Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Prolix Redux

Screenshot 2016-01-07 at 07.43.43 AM

 

Let me start with the lede: I have a new set of rules for my 2010 word game Prolix that I think represent a huge improvement over the original game. I have plans for these new rules, but for those of you who own the game, you can try it yourself!

All you need is to download the prototype scoresheet. (Please forgive its look; it hasn’t been seen by a proper graphic designer yet.) The only difference is the new rules assume a 30-second timer, and the original game shipped with a 45-second timer. You can look for a replacement timer, but the new rules will probably still work fine with a 45-second timer.

(You may also want to discard down to 2 letter Fs in your set, and make them worth +1 each, like Ws and Ys. I did this by marking up my set with a blue sharpie. This change isn’t technically part of the new system, but I think you’ll find the game better this way!)

I’ve tested these rules about 12 times, so while they’re still subject to change, they’ve settled enough that they should be fun and enjoyable for you.

Here are the new rule changes for Prolix Redux. They assume familiarity with the original rules for Prolix Classic.

I’ve tested these rules with a maximum player count of 6. The game may take more players than that, but I haven’t tested that yet.

PROLIX REDUX

Overview

In Prolix Redux, Interrupts have been replaced with a new mechanism, currently named Interjections. So one player will be the “active player” taking his turn. The other players are allowed to Interject when it’s not their turn.

Interjections do not stop the active player’s turn; players simply write their Interjections on their scoresheet. At the end of each turn, each player compares their Interjection against the active player’s word. If it’s higher, they get a bonus. If it’s equal to or lower, they get a penalty.

Players will score the sum total of their 6 best word scores, regardless of whether they were Interjections or not. They then add bonuses and subtract penalties to get their final scores.

Prolix Redux takes about 20-30 minutes to play; almost half the time of Prolix Classic.

Playing a turn

Each turn, one player is the Active Player, and the other players are all Interjectors. Everybody looks at the board to try to find a single high-scoring word.

If you think you have the best word, write it down on your scoresheet, next to the current round number.

If you’re the first player to finish writing a word, start the timer, regardless of if you’re the Active Player or an Interjector. All other players now have 30 seconds to write down their words. Do not start the timer until you have completely written your word.

Interjectors are not obligated to Interject; they may pass without penalty. But the Active Player will be penalized if he fails to come up with a word on his turn.

There’s no limit to the number of players who may Interject on a turn. It’s possible that everyone may have a word in a given turn.

If the timer runs out on any player still writing their words, they’re allowed to finish writing it out, but they may not change it or cross it out.

Scoring a turn

The Active Player scores their word first, using Prolix Classic scoring rules. Then each Interjector will score their word in clockwise order.

If an Interjector’s word’s score is greater than the Active Player’s word score, the Interjector checks off her +2 box for the current round. This shows that the Interjector will get a straight 2 point bonus applied to her final score.

If an Interjector’s word’s score is equal to or less than the Active Player’s word score, the Interjector checks off her -1 box for the current round. This shows that the Interjector will get a straight minus-1 point penalty applied to her final score.

If the Active Player did not come up with a word this turn, he checks off his -1 box for the current round. Again, that is a minus-1 point penalty applied to his final score. If any other players Interjected here, they all get the +2 Bonus.

There is no penalty for not Interjecting. The Active Player scores no bonuses or penalties other than the minus-1 point penalty for not coming up with a word.

After scoring, move and redraw letters according to the rules of the original game. (Note: when playing with 2 players, discard and draw 4 letters instead of 2.) The next player clockwise becomes the new Active player; rotate the board to face her.

In Prolix Classic, it’s possible for a player to get a second turn after being Interrupted. In Prolix Redux, a player is never Active Player twice in a row, regardless of how many players Interject on his turn.

Challenges

If a player’s challenge reveals a word to be invalid, that word is considered to be 0 points. The player who tried to use the invalid word checks off his -2 box for the current round.

If the player with the invalid word was the Active Player, he checks no further Penalty boxes for having an invalid word, but of course, all Interjecting words this turn get the Interjection Bonus.

