Friday, April 30, 2010

Blind playtesting results

I mentioned earlier I've been trying to do some blind playtesting. I've gotten some good feedback from a playtester I found on BGG.  He and his wife had some very insightful comments and questions about the rules, catching small but important details and interpretations I had missed, even though he eventually interpreted nearly all the rules the right way.

He also had a rules change suggestion which would completely redesign how the game works in the two-player game.  I'm not sure how that will fit in, and I admit to being a little hesitant to make such a major change after all the other testing I've done, but I'll have to give it a try and see what I think.  I know I need to be open to feedback.  I had identified the problem he's trying to help me address (one player getting an advantage early on that's hard to overcome), but based on my playtesting experience, I thought it was relatively uncommon and tolerable when it happened; apparently it came up more for them, so it may be an issue I need to head off.

Another playtester has tried the game, coming up with a manufacturing suggestion (don't fold the rules so many times), a potential problem (not being able to make a legal play) that's actually already covered and resolved in the rules, and a general sense that the 6-point scoring card is too powerful.  I'm not sure how much they have played, and I'm hearing the feedback second-hand through a relative.  Hopefully I'll hear some more feedback if they play again.  Unlike the testers mentioned above, this feedback is looking less worth my effort (and a $12 copy of the game), but I guess that's the way it goes.

I didn't try to give any explanation of the game before handing out these copies (hence the idea of "blind" playtest), so ideally I'm getting a good idea of what it would be like for a customer who buys the game and has to figure out how to play from the rules sheet alone.  I've got another testing copy out now to still another tester I found through TGC - hopefully I'll get some more good feedback.

One thing I'm realizing through this process is that the rules have to be very, very clear.  Nearly every group who's played one of the eight or so copies I've sent out for testing has either had major questions on how the rules work or has misinterpreted the existing rules in some way.  There have only been one or two cases where my rules actually didn't cover the situation mentioned, and I remedied those a long time ago. In most cases, I thought the rules were clear enough to resolve any questions, but they apparently weren't; in some cases, the rules section covering the issue was present and reasonably clear, but was missed by the reader or misinterpreted.  This rules-writing business appears to be a real art form, and I'll need to hone my technical writing skills for the final version.  I'm thinking more pictures, less text, and a quick handy summary card is probably the way to go.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Role of randomness

Greg Costikyan has posted a slide show on the role of chance in games which is a pretty exhaustive analysis of the topic. I've always enjoyed some randomness in games (probably why I've never gotten as deep into chess as many of my friends have). I think it's because, as Greg points out, it's an easy way to ensure variety in how a game plays out, which, to me, very much increases the replay value of a game.

My recent designs, which rely heavily on cards, have by nature a fair amount of luck. One of the early bits of feedback from a playtester is that they felt that getting a big-value score card fall early (the score cards range from 1-6 points) makes the rest of the game seem less meaningful, since the winner may already be determined. Some of my family felt this to be true, too. In my playing of the game, that hasn't seemed like a common problem - it's usually possible to catch up, and having the high value score cards adds a bit of a thrill to the game, even requiring some strategy as players decide how to use their resources and how their plays can distribute score to other players. But I have to be careful not to let my preference for a little more luck blind me to what others might want out of the game.

In each case, the people who mentioned this hadn't played very many times, but that may not matter, because you only get a few plays to fix people's opinion of a game, and if one of them is determined largely luck, you may not get another chance.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kickstarter again, and more economic woes

Via BoardGameNews, here's another instance of a company seeking startup capital to launch a board game project via  Their game is called Alien Frontiers.  I discussed this funding method in an earlier post.  This is actually working for some folks, I guess - two Kickstarter projects I linked to last time have both met their goals for startup capital, one of $3000, one of $7600.  I'm still not sure how many of the preorders are random web wanderers and how many are family and friends - my guess is that it's a lot of the latter.

Like those earlier funding efforts, this campaign offers donors a chance essentially to pre-buy a copy of the game.  Let's run the numbers:

  • They're trying to raise $5000 to print 1000 copies of the game, or $5 a game.  
  • That's a small print run; I bet their costs per copy are at least $10, more probably $15-20 or more, depending on components or packaging.
  • Therefore, the $5 per copy they're raising on Kickstarter isn't going to come close to covering it all; they're going to have to put in $10-$20,000 of their own money.  
  • Their total revenue for selling out this print run would be $50,000, if they sell all of the games at their list price of  $50.

Suppose they complete the Kickstarter campaign.  Roughly speaking, they'll have collected $5,000 of capital, and they'll have pre-sold 100 of their 1000 games.  They blow that $5000 and another $10,000 (conservatively) on their print run, and ship the pre-ordered games.  Now, they have to make $10,000 back on 900 games to break even.

  • Suppose they sell all of them at list, that's $45,000, or $25,000 net.  A great return, but not realistic.
  • Suppose they sell all of them, but at distributor prices (say a 60% discount).  That's $18,000, or $8,000 net.  Not so great.
  • Suppose they only manage to sell 400 of them to distributors, and the other 500 stay in an attic somewhere, eventually discovered by their descendants playing hide and seek.  That's $8,000, or a net of $2,000 lost.

I think my numbers are relatively conservative, and, very importantly, they don't include business and operating costs - shipping, storage, marketing, commissions, damaged goods, returns, travel, lost components, etc. - which can be pretty large.  Also, it looks like Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of your funding off the top before you even see it, so that's even worse.

