So Thrive is a game I designed during my game-idea-a-day project, way back in 2016! It’s a two-player abstract strategy game (which should surprise nobody), and the big innovation is that you augment the way the pieces move as you are playing the game. A little over a year ago it was picked up by Adam’s Apple Games, and just NOW, TODAY, it’s on Kickstarter.
This is my first ever board game getting a print run of any size. I’ve been extremely grateful to Adam for taking me along on this ride, keeping me in the loop on many of the decisions along the way, and allowing me to be such a part of this project.
Last weekend was Protospiel MN. After how much fun I had at the Madison protospiel (was it just a month ago!?!?), my expectations for this one may have got away from me. I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the last few weeks prepping new prototypes. Here’s what I brought and tested:
Adam Rehberg and I both brought copies of Thrive in various states of quality. It was interesting to compare his 3D printed pieces to my own. (We are using a new model courtesy of local artist Colin Cody-Waters, and his printer does a better job with it than mine.) At this point, we are more in marketing mode than actual play testing, but we did have some new things to playtest.
I managed to get a new “pyramid tile laying / fitting / stacking game” to the table several times. The tiles are (some of them) glued together in 1/4th overlapping shapes and patterns. (This is harder to describe than I realized.) I’ll include a photo of one of the end-game pyramids below, but you can’t really get a sense from the photo which tiles are actually glued together and which are singletons. The idea is that you use the singletons as currency to pay for the larger tiles. One of the last parts left to design was how to score the game, (though I had plenty of ideas), and I got lots of useful feedback on those ideas, as well as plenty of other helpful suggestions from my play testers. One of the games we ended up calculating scores for each player in 4 different ways. None of them fully met my criteria for how I wanted the scoring to incentivize building up rather than out, so I still have some thinking still to do on this one.
Oh Tetrominoes! – just the blocks – I made a version of this game by gluing 1-inch cubes together (pictured below). It was easy to get to the table, because it just looks and feels really nice, I think. Adam gave me some great feedback about wanting a “qwirkle moment”. And someone suggested having blocking pieces. Next time I play it I want to try where only the three polygons score, and the spaces marked X are blockers. Notably, the game board (with score track) was the first and only thing I’ve ever created in Illustrator, only about an hour of work.
Windrose – I did playtest this again at the convention. There were some new ideas thrown around. I sort of thought this was “done”, but the conversation left me bristling with ideas. I sort of feel like most of them would result in a different game entirely, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I did also bring my Blinks dev kit, which was running my game Takeover. I only actually brought it out on Saturday night, after the main convention hall was closed for the evening. Immediately after we played it, we played Oh Tetrominoes!, and someone paid me the compliment (paraphrased) “You’ve shown me both the most sophisticated (technically), and least sophisticated (physical components) games that I’ve seen this weekend.”
– My standout game for the convention was a numbers-heavy (but not at all otherwise heavy) strategy game by Patrick Yang. He’s calling it Mathemagical, which is a great name, and I really liked the game.
– I got to play a tetromino stacking prototype called Lots. It was light and quite fun.
– My daughter attended with me on Sunday, and she ended up spending at least an hour (maybe two) prototyping a game in collaboration with another little girl who was there. I think they both really had fun, and there were even some neat ideas they came up with together.
This was my first time at this particular Protospiel. I do think the space was bigger than the MN one, but only by a factor of maybe 1.5x or 2x. I heard tell it was actually more space this year than previous years, but I have no idea if that was true. I also heard there was less of a publisher presence this time around. The only ones I saw, were Adam Rehberg from Adam’s Apple Games, (who I traveled over with), and the GameCrafter (if you count them as a publisher). Of course others may have been there incognito. (Or just less obviously.)
Adam (who is publishing my game Thrive) and I set up Thrive as a blind playtest on one of the back tables. This was the first time it had been shown with (some of) the new artwork, and we got a lot of praise for it. (I’ll post a photo.) I did feel bad briefly on Saturday when it was especially packed for taking up the space, but there was almost always someone playing it, and I had so much positive feedback, both about the game itself, and about doing a blind playtest at Protospiel (which several folks said they’d never seen before), that the feeling was easily allayed. We got good feedback on the rules, and added about 15-20 names/emails to our signup sheet to let folks know about the kickstarter when it happens. (Incidentally, we talked about a date for the kickstarter on the car ride home, and we are currently aiming to have it now in March.)
