Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Villages of Valeria

Sometimes you get good news, but it's not the right time to make noise about it. And then when it is time, you're busy and you don't get around to it. That happened to me this year with this bit of news: I sold a card game design, which we hope will be published in (probably) 2017!

That design was called Deckville: City of Cards, and you can read about my early design work on it here. In March 2015, I went to the excellent GameStorm convention in nearby Vancouver, and showed off three of my designs in their Game Lab area, which is dedicated to as-yet-unpublished games. There were few publishers in attendance that year, but I got lucky: Deckville was noticed by Daily Magic Games. They were looking for card games to publish, and thought that Deckville was a good candidate. I gave them a copy to take home and try out, and soon after we had a deal.

Since then, I've been working with Isaias Vallejo, an experienced designer and founder of Daily Magic Games, to get the game ready for publication. We've made a lot of changes to my original design in order to make the game more suitable for their target audience: they want games that are easy to learn and quick to play. I was a little reluctant at first, thinking that they wanted non-strategic games with little to think about, but happily I was wrong about that. We've worked over the design until its play time is significantly shortened, but it still offers plenty to think about in under an hour of play. It's been a pleasure working with Isaias on this project; it's definitely been a joint effort, and we will both be listed as designers when the game is published.

...is now Villages of Valeria
We also gave the game a new theme (which I admit it desperately needed!) and a new name. It is now Villages of Valeria, with a fantasy theme to match their first-published card game. That game, Valeria: Card Kingdoms, will be available in stores in early 2016. It's a fun, light-weight game featuring wonderful artwork by Mihajlo Dimitrievski, who is also doing the art for Villages of Valeria. Here's a sample, the artwork for the "Witch's Hut" card:

Kickstarter and Print-and-Play
We hope to launch a Kickstarter campaign for Villages of Valeria in early 2016. I'll post here when the Kickstarter is up. In the meantime, a print-and-play version of the game is available now on BoardGameGeek: click here if you're interested, try the game, and send us your feedback!

Related Games
Another of Daily Magic's games is now in the last days of its Kickstarter campaign. Check out Mana Surge on Kickstarter!

Isaias Vallejo is also the designer of the board game Sunrise City, which is a nicely designed game that's a lot of fun. I recommend it.

Press Gang

I have a new boardgame design under development. Its name is “Press Gang”. It got its start several years ago, when I thought up a mechanism for players to select tiles from an array of tiles on the table, by “walking” a pawn from tile to tile to reach the one you want. The cost of acquiring a tile would be the sum of the cost of walking your pawn and the cost of the tile itself. I wrote up a page of notes and thoughts about this mechanism. Here’s a quote from that page:
Players must balance the perceived value of a tile against the expense of acquiring it; and every move will change that equation for the next turn by putting the pawn in a different neighborhood. This sounds like a reasonably rich set of choices.
I filed my write-up, and forgot about it.

In late January of 2015 I was browsing old files out of boredom. I found my page of notes and starting thinking about it. In fairly short order I had the outline of a complete game, got excited, and started developing it.

Tile collection immediately suggests set collection as a goal: there would be different classes of tiles, and different individuals among those classes. Players would score by collecting appropriate sets of tiles.

Variety is important. Without it there is no compelling reason to walk an expensive distance to get a tile over there, instead of grabbing a cheap one nearby. Reiner Knizia’s amazing game Ra was my model for this: scoring would be different for each class of tile, giving players some difficult choices in deciding which tile might be best to acquire on any given turn.

Budget management usually adds interest to a game. I decided that there would be money, which could be spent to gain extra actions and get more done, or saved to be worth points at end of game. (Money is also a nice balancing system: if a choice is so obviously good that it’s a no-brainer, make it cost some money and tune the amount until it becomes a tough choice.)

A lesson learned from the games Ra and Coloretto, among others: it’s good to have “poison pills” in set-collection games. A poison pill is anything that reduces the value of your collection, but that you have to take anyway as part of collecting something good. Poison pills make players balance conflicting goals. Do I want this really good thing even though it comes with this really bad thing, or do I want that lesser good thing that comes with a lesser penalty?