This gets to the problem with independent game publishing.  The numbers are stacked against you; there's a huge initial printing cost, and you have to do a big print run to bring the per-unit cost down.  Then, you have a pile of games you have to work to sell, without the connections and reputation of a major manufacturer, and you bleed more money all the time trying to attract customers.

People make this work, as new game companies emerge every year, but I wonder how lucky these few are.  How many are left as burning wreckage by the wayside, thousands of dollars in the hole?  I wish these Alien Frontiers guys well; their game looks neat, although investing $50 in a game I've never seen with an uncertain future printing date isn't something I'm comfortable with at the moment.  They're trying something useful, though - getting buy-in from others through something like Kickstarter is a great risk-free way to distribute the investment (and the risk) from the designer/publisher to a broader group of interested parties.

Manufacturing in the comfort of your home

I recently got an order for a bunch of copies of Diggity, which is cool - a friend is buying 6-7 copies for other friends. He asked me about buying these a couple months ago, and it's been kind of a struggle getting them ready for him. I wanted to make these from the copies I ordered from SuperiorPOD, but the delay getting my order made that a pain.

Now that I finally have the games, I have the additional challenge to collate them. To get the best price from SuperiorPOD, which prints cards in sets of 18, I had to order the games in two pieces. I have 96 cards in the game, currently, so I did 15 sets of five sheets of 18 (90 cards), and then five sets of one sheet made up of the last six cards repeated three times. Complicated to set up, but it saved me not inconsiderable cash. But now, to put a game together, I have to take the set of 90 and count out a set of six to add to it.

Once that's done, I have to do the manufacturing. I bought some small white corrugated boxes, which I have to fold and tuck in about six steps to get them assembled. I also printed up rule sheets, which I need to fold a bunch of times to get it to fit into the box. I also printed up color box stickers on a color laser printer, and those have to be peeled and stuck carefully onto the box.  The laser printing didn't fuse with the sticker perfectly, so some of the stickers are speckled.

The box isn't a perfect fit for the cards (there was no standard box that would fit the cards closely). That's not a big deal when it's sitting on a shelf, but I didn't want the game to get beat up while being transported. So, I added some packing peanuts to each game too.  That took a while, and doesn't look great when you open the box.

I got better at this as I did it, but it was still kind of a pain, and I don't know that this would be great quality were I not providing the game for friends who don't really care about the packaging. I think for people who imagine manufacturing games at home from cheap standardized components, you should realize that (1) it takes a long time, (2) you screw up sometimes (I put a sticker on the bottom side of one box, and I lost one of the cards from the smaller sets of six - no idea where that is), and (3) the product you get, even if you're using reasonably high quality components, doesn't look totally awesome. It still is a white cardboard box with a sticker - not much different from what I'd have gotten from TGC if I'd ordered from them (other than my color sticker!), but I had to do all the work.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Diggity playtest and onlooker allure

I had another four-person game of Diggity on Friday, with one of my new customers and some students.  Total sales of Diggity are now at 10 - two from strangers, one from a friend (the copy above), and the other seven from another friend who gave them as gifts to a bunch of still other friends.  So, my current business model seems to be pegged mostly to people I know, which isn't a great long-term strategy, unless I become better at making lots of friends.

The game went well, I thought; one player hadn't played before, and he came in a distant 4th, which makes me think that there is legitimate skill/strategy to the game that you can learn over time.  The four-player game comes occasionally with a certain degree of kingmaking*, and that happened a bit here today, some of it intentional and some unintentional or misunderstood.  But that also allows the game to be balanced by the players - if somebody gets ahead, the other players do usually have the power to deny him or her more score.

An onlooker commented that she had trouble figuring out what was going on.  That's a little bit of a problem, since it's harder to grow by word-of-mouth if people can't catch on to what's happening.  I'm considering including some guidebook cards (a single card with the key rules on it) to hand out to each player.  Once you've played for even ten minutes, the rules are clear, but there's an initial hurdle to get over because the game doesn't play like most other card games.  But I think I can boil the rules down to about seven key points that I can fit on a card - I think that would be helpful.  I've seen that kind of thing used to good effect in several other games, and I think it will help.

*by this I mean one player can't score, but gets to choose which other player does - this comes up fairly regularly in multi-player games of Diggity.  It's not without its strategy, because you have to decide how to use your resources, and using yours forces others to use theirs.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Blog stats

I've been writing this blog now for a couple of months, trying to average about a post a day. Google Analytics tells me I've got 1200 pageviews from 539 visits, 309 of them unique, mostly from the U.S. The stat-keeping is pretty amazing - for example, I know that somebody from Mid-Michigan Community College visits every few days, and that 18 visits have come from iPhones.

I signed up for AdSense ads here, mostly because I was curious about how they worked. The short answer is, they don't - I have had no clicks and generated no revenue from them. I didn't expect to, so that's not by any means a crushing disappointment, but it's interesting nonetheless - I know some blogs are major moneymakers through ad sales, but they likely have a far greater readership than do I.

I also publish the blog as a feed, and there are about 20 folks who follow the feed in various ways, either through or via FeedBurner.

I'm curious how many of my visits and clicks are from me - I think the Google Analytics algorithms make at least an attempt to filter me out of the stats, because the total number of visits from Greensboro, NC, are nowhere near the number of times I log in. But I'm not clear on exactly what's included - I may well be generating a significant fraction of my own traffic.