My personal goal was to get more games of my two current favorite designs in, and I got both on the table several times. The first, (with working title Oh Tetrominoes!), was played 3 times to completion, and only actually broke on the 4th play through. While it mostly felt like it works mechanically, I think the consensus was that it’s a bit fiddly, and not especially fun. It’s a mashup of three or four game ideas I had that all feature tetrominoes, and while they are integrated well (I got compliments on this!), they still feel weirdly disjointed, and one of them really feels like the core of the game (which I reluctantly agree with). After the last (failed) gameplay, one of the playtesters actually convinced the rest of the table (including me, but I didn’t need much convincing) to play a game of just that main core mechanic, without the other features. That went really well, and I’m definitely going to pivot the game a bit. (I mean really, I think it’s basically done, but I suppose I should playtest it a few more times to be sure. I’ll probably try and re-use the other mechanisms in a different game… someday.)
I felt like my other game, Windrose, had each playtest go better than the last. My goal for that one had been to play it with 4 players. as It had previously only been tested with two. I got in 2 more 2-player games, 3 4-player games, and one 3-player game (in that order). It really felt like it worked just fine with 3 and 4 players, although after the first 4-player game, we added a rule that changed strategies quite a bit without making the game feel all that different. I do think I prefer it with the new rule. Otherwise, the game didn’t actually need any tweaking, which feels kind of amazing to me. It’s another super simple abstract strategy game, and creating one of those that plays 4-players is really exciting to me. (Probably not something any publisher is going to be interested in, but you never know!)
Other highlights for me include:
– Playing a couple of new-to-me Adam’s Apple Games prototypes.
– A game played with “kite and dart” Penrose Tiles, which really looked cool.
– Seeing, (but sadly not actually playing) Cartographers: A Role Player Tale, which looked like a contender for my favorite take on the emerging “Flip and Fill” genre that is hot right now.
– Having dinner with Nick Bentley, who I have been acquainted with for some time, (I turned his game Catchup into an iOS app a few years ago), but until this trip might not have actually called a friend. We had such great conversations at dinner on Friday that we resolved to do it again on Saturday, and then I managed to convince him to play a couple of games late into Saturday night.
There were way more games that I was interested in trying out than I actually got to sit down and play. I did play a lot of games though, and I hope I gave some good feedback. I’d say the ratio of playing my own games to others’ was probably 40/60. All in all, definitely a great event for me. I’d recommend it, and definitely hope to do it again.
I wrote a forum post about Eigenstate over at Board Game Geek in the Abstract Strategy Game Forums. In the post I cover where I got the idea, how I made the original prototype, and a bunch about ideas that I tried to incorporate and didn’t work nearly as well as the current rules.
But the big news is that Adam from Adam’s Apple Games is planning to publish the game. This is obviously extremely exciting for me, as it’ll be my first board game to have a real box and print run.
Anyway, I’m going to reproduce the BGG post here for posterity:
New game: Eigenstate
Eigenstate is a 2-player abstract strategy game with incredibly simple rules that grows in complexity as you play.
Each turn you move a piece and then add two additional eigenstates (pegs) to your pieces giving them more possibilities for movement on future turns. Land on your opponent’s pieces to remove them from the board and when you’ve reduced them to one piece remaining, you win the game.
You can check out the rules and a 3D printer file for the pieces here: https://tinyurl.com/eigenstate (I’d really love to hear about it if you take the time to print it out!)
Design by subtraction
As you can see from the photo above, each piece has 25 holes, and all but the center space correspond to a possible move for that piece (relative to the center). Each piece only starts with a single movement peg, facing forward.
This design was a direct result of my playing a lot of The Duke and Onitama, and realizing that I wanted to make a game with similar movement mechanics. This was back in the summer of 2016, and at the time I was doing a project where I tried to come up with a new game idea every day. This game was the result of one of those ideas, and because of that project, I know the precise date I came up with the idea. (2016-03-28, and it’s outlined in vague terms in this blog post) I wrote again about the idea once I’d built the initial prototype, (and started thinking about it as a game system) about a month later, on 2016-04-25.