If a player challenges a word but the word turns out to be valid, the challenging player checks off her -2 box for the current round. The challenging player’s word is still considered valid, though.

Game end

The game ends after 12 rounds, regardless of the number of players.

To score, each player adds the values of their 6 best words. Then each player adds points from +2 Bonuses and subtracts points from -1 and -2 Penalties. The player with the most points wins.

Changelog

1/3/2016 – Reduced length of game to 12 rounds for 3 and 4 player game.

1/7/2016 – Streamlined scoreboard into single column, fixed game to 12 rounds regardless of player count.

Thoughts and miscellany

In 2010, my first game came out. It was a small word game called Prolix. It got critical acclaim, getting named as part of the GAMES 100 that year. It went out of print only a couple of years later, a casualty of Filosofia’s purchase of Z-Man Games.

For years, I’ve been wanting to make a mobile version of Prolix. With Bad Medicine finally out and The Networks almost at the printer, I can finally do this.

I have a decent amount of experience in C#, so learning Unity has not been a huge obstacle (though it’s weird to have so many public variables!). But one thing that I realized need to change was the game’s rules.

When I first tested Prolix years ago, I found that the game needed some sort of timing element. It was fun at 45 minutes, but was a drag at 2 hours, and yes, there were 2-hour playtests!

I ultimately settled on an “Interrupt” mechanism that allowed a player to say a word when it wasn’t their turn, interrupting the current player’s turn. So if you take too long to come up with a word, another player can halt your turn.

At the end of the game, each of your Interrupts replaces one of your regular words, so you don’t want to interrupt with a low-scoring word.

It was a cool system, but it was polarizing. 5-player games were especially brutal, with players getting interrupted a lot! And it’s synchronous, which means that everyone needs to be paying attention all the time. That doesn’t translate well to an asynchronous mobile game, where people will take turns logging on.

One morning, I found myself mulling over an alternative set of rules. Let’s face it, the Interrupt system was fairly clunky, difficult to explain, and was probably just as much of a reason why the game didn’t take off as its mis-sized components.

I’ve tried the new Interject system with old Prolix hands and players new to the game, and both have loved it. But why?

First, the system is smoother. The interrupt system had to deal with all sorts of exceptions. What happens if two players say a word at the same time? What happens when a player is interrupted once? What happens when that player gets interrupted again? What happens if a player uses all their interrupts?

Second, the original game’s endgame scoring wasn’t terribly difficult once you had a game under your belt, but it was tremendously difficult to explain because of all these edge cases. Wait, your Interrupts… replace your words? How does that work? It was really tough to understand without trying it first.

The new Interject system is much easier to grok: everyone gets one turn, and you’re either trying to score more than the Active Player or trying to keep the Interjecting Players from scoring more than you. Endgame scoring is much simpler too: just score your top six words, throw in your bonuses and penalties, and voila!

It’s great that Prolix Redux takes half the time of Prolix Classic to play, but I’m just as happy that Prolix Redux takes half the time of Prolix Classic to explain, and no one is confused as we start playing.

But wait, what does this have to do with the app? Isn’t the Interject system also synchronous?

It is synchronous, implemented this way, of course. But for the mobile app, I plan to detach the timing mechanism. Assuming I can pull it off, all players will get a chess clock, à la Ascension. When you log in to take your turn, you’ll see all the other players’ boards first, and will get an opportunity to Interject or pass for all of them. So you’ll have much of the interaction of the physical game (at least, under the new rules), but with the convenience of digital.

And now the big question: will there be a new physical version of the game?

My answer: I don’t know. It depends on a lot of things.

Nevertheless, I think amazing things are in store for the game. I can’t wait.

I have a LOT more to discuss here. You’ll see it here soon!

Lessons learned from shipping Bad Medicine

I did it, everyone.

I shipped over 1,150 copies of Bad Medicine to backers all over the world. And I did it mostly on time (I promised a September delivery, but backers outside the US got their games in late October). So there’s room for improvement, but certainly not a worst-case scenario in terms of Kickstarter fulfillment.