It's pretty interesting seeing how this all works as I cut my blogging teeth here. I hope the blog has been useful for those of you who stop by. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

BGDF design showdown

It appears I've scored a narrow victory in the April Boardgame Design Showdown at with my game concept Drunken Strippers Ahead.  I discussed my entry here on PGJ earlier here and here.  Pretty neat. I'd like to thank the academy...  No, I digress.

Is the game something people would actually enjoy?  I think it might work at a party, and could actually be pretty fun; I'll have to print it out and try it out sometime with some friends.  I'm not positive that the art is in the public domain, which is one tricky aspect of actually producing it.

Some good critiques of all the entries are here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Another good session

I got a chance to play Diggity with another set of new players - friends who live down the street from us.  We had eight people, and the game only really works with 4-5, so we took the unusual step of going with partners - four teams of two.  That's not something we ever did in my family, but it actually went pretty well here; I'd have thought there wasn't enough to plan to give two people enough to do, but it actually worked OK.  The game went well, too - some interesting strategic miner and tool choices, some brother-sister rivalries kicking in with tool-stealing, and an exciting finish where one player ended up kingmaking to finish it off.  They went with a coin flip rather than actively selecting who to make win.  That kind of situation is not ideal, but on the other hand, it was good that the game ended up close enough that there was no clear winner until the very last gold card was revealed.

As with other plays of the game with new folks, the rules are different enough from a standard card game that it takes a little bit until people are familiar with what's going on.  The family we played with here are experienced game players, so that helped, and we had my family around as well, so the teaching was a little easier there.  By the end, they'd figured out a lot of the strategy and were making some interesting choices.  The game drags a bit with new players (and goes slower with four regardless) - something I'll have to look out for, since first impressions are so important with games.

It was fun to see it work again, and to see new people enjoying it.  With friends playing, you're less likely to hear any strong criticism, and it was late enough that the kids were getting a little silly, but I think everybody had a good time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

iPad Scrabble

Following up on my earlier post on using the iPad for board games, via the Death of Monopoly blog comes a video look at Scrabble for the iPad.  It looks cool from a gee-whiz standpoint, but the gameplay doesn't seem to be vastly improved over playing with wooden tiles.  The only features that look better are maybe the automatic score calculation (which isn't a big deal for me) and the dictionary available on the phone.  Otherwise, I'd rather play with the wooden pieces - the screen looks tiny, and the tiles hard to move around on it.

And that second player should really have played RIVETED with the D making GORED - that was bugging me.

Trouble getting printing quotes

I've been having some trouble getting quotes from printers for my publishing run, a process I've been working on since last December or so.  In defense of the printers, I imagine these companies are approached for quotes all the time by small-timers like myself, and most of these quotes don't turn into orders, but it still seems kind of weird how little response I get when trying to buy their services.  It almost seems like these companies don't want new business.  

Anyway, here's a summary of my requests and their results - I've left the names off, since this isn't meant as a review of the individual companies, and my personal experience might not match their typical behavior.  The requests were essentially the same, for print runs of various sizes from about 2,000 to 10,000 of a 96-card deck with a box.
  • Quote Request #1 (domestic): Quick initial response with full pricing; follow up questions answered; but then a request for requote for different packaging has gone unanswered for a month later despite several requests and assurances that it was coming
  • Quote Request #2 (foreign): Quick response with full, detailed pricing.
  • Quote Request #3 (foreign): No response, of any kind, ever.
  • Quote Request #4 (hybrid foreign/domestic): Quick response with printing costs but not packaging; much higher than competitors.
  • Quote Request #5 (foreign): Short e-mail response after about 10 days, was told I'd get a quote after a holiday had passed; nothing since
  • Quote Request #6 (hybrid foreign/domestic): No response to first e-mail; after second e-mail, printer requested a phone number to call with some questions; I provided it promptly, but there's been no phone call or further response
  • Quote Request #7 (foreign): Quick response; repeated follow-up from the sales rep; but my other research indicates potentially serious quality issues with this printer
I think that's all of them.  So, of the seven, I've had essentially one experience (#2) that gave me any confidence that I'd be dealing with somebody who both gives a damn about my order and would produce anything of appropriate quality at a reasonable price. Not too great, especially when I'm considering spending reasonably large pile of cash, and even worse when it's potentially going overseas where my options for recourse are very limited.  I'm actually pretty reluctant to work with anybody that I have to prod to give me a quote or respond to my questions, but that seems unfortunately like the norm for these guys.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Trade shows and hawking one's wares

An interesting article over at the Living Dice blog that gives a clue as to what goes on at the GAMA trade show recently completed in Las Vegas.  They've had a series of articles on their time at GAMA before that, and although they've been quite interesting, I've had a little trouble imagining what it's like - you don't get a sense of scale from their pictures.  I have only been to a couple of business trade shows, and those were focused on children's books for some reason.  I've been to the exhibit hall at several academic conferences, and I've talked to a number of commercial folks running booths at those, but I imagine it's not really the same.  GAMA sounds like the real thing, where publishers try to find retailers and hawk their products, and business deals happen everywhere.

I imagine I'll need to consider going to GAMA once I've got a product to sell, although having a booth with only one product to show doesn't sound so great.  I hear that sometimes you can share booth space from a distributor or make arrangements like that, so maybe that will be an option while I'm still small-time with only one or two products.  Or maybe I can just go and buttonhole people in elevators, bars, and men's rooms, but that sounds like a skill I don't have yet.  Anyway, I'll need to figure out a promotional strategy at some point, and GAMA and other conferences may be part of that.

