Spiel 2019

This year I attended my first ever Essen Spiel, the world’s largest board game convention.

Bucket list item: Check.

I came back with this pile of games

…as you can see, they are mostly (but not all) abstract strategy games. And for the most part (with a couple of notable exceptions) they are games that I am unlikely to see in a store here in the states. I haven’t played them all yet, but I have made a dent, and I’ve quite enjoyed Control V, Nova Luna, Hetrix and Stackers so far. My family played a game of Miyabi, and my wife even declared she approved of the purchase!

I was demoing and exhibiting with Adam’s Apple Games, who had, months ago, during the kickstarter, hoped to have Thrive there for sale, but alas, there have been manufacturing delays, and it now looks like it’ll be next March (probably at the earliest) before we see the final production copies. You can see me here standing next to the 3D printed prototypes that we’ve been showing around for the last year or so.

Spiel is more like a trade show (they refer to it as an expo) than most of the other board game related events I’ve been to. Comparing it to Gen Con in particular is interesting, because at Essen there are really no “events” at all. Some exhibitors might post a list of events they are having in their booth, (signings or tournaments most likely), but the convention itself has no designated spaces for events, and doesn’t post a schedule. At Gen Con the expo hall is maybe 1/4th of the designated convention center space, and probably 1/2 of the total space is purely for events. (Many of which are ticketed and cost additional money.) Another difference is that most people expect to actually play games in the exhibitor booths. So most booths, even the smallest ones, have a demo table (or a dozen!), and folks sit down at them mostly to play entire games. Although many of the larger games at the bigger publisher booths (but not all) were just shorter-length demos, which is usually what you get to do, (if anything!), on the show floor at Gen Con. But of course Gen Con has all that additional space for events, most of which are just scheduled times to play specific games.

A lot of people attend Spiel, this year nearly three times as many as attended Gen Con. (If Wikipedia’s numbers are correct, 209k vs 70k.) But for that, it never felt significantly more crowded than Gen Con to me. Yes, there is more physical space, certainly, but I think another factor could be that more folks attend Spiel on day passes than Gen Con, and so you have fewer people at any given time. Certainly Saturday and Sunday did feel very crowded, but I saw very little shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-of-humans that is common walking the expo floor at Gen Con.

You don’t see stuff like this at Gen Con.

You can’t throw a stick without hitting a designer. Not thinking of the attendees so much, but as I walked around the convention, the folks staffing the booths were quite often the game designers themselves. This was definitely not as true in the larger booths, but the smaller ones it felt very common for the designers to be present, and if there was only one person staffing the booth, I’d guess it was 50/50 whether that person also designed a game being shown.

It was super multicultural. There were definitely publishers there from all over the world. I personally met folks from Australia, Korea, China, Spain, the UK, Ireland, and of course Germany. But as large as it was, not all the US publishers were there. I can only speculate why, but certainly some of them don’t think a cost/benefit analysis holds up, but I also think it’s just plain impossible to go to all the events all the time. I’m fairly certain you could find a board game event somewhere in the world to go to every weekend, if you tried hard enough.

I’m definitely glad I went, and I would do it again. I really enjoyed wandering around the show floor and seeing all the new games.

Nintendo Labo VR reviewed

As a VR developer, and self-professed Nintendo superfan, getting the Nintendo Labo VR kit was definitely a priority. I had the first couple of Labo kits, but I’ll be honest, I never even put together the giant robot one. (I’ll get around to it someday.)

My daughter and I spent an hour or two putting together the initial headset, and then checking out the 16 or so mini-games that are playable with just that. The headset itself feels a lot like google cardboard, but the larger screen size of the Nintendo Switch means the lenses are also really huge.

I think this also means it’s pretty forgiving in terms of eye placement in the headset. I took the kit to our local VR & HCI meeting earlier this week, and passed it around a bunch. Only one person mentioned they were having problems getting it to line up properly.