So first off, I have to admit: I’m proud of this. So many campaigns don’t ever make it this far, and so many get delayed. I’m proud of the fact that I was able to put a project on Kickstarter, get it funded, and deliver it to almost 75% of my backers on time.

With that out of the way, I had my share of “teachable moments.” These are lessons for a new publisher, and they’re really weird and out-of-the-way, but very important.

1. If you have any amount complexity in the shipment of the game from the factory, ask for a confirmation of the shipping plan.

The plan was to ship a few cases of the games to SFC for Asia/Australia/New Zealand fulfillment, and put the rest on the boat to go directly to the Amazon Fulfillment Center (FC). Additionally, there were two cases of promotional cards (blank Drug Cards) that were supposed to have been sent directly to me.

I didn’t think this was a complex shipping plan. I now know it is. The plant put everything on the boat: games for US backers, games for Asian backers, and my two cases of blank Drug Cards. As a result, any game going to backers in Asia had to circle the planet; they had to go from Asia to the US, and then to the UK, and then back to Asia.

In the future, for any shipping plan more complex than “put it all on the boat,” I will request that the plant not ship anything until they confirm the shipping plan with me. That will hopefully prevent this sort of issue from recurring.

2. Never ship directly from the factory to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, Part I.

I had read up a lot on Amazon, and I thought I had everything down. There were so many issues that people had encountered when using Amazon FBA, from rebalance delays and costs from not properly configuring FBA to keep all products at one FC, to not being able to fulfill because their release date was too far in the future.

But then we had that issue where the plant put everything on the boat. I was worried about it, but I figured that I could enter a ticket and someone would resolve it.

I put one ticket in the moment I found out about the issue (because I had told Amazon to expect fewer cases than what they were actually receiving). I also asked if I could get the blank cards sent directly to me. The rep who answered the ticket assured me that everything would get figured out when the units arrived, but could not give me any more detail about the blank cards.

The big day arrived; my units were received and cataloged. After some delay (presumably for the Amazon FC to properly count the actual number of items sent to them), I saw on my Seller Central page that Amazon had the proper number of units in the warehouse, ready to be fulfilled. Huzzah! I immediately created my first fulfillment offer to myself, so I could make sure the system worked.

It did… except for a couple of things. First, every unit had one set of blank cards taped to it! Augh! I was supposed to be able to sell these at conventions!

Second, I had paid for a barcode to be printed on the box, and dutifully entered it into Amazon’s system. So imagine my surprise when I saw that Amazon had, just as dutifully, covered my barcodes with their own. So now the barcodes I’d given to retailers were incorrect. Double augh!

So, I put two more tickets into the system. I found out that there was no way I could have gotten the blank cards from Amazon; it was up to them to figure out what to do with them, and for some reason, they chose to attach the cards to the product. I also found out that I should have entered my UPC code into the FNSKU field as well as the UPC code field.

If “I should have entered my UPC code into the FNSKU field as well as the UPC code field” is a sentence you find intimidating, here’s a warning that Amazon FBA is not for you.

3. Never ship directly from the factory to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, Part II.

I’m using a distribution consolidator, which is common in the business. There are about a dozen or so distributors of varying sizes all across the US. It’s tough for a one-man company like me to stay on top of them all. A distribution consolidator (sometimes called a “distribution broker” or “sales agent”) acts as a distributor for distributors. They warehouse my product and sell the product to distributors. The distributors then sell the game to retail stores. I get a little less money for each game I sell, but I get a lot less headache.

So when I reached out to my distribution consolidator, they asked me how many units came to a case. It’s a common question; the distribution center will just send a case over to any distributors. Their job isn’t fulfillment; the case isn’t supposed to be cracked open until it arrives at the distributor.

Well… about that. The factory packed 18 units to a case. But, of course, I shipped everything directly to Amazon. And Amazon unpacks every single case. How many items in a case? As many or as few as you’d like, sir or madam.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I were to ship from Amazon directly to a distributor, I could ask them how many copies they wanted, and send exactly that number to them.

