Behind the Scenes of Creating a Game

November 11, 2013

A while back I was invited to a game day at a coworker’s house. I played a few good games and had a great time. After that my coworker and I started talking gaming at work. Next thing I knew we were setting up Twilight Struggle in my cube. We got in a few games over the course of many lunch breaks playing a turn or two at a time. I was finally able to make another game day with him and he told me, “We’re going to play Jay’s game this Saturday.” Turns out we weren’t the only gamers around the office. That’s when I first found out about Jay Meyer‘s gaming history and Noble Treachery.

Noble Treachery
This game is a bit of a twist on your traditional trick-taking card game that adds some chaos and enough strategy that it fits in well with today’s board and card game market. The game uses a custom deck of 55 cards with 5 suits (colors), 5 dice and 25 alliance tokens. There are 45 common cards in the deck – 9 each of the 5 colors and 10 cards that are unique. The strength of each card is determine by the value of that card plus the value of the corresponding die color which are rolled at the start of each round. The round is either a War round (highest total strength) or Diplomacy round (lowest total strength) determined by the highest bettor. The player that wins the round gains an alliance token. Each card also has text that can change the game state by re-rolling dice or earning alliance tokens through other means. The game play 4-6 players and finishes in under in hour.

First Play
When I showed up for the game day ready to try this new game I wasn’t expecting much. I figured it would be some cards printed and put in card sleeves, instead what I got blew me away. Jay had already commissioned artists and a local art and design school to produce prototypes for him. This game looked as good as anything on the market. And the game was fun to play. The chaos of the dice changing mid-round kept you rethinking your next play. And the ability to earn alliance tokens without winning the round gave everyone a shot. It was a good game and we played it twice.

Jay Meyer
After hearing about my enjoyment of the game, Jay gave me one of his prototype copies to play with friends and family. I got in a few more plays and reported back to Jay on my playing experiences. In addition to talking about the game I got to know Jay. He’s been playing games for years with his weekly gaming group. But not just any games: his games. He’s been creating his own board games and his weekly game group play tests and refines a game into something good or even great. They’ll play that until he’s got his next game ready to play. So far I’ve gotten to try out 3 of his games: 1) Noble Treachery 2) Labyrinth, a dungeon crawling, take-that deck builder and 3) a questing card game that went from a discussion at my white board to a playable game in a matter of days. After many years creating games (he’s made over 30!) he finally decided to fulfill a dream of publishing one. He, with the help of his game group, chose Noble Treachery as his first game. It’s fairly small (55 cards, 5 dice and some tokens) and seemed like a good manageable project for a first shot.

Game Development
Jay says the game was first created in under a week. He needed a portable game that he could bring along for a camping trip. The first version just used dice and cards and you kept score with pencil and paper and played with 2 teams of 4. It was originally called Ambush. After playing it for a while he thought he had something interesting. A few years back he brought it to GAMA and showed it off. He got a lot of feedback and knew he had to make some changes. First, he couldn’t limit it to just 4 players so he got rid of the partners and allowed up to 6 players. Because of this, each card had to be able to help you individually and couldn’t just help your partner during a round. That’s where the War/Diplomacy option came in. Second, the scoring mechanic was too old school. That’s when he added tokens, but two types: alliances for scoring and money for the betting. It seemed to work, but realized that betting a money token that didn’t change your score wasn’t meaningful. That’s where the switch to betting your alliance tokens came in. You had to risk your scoring tokens to take control of a round. A few refinements later and he had something.

Prototype
At that point he had a game that was good enough to start working to make real. He contacted the design school and got artists to make this game his own. He finally had 10 copies of his game. He passed this game on to friends to playtest and the results were very positive. The game played well for casual gamers as it was easy to learn and the random cards and dice helped level the playing field with advanced gamers. The strategy gamer could devise plans on when to play certain cards and when to take the bet. But, always wanting feedback he continued to ask how could this game be better. He also started to look at how to launch this game and make it a reality. Those two things forced him to take a deeper look at the game and what really makes you wanting to come back for more. A few minor tweaks to existing cards and the addition of more of the unique cards really spiced up the game. He was ready for primetime.