My daughter and I have probably also spent another 5 to 10 short (1/2 hr to 45 minute) sessions putting together various other accessories and playing their associated minigames. For some reason that felt quite a bit more satisfying than the original Labo kit, I think maybe because I have a natural tendency to want to only spend a minute or two at a time in 3DoF VR, and so the games feel like they are the appropriate length. And it helps that there are a lot of different experiences.

Additionally, I don’t know how to articulate this exactly, but I cannot stress enough how cool it feels to build your own VR accessory. In a way it feels like switching attachments in Budget Cuts or Cosmic Trip, but IN REAL LIFE, and you build the attachments yourself!

The camera attachment alone was easily an hour of assembly, and the underwater game you play with it (basically just pointing the camera at things and taking pictures) was pretty engaging for a good length of time. We also put together the blaster, (probably more like a 2 or 4 hour activity in total) and I think my daughter would have easily spent at least that long playing the alien shooter game it enables if I’d let her.

In general, I’ve found playing with someone else is a nice way to go about it, because, while in Build mode, it’s nice to have one person folding / assembling the cardboard, and the other person manning the forward button on the switch. And when playing, sessions longer than a minute or two definitely start to make me feel queasy. My daughter doesn’t seem to have that problem, but I’d still like to limit her usage, so taking turns makes sense.

So… I just this morning finished checking out the VR modes in Zelda and Mario Odyssey.

My short review of those: super underwhelming.

The camera still rotates around your character in Zelda, so moving my head at all made me feel pretty sick. You can still control the camera with the right stick, so it was playable if I kept my head still. After like a minute or two, my arms were tired, so I detached the joycons and played with my head tilted back and the Labo VR resting on my face. Made me wish for like a second it came with a headstrap, but it would be terrible, so makes sense that it doesn’t.

The edges of the screen had some chromatic aberration, which was most noticeable in the menus, which float in screen space, so you can’t turn your head to see the edges. Text was hard to read as well (although not as bad as I’d expected).

The whole game is playable in VR, so that’s something. But because the camera is essentially the same as in the normal game, it’s not like you can peer around and find new stuff. The only real novelty is stereoscopic 3D.

Mario wasn’t much better. Their game has the camera at a fixed point, and you HAVE to rotate the headset to look around. This doesn’t make me feel sick, really, but feels like a super low-rez way to play what is otherwise a good looking game. (For some reason, the low rez in Zelda didn’t bother me at all, but I wasn’t checking it out for very long…)

The gameplay in the mario levels (because that’s what they are, new smallish 3D levels, where the camera only rotates from a fixed point) was collecting musical instruments to give to the musicians scattered throughout. To get each instrument was basically the musical-note-fetch-quest that triggers by collecting the first note, (and then a bunch more notes appear to collect before a timer makes them disappear again). This is a mechanic already in the base game, typically with stars as a reward, and was rather disappointed it wasn’t a new game mode entirely. Especially because those are some of my least favorite types of stars to collect. And it’s worth noting you don’t even get stars for them here. You load up these new levels from the main menu, before you even pick a save slot.

You also have the option of playing the new levels without VR. But in that mode you CANNOT change the camera other than using the Nintendo Switch’s accelerometer. I was disappointed with the first level in VR, so I thought I’d try out the second one without it, and it definitely felt worse to me having to rotate the switch around to look anywhere, but without it attached to your face.

Overall, I am VERY pleased with my Nintendo Labo VR purchase. I just wouldn’t recommend getting it to play Zelda or Super Mario Odyssey. But there is a ton of content in the Labo kit itself. I still haven’t built the Elephant or Swan attachments, and I feel like I have a lot more content to explore even without them! I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with Labo VR.

Thrive is on Kickstarter!

So Thrive is a game I designed during my game-idea-a-day project, way back in 2016! It’s a two-player abstract strategy game (which should surprise nobody), and the big innovation is that you augment the way the pieces move as you are playing the game. A little over a year ago it was picked up by Adam’s Apple Games, and just NOW, TODAY, it’s on Kickstarter.