Monday, April 19, 2010

BGDF entry - Drunken Strippers Ahead

In this post, I mentioned I'd entered the monthly design contest at  Here's my entry, Drunken Strippers Ahead.  There are five entries, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.  Some of them use the icons in creative ways, and some have a great deal of backstory built into the game.  One has beautiful art for the sample cards.  Some of them invoke components and pieces that don't actually exist, such as decks of cards and other elements which would require careful design. That's interesting - I guess they're relying on the voter's imagination of what these parts would look like rather than actually designing them.  Other folks lay out all the components, at least in mock-up form, which is understandable.

I'm expected to vote in the contest, too, and I have to split ten votes among the entries.  I can't vote for mine.  From a strictly game-theory perspective, I suppose I should split my votes as evenly as possible so as not to advantage one of the other contestants.  Or maybe I should dump all my votes toward the game I think will lose, so that my votes don't go to help anyone.  Some prisoner's dilemma-ish stuff possible here.

But that would be weaselly.  I'll vote for ones I think are best.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The iPad for boardgames

I got a chance to see an iPad today - a student brought one in and was really excited about it.  It was a neat gizmo, as are most Apple products.  I'd been reading in several places about how people expected it to be useful as a boardgame platform.  My suspicion was that it would be awkward in the same way computers normally are, for two reasons:
  1. Computer screens are small.  It's hard to see what you're doing, and when you have multiple players, not everybody can get a good look.
  2. It's hard to have hidden information unless you make people look away or take turns. 
  3. Some of the fun in playing boardgames is moving the little bits around, holding cards, and rolling dice.
I made a number of wargames or boardgames in my youth as I explored computer programming (good old BASICA run from a 5.25" floppy on our IBM PC with the green and black monitor - those were the days), and they were always fairly unworkable.  Any functionality or bonus to gameplay you gain from the computer is overshadowed by the annoyance of having to trade seats or look away while the other person plays his/her turn.

So, will the iPad work?  Maybe.  For problem #1 above, display size and visibility, the iPad has a big enough screen that you can show more of the board, and the fullscreen touchscreen will make for some neat interaction/interface possibilities.  The fact you can zoom or slide easily will probably help too.  I think really great computer-assisted boardgaming will probably require a larger thing like the iPad, something like the touchscreen tabletop here.

For problem #2, the problem of hidden information, some of the designs I've seen have people using iPhones or iTouches to store their hidden information while the community info is on the iPad.  Pretty neat, and this allows for games with lots of hidden info to work face to face. But by the time you've bought an iPad for $500 and four iPhones or iTouches for a couple hundred each, you're investing a thousand bucks to play a tiny little boardgame.  I think dedicated games that run on TVs (like this one) will be more economical (but maybe less neat-o) for this kind of thing for the next few years at least.

For problem #3, the hindrance factor of the interface, that's a tough call.  If the games designed for the iPad are just rehashes of traditional boardgames, then you're not really gaining anything by playing them on the iPad, and you lose something.  My first version of computer Monopoly  back in 1985 used ASCII art and colored text to show the board.  I worked really hard to get the whole game included, with trades, the Chance and Community Chest cards and their effects, and a bunch of other features.  And in the end, it was deathly dull.  You hit the space bar to roll, and your little character moved around the board with little bleeping noises, and stuff happened that you only rarely had control over.  Other than the trades, which are rare, the only decisions were whether to buy or not, when to buy houses, and whether to pay to get out of jail or not.  That's something that a well-designed iPad game could get around, but you'll probably have to start with something suited to the platform rather than just porting a real-life game to it.

So, the iPad is neat, and there is certainly potential for it to be a cool boardgame platform, but I don't think we've quite reached the face-to-face electronic boardgame experience everybody is hoping for.  The closest I've come recently is places like, where most of the solution is the Internet.  You get to look at your own screen, your info stays hidden, and the game is fun.  The only part that's lacking is the face-to-face experience of a real game night.  It may be hard to get all of those ingredients together.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Speed Snood

I just ran across this video of a guy playing the GameBoy Advance version of my game, Snood, about as fast as I can imagine it being played.  I'm not sure how he's doing it, but it's pretty impressive.

It's always interesting seeing how games you create end up being used.  In the case of Snood, I've never actually been very good at it, although I get a lot of practice in whenever I do an update.  My wife has always been able to thrash me, and some folks (like this guy on YouTube) are remarkably good.

Being responsible for other people's obsessions is a little bit weird - that's been kind of a constant oddity in the background of my experience with Snood all these years.  It's mostly been positive, although occasionally a little creepy.  I don't know how (or if) it will translate into boardgames, but we'll see.

Friday, April 16, 2010

BGDF design showdown for April

I entered the monthly design contest on BGDF for the first time this month. The prompt for the contest was to use this image of warning signs in some way: I don't think my entry (called Drunken Strippers Ahead) was stunningly original, as it borrows mechanics from several different games (e.g. Dictionary, Apples to Apples, Dixit) and the principle of the joke (misinterpreting warnings) from something I saw on the web a couple of years ago, but I imagine it might be fun to play, especially if you're with clever, funny people, as I often am. We'll see how the contest goes. I'll link to my entry when it's up, and let you know how I do.

I love the title, if nothing else. And I suppose having something involving drunken strippers on my blog here might drive some traffic, although not the kind of traffic I'm looking for. We'll see what Google Analytics says.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Game art

I've recently gotten an artist to take a swing at my game, Diggity. I found him on, and it seems like he does good work and understands games.  Hopefully that will punch up the graphics to a commercial level and increase the appeal of the game.  I have been working on getting some design documents together for him. When working with artists in the past, I've always found it helpful to be as specific as I can at the start, so there's no confusion, but that means being pretty thorough and trying to anticipate questions.  We'll see how I do - I'll post samples when we're farther along.

