Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

A 4P Testimonial from Chip Beauvais

January is rapidly approaching, and with that comes my annual game design challenge, 4P. Instead of other game design challenge that have some sort of conceit of “finishing” your game at the end of the challenge, 4P challenges you to test your game 4 times in a month, making tweaks between each test.

Chip Beauvais is the designer of Chroma Cubes, Smoke and Mirrors, and now Universal Rule (currently on Kickstarter). Here he is with some words about how 4P has helped him…

For the last two years, I’ve participated in the 4P program by subjecting one of my game designs to four playtests during the month of January. One of the rules of 4P is that, between playtests, the designer needs to elicit feedback from players, and incorporate that feedback into the prototype. The goal of 4P, unlike many month-long challenges, is not to finalize a design, but instead to make significant progress with it.

After a successful campaign with Smoke and Mirrors in 2015, I proposed a few ideas for additional games with Jason Tagmire of Button Shy Games. He countered with the idea of creating something meatier, maybe a 4X game. My immediate reaction was, “With only 18 cards?, That’s impossible.”  But, a few weeks later, I realized that January was just around the corner, and this would make a perfect 4P experiment.

That’s one of the things about 4P. It’s not a large time commitment, and it’s contained within a single month. If, as I initially thought, creating a 4X game using only 18 cards was actually impossible, I would find out quickly. In any event, I would learn a lot.

In the first playtest (January 7, 2016), I saw which elements of the game engaged players. They enjoyed the banter, negotiation, and threats they could make while playing. I also learned to make every card exciting. With only 18 cards, there wasn’t room for boring planet powers.

Another advantage of 4P is the requirement of iterating quickly. It’s easy to theory-craft a game in your head and spend a lot of time fine-tuning a game that might not even work. This drives designers to make significant changes (doubling, or halving values on cards) rather than small tweaks which may not be noticeable. As a result, your questions are answered more quickly.

During the second playtest (January 15th, 2016), I learned that the non-planet elements of cards (e.g. “Discard this card for an effect”) were mostly ignored by players. On the one hand, I was a little disappointed, because I thought that there was a lot of design space to explore in this area. On the other hand, the playtester’s preference was too clear to ignore. Without playtesting, I might have spent weeks tinkering with this aspect of the game, but thanks to 4P, I could see that the best way forward was to drop this part of the game entirely.

One of the neat things about Universal Rule is the opportunity to participate in everyone’s turn. Whenever an opponent selects an action, you can “follow” that player by paying an additional cost. Sometimes, however, you either can’t follow (perhaps you can’t afford it), or you don’t want to follow. In this case, you get a consolation prize of 1 credit. While the concept of following was in the game from the very beginning, this single credit for not following was added during the third playtest on January 22nd.

Finally, it’s easier to get playtesters when I explain what 4P is, and what I’m trying to accomplish. Saying to my friends, “I’d like to work on a game that maybe, in a few months, I’ll be able to pitch to a publisher who maybe, a few months later, will want to publish, and which will finally, a year later, become a physical game” doesn’t have the same urgency as, “I’m striving towards four playtests before February begins.” As game designers, we understand the importance of sub-goals for driving player engagement, and 4P is a great subgoal in the game of designing games.

I hope you can join Chip and me for 4P 2017! No signup is required, no reporting is necessary. Just get those four playtests done!

Metatopia 2016

Metatopia is a game designer convention in Morristown, NJ. The only games on offer are prototypes. Because of that, it’s one of my favorite events of the year. Every year, more big-name designers attend, and it’s becoming a must-attend show for designers and publishers around the country.

I’ll be testing the forthcoming expansion to The Networks. Look for event B261 on Friday at 4 pm, B371 on Friday at 10 pm.

I’ll also be running a blind test of Wordsy, which means I hand you the rulebook and watch you try to figure out the game. That is event B813 on Sunday at 3 pm, although we’re going to try for an impromptu event on Sunday at 5 pm as well.

Here’s the full board game schedule. There are also schedules for RPGs and LARPs.

Finally, if you’re an aspiring game designer, I suggest checking out the incredible schedule of panels and seminars. These are always illuminating, informative, and very honest. I usually make a point to present several panels, so here are my offerings for this year.