I’m extremely happy with the current simplicity of the game rules, but as usual, it took a lot of playtesting and experimenting to get there. After the initial idea about pieces that gain additional movement possibilities over time, I had a lot of different ideas about how the game should play. But first I had to make a prototype.
I bought some cribbage pegs online, and then spent a couple of afternoons in my friend Lloyd’s garage with his drill press. Once I had a physical prototype, I started playing versions of the game wherever I could, often with pretty wildly different sets of rules.
Ideas that were interesting, but didn’t quite work included: allowing piece rotations; action point allocation for placing pegs and moving around the board; using the checkmate mechanic from Chess; using different colored pegs for different movement mechanics; recycling (repurposing) the pegs you capture from your opponent; forcing your opponent to put pegs in their remaining pieces when you capture one (with the end-goal to make them fill up a piece); and all kinds of ideas related to scoring based on the number of pegs in your control. Some of these were more complicated than others, but all of them resulted in a far more complicated game than the game as it exists today.
Notably, in this period of floundering around, I sat down with Patrick Leder (at GlitchCon a local game development conference here in MN), and also Nick Bentley (at Gencon 2016). I don’t think either of them were all that impressed, and around that time, I basically shelved the game for about a year after that.
In the summer of 2017, I signed up for a table to show my games at the Twin Cities Maker Faire. Most of my games are for touchscreens, so faced with the prospect of a 10-foot table mostly empty but for a couple of phones and an iPad, I decided to lay out Eigenstate. This meant I had to explain it to people very quickly. Without referring to my notes, and pretty much off the cuff, I decided on the simplest possible rules I thought would produce a playable game. Essentially you only needed to remember to do two things on your turn, move a piece, and place some pegs. (I decided on two.) It was just piece elimination, the easiest possible win condition to explain. I’d playtested variations on each of these rules separately, but never in that combination, and again, always as part of a more complicated ruleset.
I was a bit surprised by how well the game played with those simple rules. The game was played a bunch of times throughout the day, with really positive reception. I think if there is any part of the design I’m still looking for specific feedback about, it’s the victory condition. Capturing your opponent’s pieces is fine, but it doesn’t feel very unique.
In quantum physics, the term eigenstate refers to the possible movement of a particle. It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course, (and honestly, I have only a slippery grasp on the concept), but once I hit upon quantum physics (and in particular using the uncertainty principal as a metaphor for movement in the game), I began hunting around for suitable quantum physics terms. I think there’s a cool extended metaphor about each of the pieces being particles in a system, and the players competing to observe their opponent’s system first. How moving your own particles (pieces) helps you observe that system is left as a thought exercise for the player.
It’s worth noting that the rules as written don’t really reflect this metaphor, and I’m not sure they will (other than some flavor text) in the final version. As with the idea itself, I know when I came up with the name, on 4/26/2016.
I am very pleased to be able to announce that Eigenstate is slated for publishing by Adam’s Apple Games. Adam has already 3d printed some additional copies of the game, and it’s being playtested internally. It will probably get a kickstarter later this year sometime.
I’ve been thinking about criteria for reviewing abstract strategy games. In particular, I’d like to end up with a list of ratings, (not just one) that give the reader a sense of how the game plays in comparison to other abstract strategy games.
As an aside, I’m not using the term combinatorial, although I do prefer those games, both because I don’t want to limit the scope of games reviewed to those criteria, and also because I feel the term is hard to understand and explain to someone not already familiar with the nuances of game rules (and abstract strategy game rules in particular). I will certainly indicate the presence of any non-combinatorial elements in the review, and maybe even “at a glance” as part of the rating section. Maybe something like this:
– Number of players: 2
– Luck: Yes/No (If yes, maybe with some details.)
– Randomization: Yes/No (With an indication how.)
– Hidden Information: Yes/No (Again, indicating where.)
– (More needed?)
My goal, to be up-front about it, is eventually to start a new game review site, focused on abstract strategy games. That site’s mission will be: To promote and evangelize the beauty of abstract strategy games.