Kickstarter
Jay launched his Kickstarter campaign last week. Sitting in his office today we talked about how it’s been going. There was an initial rush of people pledging their support which was a great feeling. Then, last weekend the backers slowed down: only 1 on Saturday. Thoughts of failure crept in. Fortunately they were quickly dissapated after a play session with a group of Magic players who didn’t know anything about the game. After a wild game that came down to the last round he was confident in his product. This is a game worth playing and more importantly a game that has you coming back for more.

The End?
My post ends here, but this game’s story will continue. The Kickstarter has almost 5 weeks to go yet. If it funds there will be finalizing the added artwork for the new cards and working to get it printed. Then it’s shipping all those games off to the backers. If it doesn’t fund…? We’ll see what the future holds. All I know is, either way I’ve learned a lot from Jay and his experiences with this game. It makes me want to work on that game idea that’s been floating around in my head for while. Until then I’ll continue playing good games, like Noble Treachery, and look forward to Jay’s next creation.


Manoeuvre: Distant Lands – My Playtesting Experience

August 24, 2011

Months ago, game designer Jeff Horger put out a call for playtesters for a Manouevre expansion. I immediately signed up. Not only is Manoeuvre one of my favorite games it would also give me a small glimpse into how a game gets made. Now that Distant Lands is on the P500 list I can finally talk about my experience.

Behind the Scenes
One of the reasons I signed up was to get a feel for what goes on with making games. I was sent a bunch of files that contained the rules and components for the Japanese army. The first thing I did was look through the rules and immediately had some questions. The new rules were pretty straightforward, but I wanted some clarifications. My other concern was with some of the components.

These don't look like the originals.


These are what I'm used to.


The new maps used completely different graphics and the units didn’t have the infantry and calvalry symbols on them. Instead they had a single box white box to represent infantry while two boxes represented cavalry. You’ll notice the Japanses don’t have any cavalry.

Japanese Army Tokens


The response I got back on the new map graphics were that he had been using the different graphics for many years and that “[he was] so used to it [he] didn’t think twice about it.” I think this is one part of game design that is key: have several people that are not familiar with the game and components play it. They will point out mistakes and missing information very quickly.

I then printed and cut out the units and cards. I was thankful for my wife’s scrapbooking supplies which I used to adhere the units to some chipboard. Then I sleeved all the cards. Plain pieces of paper in card sleeves worked very well for the small size of these cards.

The components I made turned out pretty well. I should note that I changed the colors of the cards to use less ink for printing. I would assume the final components look much more like the original game.


Once all of that stuff was out of the way it was time to play.

Playing with a New Army
I tend to like expansions for games – they can breath new life into a game that hasn’t made it to the table in a while. Or in the case of the Distant Lands, they can force you to rethink your best strategies.

My wife and I sat down for our first game and both instantly liked the new rule: Advance to Contact. In your first turn of the game you are allowed to move up to 3 different units, in the 2nd turn you can move 2 units. After that it’s back to normal. This change gets both players engaged much more quickly.

The two Japanese map tiles contained more marsh and lake features. The new ‘cluttered’ maps helped to slow down cavalry. The Japanese units were mostly unaffected by this. I’m curious to see just how many new map tiles come with this expansion. Although the base game already has enough for 6 simultaneous games.