This is my first ever board game getting a print run of any size. I’ve been extremely grateful to Adam for taking me along on this ride, keeping me in the loop on many of the decisions along the way, and allowing me to be such a part of this project.

Protospiel MN 2019

Last weekend was Protospiel MN. After how much fun I had at the Madison protospiel (was it just a month ago!?!?), my expectations for this one may have got away from me. I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the last few weeks prepping new prototypes. Here’s what I brought and tested:

Adam Rehberg and I both brought copies of Thrive in various states of quality. It was interesting to compare his 3D printed pieces to my own. (We are using a new model courtesy of local artist Colin Cody-Waters, and his printer does a better job with it than mine.) At this point, we are more in marketing mode than actual play testing, but we did have some new things to playtest.

Worth noting that there will be a kickstarter for Thrive at the end of February, or beginning of March, and at least in part to collect email addresses for that kickstarter, there is a Thrive print-and-play contest going on right now over at Adam’s Apple Games.

I managed to get a new “pyramid tile laying / fitting / stacking game” to the table several times. The tiles are (some of them) glued together in 1/4th overlapping shapes and patterns. (This is harder to describe than I realized.) I’ll include a photo of one of the end-game pyramids below, but you can’t really get a sense from the photo which tiles are actually glued together and which are singletons. The idea is that you use the singletons as currency to pay for the larger tiles. One of the last parts left to design was how to score the game, (though I had plenty of ideas), and I got lots of useful feedback on those ideas, as well as plenty of other helpful suggestions from my play testers. One of the games we ended up calculating scores for each player in 4 different ways. None of them fully met my criteria for how I wanted the scoring to incentivize building up rather than out, so I still have some thinking still to do on this one.

Oh Tetrominoes! – just the blocks – I made a version of this game by gluing 1-inch cubes together (pictured below). It was easy to get to the table, because it just looks and feels really nice, I think. Adam gave me some great feedback about wanting a “qwirkle moment”. And someone suggested having blocking pieces. Next time I play it I want to try where only the three polygons score, and the spaces marked X are blockers. Notably, the game board (with score track) was the first and only thing I’ve ever created in Illustrator, only about an hour of work.

Windrose – I did playtest this again at the convention. There were some new ideas thrown around. I sort of thought this was “done”, but the conversation left me bristling with ideas. I sort of feel like most of them would result in a different game entirely, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I did also bring my Blinks dev kit, which was running my game Takeover. I only actually brought it out on Saturday night, after the main convention hall was closed for the evening. Immediately after we played it, we played Oh Tetrominoes!, and someone paid me the compliment (paraphrased) “You’ve shown me both the most sophisticated (technically), and least sophisticated (physical components) games that I’ve seen this weekend.”

Other highlights:
– My standout game for the convention was a numbers-heavy (but not at all otherwise heavy) strategy game by Patrick Yang. He’s calling it Mathemagical, which is a great name, and I really liked the game.
– I got to play a tetromino stacking prototype called Lots. It was light and quite fun.
– My daughter attended with me on Sunday, and she ended up spending at least an hour (maybe two) prototyping a game in collaboration with another little girl who was there. I think they both really had fun, and there were even some neat ideas they came up with together.

Protospiel Madison 2018

This was my first time at this particular Protospiel. I do think the space was bigger than the MN one, but only by a factor of maybe 1.5x or 2x. I heard tell it was actually more space this year than previous years, but I have no idea if that was true. I also heard there was less of a publisher presence this time around. The only ones I saw, were Adam Rehberg from Adam’s Apple Games, (who I traveled over with), and the GameCrafter (if you count them as a publisher). Of course others may have been there incognito. (Or just less obviously.)

Adam (who is publishing my game Thrive) and I set up Thrive as a blind playtest on one of the back tables. This was the first time it had been shown with (some of) the new artwork, and we got a lot of praise for it. (I’ll post a photo.) I did feel bad briefly on Saturday when it was especially packed for taking up the space, but there was almost always someone playing it, and I had so much positive feedback, both about the game itself, and about doing a blind playtest at Protospiel (which several folks said they’d never seen before), that the feeling was easily allayed. We got good feedback on the rules, and added about 15-20 names/emails to our signup sheet to let folks know about the kickstarter when it happens. (Incidentally, we talked about a date for the kickstarter on the car ride home, and we are currently aiming to have it now in March.)