When I’d reached this point in my thinking, I found a good theme for the game. I’m a fan of C. S. Forester’s wonderful novels of Horatio Hornblower, the fictional captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Recruiting a crew for a ship of the line was not an easy business. A captain needed a variety of experienced officers, but he also needed deckhands, which as often as not came from the press gangs.

This gave me thematic classes: each tile was a crewman, who might be a Lieutenant, a Midshipman, a Petty Officer, or a deckhand. And deckhands provided a great poison pill: you must have them, but you must get them from the Press Gang. They are landsmen who know nothing of the sea, and who must be trained in order to become useful.

Each class needed some feature to make it different from the others. For example: I felt that if the entire game were merely a matter of walking around and picking up tiles to fill your collection, it would not be sufficiently interesting. So when your recruit a Midshipman, you get another choice: you can keep the tile for scoring at the end of the game, or immediately sacrifice its score to get a benefit called the Privilege. There are several different Privileges: they can help you move your pawn more quickly, get you money, recruit another officer, change your end-game scoring, and so on. The decision you must make is whether the benefit will eventually be worth more points than the Midshipman’s basic score.

Within a couple of weeks (which is remarkably quick compared to my usual rate of progress), I had a perfectly playable game on my hands. Since then I have been tuning the game: adjusting the costs and values of things, and trying to streamline the rules. I think it’s getting close to done, but it’s not there yet. But more than one knowledgeable person has told me it’s my best design yet, so that’s encouraging!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Finally, Solitaire Till Dawn

A while back, when I realized that most followers of this blog were more interested in the progress of Solitaire Till Dawn rather than anything in my personal life, I created a new blog for my solitaire development and stopped posting about Solitaire Till Dawn here. Since then, nothing very noteworthy has happened to me other than solitaire development, so I haven't been posting here at all!

I'm going to break that rule now, because Solitaire Till Dawn is finally available in the App Store, and this is a personal achievement for me. It is the culmination of over five years of work, rewriting Solitaire Till Dawn from the ground up for modern Macs. Apple released the Lion version of OS X in 2011, and until yesterday that meant that you couldn't run Solitaire Till Dawn on any Mac with an up-to-date OS. Now you can: the new release is good for any Mac OS from Snow Leopard (10.6) up through the latest Yosemite (10.10).

It's been a long grind. The previous version of Solitaire Till Dawn was the result of 15 years of steady development; you can't re-create something like that in a weekend. And I was slowed at first by the requirements of my day job, and later by the exigencies of moving house to a new state. But for the past year or more I've been able to give it lots of attention, and we've finally reached the big milestone: the release of version 1.0.

The first version of Solitaire Till Dawn was released in 1991, at about the same time that the Internet was being created. It ran on the Mac Plus, as well as the Mac II (the first Mac with a color monitor). If you're interested, I put an article about the app's history on the Semicolon LLC website: The History of Solitaire Till Dawn. (I've also completely redesigned the website. Go admire it!)

In one way, I feel as though I'm owed a vacation now. But it doesn't really work like that, and anyway I don't want one. Once the dust from the initial release has settled, I will be adding new features and fixing any bugs that turn up, and putting out upgrades. And I hope to begin work on an iPad version soon, although I'm making no promises about that for now!

I'll make one plea here: if you decide to buy a copy, please leave an honest review and rating at the App Store. That will help sales if the review is good, and help me make improvements if it isn't. Thanks!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

More DeckVille

If you read my previous post from two months ago, you know that DeckVille is a euro-style card game that I've been designing in which players compete to build the best districts of a city. Unlike most of my designs, DeckVille seemed to basically work right from the start. But there's a lot of distance between a good start and a finished game, so I've been working on improving that first-cut design.

Since that post, DeckVille has been through several revisions (and I now have an impressively tall stack of obsolete prototype cards that I am using as a scratchpad). For example, one important change has been the addition of "special powers": some cards provide a special power that improves the player's ability to get things done. These give the cards more variety, and give the players more to think about. The list of actions you can take on your turn has also been evolving, and the game now offers some interesting ways to manage your hand.

