist fled to the Soviet helicopter. In the commotion, a stray bullet from one of the marines killed the General. The CIA agent used her knowledge of the fallout shelter's secret passageways to escape through a ventilation duct.

Meanwhile, the President rushed outside and took a shot at the Premier. It hit him, and the Soviet soldiers rushed his unmoving body onto the helicopter. The Journalist convinced the Soviets to wait a few minutes so that the CIA agent could join them, since she was a communist too.

The Ambassador now showed up with an army of cleaning staff, gardeners, and other common people who were around at Camp David. They took the satellite phone and made a series of calls to the cleaning staff at the three US missile bases and five Soviet nuclear submarines, telling them to disarm the warheads. (In terms of game mechanics, this required the Ambassador to make eight separate pulls from the tower.)

New York ... saved.

New Orleans ... saved.

San Francisco ... saved.

Moscow ... saved.

Stalingrad ... saved.

Mystery US city ... saved.

Honolulu ... saved.

Leningrad ... saved.

With the world now saved, the Hippie decided to take out the two leaders who had gotten us into this mess. She grabbed the President's gun and shot him (giving him a nice symmetrical wound to the one he got from the CIA agent). She charged the Soviet helicopter, hoping to finish off the Premier, but was killed by the Soviet soldiers.

In the end, the two traitors got away in the Soviet helicopter, the Ambassador became a major union organizer in Guatemala, and the President survived impeachment but lost his reelection campaign. And the mystery city really was Fargo, ND.

Here's a file with the player questionnaires if you'd like to play a Cold War Dread game.

Cognitive vs social approaches to analysis paralysis

Luke Laurie has a useful post listing some strategies that game designers can use to cut down on "analysis paralysis" -- the tendency of players to take inordinate amounts of time to make decisions, slowing down the game. I thin Laurie's list of 10 specific strategies can be lumped into two basic approaches: reduce cognitive barriers and reduce incentives to continue investing congitive effort. The "reduce cognitive barriers" lump includes things like separating phases for different actions and reducing visual clutter. These strategies help players' brains process relevant information faster and more easily. The "reduce incentives to continue investing cognitive effort" lump involves things like randomizing outcomes that make it impossible or worthless to game out long chains of consequences and counter-moves.

The word "cognitive" appears in both of my (inelegant) labels above because Laurie's approach is basically cognitive. That is, he treats players as basically rational agents trying to maximize their achievement of a goal (winning the game), under constraints posed by the game itself and their own mental shortcomings. This is certainly a huge part what board games are about! Strategizing to win is at the heart of what draws most players to gaming.

Nevertheless, games also have affective (feelings) and social aspects too. Consider Arkham Horror, featured in the last photo in Laurie's post. There's a lot of strategy that goes into playing Arkham Horror. But people play it just as much for the feeling -- to experience the horror and madness of a Lovecraftian world. And board games are usually a social activity, to be played with and against other players rather than just solitaire or against a computer AI. I've found that analysis paralysis can vary greatly with the social dynamic of the game. For example, one of my early plays of Alien Frontiers was with a group especially prone to analysis paralysis, so the game dragged on forever. I nearly swore off it, but in subsequent plays with a different crowd it flowed smoothly. So I think that in addition to the cognitive solutions to analysis paralysis that Laurie proposes, there are also solutions to be found in the affective and social realms too. I can't claim to have an exhaustive list, so I'll just focus on one.

Laurie's last suggestion is to create simultaneous actions. On a mechanical level, this can speed up a game by letting multiple players do their analysis at the same time rather than having to wait to do them one after the other. But I have found that it also exerts beneficial social forces. On the one hand, there is social pressure on slower players to make a decision, because the whole group is waiting to do something together. On the other hand, it reduces the scrutiny directed at one player by the others who are waiting for their own turns. Together, these two forces push players to get to the point. Seven Wonders makes a good example of this. Nobody wants to be the person holding up the round by taking too long to pick their card, but you also have some breathing room to think while other people pick their cards. I use a similar approach in Bunny Money Gunny, as players pick their card order simultaneously then reveal them simultaneously. In playtests, slower players are swept along socially to avoid analysis paralysis.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Balance, fairness, and meaningful choices

Max Seidman suggests that game designers should think about balancing a game in terms of ensuring meaningful choices rather than ensuring fairness. As he defines it, "Balancing is the act of tweaking numbers (resources, probabilities, options, etc.) to ensure that players always have at least two interesting and equally appealing choices during their turns."

As I see it, there are two ways of making a choice not meaningful. One is to have a clearly dominant option. Seidman spends a lot of time on this aspect in his post, discussing the ways that designers can prune away "false choices" where the correct strategy is obvious, and ensure that there are 2-3 equally appealing options. The other way to make a choice not meaningful is to make the options not matter. If two options are equally appealing, but things will probably turn out the same regardless of which one you pick, then the choice isn't that meaningful either. It has to be clear to the player that the choice will affect the outcome of the game, and the connection between the choice and the outcome needs to be clear. The test of choice meaningfulness, I think, is that it's possible for a player to look back at their choice and say "dammit, I should have done X instead of Y!" If the choice is meaningless in the first sense, nobody will have done Y in the first place. And if it's meaningless in the second sense, players won't think that doing X would have changed anything (because they were destined to fail/win anyway, or because it's unclear whether the X-vs-Y choice made any difference).