My personal goal was to get more games of my two current favorite designs in, and I got both on the table several times. The first, (with working title Oh Tetrominoes!), was played 3 times to completion, and only actually broke on the 4th play through. While it mostly felt like it works mechanically, I think the consensus was that it’s a bit fiddly, and not especially fun. It’s a mashup of three or four game ideas I had that all feature tetrominoes, and while they are integrated well (I got compliments on this!), they still feel weirdly disjointed, and one of them really feels like the core of the game (which I reluctantly agree with). After the last (failed) gameplay, one of the playtesters actually convinced the rest of the table (including me, but I didn’t need much convincing) to play a game of just that main core mechanic, without the other features. That went really well, and I’m definitely going to pivot the game a bit. (I mean really, I think it’s basically done, but I suppose I should playtest it a few more times to be sure. I’ll probably try and re-use the other mechanisms in a different game… someday.)

I felt like my other game, Windrose, had each playtest go better than the last. My goal for that one had been to play it with 4 players. as It had previously only been tested with two. I got in 2 more 2-player games, 3 4-player games, and one 3-player game (in that order). It really felt like it worked just fine with 3 and 4 players, although after the first 4-player game, we added a rule that changed strategies quite a bit without making the game feel all that different. I do think I prefer it with the new rule. Otherwise, the game didn’t actually need any tweaking, which feels kind of amazing to me. It’s another super simple abstract strategy game, and creating one of those that plays 4-players is really exciting to me. (Probably not something any publisher is going to be interested in, but you never know!)

Other highlights for me include:
– Playing a couple of new-to-me Adam’s Apple Games prototypes.
– A game played with “kite and dart” Penrose Tiles, which really looked cool.
– Seeing, (but sadly not actually playing) Cartographers: A Role Player Tale, which looked like a contender for my favorite take on the emerging “Flip and Fill” genre that is hot right now.
– Having dinner with Nick Bentley, who I have been acquainted with for some time, (I turned his game Catchup into an iOS app a few years ago), but until this trip might not have actually called a friend. We had such great conversations at dinner on Friday that we resolved to do it again on Saturday, and then I managed to convince him to play a couple of games late into Saturday night.

There were way more games that I was interested in trying out than I actually got to sit down and play. I did play a lot of games though, and I hope I gave some good feedback. I’d say the ratio of playing my own games to others’ was probably 40/60. All in all, definitely a great event for me. I’d recommend it, and definitely hope to do it again.

Joggernauts!!!

Last month I finished up working on this game, Joggernauts, with my friends over at Space Mace Games. Specifically, I worked on a lot of the saving and menu stuff. This was definitely a watershed project for me, since it’s the first game I’ve worked on that will be released on an actual game console. (The trailer I embedded above is actually on Nintendo’s YouTube Channel!)

I’ll definitely be posting about Joggernauts again when it comes out on the Nintendo Switch!

valuing quality in video games

This morning, I had a discussion with my daughter, trying to explain to her why I didn’t want to install a particular idle/incremental game on her iPad. Without naming names, it’s one of those idle games that just doesn’t have an end. I don’t think it’s a particularly bad game, but once you learn its systems, (which I do find interesting!) there’s nothing left to it but grinding for more of the same. I don’t particularly want my daughter playing games that are 99% grind.

This led me to think philosophically about why I want to play those games. I do value new game systems, and I think incremental/idle games have some of the more interesting systems being designed today. Depending on the game, it can take a while to reveal all the systems in play, but I think, if I’m being honest with myself, I am liable to play far longer than it takes to understand the systems. Or maybe by the time I’ve played long enough to understand them, I’m invested in my progress in the game, and feel compelled to continue.