But… if you’ll recall, all my units had promotional material taped to them, and an incorrect barcode stickered over the correct one. So this is where I have to rave about my buddies at Ad Magic again; they let me ship 700 units (about 20 cases) to their headquarters, where I spent a day un-Amazoning all copies that were to go to retail. Remove barcode, remove blank cards. (I’m really happy with everything Ad Magic has done for me so far!)

So we spent the day unpacking, un-Amazoning, and re-packing. We ended up with a bunch of cases, and sadly, we weren’t able to make a consistent case count. Some cases that I sent to the consolidator had 18 units; others had more or less. It’s not a show-stopping issue, but it’s something I’ve definitely learned from.

4. Amazon views FBA partners as associates, not customers.

I came into this arrangement thinking that, by using Amazon FBA, I was a customer of Amazon. I was buying a service from them, after all.

But Amazon doesn’t seem to see it that way. I feel like they saw me as an associate. Customer service was not such a priority. Instead, I got a huge control panel, a huge set of (sometimes confusing) documentation, and no real help, other than people who had been through it already.

Having worked at an Amazon subsidiary, I can tell you that this experience is uncannily like working there. You get these amazing tools, but you don’t really get much guidance in them, and I always felt a sense of disappointment when I reached out for help (“You mean you couldn’t figure this out on your own?”).

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Amazon FBA is really powerful, and in terms of cost-to-power ratio, nothing even comes close when it comes to US fulfillment. But it comes with a lot of gotchas, and not all of them are easily visible.

5. Retailers and distributors want street dates, and they want them early.

I didn’t think a street date was important for Bad Medicine. It comes out when it comes out, I suppose. But that turns out to not be a retailer-friendly attitude.

We all know that in this business, a product usually sells best when it’s new. That’s easy enough for a consumer, who just shows up at a game store and sees a shelf of games that just happened to have been recently released.

Of course, nothing just “happens.” Those games are all there because the publisher and distributor coordinated to provide a release date for the games, which let the store plan out its purchases. Stores like to know what’s coming out; they’re not as happy when they find out a game’s already out before they had a chance to stock it first. They’re not getting it when it’s fresh out of the oven. That makes an enormous difference.

So, we publishers must set street dates, and we must send them out pretty early on. Stores I’ve spoken to like street dates announced 90 days in advanced. The game may not even be printed at that point!

Once the street date is announced, the distributor takes pre-orders. They like this because it gives them an idea of how much demand there is for the game, and they know how many copies they need to have on hand for the game’s release.

By not having a proper street date, I missed out on having a proper launch for Bad Medicine. The retail release was more of a soft launch, and I know I could have done better. The Networks will have a proper release date that I will announce next month, which will give retailers and distributors plenty of time to make plans.

6. Communication between consolidators and distributors isn’t always smooth.

Especially for new publishers with products that don’t have an announced street date! I had a launch event in November through the Envoy program, and I got a lot of interested stores and gamers, which helped a lot. The event let us smoke out a few communication issues; for example, one very large distributor didn’t have a release date in their system for my game, even after my consolidator had announced one.

Even with all those issues sorted out, many stores weren’t able to get their games from their distributors in time. I’m hoping to help work this out in 2016 by making myself more visible in the retail/distribution scene; I want to attend more trade shows and meet more people in the retail side of the business.

I have to admit that it’s tempting to ditch the distribution model andjust sell direct. I know some folks who do that, and they seem happy with it. But you really need a hit game to pull that off, and even then I’m not so sure it’s guaranteed. Plus, it’s tough to do direct sales worldwide; you’re pretty much stuck to your home country.

I think my future is in distribution, and I would like to give it as full a chance as possible. That means some work on my end; I will have to do some traveling and build an entirely new audience for my games.

But in the end, I want Formal Ferret to grow. I could have put The Networks on Kickstarter as my first project back in February, but I opted to start with a smaller party game, to ensure that my mistakes would be smaller.

I’m very glad I did this; I’ve learned so much from Bad Medicine. I know I’ll learn plenty from The Networks too, but I’m hoping I’ll continue being able to build Formal Ferret into a well-known and trusted game company.

