Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Category: Prolix

Some quick Prolix updates


So in other news, I’m trying to tighten up the various player counts. Here’s where we stand…

The “official game” is for 3-4 players. That seems to be tight as a drum.

The solo variant, Solix, is very good.

That leaves the 2-player game and the 5-player game.

I found that the 2-player game was missing pop. If it was just me and someone else, I would turn down a 2-player game of Prolix. That’s a bad sign right there.

The problem is that an interrupt in a 2-player game isn’t really as interesting as in the other games. 2-player games are pure zero-sum games. My gain is your loss. If you’re going to interrupt the other player, why not make it a straight puzzle game?

By “puzzle game,” I mean a straight, turnless game, where both players are trying to work out their turns simultaneously. I tried a puzzle variant at Protospiel 2007, and the result really wasn’t much fun. The problem with a puzzle game is that it tends to get unbalanced very quickly. Usually, a group will have one really good player and one very crummy player. Granted, that’s the case with most games. But in a puzzle game, and especially in puzzle Prolix, that good player ran away with the game, and the crummy player never got a chance.

Clearly, puzzle Prolix wasn’t the answer for a multiplayer game. I insisted on keeping it turn-based, and I’m very happy with the decision.

But I had a thought last week. What if I made 2-player Prolix a puzzle game, and put in a strong handicap?

So I hammered out Prolix Duel, a 2-player Prolix variant. Here’s the gist of it. There are up to 9 rounds, and each player is trying to get a “mark” each round. 5 marks wins the game.

You get a mark by getting the best word each round. To start the round, you lay out the board as normal, and then both players start thinking of a word.

If a player comes up with a word, he flips the 45-second hourglass in front of him, and secretly writes his word down. The other player now has 45 seconds to come up with his own word.

When the timer runs out, both players score their words. The higher-scoring word gets the mark. In case of a tie, the player who flipped the hourglass wins.

Here’s where the handicap comes in. The player with the most marks has a handicap every round. So if I lead you by a score of 2 marks to 1, my word this round will be worth 1 point less. If I manage to get a mark this round too, my word next round will be worth 2 points less.

The handicaps are what turn this from “meh” into a something with pop. I’ve played it twice now, and both plays have been really interesting. Today’s game was my friend’s first game, and she took me to the wire. I got the first 3 marks, but she rattled off 4 straight marks. I managed to sneak the last 2 marks in to win, the last one by 1 point! It felt much more like a game than the 2-player game has ever felt. So it’s probably good enough to hand over to the blind testers, at this point.

Now, the 5-player game. This one is a tougher nut to crack. I playtested this with 5 last weekend, and it didn’t go so well. One player fired off three straight 20+ point words, and interrupted twice by the third round. His game was effectively over, but he kept seeing great words that weren’t worth interrupting with. He was frustrated, and I can’t blame him.

Granted, this is possible in a 4-player game, but much rarer. It’s more likely in the 5-player game, where someone has to wait four turns in between his own words. That’s four interrupt opportunities. It’s a lot.

This player happened to be a very experienced game player; he developed for SPI in the seventies. He gave me some thoughtful feedback, but the changes he proposed would radically alter the game, and I’m not convinced they would completely eradicate the problem without introducing a different set of problems. Stupid elegant ruleset!

My current choices are…

* In the 5-player game, each player crosses off one fewer word in his Regular Scoring column than he Interrupted with. This has a nasty implication: Players should interrupt at least once to maximize their score, plus once for each zero they were forced to take.

This will greatly increase the number of interrupts. But that’s what we want, right? I may have to note in the rulebook that the 5-player game is the most brutal version of Prolix.

What I like about this ruleset is that it’s really only one minor change from regular Prolix. If this works, I don’t want to change anything else.

* But if it doesn’t work, I may have to introduce radical changes into the 5-player game. One of the playtester’s suggestions was that if a player is interrupted once, he flips the timer for his second turn. No one can interrupt him, but he must take a -3 for his word.

I actually had something similar to this rule early on, but I wasn’t crazy about it. I want players to be continually engaged every turn. Also, it’s a big change from the base game. It’s different, but not necessarily better. So I may try it, but I’m afraid I’m skeptical.

* Perform a 5-player-ectomy. In other words, cap the game at 4 players. This would be my last resort, but I’d rather limit the game’s player count than endorse a potentially lousy game experience.

I’ll probably get to try the 5-player rules in a couple of weeks at Recess. I’ll also be sending a blind test copy of the game to Atlanta in a couple of weeks. I’m hoping to have this thing zipped up soon.

Intro to modern boardgaming 3: Game Conventions

I’m going to back up for a moment and talk about gaming in general, not just board games.

Heather and I show up at the occasional game convention.  We had one a couple of weeks ago, and we have a couple of cons coming up next week.

A game convention is an event that usually takes the space of a weekend, and it’s usually held in a hotel.

You can find all kinds of games at a gaming con, like…
* Roleplaying games. These are games in which players sit around a table and come up with a story. Each player takes up the role of one of the story’s characters.

Most roleplaying games requre one player to act as referee or “gamemaster” (GM). The GM understands the structure of the entire story (or “adventure,” as it’s more commonly called), and can surprise players by throwing in a shock twist. The GM will also play the role of any character not handled by the players.

RPGs are usually not competitive, in the sense that one player is trying to beat the others, or the GM is trying to beat the players. Rather, the usual case is that the players are trying to survive the adventure as a team, and the GM is there to provide tension and challenge, among other things.