One of my client projects right now is a game to teach kids about the dangers of smoking, and this has led to some discussion in the office about the nature of addiction. (Or anyway, some reading of the wikipedia page for addiction.) And I think the nature of these games (watching the numbers increase) is a sort of reinforcing / rewarding stimuli, meaning it’s possible to feel compelled to play, which I definitely do.

In the last year or so, I’ve kept a browser window open on my iMac (which is always on, on my home office desk), and there are usually between 4 and 6 tabs open to various idle games there. These are the type of games that do not have endings. (It’s worth noting that I also don’t like books or comic book series without endings!) I like to think that I basically just play these types of games in tiny spurts. But the truth is that I’ve been spending hours in front of that iMac at night. Hours when I could be making games. (And sometimes I am!) But these are hours that I could also be filling with any number of other higher-quality distractions.

I think playing games has inherent value! But when I think about where that value comes from, I find that it’s tied closely to having new experiences. Solving (and discovering!) new kinds of puzzles is especially satisfying for me, but experiencing new stories is also a totally valid benefit. So it makes sense that it’s the repetition of experience that I find distasteful for my daughter’s gameplaying. (Would I be as reluctant to let her spend hours playing Tetris? No, but maybe that’s a topic for a different post.)

Games that involve some grinding are totally fine. In traditional games, “grinding” is (optimistically) used to enhance the player’s feeling of accomplishment when they are finally strong enough to continue unveiling the story/experience. Pessimistically, it could be argued it’s often just an unintended consequence of the game’s mechanics.

And of course not all idle/incremental games are infinite grinding. The best ones do have an end. (Spaceplan or Universal Paperclips are some good recent examples.) But many do not. I’m not going to stop playing those types of game entirely. (I really do enjoy discovering their mechanics and systems.) I’m just going to try and become aware of when I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns, and stop playing then.

Pyramid Cards

I’m a huge fan of Looney Pyramids. Mostly because I think it’s the most successful game system ever produced. And by successful, I mean that it’s probably had the most games made for it.

Now that I’ve said this, I might argue that Chess is the most successful, especially by that metric, since there are probably way more chess variants in existence than pyramid games, but of course Chess was never meant to be a game system. Then again, we can’t actually imagine what Chess was meant to be, since it’s not even remotely known who invented chess originally. Maybe they imagined a future in 2 or 3 thousand years when their game would be used to play literally hundreds of games.

Okay, anyway, so over 3 years ago, I had an idea, chatting with a friend**, and asked another friend*** to make it for me. The idea was a deck of cards that depicted Looney Pyramids on them. I imagined you could make a ton of games using them. Then I imagined some of those games. I don’t think I really playtested any of those games much until months later.

But the point is that I never got around to posting the PnP files for the deck of cards. So without further ado:

Here’s v1.0 of Pyramid Cards, PnP edition.

…better late than never, right?

** Special thanks to Nate Yourchuck.
*** Special thanks to August Brown for making the art for these.

Eigenstate on BGG

I wrote a forum post about Eigenstate over at Board Game Geek in the Abstract Strategy Game Forums. In the post I cover where I got the idea, how I made the original prototype, and a bunch about ideas that I tried to incorporate and didn’t work nearly as well as the current rules.

Speaking of rules, I also posted them.

In prep for all of this, I submitted a BGG entry for Eigenstate, and uploaded a few photos of it on my BGG designer profile.

But the big news is that Adam from Adam’s Apple Games is planning to publish the game. This is obviously extremely exciting for me, as it’ll be my first board game to have a real box and print run.

Anyway, I’m going to reproduce the BGG post here for posterity:

New game: Eigenstate

Eigenstate is a 2-player abstract strategy game with incredibly simple rules that grows in complexity as you play.

Each turn you move a piece and then add two additional eigenstates (pegs) to your pieces giving them more possibilities for movement on future turns. Land on your opponent’s pieces to remove them from the board and when you’ve reduced them to one piece remaining, you win the game.