I took a prototype to the KublaCon game convention, where it got a lot of play and I got a lot of interesting, useful feedback. Because of that, the latest revision is now much better balanced and I think provides more interesting gameplay. (I was listening, guys!)

I still intend to make the game available via TheGameCrafter.com when I think it's ready, but it's certainly not ready yet. Just this afternoon I added two new special powers to the deck, and made some improvements to the iconography. But I may make a print-and-play version available in a few weeks, when I stop feeling the urge to make significant changes after every other play (assuming that ever happens).

In the meantime, here's a sneak peek at a diagram from the rulebook, showing the elements of a card:

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I'm really not keeping up this blog very well, I see. Well, I've been busy, and my other blog over at solitairetilldawn.blogspot.com gets more attention—which is as it should be. But I can't spend every waking moment on solitaire programming, and I've been able to find time for some table-game design lately.

First a glance back: last post, I was talking about recent changes to my Spatial Delivery boardgame. After a lot of playtesting, I'm now pretty satisfied with that design. I think it's done, and I don't expect to do anything more with it. (No publishers in sight, but the market is pretty crowded these days, so I'm not holding my breath.)

And now I'm working on a new design called "DeckVille".

A while back Dice Hate Me Games held a contest for game designers. Entrants were to design games that could be played with only a pack of 54 standard-size cards. I was too busy moving to think about it at the time, and the contest is long over. (You can see a number of the winners on Kickstarter at Big Game for Small Pockets.) But the idea stuck in my head, so I recently set myself a challenge.

I have wanted to create a card game in the style of the kind of board game that Helen and I like best: an "economic builder". Simply put, this is a strategy game where you spend the early part of the game building things that make you efficient, and the late part building things that will make you points.

I wanted this design experience partly for fun, and partly in hopes of getting a compact, portable, playable game out of it. But mainly it's meant as a learning tool. I thought that this exercise in minimalism might give me useful insight into this kind of game.

I didn't worry about coming up with anything original. I happily stole ideas from quite a few different successful games by published designers: 7 Wonders, San Juan, Suburbia, and Ticket to Ride, along with a number of others.

In nearly all games of this type, the player is to jump through some kind of hoops to get <something> that is spendable, and later jump through more hoops to spend the <something> on <something else> that will provide victory points. I decided that DeckVille would be about building a city; that the spendable stuff would be several different kinds of resources (e.g. wood, brick, steel, etc.), and that the victory points would be provided by facilities: residences, shops, businesses, public buildings, and so on.

San Juan provided a crucial notion, one I've also seen in many other games: every card can be used for two or three different purposes, all useful; but in every case you must choose one use per card, and forgo the other possibilities. This gives the players decisions to make. The decisions should be significant (that is, they will affect the outcome of the game), amenable to reason (that is, their effects are somewhat calculable), but not obvious. (Sometimes these are called agonizing decisions.) In DeckVille, a card can be used as a resource or as a facility, but not both. The cost to build a resource is to discard some number of other cards from your hand (another notion from San Juan), while the cost to build a facility is paid by having previously built all the resources that the facility needs (7 Wonders).

Interest and variety come from making every card different, and by making the scoring value of cards interdependent. Every facility has a type, out of eight different types (public, housing, shopping, dining, etc.). The scoring value of a facility might be absolute ("2 points") or conditional ("1 point per public facility you have built"). This kind of variety can be found in quite a few games, but I took most of my inspiration here from Ted Alspach's Suburbia.

Given that basic framework, what's needed for a good game is balanced paths to victory. There should be a number of ways to achieve victory: for example, you might build a lot of business facilities, capping them with a facility whose score depends on that. Or you might build the right combination of public and infrastructure facilities; or a mix of housing and shopping. If the game is balanced, there will be quite a few good ways to make lots of points, none of which are overwhelmingly better than the others, but all of which will be difficult to achieve in the face of intelligent opposition.

I found that the original goal of a 54-card game worked, but only for two players. After some thought, I added a second deck of 54 more cards, with half of that deck marked for "three players" and the rest for "four players". You can still play the two-player game with just the original deck.