D015: “Life After Kickstarter” presented by Gil Hova, Nick Sauer, Diane Sauer. Your Kickstarter funded; hooray! You shipped all your product, hooray! Now what? If you’re like a lot of board game self-publishers, you’ve got some stock left over. What channels can you use to sell it off? How can you market it? How do you get a distributor’s attention? If you can’t get ahold of any distributors, what are the alternatives? And when should you press that reprint button? Friday, 12:00PM – 1:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D059: “Theme: What is it Good For?” presented by Gil Hova, Tim Rodriguez, Geoffrey Engelstein, Sarah Judd. Most board games have a theme, but we’ve all played those games whose theme didn’t work for the game. Maybe the theme was really boring. Or it was really exciting, but the mechanisms didn’t match up. Or it left everyone confused and angry. It’s a subject worth studying. Why is theme so important to some board games? Why is it so unimportant to others? What can we as board game designers do to make sure our themes are working as well as possible? This panel will dive into the subject, exploring it from as many perspectives as possible. Saturday, 1:00PM – 2:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D063: “Con Booth Survival Guide” presented by Gil Hova, Stephen Buonocore, Curt Covert. Getting a booth at a large convention is intimidating for a new publisher. It’s expensive, and requires many hours of labor from many volunteers. There’s also cash to handle, signage to bring, and inventory to sell. Join publishers Stephen Buonocore (Stronghold Games), Curt Covert (Smirk & Dagger Games), and Gil Hova (Formal Ferret Games) as they discuss best practices for keeping your convention customers and volunteers happy. Saturday, 2:00PM – 3:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D072: “Ten Mistakes New Board Game Designers Make” presented by Gil Hova. Do you have a new board game? Or even just an idea for a new board game? Board game designer Gil Hova has played a lot of board game prototypes, and knows the kinds of traps new designers are likely to fall into (and has fallen into most of them himself). Join him as he discusses ways around the most common pitfalls in board game design! Saturday, 5:00PM – 6:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

See you there!

My newest game Wordsy is live on Kickstarter now!

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My newest game Wordsy is now live on Kickstarter! Check out the campaign, back the game, and watch the video where I bicker with a stuffed chicken.

Wordsy is the spiritual successor to my first published game Prolix. I’m very excited about the opportunity to revise this game, and I can’t wait to get it into your hands!

No, The Networks has not been “discontinued by manufacturer”

According to Amazon, as of today, my game has been “discontinued” by the “manufacturer.” This is quite the surprise, as I am the manufacturer (or more accurately, publisher) of the game.

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People familiar with the Wild West that is Amazon FBA know what happened here. Jamey Stegmaier encountered the same thing, and it’s why he’s moved on from Amazon FBA.

The crux of the matter is that any retailer with stock of the game can update its listing n Amazon Seller Central, which is, for lack of a better term, a way to access Amazon’s vast database of products.

But once that change has been made, only that retailer can change it back. So they can change it to “Discontinued by manufacturer,” or they can attribute the game to the wrong publisher, or give it the wrong player count (both of which happened to Jamey), or worse!

There is a way for publishers like me to take control of our listings. It’s called Amazon Brand Registry, and in theory, it should set up the listing so only the publisher could change it.

I’ve tried using the Amazon Brand Registry. I got a vaguely-worded form letter rejecting my application. At the time, I was prepping for Origins, and I didn’t have time to follow up. I may try to give it another shot, but like many other things related to Amazon, it means dealing with a lot of automated, counter-intuitive procedures, and that’s not something I have a lot of time for right now.

After Bad Medicine, I swore to not use Amazon FBA to fulfill any more Kickstarters. I was lucky to discover Funagain just before I fulfilled The Networks, and they helped me keep my promise. At the same time, I figured I would try to use Amazon FBA to at least move some stock of my game.

But I’m likely going cold turkey with Amazon FBA from here on in. It’s just too difficult to deal with, and too much work. I’d rather spend my time building relationships with distributors and publishers than have to do all the screaming into the void that a relationship with Amazon FBA requires.

(I may still use Amazon Launchpad, which is a different model than FBA, as long as they guarantee me control of my metadata. With that system, I actually sell Amazon my product, and they act as retailer. Not everyone can get in it, but so far, it seems to be a decent system that actually lets me talk to a human if I need to.)

So what’s the fate of The Networks? I’m down to fewer than 400 units in my inventory (from a 5,000-unit print run), and I plan to sell out of my remaining stock at Essen and BGG.CON. More copies will arrive in February, and those will (finally) enter wide distribution.

I’ve reached out to retailers who may have made the change to my Amazon FBA listing to ask that they remove the misleading information. Hopefully I’ll hear back soon. In the meantime, please know that Amazon is not a reliable source for breaking game news.

 

 

Patchy thoughts about Patchwork

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I love game variants. I can’t help it; I can’t switch my developer brain off. When I play a game, I’m always curious how it could be done different or better. What could be added, or more commonly, what could be removed? What audiences could we open up to the game? How much shorter can we make it? How can we make it easier to learn?

So this will be a post about a game that’s not mine. I will not be recommending a variant of the game, nor will I be reviewing it. For this post, I’d like to take you through the mindset of evaluating a point/reward system in a game, looking at how scoring variants could incentivize or deincentivize players, and how that changes the game for better, worse, or the-same-just-different.