You can check out the rules and a 3D printer file for the pieces here: https://tinyurl.com/eigenstate (I’d really love to hear about it if you take the time to print it out!)

Design by subtraction

As you can see from the photo above, each piece has 25 holes, and all but the center space correspond to a possible move for that piece (relative to the center). Each piece only starts with a single movement peg, facing forward.

This design was a direct result of my playing a lot of The Duke and Onitama, and realizing that I wanted to make a game with similar movement mechanics. This was back in the summer of 2016, and at the time I was doing a project where I tried to come up with a new game idea every day. This game was the result of one of those ideas, and because of that project, I know the precise date I came up with the idea. (2016-03-28, and it’s outlined in vague terms in this blog post) I wrote again about the idea once I’d built the initial prototype, (and started thinking about it as a game system) about a month later, on 2016-04-25.

I’m extremely happy with the current simplicity of the game rules, but as usual, it took a lot of playtesting and experimenting to get there. After the initial idea about pieces that gain additional movement possibilities over time, I had a lot of different ideas about how the game should play. But first I had to make a prototype.

I bought some cribbage pegs online, and then spent a couple of afternoons in my friend Lloyd’s garage with his drill press. Once I had a physical prototype, I started playing versions of the game wherever I could, often with pretty wildly different sets of rules.

Ideas that were interesting, but didn’t quite work included: allowing piece rotations; action point allocation for placing pegs and moving around the board; using the checkmate mechanic from Chess; using different colored pegs for different movement mechanics; recycling (repurposing) the pegs you capture from your opponent; forcing your opponent to put pegs in their remaining pieces when you capture one (with the end-goal to make them fill up a piece); and all kinds of ideas related to scoring based on the number of pegs in your control. Some of these were more complicated than others, but all of them resulted in a far more complicated game than the game as it exists today.

Notably, in this period of floundering around, I sat down with Patrick Leder (at GlitchCon a local game development conference here in MN), and also Nick Bentley (at Gencon 2016). I don’t think either of them were all that impressed, and around that time, I basically shelved the game for about a year after that.

In the summer of 2017, I signed up for a table to show my games at the Twin Cities Maker Faire. Most of my games are for touchscreens, so faced with the prospect of a 10-foot table mostly empty but for a couple of phones and an iPad, I decided to lay out Eigenstate. This meant I had to explain it to people very quickly. Without referring to my notes, and pretty much off the cuff, I decided on the simplest possible rules I thought would produce a playable game. Essentially you only needed to remember to do two things on your turn, move a piece, and place some pegs. (I decided on two.) It was just piece elimination, the easiest possible win condition to explain. I’d playtested variations on each of these rules separately, but never in that combination, and again, always as part of a more complicated ruleset.

I was a bit surprised by how well the game played with those simple rules. The game was played a bunch of times throughout the day, with really positive reception. I think if there is any part of the design I’m still looking for specific feedback about, it’s the victory condition. Capturing your opponent’s pieces is fine, but it doesn’t feel very unique.

Theme

In quantum physics, the term eigenstate refers to the possible movement of a particle. It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course, (and honestly, I have only a slippery grasp on the concept), but once I hit upon quantum physics (and in particular using the uncertainty principal as a metaphor for movement in the game), I began hunting around for suitable quantum physics terms. I think there’s a cool extended metaphor about each of the pieces being particles in a system, and the players competing to observe their opponent’s system first. How moving your own particles (pieces) helps you observe that system is left as a thought exercise for the player.

It’s worth noting that the rules as written don’t really reflect this metaphor, and I’m not sure they will (other than some flavor text) in the final version. As with the idea itself, I know when I came up with the name, on 4/26/2016.

Happy announcement

I am very pleased to be able to announce that Eigenstate is slated for publishing by Adam’s Apple Games. Adam has already 3d printed some additional copies of the game, and it’s being playtested internally. It will probably get a kickstarter later this year sometime.

Playing Eigenstate with Scott Gaff at the 2017 Twin Cities Maker Faire