It needs more work, probably lots more work. But it actually plays quite nicely, even now, which is encouraging. I think I will eventually spruce up the artwork and post it for print-on-demand at TheGameCrafter, when I'm done with it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Spatial Delivery: New Cards in the Works

Recent changes to my boardgame design-in-progress "Spatial Delivery" seem to be working out. Last Thursday, over at Rainy Day Games, three kind people gave it a near-blind playtest. They had a good time (I was watching) and they "got" the game, making the right kind of plays and doing the right kind of thinking. Most of their feedback had to do with ways to make the game more accessible on the first play: quicker setup, better player aids, improvements to the rulebook, and so on. (I screwed up and brought a somewhat out-of-date rulebook, so I had to intercede occasionally to answer questions and make corrections.) The actual rules and gameplay went over well.

Given that, Helen and I decided that it's time to re-think the physical bits, with an eye toward first-time players. We may eventually rework the hex tiles, perhaps eliminating them in favor of an actual board; we're still discussing that. But the urgent priority is a new card deck.

Older versions of the game had very simple cards. Artwork aside, each card just had a color: red, yellow, green, or blue. But when I added the new Card Powers feature (see A Bit of Game Design), the cards became more complex. Each card now has one of nine different Card Powers, each of which can be used only at certain times in the game. Initially I'd hand-scribbled some rough icons for the various powers on my old cards, with explanations in the rulebook. That got us through our recent playtests; but the players always had trouble learning what the powers were and exactly when each one could be used.

So Helen and I are now brainstorming iconography and card layouts, trying to make the cards and their effects as easy to understand as possible.

In general I like to avoid text on cards if possible, because it makes international editions of a game more expensive to produce. But the various card powers are complex enough to need one to three sentences of explanation each. We want new players to be able to understand each power without having to constantly look them up in the rulebook. A separate player aid would be a reasonable compromise, but for our prototypes we've decided to put some text on each card, in addition to the iconography. If the game is ever published, the publisher can decide whether to keep the text or not: the icons are sufficient for players who are already familiar with the game.

We've decided to try a smaller card size, to reduce the area needed for the game on the table. While the card displays aren't the biggest offender, the game does take up a lot of table space so we're trying to minimize that without impacting ease of play.

Even though the cards are smaller, some elements of the card design still have to be reasonably large, because they must be visible from a couple of feet away when the card is lying face-up on the table. At the same time, compact iconography is needed along the left edge of each card (the "index column"), so that players can fan their hands and easily see what they've got. I was originally fixated on point symmetry, which would mean an index column along both sides; but that was taking up too much space. Helen broke my fixation by showing me that an asymmetrical design gave us enough room for a nice layout.

Here's a mockup of the new design. The actual size is a bit bigger than shown here, and of course the printed cards will have finer resolution. We've printed some proofs to be certain that the text will be readable.
The new card layout
Anybody got any suggestions for improvements?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Whitish Christmas

It's not Christmas yet, but if the weather keeps on like this, Christmas might well be white when it gets here. That will be a novelty for us. We're already enjoying the novelty of having a little bit of snow, right in our very own yard. It's not much, just a dusting; but it comes with several days (and counting) of day-long freezing temperatures. We are used to San Jose, where we counted ourselves lucky if it even bothered to rain in the winter. (There was one really cold winter during my 30ish years there, where icy winds drove snow from higher airs down to the ground in our yard; but even then, none of it stuck.)

The view from our deck.
We've just returned from the grocery store: a shopping trip at 25°F. Helen figured we should stock up the larder in advance of the snow forecast for tomorrow. While we don't expect the snow to be deep, we do live halfway up a small mountain; there's no route to our home that doesn't involve some really steep climbs. If those roads ice up, we may have to cocoon for a bit.

A neighbor's fountain, after several days' freeze.

Most of the rest of the country is having a terrible winter, according to the TV news. We're having a "just right" winter: enough cold and snow to be interesting, not enough to cause trouble. So all the rest of you, stay warm and stay safe, and don't worry about us. We're having a good time!