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 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 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.