The deck of cards had some unique features as well. Here is the breakdown of the Japanese deck:
• 40 Unit Cards
• 3 Forced March Cards
• 3 Supply Cards
• 2 Committed Attack Cards
• 2 Redoubt Cards
• 2 Death with Honor Cards
• 8 Leaders
Two things will stand out right away: eight leaders and the Death with Honor cards. The Death with Honor cards allow you to eliminate a unit and then inflict hits on every adjacent unit. Normally in Manouevre you try to surround a unit to eliminate it more easily. Now if you play against the Japanese you have to be careful that surrounding a unit isn’t exactly what your opponent wants you to do. I my games I usually only used one of these cards. Inflicting up to 4 hits can be powerful but losing a unit isn’t a decision to take lightly.

The leader and unit cards also act slightly differently. The other armies work together to drive their opponents back. However, each Japanese unit is self contained. They each get 2 normal attack cards and their bombard. They also get a volley only card and an attack card with a pursuit roll. These five cards are supposed to represent the “samurai, ashigaru, cavalry, artillery and teppo” in each of the clans. The 6th card for each unit is actually a leader. The leaders for the Japanese can only command the 1 unit they lead. Only one of the leaders, the Shogun, can unite up to four of the clans. Although the units start at fairly high strengths of 6, 7 and 8, the Japanese are weaker than the other nations because of their deck. A handful cards containing a leader and a few different unit cards for most armies was quite useful – with Japan it was a disadvantage.

The strength with the Japanese was keeping the units somewhat isolated. It allowed you to march single units to your opponents side of the board. Each unit was self contained. I cycled through my deck quickly while building up attacks with each unit separately. If things started to get bad for a particular unit I would sacrifice them while doling out hits.


Conclusion
Overall I really had a good experience. It got me really excited about the new armies for Manoeuvre (Chinese combat rockets!). I am also proud to have been able to help out in the creation of what I’m sure will be a successful expansion. I was a bit overwhelmed at just what has to go into making a game – and this was just an expansion! The amount of time and thought that has to go into creating a set of rules and components is massive. And then the refinement after playtesting… But it certainly gave me a jolt to get working on my own game ideas.


Game Design: Research

December 8, 2009

It’s a common gripe among the contributors to this blog: we don’t have enough time to pursue our hobbies. This has been especially true in the last few months, as Russ and I juggle graduate school and full-time jobs. As Russ previously mentioned, there is a correlation between how complex life is and what corresponding games get to the table. Two weeks, I ran myself ragged planning lessons and grading papers at work so that I could go off to my four-day Thanksgiving vacation without any work obligations. During the vacation, I spent a lot of time riding in a car to see my in-laws and extended family. This allowed me the time to do a bit of leisure reading, which I used doing some research for a game I’d like to design someday.

I am loathe to disclose any details about this game right now, but I am working with a historical period which has remained virtually untapped for board game ideas. There are all sorts of possibilities about what type of game could come out of this. I’d like to  sporadically update where I am at in the whole process of game design, but also to describe some of the successes and failures that others might find helpful in their own design process. I have found relatively few resources which describe the process (but if you have found some, please post links!).

The first step in the process is, of course, research. I am working on a political/war game, so this was the obvious place to start. I contacted an acquaintance who is a native of the region in which my game will be set, and who has also earned a PhD in a related academic field (history). This correspondence yielded a few book titles which I am slowly working my way through. I am also lucky enough to be working with a time period that has a recognized book which is considered the “definitive history” of the era. That alone is a huge help.

As I work my way through these books, I am highlighting and taking notes in the margins, focusing on key decision points (where things could have easily gone very differently) and personalities. Every few days, I try to gather my thoughts in a notebook, describing possible mechanics, maps, titles, etc. When thinking about a historical game, there is a natural tension between “the events as they happened” and “things that might have been.” After all, a game needs to be true to history in some respects but also fun and balanced! I’m looking carefully at games that have done a good job of this–Twilight Struggle being a good example. Every time I play that game, I can look at the map afterward and say, “Well, that’s not exactly how it played out in the Cold War, but I can see how that might have happened.”

I hope to update every few months on the process, and once I’ve narrowed down the exact theme of the game, reveal exactly what it is I’m working on.