Getting stores to sell your game

From this post from the owner of Starlit Citadel, an online retailer, comes a lot of seemingly good advice about getting them to sell a game. It sounds like they often get such requests.  A lot of this seems like common sense, but I'd guess the world of game design and publishing (and especially micro-publishing of homemade stuff) is full of idealists with little practical acumen or business sense.

It does sound like they're willing to at least consider selling something without going through a distributor, which is interesting.  However, most likely, they'll only order 1-2 copies at first, and that the shipping might be prohibitive.  Compared to a distributor, the retailer is expecting about 10-15% less discount, and on just a couple copies, that 10-15% is about what the individual shipping costs would be.  At those levels, it doesn't seem like it would necessarily be worth launching a major campaign to get your game sold direct to stores - the return on your time would be really small.  However, if you do, then it should be a professional presentation.  Reading between the lines of the Starlit Citadel post, they get a lot of very crudely composed unrealistic offers.

So, it sounds like getting listed with a distributor is really the way to go, unless your publishing cost to retail price ratio is very small.  It's easier for the game stores to buy your products, and the shipping is simplified on all sides.

I still don't know how easy it will be to get stocked by a distributor, but we'll see.

Blind Playtesting

I'm working on getting some playtesters who'll try playing my game with no contact or help other than my written rules.  I have a couple folks in the pipeline now, but I'm looking for others.

Some of my early playtests were essentially blind trials - friends and family to whom I sent copies around Christmas of last year.  They all misunderstood the rules in different ways and to varying degrees, which is no good.  I've rewritten the rules now, adding a number of pictures and examples, so I want to see how it goes with a new group of fresh eyes.

I've got two new folks whom I've never met, one an acquaintance of my father-in-law, one a guy from Boardgame Geek, so hopefully I can get some advice and input from people who don't mind giving me the cold, hard truth.  Assuming they write back, and give me some feedback, this will be well worth the investment of sending them a free copy of the game.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gamer archetypes

A funny post at TheBoardGameBlog about typical game-playing behaviors. I've been all five of these at different times, although I tend toward the Helper and the Victim. It's especially difficult when watching people play a game I've created to sit on my hands, bite my tongue, and not help out - that's been a challenge for me when doing playtesting sessions, since I want people to have a good time, but I need to see what strategies and rules interpretations people come up with, whether I intended them or not.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Old-fashioned parlor games

I know there are some party games, like Charades and Dictionary, which have their roots in Victorian parlor games. Others are more physical, like blind man's bluff, or pin the tail on the donkey. These have mostly shifted to be kids' games.

But some were just weird. See this description of a game called "Are you there, Moriarty?" Also, this article in Tin House (via Boardgame News) is a funny look at some of the old-school games people used to play. It's hard to imagine anybody (or at least anybody not under the influence of a controlled substance) in our current cynical world agreeing to do these things, while the supposedly prudish Victorian gentlefolk were willing to flop about like a fish on the floor whacking each other with newspapers while wearing baby bonnets. Pretty amazing.

P.S. - here's another fun article by Danielle Levanas about parlor games (I also lifted the picture above from there, although it looks like it's originally from somewhere else).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Puzzles as games

I just posted a review of Ricochet Robots, and as I was writing it, I was thinking about the kind of game that's really just a competitive mental puzzle. Ricochet Robots is definitely an example of this, and so is Set. I think good games scratch an itch, and these games scratch a couple of them at once. The games are designed to create a random series of logic puzzles, and its fun not only to solve the mental puzzles involved, but also to compete against others to find the solution first.

There are plenty of computer games that have the first part of that. Hardcore players of my game, Snood, mostly wind up playing the Evil level, which is essentially randomly generated, over and over. The same goes for the other popular puzzle games (e.g. Minesweeper, various solitaire games). Whenever I make a puzzle game (others of mine include Snoodoku and Snood Towers), I always try to make at least part of the puzzles randomized to give the game some replay value. As long as the puzzle part is difficult enough to provide a challenge but also able to be solved, and the solving process is fun, then people will enjoy the game, and often be willing to play over and over.

This is harder to do in a board game. It's difficult with simple components to create randomized puzzles that hit that sweet spot (possible to solve, hard enough to be challenging, and fun to solve). That's part of where Ricochet Robots and Set are so clever - the design is simple, but the game is fun because the puzzles usually work. Both can produce trivial results (easy to spot, or very simple to solve) or impossible or nearly-impossible results, but generally, they work.

If you've got a fun puzzle like this, then it's easy to turn it into a game - just have players race for the solution. The good thing about this model is that it supports multiple players (and sometimes a LOT of players) very easily. One bad thing is that they're often very skill-based, so it's sometimes difficult for new players (or players who just aren't very good at them) to enjoy them or feel like they're accomplishing anything.

I'd love to do a boardgame like this - the puzzle games I've written are really fun to design and tweak. I had a great time writing code to generate sudoku puzzles (and two different versions of a sudoku solving algorithm) when writing Snoodoku. When you don't have computing power behind you, it's a good deal harder to come up with varied, interesting puzzles that hold players' attention, but when it works, it's a lot of fun.