Here are the criteria I’ve come up with so far:
Strategic complexity – How strategically complex? I.e., how far ahead can I think about my turns with any real expectation of implementing a specific strategy?
Tactical Complexity – How individually complex are each of my decisions in a given turn? How many factors are there influencing my decisions based solely on the game’s state in a single turn?
Rules complexity – How easy is the game to understand and begin playing? How well are the rules written?
Game Readability – How easy is the game to understand at a glance? Can an experienced player take in the game’s state and gauge whether a player’s position is superior or inferior to that of their opponent?
Game Depth – How deep is the game? This could mean a lot of things, but for my reviews, it will mean how much can experienced players be said to be playing at a “different level” from beginner players? Or in other words, how much do the game decisions made by an experienced player change versus the decisions of a beginner player?
Spacial Engagement (Geometric Engagement?) – How much does the game rely on the player visualizing the positions of game elements in relation to one another or in relation to imagined elements?
Mathematical Engagement – How much do mathematical equations or general math principles (counting, etc.) play into the tactical decisions and / or long term strategies in the game?
Originality – Have I seen games like this before? Do I feel like there are new ideas in particular that deserve calling out in this particular game?
Physical Beauty – If this is a game played with standard components, or PNP, it may get dinged here, but since I am attempting to promote abstract strategy games to the general populous, it’s actually a super important criteria.
Overall Elegance – This could be expressed dispassionately as a ratio of rules complexity to strategic depth, but I actually think of it more as an expression of my feeling of satisfaction with that ratio. Did playing the game feel like more than the sum of its parts? Did it inspire me to think about it?
Again, I’m definitely looking for feedback about these. In particular:
– Is there anything obviously missing? Are there other criteria you use when judging a new game?
– How are the names? Any you feel should change or that you feel could be articulated better?
– Is “Overall Elegance” even needed? It’s probably the most subjective, but the concept I’m attempting to capture is just how it feels to play, which is absolutely subjective. Is there a better way to say that, maybe one that doesn’t seem as subjective?
– I’m thinking about doing a scale (probably 1-5) for each of these, and giving the game a score based on the sum total, or possibly an average. Thoughts on that final score?
– Are there other game ranking schemes you particularly like? I’d appreciate pointers to any that break the review down into a list of criteria like this. (I know there are more of them out there, but I’ve only managed to “find” a few links so far.)
This entire thing essentially came about because I was thinking about the term “combinatorial game”, and whether I wanted to use it along with (or instead of) “abstract strategy game”. When thinking about a rating system for Abstract Strategy games, it’s a no brainer to indicate whether there are elements that fans of “pure” thinking games might not appreciate: randomization during gameplay, hidden information, player manipulation, and generally just anything that gets in the way of the player determining their win or loss through skill alone. Generally, this is why the combinatorial term came about. (Although some might argue that it came around the other way, from actual academic game theory, as it was definitely used there first.) But I feel like it was only co-opted by game designers because “abstract strategy” has been used too frequently in the board game industry at large to describe games that are only abstract in theme, and don’t meet the other criteria.
If you visit the wikipedia page for abstract strategy, you’ll see the description carefully adds qualifiers like “almost all…” and “most…” or “many…” when describing the no luck and no hidden information qualities. It’s a controversial term.
I’m partial to the term “abstract strategy” though, partly because I just like its connotations. Abstract thought is one of the things that sets us apart from other species of life on this planet, and has far-reaching implications for humanity and civilization. Not to mention that games essentially wouldn’t be possible without it. In addition to the reasoning I gave in my original post, I also feel that the term “combinatorial” hasn’t reached critical mass yet, and not enough folks know what it means for it to be super useful. (Thus, I went with Abstract Meeple rather than Combinatorial Meeple, though both have a ring to them.)
Back to my thought-process: Indicating the presence of any of those non-combinatorial elements in a review will be easy, but some games that contain one or more of those elements still feel like abstract strategy games to a greater or lesser extent to me. I want to be free to review those games, and also want to communicate that feeling and quantify it somehow in my rating system.