I’ve been playing a lot of Uwe Rosenberg’s outstanding 2-player game Patchwork on my iPhone. It’s a fantastic implementation by Digidiced, who are starting to distinguish themselves by making very good digital ports of Lookout’s 2-player line.

A summary of the game

(You can skip this section if you know how to play!)

I’ve enjoyed my plays of Patchwork, and I’m hardly done with it, even after hundreds of games! There are plenty of challenging decisions and fascinating dilemmas the game presents.

If you haven’t played, here’s the general idea. You and the other player pick up pieces of fabric. The pieces are arranged in a circle, and there’s a pawn in the circle. You may buy one of the three patches clockwise in front of the pawn. Every patch costs “buttons” (the most obvious currency of the game), which you must pay. You then try to fit your new patch in a 9×9 grid (your “blanket”), so that you’ll have as few open spaces as possible by the end of the game.

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Image credit: Jakub Niedźwiedź (yakos)

Each patch resembles a tetromino (better known as a “Tetris piece”), although they vary in size from 3 to 8 squares. You can rotate or flip a patch any way you’d like when you place it.

There’s also a time track. Each patch costs time. When you buy a patch, you advance on the time track by that patch’s time value. If you’re not in front of the other player in time after you advance, you get another turn, and so on until you advance your time marker in front of your opponent’s. They then get their turn.

Some patches have buttons printed on them. At certain points on the time track, you’ll get an income of buttons based on how many buttons you have printed on the patches in your blanket. These patches tend to cost more time, though.

If you can’t afford any patches, or you don’t like any of the available 3 patches, you may pass. You move your time track to the space ahead of your opponent, and you get one button for every space you moved on the time track.

The game ends when both players hit the end of the time track. You get 7 bonus points if you’re the first to completely fill in a 7×7 square in your 9×9 board, and you get 1 point per button you still have at the end of the game. You also lose 2 points for every open spot in your blanket. The player with the most points wins, with any ties going to the first player who ran out of time.

So there are three currencies in the game: buttons, space, and time. The key is to juggle them in a way that gets you the most points. Focusing on one and ignoring the other two will likely lose you the game.

But what if…?

Of course, as I played, I couldn’t turn my developer brain off. I noticed outcomes like this:

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In this game, I had 6 fewer empty spaces than my opponent, but my opponent had collected almost double the number of buttons than I did. They won by 12 points.

Or this game:

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Here, I trounced my opponent, despite having 11 open spaces to their 6. I did get the 7×7 bonus, but I won by 13 points.

But this is the one that sticks in my craw the most.

img_3351I did something in this game that rarely happens: I completely filled my blanket. And I lost! My opponent (in this case, the hard AI) won on sheer button collection by a convincing 14 points.

Scoring and incentives

At first blush, this is a cool scoring system. It allows winning or losing across several different axes, and promotes two different extremes of strategy: trying to fill up your board quickly and efficiently, or spending time to get patches that will give you a large early button-income advantage. Of course, there’s plenty of room in between.

When I started playing, I tended to focus on filling up my board. I got a lot of satisfaction out of it. However, that satisfaction would get dashed against the rocks when the final score appeared, with me losing by double digits.

As a novice player, I found the core activity of the game – making my pieces fit into my blanket in the most efficient way possible – interesting and fun. But opponents were beating me by focusing on things like the time track and button income. Was this right? Was this fair?

Of course it was! I figured out some better heuristics after a few more plays. I learned to keep an eye on what my opponent’s choices would be if I bought a certain button. I learned to figure out how many buttons a particular purchase would leave me, and if that left me in a vulnerable positions. I learned about the pieces that are perhaps a little underpriced in the game (I call them The Plus, The Cross, and The Blimp), and learned that passing isn’t always a bad thing if it means I have a shot at picking one of them up. And I learned how to better manage the time track, sneaking in one or two extra turns through shrewd purchases and button management.

That’s all possible because Patchwork is a marvelously-designed game, with a surprising amount of depth beneath its twee surface. But what if it hadn’t been?

Let’s say there was a strategy to win by buying a lot of patches with high button income early in the game, placing them willy-nilly, and then just hanging on until the game ended. It’s not a hypothetical; this is how the computer AI plays, and it gets surprisingly effective results against novice players. Expert players, of course, will know the computer’s strategy, and try to force it into buying low-return buttons early, letting its poor placement hurt it.

But let’s say a human tries this strategy, and let’s say that it’s effective. Not broken, you can’t win with it all the time. But maybe it’s good enough that you can compete consistently with another strong player who’s generalizing or optimizing.