So, here's to puzzle games - once I get up and running with my other more traditional games, maybe I can try my hand at one of those.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Game Review: Ricochet Robots

I played Ricochet Robots (from Rio Grande Games and other publishers, designed by Alex Randolf) with the Guilford College Yachting Club at the cafeteria last Friday. I'd played it before, a couple of times, but I'm getting used to it now. It's actually more of a competitive puzzle than a game. The basic idea is that there is a semi-random board layout full of walls and target spaces with colored symbols on them. You add to the board in random spots a set of robots of different colors (matching the symbols). Then, you draw little chits from a bag one at a time. The symbols on the chits match the symbols on the board, and the chit you draw indicates which robot needs to reach which target space.

Then, the players all sit there staring at the board (or, if you're playing with some of the group that I did, cussing a blue streak while staring at the board), trying to find a way to get the robot whose color matches the chit to the target space matching the symbol. The board is a big grid, and the robots have two restrictions: they can only move in straight lines along the grid, and they must move along those lines until they hit something (a wall, the edge of the board, or another robot). To get the selected robot to the target space, you may find a direct set of moves, or you may need to move other robots to places where the main robot can run into them and stop, lining it up to move onto the target space.

Once you find a way to achieve this, you shout out the number of moves it takes to solve the puzzle and flip a timer. The other players have a chance to find a shorter sequence of moves than yours before the timer runs out. If nobody does, you get a point; if another player beats you (or ties your number of moves but has a lower overall score than you do), they get to steal your point. There are a series of these puzzles dictated by the chits, and the winner is the one who collects the most points before the chits run out.

This, like Set, which is also a competitive puzzle, is a game where some people just seem innately better at it, and where having a few games under your belt makes you much better than people who haven't played before. The thing feels a bit like a puzzle from an early computer game from the 1980's, or from one of those puzzle magazines from my childhood. You could certainly play it solitaire and amuse yourself for a while. But it's more fun competitively. There's a bunch of pressure while you compete, and a bunch of mental stress too as you're working out complex pathways and trying to remember them as you go. Sometimes the chains of moves reach 15-20 or more, and it is very challenging even to count them, much less remember them while the timer runs out. If a move chain is too short, it's disallowed, and the chit goes back in the bag.

The concept is pretty simple, but there are some good design decisions that have gone into making it into a better game. The rule where people who are behind can claim points merely by tying the number of moves helps to keep the game closer, since the more experienced (or plain better) players would otherwise get ahead. The inclusion of place markers for the robots (so that you can move the robots around but then get them back where they started if a move chain turns out to be illegal) is very clever. The randomized boards (four sections with two sides each that can be assembled in any combination) and the pre-set positions of goal spaces are well-designed to make it frequently tricky to solve the puzzles. Trivial solutions (short move chains) seem to come up fairly regularly, but any given game will likely have at least a few puzzles that need 10 or more moves of multiple robots to solve, and that's where the game is the most fun.

The pieces are nice enough; the robots are cute, and the board is easy to read, although the walls printed on the board are sometimes hard to see. The set I've played on doesn't fit together quite right, and the boards have warped a little, but I don't know if that's typical - this one has seen a lot of use.

A fun game; like Set, it makes your brain sweat a bit, and a lot of the competition is people sitting silently next to each other staring intently and stressing out, but I'd recommend it.

Image by Chris Norwood, used under CC license. From

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Game boxes - setup box vs. tuckbox?

In an earlier post on boxes, I faced the conundrum of whether to go with a simpler tuckbox for my game, Diggity, or whether to pay more to get a two-piece base-and-lid style box (called a setup box by many in the industry). Within the tuckboxes, there was the question of whether to go single-deck (a small, thick box) or double-deck (wider and thinner). As I discussed before, the tuckboxes are cheaper and more resource-efficient, but most games like mine are sold in setup boxes in stores, and a setup box looks and feels more significant.

So, the comparison becomes:

Setup Box
  • significantly cheaper
  • more environmentally sound
  • smaller and lighter for storage and shipping
  • more impressive on a shelf or in a store
  • looks more professional (meets the industry standard)
  • may allow me to charge a higher price
  • easier to open and use
  • more room for artwork and text on the outside

So, what's the would-be publisher to do? Let's look at the actual numbers from one of my bids. I didn't ask permission to share these numbers, so I won't identify the manufacturing company by name, but I will say it's an overseas printer and among the lowest bids I have received. Here are the figures, for a print run of 6,000 copies:

(two-deck double width)
Setup Box 
(5.5"x4.75"x1.5" with insert)
$1.62 per copy
$10,620 total with shipping for 6,000 games
$2.42 per copy
$15,420 with shipping for 6,000 games

Caveats: these are just the printing costs (no art, design, etc.) and I'm probably only including part of the shipping, because I need to get the games to where I am in the U.S. rather than just to the nearest port. There may also be import duties and other fees. But at least it's a ballpark estimate. And for that ballpark, I'm looking at $0.80 per game for the nicer box. I got quotes for different sized print runs, and the tuck vs. setup box differential was always near that (ranging from $0.65 to $0.92 per game).