But simply telling my readers that a game “feels abstract” seems too subjective, and also, it won’t give them enough information about whether they might also share that feeling. So I realized I’d need to break it down. Which led to the question: Why do games feel like abstract strategy? This led to my list of rating criteria.
And somewhere in making the list, it occurred to me: All the issues of combinatorial (or not) being equal, I have the same problem when comparing two completely combinatorial games. Other than my personal feelings about them, how would Chess rate any differently from Go? I thought about it some, and that also influenced the list. (In particular, the addition of Spacial and Mathematical engagement.) As it says in the post, I’m definitely looking for feedback on all of this. Feel free to post a comment, or head over to BGG and join the discussion.
Tonight, a chess variant is sitting at the top of r/gaming. That itself is probably newsworthy, but watch the video below of Speed Chess (apparently unveiled at the Tokyo Game Show 2015) to see why I’m now dying to play this real-time chess played on a touchscreen.
Finally, this scene is apparently from a UK sitcom called Bottom.
And while I’m at it, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Chesh for at least a couple of weeks now. I’ve been waiting to say anything about it here until I played it, but the since I wanted to post the Speed Chess video above, I felt it deserved inclusion in this post. Here’s the trailer:
From what I’ve gleaned from the internet, it’s a random chess variant with hundreds of possible pieces. I like the glitch-tank aesthetic. Remains to be seen whether I’ll also like the randomized gameplay.
My good friend Nate was kind enough to playtest 3 out of four of the pyramid games I posted yesterday (we didn’t play the party game), and the results shouldn’t be terribly surprising, but they were generally disastrous. In short, none are ready for prime time. (But on the upside, none were complete throw-aways either, and all have potential!) Here are my notes:
Action / Movement Programming — This suffered from the problem where the player has the advantage, so nobody wants to make themselves the second-to-last player. This meant there was little incentive to try and make the target shape. We did play with a pretty cool variant / modification where there are 9 “goal cards” (in a 3×3 grid), and any 4 cards in that group can be the goal. The rule about “modifying” the programmed cards was very confusing to Nate, and I had to clarify / re-explain it several times. There was also confusion about being able to modify pieces on the gameboard, and I think adding an action that would allow you to modify (swap?) existing pieces would probably help. None of this fixes the disincentivization to make the goal shapes. We talked about maybe not replacing the cards. Also, I just had the idea to maybe only take one of the cards instead of all of them, so most of the shape would still be there, but it would obviously need modifying. Maybe then you also get points at the end of the game for collecting “sets” of a single color card. We also played on a very large gameboard (not quite a full chess board, but it was with the triangular chess boards that are sometimes used for looney Pyramids), and I think we could have just played on a 4×4 grid, and it would have been a tighter and better game.
Action Point Allowance System — This game suffered from the rules allowing you to totally screw yourself. If you didn’t play a combination of either 1) two 2-pip pieces or 2) a 1-pip and a 3-pip, you were giving yourself a serious disadvantage later in the game. I think the rules should just specify you can play one of those combinations. Also, the player who played first had a huge advantage, not because they played first, but because as the rules are written, they also got to play last. I think making both players play only a 2-pip on their first turn might mitigate that problem. Another issue was that we played on a 3×3 grid, but never really used more than 4 towers. Another rule change I’m considering is to make the players fill the grid first, before playing higher levels on any tower… or possibly just to play on a 2×2 grid. (Or both.)
Area Control / Area Influence — Finally, as I’d hoped, this game seemingly has a lot of potential, but we ended up not playing it while we spent like 20 minutes discussing how the captures could work. (Rules as written do not specify capture rules, and I thought I’d just make something up quick about surrounding groups, and we’d see how it plays, but turns out there are too many different possibilities!) It would take me a long while to write all the things down that we discussed, but briefly, we talked about: Switching it to allow ONLY swaps of cards with pieces on them (then you could capture from a swap or a placement). Allowing piece movement to capture, with cards containing pieces of the opposite color “frozen” in their place, essentially “locking” neutral spaces on the gameboard as kind of a suicide move. Finally, if we allow swapping cards with pieces on them (which I think is a good idea), I think maybe it should only be allowed if they have the same (or possibly only if the opponent’s card has lesser) pip counts. Maybe that parenthetical should always be true, which would mean you could only move cards that have pieces on them, since by default all the cards start empty.