And let’s also say this strategy is, hypothetically, boring. Forget about the details of the strategy for a moment; let’s say the decisions in the first half of the game are obvious enough to be trivial, and the second half becomes dull.

If this were the case (and this is a good opportunity to remind you that it isn’t; Patchwork is an interesting and well-designed game, regardless of the strategy you employ; we’re talking hypotheticals here), then the scoring system would need to change. Any scoring system that allows players to do something boring and compete with players who are doing something interesting has issues.

A hypothetical variant

Again, I’m not seriously proposing a variant. But while I was trying to work out how to play the game, I couldn’t help but think of a variant that would reward my play style.

(As an aside, this might be why a lot of game designers don’t get very good at other people’s games: when we struggle, we look at ways to change the game to fit the way we play, rather than changing the way we play to fit the game!)

What if, instead of getting 1 point per button at the end of the game, only your first 20 buttons got you points, and you got nothing for buttons after 20 points? Let’s see how it would have changed those three games I posted about.

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Here, my opponent would have scored 24 fewer points. The final score would have been 12-0 in my favor. It would definitely have let me win.

But of course, I didn’t lose because the game was unfair. I lost because I was focusing too much on my blanket, and not enough on my buttons. My time management was okay, but I needed to have deprived my opponent of high-value patches.

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In this game, if we’d used my scoring variant, I would have lost, 8-5. My opponent’s better blanket would have won, although my 7×7 bonus would have made things close.

Again, this incentivizes good blanket-building too much. Button-hoarding is still an interesting strategy, especially when facing a skilled opponent who can recognize and stifle my opportunities.

Finally, we return to the scene of the crime:

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This is the most fascinating outcome. With my variant, I would have won, 24-18.

In truth, my opponent (the AI) didn’t build a bad blanket; it had 5 holes at the end, which is respectable. And 48 buttons is a lot.

But should 48 buttons be a lot? Shouldn’t the game incentivize completely filling one’s blanket? If I have 0 holes in my blanket and the 7×7 bonus, shouldn’t the number of buttons determine my margin of victory?

This is the most interesting case here. I can see a few interesting arguments.

First, I’ll remind anyone that I don’t think the game is broken in any way, and the scoring system is fine. This result is a bit of an aberration, but it’s an edge case, and a memorable one at that. I don’t think I value the game any less, even if a player who fills their blanket can lose.

That said, I think the “minus 20” variant, while effective here, incentivizes blanket-building too much. It’s more interesting as a player when I’m trying to juggle buttons, space, and time, instead of focusing soley on my blanket.

Bump up the value of the 7×7 bonus? This isn’t necessarily a terrible idea. I realized after several plays that the 7×7 bonus is not a guarantee of winning. In fact, I got the 7×7 bonus in most of my games and still lost. Should it be more valuable, like 10, 14, or even 21 points?

This is a tricker question to answer. While the scoring system is fine the way it is, it’s a little misleading. A novice player (like I was) could overvalue the 7×7 bonus. But an advanced player knows that it’s okay to let the 7×7 bonus go if they’re doing well on time and buttons and have the opportunity to make a better play. This really does make the game more interesting, although it’s a little shocking to a new player that the bonus isn’t as valuable as it first appears.

Finally: what about an insta-win for a player who completely fills their blanket? I think of all the variants I mentioned, this is the most interesting. It’s unusual, it incentivizes a “shoot the moon” strategy, and on the rare cases it happens, it’s memorable.

But I prefer the game without it. My guess is during playtesting, the player who filled the blanket always won. My case is extreme, and would be tough to duplicate for any player. It’s such an edge case, why have a rule for it?

Richard Garfield talks about having a “complexity budget” for his games. Each game can take only so much complexity, so a lighter game needs fewer rules. Patchwork isn’t a featherweight game, but I’m not so sure a rule that only exists to address a once-in-a-blue-moon edge case is necessary. Filling the board is its own reward, and if you lose,  it’ll be so memorable that it’ll spawn reaction, conversation, discussion, and if you’re really lucky, maybe even a longwinded blog post from another designer.

How this applies

I think there are a few lessons here from game designers. Of course, “learn a game before you make variants” is one. But I think the considerations here are very similar to the considerations I make when evaluating how well a scoring system is working for a prototype.

As I’ve said before, game design is all about incentivizing interesting behavior. And for a board game that’s a contest, your scoring system is your incentive.

So does your board game incentivize interesting behavior? Do your players advance towards victory when they behave the way you want them to? Are the fun and meaningful actions of your game rewarded? Conversely, if there’s potential for uninteresting action in your game, are your players properly disincentivized? Do they know that the game won’t reward them for doing something boring?

These are all big questions designers ask themselves when making games. Be sure to apply them to yours!