In this post, I assessed the not-too-rosy economics of publishing. The question about whether the better box is worth it depends on how much higher a price for the game it can attract. I'm guessing it will draw at least a $4-$6 per game difference in final retail price, e.g. from something like $9-10 per game to something like $15-$16 per game. Building on that, I'm faced with the following possibilities:
  • If I'm selling all my games direct to consumers, I need the setup box to be worth about another dollar per game in price in order to break even. So, not a problem if my estimate above is right. However, if I'm selling direct to consumers, I really don't think I'll be able to sell 6,000 games very quickly, maybe ever, unless Diggity really catches on.
  • If I'm selling direct to retail stores, who expect maybe a 50% discount on eventual retail price, then I need the setup box to be worth at least an additional $2 in retail price to break even. But that's hard to do; from what I've heard, retailers mostly rely on distributors.
  • If I'm selling to distributors, who expect a discount of 60% or more, then I need the setup box to be worth maybe an additional $3-4 in final retail price, especially because there will be more shipping costs involved with the bigger heavier boxes making two trips before reaching point-of-sale.
So, from the cost-benefit analysis, it's looking like a small but positive effect to have the bigger box. On the less tangible side, I get a product that looks more professional, is easier to advertise, and is at the same production level as its competitors, which might open more doors for distribution. Countering that, to get the better box, I would have to invest at least another $5,000 (or an additional 50%), and if the whole thing tanks, then I'll have a significantly larger loss on my hands. Also, I'll have to have more storage space for the games, but that's not a big concern at this point. And I'll be paying more in shipping for all orders for the entire life of the game, which might run to a few thousand dollars, wiping out any benefit from a higher eventual retail price.

Tricky stuff, but at least I've got some numbers to chew on. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More on game box art

The post I referenced earlier has been transferred to a discussion on BoardGame Geek, where, unsurprisingly, people have strongly held conflicting opinions which they express in snarky ways.  If I can distill the various viewpoints down to basic conflict, it's this:

  1. Exterior artwork, and to a lesser extent, interior artwork, is vital to the marketing success of a game.  A game will not sell in a game store unless it has an appealing box.
  2. Exterior artwork is irrelevant to people buying online, and because much game shopping is now done from online stores or through recommendations rather than by browsing in a store, the role of good exterior art is much diminished.
So, these diametrically opposed views are interesting but not so helpful.

For me, though, this will likely be my one shot, lifetime, at game publishing, and something that I'm going to dump a bunch of money into, so I think it's important that I do it right.  Really good artwork will probably add $500-$2000 to the production cost of my game, which at the numbers I'm considering comes out to maybe $0.10-$0.40 cents cost per copy (although if the game is a smash hit and I need to order a second print run, the art is free).  Worth it, or just more money I get to invest in a risky venture?  Hard to say at this point.

Other interesting points I took from the discussion:
  • Good art can actually make people more likely to demo a game with their friends, which might lead to more exposure
  • The art on the side of the box can be as important as the front cover, since boxes are often stocked vertically, edge out
  • Stores are often pressured by small/indie publishers (like I hope to be) to buy multiple copies of a game direct from the publisher, when actually they'd prefer to buy only a couple at a time, and it's easier for them to order from a distributor than to maintain all these separate relationships.  It sounds like distributors are a necessary part of this whole process, and any hope I had of selling direct to game stores (at least until I get bigger and more established) is probably not realistic
  • Some places where I don't live have awesome game stores that make me quite jealous

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Gamers of ill repute

Via Penny Arcade I learned of a new service called GameCrush, where interested game players can connect with opponents for online gaming of both the traditional computer and console variety and also for implemented boardgames (they have an image of a game of Battleship on their website, seen here).

That sounds tame enough. Who doesn't want to find a willing opponent to play with? But it's not quite so tame. If you sign up for this service, you are actually using it to hire an opponent. Weird, but still not skeezy, right? Some folks might really want to play, and be challenged in the friend department.

But wait - the opponent you hire is called a PlayDate, so there's the idea that you're actually paying for somebody of your desired gender to have a semi-romantic interlude with you. So, it's essentially an escort service. The PlayDates get rated (I can't imagine there's not going to be a PlayDate of the Month, right?), and can command bigger fees if they, uh, perform well. And you get the choice of choosing a "flirty" or "dirty" opponent. Depends on how badly you want to go from player to playa, I guess.

It's a little hard to imagine this working as a business model, although I suppose those toll numbers they advertise on late night TV must attract some kind of customer base. I kind of think you're trying to scratch too many itches at once here. When I try to imagine how pathetic you'd be staring at a monitor, wearing a headset microphone, and playing some weird kind of dirty Battleship with a person you're paying $6.60 per ten minutes to "date," I really can't even get my head around it.

And that says something, because believe me, I know pathetic - pathetic and I go way back.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A tale of a third POD publisher

My earlier post compared with  There's also, another popular print-on-demand source for cards.  I haven't used them, but one customer has done a comparison here, and finds the quality of product from SuperiorPOD better.  Here's another customer with a photographic comparison showing that the SuperiorPOD cards are a good deal thicker than Artscow.

How important are thematics and illustrations? | Board Game Designers Forum

Another interesting comment by Philip at BGDF on the role of artwork in games. I'm nervous about this - I feel like art's not terribly critical to my game, and that what I've done is good enough for a fairly abstract card game, but now I'm having second thoughts. The consensus among many in retail seems to be that art is as important (or moreso) than design or gameplay.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Another printing option

These guys at seem set up to do fairly inexpensive printing of cards, although their focus is definitely on trading cards rather than playing cards.  Their prices get much better with bigger print runs, as most of these places do.  The default pricing quote gizmo on their website gives prices not too far off what I'm getting from printers for my card game for big print runs, and they seem to have customizable templates and are prepped for user-submitted art.

Unlike the other places I've linked to here, they seem to be able to do randomized collating and small-pack packaging, too, which would be a big deal for those developing collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon.  I don't have a good idea of what their product is like, and I haven't used them, but I thought I'd add the link in case any of my mighty and burgeoning readership is looking for this kind of service.