I don’t know when I’m going to get around to revising the rules as written, but hopefully in the not-too-distant future!
At least partially inspired by another BGG user’s lofty goal of 1 new pyramid game a month, around January 1st I had the even-more-ridiculously insane idea to make a goal of designing a new pyramid game for each game mechanic on Board Game Geek. There are 51 unique game mechanics on BGG, so that’s LESS than one a week. Totally do-able, right?!
Of course, I promptly forgot all about that idea, until I stumbled onto the first couple in my design notes earlier today. I spent some time subsequently flushing them out and writing a couple more, and so without further ado, here is a link to the in-progress results: pyramid games for every BGG mechanic.
So far (as of this blog post) there are only 4 rule-sets in a “completed” state. I have notes for two others, but they haven’t been written up yet, which means they may not even be playable. At least one of those not yet present require a custom game board (the one for Roll-and-Move).
This idea came, originally, hot on the heels of a renewed interest in pyramid games because I’d helped conceive and design these pyramid cards, a set of playing cards for icehouse/looney pyramids. (The card artwork, — ie, bulk of the work — was done by my sometimes collaborator August Brown.) At the time, I’d thought up a few different game ideas, but it turned out that none of them were really all that fun to play. A statement that may of course also be true about the ones in the link above. YMMV. Two of the designs listed below (and flushed out in the link above) use the cards. I think the ideas in the doc are better than the original pyramid card ideas, but they are still as-yet untested. Anyway, here are some brief summaries:
Acting mechanic — In this game, players take turns choosing a board game, and without revealing that game’s name, set up and play that game with looney pyramids. They cannot talk, and the other players must try and guess which game they are playing. Subsequent players cannot choose the a game that has been previously selected.
Action / Movement Programming mechanic — This game is a combination of seeing patterns in pyramids and using your hand to manipulate pieces on the gameboard. Game play happens in rounds where a “goal pattern” is decided, and players then simultaneously try and choose actions that will manipulate the board to create the “goal pattern” there.
Action Point Allowance System mechanic — This abstract strategy game is played with 4 action points per turn. (With the first player only allowed 2 points.) Some suitable small grid is chosen for the playing field, and each player takes a “stash” of icehouse pyramids and takes turns playing pieces onto the gameboard. At the end of the game, the board is scored and players win based on number of pips that are visible in their color.
Area Control / Area Influence mechanic — This 2-player go-like game is played on a board created with pyramid cards. Cards make up the gameboard, and pieces are placed to “secure” the territory. This is the game I’m most excited about / interested in playtesting.
I’ll post again about this project after I make more progress.
So, I made a webpage/toy to generate a pseudo-random abstract strategy game description. It’s pretty much just mad-libs style text substitution, but randomly chosen from arrays of strings I’ve brainstormed. I started with a short paragraph and now it generates three paragraphs for each game. There’s a lot more I’d like to do with it, including maybe generate actual playable games. (That would be a lot of work though.)
I had a strange idea this morning. “What if every time you moved a piece in a game, you were also moving one of your opponent’s pieces?” I don’t know of any other games that have this same mechanic. I present for you here, a very simple abstract small-grid game I’m calling Entanglement.
Edit: A bit more details about how this came about and playtesting (over lunch) with my friend Nate. Usually when I have an idea for a new game, I enter some minor details in a google-doc/journal I keep for that purpose. I make sure to record the date, and what I was doing when I came up with the idea. In this case, it was such a simple idea, the game came to me practically fully formed, and I went straight to a new file to write out the rules. I jotted them down in about 20 minutes, and got back to work. Then over lunch I played the game a couple of times with Nate, and immediately it felt too complicated. (Which felt weird, because it was already SO simple!) So then I revised, and we played a few more games (without the variant rules listed in the .pdf).
Overall, I don’t think this is one of my better games, it feels likely to be “solvable”, but it has some interesting decisions to make, and I was quite happy with my 10-minute prototype. If you play it, please let me know!