This second aspect of choice meaningfulness brings the issue of fairness back in. Unfairness tends to make choices lose meaning in the second way described above. Imagine a game where the first player has a substantial advantage simply by virtue of going first. If the other players recognize this, then their choices will become less meaningful. They can start to feel like it doesn't matter what they choose, as they'll probably lose anyway. Similarly, the player with the unfair advantage will stop worrying about their choices, because they know they can easily coast to victory.

This is why fairness can be so important in a purely strategy-based game -- that is, a game where the only goal is to achieve a concrete victory condition. So we see excruciating efforts at fairness in classic abstract games (e.g. Go, Scrabble) and heavy Euro games (e.g. Agricola, Village). When a game is "unfair," there is usually some other non-strategic goal that makes choices still meaningful. This might be the case in a very atmospheric, theme-heavy game. For example, a horror themed game might make certain players probably doomed, but their choices are still meaningful because they help define the nature of the horror. I might be dead either way, but it matters to the feel of the game how I choose to die. The extreme case of this is a heavily narrative-based roleplaying game like Fiasco. In Fiasco there's no effort at all to "balance" character abilities in terms of making those characters able to "win." Choices are meaningful because of how they influence character development and how they produce situations that the other characters will have to react to. A good Fiasco setup is balanced in the sense of giving characters multiple appealing paths to interestingly different story endings.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Kittens and Rainbows and _____

I have some friends who are not big fans of Cards Against Humanity, so I threw together a game of the same type based on things that are adorable and cuddly. Since it's a riff on some existing games I don't intend to go any farther with it in terms of publishing, but I thought I'd put it up here for print-and-play purposes. Print out the "cute things" cards on one color of cardstock, and the "quotes" cards on another color (pick cute colors, like pink and lavender).

The game plays basically like Cards Against Humanity or Apples To Apples. Each player gets a hand of 7 cute things cards. On your turn, flip over the top quote card, which gives a heartwarming or inspirational quote with a blank in it. Each other player selects a card from their hand that they think best fills in the blank in the quote and hands it, face down, to the player whose turn it is. Note that some quotes have two blanks, but players still only hand in one card, because those blanks should both be filled in with the same word -- e.g. "When life gives you [puppies], make [puppy]-ade." Each other player then draws a cute thing card to refill their hand. The player whose turn it is shuffles the cards they were handed, then turns them over one by one, reading out the quote with that card filled into the blank. The player should be generous about grammar, adjusting plurals and tenses, etc, as needed to make the quote flow nicely. The player whose turn it is then chooses, on whatever basis they like, the cute thing that they think best completes the quote. The player who had put that card in takes the quote card as a scoring token, and the cute things cards are placed in the discard. (Alternate "democracy is cuter than dictatorship" rule -- all of the players discuss and vote on which cute thing best completes the quote, with the player whose turn it is casting a tiebreaking vote if necessary.)

Cute things cards

Quote cards

Monday, January 27, 2014

Roleplaying night: Death Takes a Holiday

For our one-shot RPG night this month, we played Death Takes a Holiday by Nick Wedig. I had played DTaH with Mr. Wedig at GenCon this summer, so I was eager to try it out with some new players.

In this game, the players are all members of the Boxmuller family, who were on their way to claim their inheritance from their eccentric uncle Hopewell Boxmuller when the boat they are taking to Perdido Island sinks. The players die, but then are offered a deal by Death himself. Death wants to take a little vacation. He'll allow the players to return to life as long as they take over his job, visiting people just before they die to release their spirit into the afterlife.

Our group had four players. I was Hal Boxmuller, a soldier on bereavement leave from the Vietnam War. With me were academic librarian (and repressed lesbian) Marcie Boxmuller and our two hippie cousins, Starchild and Morningstar Boxmuller. Upon finding ourselves returned to life in the graveyard on Perdido Island, we received a note from Death that said only "lobotomy." We made our way to the psych ward of the local hospital, where we found that head psychiatrist Dr. G had been giving everybody lobotomies -- far more than were necessary. He seemed to be doing something nefarious with the brain parts he was removing, but we weren't sure what. While looking around the psych ward, we found our cousin Greg Boxmuller about to pass away. We laid our hands on him and as his spirit departed, its last words to us were "the money is tainted."

We retired to our hotel, and the next morning Hal and Marcie each got up early and slipped off to the office of the lawyer who was to execute Uncle Hopewell's will. He shooed us away, informing us that the reading wasn't until the afternoon. We reconvened with Starchild and Morningstar and decided to stake out the lawyer's office from the vantage point of a sandwich shop across the street, to see if anything fishy was going on. Starchild decided to sneak around in the bushes, where he was able to see the lawyer arguing animatedly with Dr. G.