A tale of two POD Publishers...

OK, here's a comparison between my experience with and, two print-on-demand game publishing services. Both of them offer a similar service - near-professional quality printing of games in short print runs - and both are suitable for making a small number of games up for yourself as a prototype, to use as a demo for a publisher, or to sell. Both purport to have an order-taking and order-fulfillment service.

I'm going to evaluate them head-to-head on a number of factors in two sets - the first set will be facts, either from their websites or in my experience with each company. The second set will be my opinions, based on my experience. How about table form? Here goes:


Possible productsCard decks (poker size only), game boards (thick cardstock only), tokens, counters, parts, money, rulesCard decks (poker or bridge size), tuck boxes, cardboard chits, RPG screens, rule booklets and other customized printing. Other size card decks and custom printed items listed, but it's not clear how to order them.
Acts as a sales agent and order fulfillment/distributorAutomatically when game is publishedCan be arranged through Publishers Warehouse system
Terms for sales50% of net profit
e.g., a game that costs $10 and sells for $20 would net the author $5.00
20% of net profit plus $2.00 per order plus $0.25 per item
e.g., a game that costs $10 and sells for $20 would net the author $5.75 (but production costs are lower on SuperiorPOD than TGC).
Art submissionIndividual images (PNG) are submitted and organized through web-based management systemImages must be pre-formatted into pages (TIFF) using templates (18 cards per page)

Opinions/Personal Experience

WebsiteVery nice and easy to use. Actively updated with active forums; product management straightforward and mostly glitch-free, although adding parts can be a little confusing at first; address management a little cumbersome during orderingSomewhat confusing website organization; not all products seem to be available for printing; you need to "order" the templates that you later submit for printing; no online content management other than FTP upload with e-mail response
CommunicationExcellent regarding orders; slower with regard to more technical questions. Employee responses in the public forums are very prompt.Minimal communication other than initial order response (they responded to my third and fourth e-mails and not to the two messages I left on their voice mail). Once I complained more, about three weeks after placing my order, I got more regular responses.
OrderingMostly straightforward except for address management; shipping is relatively expensiveMostly straightforward, but preparing artwork is more involved and requires more computer savvy than with TGC.
Cost to me for one copy$10.87 + $5.15 shipping
Total: $16.02
$8.40 + $6.06 shipping
Total: $14.46
Total cost to me for 15 copies (includes shipping)$189.20$113.79
Time to receive order after placement7 days40 days. Very frustrating. SuperiorPOD staff indicated this was unusual, and blamed a trade show, but it took much longer than the 10-14 days indicated on their site.
Product QualityGenerally very high; printing is darker than expected and dark-colored cards sometimes show flaking, but otherwise, a very good product. Cards come in ziploc bags. Games individually boxed with sticker; these are functional but nothing fancy.Very high; cuts seem better centered than TGC; cards shuffle a little better than TGC cards, and printing isn't so dark. Decks come shrink-wrapped. No individual boxes by default.

I hope that helps those of you considering each print-on-demand option.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Resources for game designers and publishers

This page over on has a ton of resources for parts, components, printing, tools, and other neat stuff. A really comprehensive directory.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The importance of artwork

Erin Truitt (Lofwyr at BGDF) has a pretty powerful commentary here on boardgame artwork from the perspective of a retailer and designer.  I probably need to shell out some cash here for my game, maybe more than I was planning on.  At least for the box, maybe for the whole thing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Most ignored game rule of all time?

Maybe it's just my experience, but nearly nobody I've ever played Monopoly with has used the property auction rule, stated as follows:
Whenever you land on an unowned property you may buy that property from the Bank at its printed price. You receive the Title Deed card showing ownership. Place the title deed card face up in front of you. If you do not wish to buy the property, the Bank sells it at through an auction to the highest bidder. The high bidder pays the Bank the amount of the bid in cash and receives the Title Deed card for that property.
Any player, including the one who declined the option to buy it at the printed price, may bid. Bidding may start at any price.
I think I've gotten people to play that way maybe once. The thing is, it makes the game much better, because
  • It gets the properties sold earlier, especially the more expensive ones 
  • Some of the properties are more expensive than they're worth at regular price. I'm looking at you, Pacific Avenue.
  • It balances the game better. It's pretty common that a player may spend a bunch of turns early in the game landing on Chance, Community Chest, Jail, etc., without getting to buy properties. If this happens to you, then you're sitting on a pile of cash, and you're pretty much screwed, because other players will get all the monopolies, and you've got nothing to trade.
  • It adds some true skill to the game - you're actually calculating the value of the property to you, and also the value of other people not having it, and engaging in a fun bid war.
So, why do people not use it? I think it's probably because people mostly play this game with kids, and kids don't understand the strategy or the process of bidding very well. They're having enough trouble dealing with the dice and the money and the cards; properly assessing the auction value of a property would be too hard (although maybe not for a 10-12 year old).

It's still weird, though. This is arguably America's favorite boardgame, and most of us play it wrong. The game would be much more appealing to adults (although the outcome would still probably be mostly determined by luck) if this skill-based aspect were included. Ironically, leaving it out to make the game playable by kids ensures that adults won't want to play it later, because to them, it's just for kids, while if they added the auction back in, it would seem like a much better, more sophisticated game. I've enjoyed playing Monopoly with a group of adults, and it would have been even better if we played with the auction rule.

And don't get me started on the frequent (and wrong!) $500 in the middle for free parking. What a travesty.