Watch my panels from Metatopia 2015!

Metatopia is quickly becoming one of my favorite game designer conventions. This is partially because it’s in Morristown, NJ, only about 30 minutes from where I live, but mostly because it’s full of amazing playtesting opportunities.

Designers can request playtesters of a specific demographic, and the con organizers will do their best to find just those people. This way, I got to run three valuable “blind tests” of The Networks, in which I watched players try to figure out how to play the game with only the rulebook. It taught me what parts of the rulebook work, and what parts still need attention. Thankfully, none of the tables messed up any significant rules, so it looks like I just have to make some tweaks here and there.

But one of Metatopia’s biggest appeals is its panel schedule. For three days, you get to hear all sorts of industry experts give their opinions on the theoretical and practical sides of game design and publishing. (And there are some later at night run by podcasters that turn out to be less useful, but infinitely sillier.)

This year, I resolved to run a bunch of boardgame-specific panels, and I was overjoyed with how well they were received. I appeared on seven panels in total!

I have YouTube video of five of these panels, and you can check them all out in this playlist. That’s five hours of great discussion about game design and publishing! Here’s a breakdown of the five videos.


I gave a “Board Game Design 101” lecture that was the talk I needed to hear 15 years ago. This was one of my best-attended and best-received talks. I think the concepts I discuss in this lecture are concepts that more game designers and game fans should embrace. They tie directly into what makes a good game.


I organized and appeared on a panel called “Crossing Over,” which matched me with RPG designer Jason Pitre, video game designer Nik Mikros, and freeform/transformative game designer Sara Williamson. The endlessly-energetic John Stavropoulos moderated, asking questions that cut across all our fields of design. This was the panel that intrigued me the most; I’d never seen anything like it elsewhere, and I think we analyzed our craft in a way no one ever has before.


Geoff Engelstein (co-designer of the first two games of the Space Cadets series of games, host of the Ludology podcast, and all-around clever and sweet guy) and I joined forces to talk about how to write a good rulebook for your board game. This was another very well-attended panel, on a critical subject that all designers and publishers should know about, despite the odd technical glitch.


I met up with Tim Rodriguez (designer/publisher of Ghost Pirates) and Dan Cassar (designer of Arboretum) to talk about 2-player board games; what makes them special, and how can we use their differences to our advantage? It was a really good talk about a subject you don’t get to hear much about.


Immediately after the 2-player panel, Tim and I joined the always entertaining and insightful RPG designer Joshua A.C. Newman to discuss our experiences in crowdfunding. I honestly joined this panel at the last moment, so I didn’t really know what to expect. But the panel turned out to be fascinating, because our experiences in crowdfunding were so different.

Now I have a year to figure out how to top this!

Play Bad Medicine in a game store near you on November 21!

Splash web

On Saturday, November 21, Bad Medicine is going to be played in 35 stores all across the US! The game will be available for retail purchase by then, so be sure to ask your Friendly Local Game Store for a copy.

Here’s a list of stores participating in the event. Come join the fun!

Store Store City Store State
Dragon’s Keep Gaming Room Fayetteville AR
Crit Castle Games Aurora CO
Gamer’s Gambit Danbury CT
Emerald City Clearwater FL
Other Realms Ltd. Honolulu HI
The Armchair Adventurer Honolulu HI
Games Plus One Davenport IA
Games King Sioux City IA
Gameopolis Idaho Falls ID
Better World Books Goshen IN
Common Room Games Bloomington IN
Boom Comics Lawrence KS
Play More Games Gaithersburg MD
All About Games Belfast ME
The Loaded Die Ferndale MI
Acropolis Games Adrian MI
Game Café Independence MO
Dark Knight Gaming Long Beach MS
2nd and Charles (Books a million) Jacksonville NC
Fallout Shelter Highland Park NJ
Elite Battlegrounds Green Brook NJ
Arcana Toys Games and Hobbies Washington NJ
Highlander Games Boonton NJ
Play the Game, Read the Story Syracuse NY
Modern Myths Mamaroneck NY
Flipside Gaming East Greenbush NY
Checkmate Games & Hobbies Toledo OH
Old School Gaming Toledo OH
Diversions Gaming and Hobby Newbury OH
Recess Games North Olmsted OH
Zimm’s Realm Ada OK
The Island Games Centreville VA
Uncle’s Games Bellevue WA
Pegasus Games Madison WI
Hero Depot Laramie WY