That afternoon, the four of us found ourselves joined by two dozen other Boxmullers for the official reading of the will. The will began "Whoever can find my money can have it." This set off a stampede, in which our Aunt Janice was killed. Her departing spirit said only "oh my, oh my, oh my" -- not a helpful clue. When the rest of the family was gone, the lawyer continued with the will, which also said "ask me for help."

We decided that with our special connection with Death, we might be able to talk to Uncle Hopewell at the graveyard. We went there and asked his grave what to do. Morningstar heard a voice telling her to dig up Hopewell's body, so we did. Upon opening the coffin, we found a note that said just "haha, I fooled you!" Hal got so upset he peed on Hopewell's body before closing the coffin again. But as we re-buried him, we noticed some numbers hidden in the fancy vines carved into Hopewell's gravestone. Hal recognized them (from his military training) as map coordinates. After a trip to the local library to look up maps, we determined that they led us to the psych ward at the hospital.

The psych ward was still bizarrely full of lobotomy patients. When Dr. G showed up, Marcie stabbed him with a syringe full of sedatives, and stuffed him into a straitjacket. When he came to, he came clean with us. It turns out that Dr. G was actually Uncle Hopewell in disguise. He had made his own bargain with Death, agreeing to provide the four of us with some practice deaths while selling the lobotomized brains for medical research. It was the brain scheme that was the real source of his fortune, not (as we had thought) his factory manufacturing old time radios. Unfortunately, since Uncle Hopewell was in good with Death, there was little we could do about his scheme. We left to continue our work for Death.

I really like this game's core mechanic. To decide what happens next, the player who is "the authority" draws a card from a special tarot deck and gives it to another player. Based on the card, that player offers a possible direction for the story. For example, we asked what we found when we dug up Hopewell's grave, and who else came to the reading of the will. After the first option is described, the card goes to a second player, who gives an alternate possibility. The person who asked the question then decides which possibility to go with, and passes the authority on to whoever's idea didn't get picked.

Our game got slightly confused when we realized we had turned it into a mystery -- but with no GM to define the mystery or keep the various clues consistent. Nevertheless, we managed to wrap it up in the end and have an enjoyable time. Death Takes a Holiday is definitely a game worth playing.

Four kinds of playtests

In the few years I've been seriously working on game design, I've gotten to playtesting stage on around a dozen games. In the course of this, I've seen games tend to fall into four categories in terms of what the playtest feels like.

1. It's just broken.
The worst scenario -- the game just doesn't work at all in its current form. This can be heartbreaking when you've got a lot of attachment to the game idea, but it simply doesn't work in practice. I had put a lot of effort into The Fall of Greenland, a "deck destroying" (like deckbuilding in reverse) game with a viking theme. It ended up simply not being fun. I did three or so playtests, trying to massage the rules, but in each case it fell into the same trap: each player's turn was a small puzzle-solving exercise (half of the time obviously impossible). There wasn't anything in the way of longer-term strategy, or even short-term tactics. And the player interaction that was supposed to enrich the game was unmotivated. Usually the only thing you can do in such a case is toss the whole thing out. I'm still attached enough to the idea of a viking-themed deck destroying game that I'm not throwing it out yet, but I know it's going to need a fundamental rethinking of all of the core mechanics to turn into anything playable.

2. Churning Your Wheels.
On the first try, the game doesn't work. So you change some significant things -- and now it fails in a new way. You change it again, and it finds yet another way to fail. This was my experience for a while with Dinosaur Hunter, a mod of Monopoly in which Atlantic City is overrun with dinosaurs. The mechanic for moving the dinosaurs went through at least four different iterations before I finally hit on something that was quick, interesting, and strategic, while also affording enough movement in the dinosaurs to make hunting them and protecting your citizens both worth it. So games in the wheel-churning situation can be improved, but it's a very frustrating experience. Wheel churning can also set in later in the playtesting, in which case it can be even more frustrating. You've got a basic idea that pretty much works, but you're not quite hitting on the changes that you need to make it all come together. When you've put in that much work, it's hard to walk away.

3. The Hole in One.
This is the kind of playtest we all hope for. You play the game for the first time and it just works. It's fun, it's balanced, it keeps everyone engaged. This is what happened with my current top project, Warm Kitties. After the first playtest, the only changes I made were to shrink the board by a couple rows, and to make a new physical mechanism for the worker placement system (which didn't change the game mechanics or strategy, just eliminated annoying upkeep tasks). But I placed this type of playtest third, rather than last, because it can be deceptive. The game works so well that you assume it's all locked down. You stop looking at ways to improve it because it seems fine as it is. With Warm Kitties, for example, it took me a long time to actually implement the shifting light and shadow that playtesters had been suggesting to me from the beginning, because the game worked just fine without it.

4. The Steady March
The most satisfying kind of playtest is the steady march. The game may start out broken, or boring. But with each iteration, you can feel the improvement. Each time you play, it gets more fun. That's the situation with the current main project of my game design partner Jasmine, called Cool Table. There were too many pieces on the board, so we eliminated some and it worked better. The card-selling mechanic encouraged hoarding, so we switched to getting money for forward movement -- solving both the existing problem and another problem of over-focusing on a few pieces. You get more excited about working on a game and playtesting it a lot when you can feel the improvements actually happening.