My panels for Metatopia 2015

Metatopia is quickly becoming one of my favorite game design conventions. There’s a lot of good playtesting that happens there, both for raw prototypes you can show to fellow designers and late-stage prototypes that you can show interested gamers.

But what makes the convention really special for me is its enormous, wall-to-wall schedule of panels. Historically, a lot of these panels have been RPG-centric, so I’ve submitted a bunch of board game-specific panels, or that at least explicitly include board games in their setup.

I’m really excited about the panels I have set up. Here they are, with the official descriptions pasted in:

Writing a Rulebook for your Board Game
Friday Nov. 6, 3 pm
We all know that it’s vital to write a good rulebook for your board game. But how? What makes a rulebook “good?” What can you do to make your rulebook as good as possible? And is there any way to make the process a little less painful? Join published designers Gil Hova and Geoff Engelstein as we discuss what makes a good rulebook, and how you can make your board game’s rulebook as good as possible, without too much extra discomfort.
(I’ll be joined by Geoff Englestein, of Space Cadets and Ludology fame.)

Nerd Fountain Podcast
Friday Nov. 6, 9 pm
Hello and welcome to The Nerd Fountain, live at METATOPIA! This panel will feature a live recording of The Nerd Fountain podcast featuring your host and Executive Producer Jeffrey Norman Bourbeau, along with special guests from the tabletop industry. Topics will include emerging design trends, what we’ve been playing, what we’ve been working on, BGG Q&A, and Nerd Love Advice.
(I’ll probably have a short guest appearance at this panel.)

Board Game Design 101
Saturday Nov. 7, 11 am
What are the basic, fundamental concepts a new game designer needs to keep in mind when designing a new board game? You can spend years finding this the hard way, or you can attend this panel and learn about them in an hour! Join designer Gil Hova as he discusses the most fundamental concepts in game design: flow/fiero, core engagement, and heuristics.
(I’ve been wanting to do a seminar like this for a long time now!)

Two Player Board Games – Peaks and Pitfalls
Saturday Nov. 7, 1 pm
Explicitly two-player games are tricky to design, and harder to sell, for a lot of reasons. Much of the easy dynamism that is readily available with more players are simply not present. We’ll talk about what makes two-player games great, where and why there are drawbacks to this constraint, and think about how to push forward in this niche field.
(I’ll be joined by Tim Rodriguez [Ghost Pirates] and Dan Cassar [Arboretum, Cavemen: Quest for Fire])

Crossing Over – An Exploration of Different Fields
Saturday Nov. 7, 5 pm
How is designing RPGs different than designing board games? How different is a video game designer’s mindset? What about someone designing for change or artistic expression instead of pure recreation? In this one-of-a-kind panel, Gil Hova, Nik Mikros, Jason Pitre, and Sara Williamson will discuss game design from widely different perspectives, looking for commonalities and differences.
(Egads, this panel is the one I’m most excited about! A bunch of different game designers all joining together to talk about what makes working in our specific fields unique.)

Talk with Board Game Designer LIVE
Saturday Nov. 7, 8 pm
Talk with Board Game Designer will be filmed before a live studio audience. Jennifer Chan will be talking with top game designers and will be mediating your questions. Expect the same in-depth analysis that you get from a normal episode of Talk with Board Game Designer.
(I was assured that there’s no way I would be featured on this panel, so I guess I don’t know why I’m putting it here…)

If you want to see the other featured panels, they’re all listed here. Playtesting event schedules will come in a couple of weeks.

If you won’t be able to make it to Metatopia, I’m going to try to film all my appearances. I can’t make any guarantees that I won’t forget to hit record or turn my microphone on, though…

Hope to see you there!