You might know of Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game. That game is alive and well after all these years, but other RPGs are quite popular.

Amusingly enough, there’s a division between mainstream RPGs like D&D and smaller “indie” games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Burning Wheel, with the latter games offering more innovative, refined mechanics.  It’s very similar to the Euro-American board game split, with old school butting up against new school.

* Board games. My bread-and-butter. You’ll find all sorts of games here, but it seems that the more thematic games with the American aesthetic are more popular at game conventions..

I think there are two possible reasons for this. First, many roleplayers prefer strongly-themed games, based on my admittedly unscientific perception. Part of roleplaying is immersing yourself in a story, and while board games are not as good at narratives as RPGs, I think a player who enjoys immersiveness will be more at home in a game which has a strong, solid theme.

Second, roleplayers at cons play their games in fairly intense 4-hour blocks. It’s easier to follow that with a light, silly 30-minute game than a strategic 2-hour brainburner.

* LARPs. These are Live Action Roleplaying Games.  They’re like the tabletop roleplaying games I mentioned before, but in these, the participants actually dress in costume and act their character out. Kind of like the difference between someone who reads Civil War books and someone who participates in Civil War re-enactments.

* Computer games. Most people will find these familiar. You’ll mainly see the standard first-person shooters here like Counterstrike, though I’ve seen casual games like Zuma and Peggle too.

* Console games. These are your Xbox, Wii, and Playstation 3 games. There’s a few differences in the mindset between PC and console games, but that gap seems to have narrowed in the past few years as consoles have matched and exceeded the technical level of your average PC.

Ten years ago, PC games were the center of innovation. Nowadays, franchises like Rock Band and Khatamari make me miss having a console.

I mention all this because it’s pretty dizzying to see the wide array of options you have at a game convention.  Also, some cons specialize in one kind of gaming over another.

First I’ll mention Ubercon.  This is a special con for Heather and me, because it was our first one.  Ubercon is a standard small-to-medium-sized game convention, with a wide array of all of the above game options.  I used to run the board game track with my friend Andrew, and Heather used to be a registration desk zombie.  We don’t have the time to volunteer that kind of time anymore, but we still show up for mad gaming.

Tomorrow is Thanksnerding, a Thanksgiving event held by the good folks at nerdnyc.  Gaming will be pretty light over there.  They tend to favor indie RPGs (aren’t you glad you read all of the above so you know what I mean?) over board games, but I’m slowly pulling some of them over to my side.  Don’t tell them I said that though, I want them to continue to feel safe!

THE BIG ONE is coming up on Thursday, though.  On Thursday, Heather and I fly to Dallas for BGG.CON, a massive board game con held by the authoritative BoardGameGeek site.  This is a special con for a few reasons…

* It’s all board games.  Nothing against the other kinds of gaming, but it’s nice to see board games not be shunted to the side or considered just a break in between RPG slots.  If you’re here, you’re hear for board gaming.

* There’s a massive library of old, out-of-print, and hard-to-find games.  It’s excruciatingly difficult to find games of Outpost, McMulti, Big City, or any other game that can fetch a few hundred bucks on eBay.

* I get to play all the newest games.  And I mean newest.  Last month was Essen Spiele, the largest board game exhibition in the world.  It’s held in Germany, and there are a lot of highly-anticipated titles released there.

* Lots of publishers are there, and in fact, I’ll be pitching Prolix to someone while I’m there.  Keep your fingers crossed!

For the record, here are my top 5 must-plays next weekend.

Space Alert

Space Alert

Duck Dealer

Duck Dealer

Le Havre

Le Havre

Planet Steam

Planet Steam

Tulipmania 1637

Tulipmania 1637

Prolix update: Rejection is GOOD.

The publisher that’s been looking at Prolix for 23 months finally sent me a politely-worded rejection letter.

No, don’t console me.  This isn’t a time for pity.  It’s an opportunity for celebration.

Rejection is good!  Rejection gives me feedback about the game.  Rejection lets me know that I can send the game to the next publisher on the list.

In this case, as it usually is, the company didn’t reject the game because they didn’t like it.  They rejected it because it didn’t fit in with their goals.  Maybe they feel they don’t want a second word game.  Maybe they have a second word game planned.  Maybe they just didn’t think it would make them enough money.

Because in the end, that’s what it has to come down to.  A publisher won’t put out my game because they “like it.”  They’ll put it out because they think it’ll sell.

The worst-case scenario isn’t rejection.  It’s silence.  It’s no answer at all.  Not hearing anything from a publisher is terrible, because that’s time I could have spent sending the game to someone else.

Why not send the game to more than one publisher at the same time?  Maybe I can get away with that after I’m a Big-Time Game Designer.  But if I tell Publisher A that they can’t look at my game anymore because Publisher B decided to publish it, then Publisher A will have wasted a lot of precious time looking at a game they didn’t get a fair shot at.  Game companies are usually staffed by 5-10 people doing the work of 20-30 people, so they don’t appreciate a designer wasting their time.

So simultaneous submissions by small-fry game designers usually result in that game designer finding fewer and fewer publishers willing to look at their games.  Why should a company spend precious time looking at my game if I’m just going to pull the rug out from them in a month or two?

I’m psyched, because I finally have a chance to send the game to a publisher who’s been interested for some time!  This will probably happen in the next couple of weeks.

Also, the publisher who rejected Prolix is open to receiving more games from me in the future.  That’s always a good sign.  Just because they rejected one game doesn’t mean they never want to hear from me again.

Of course, I have to figure out if I want to send a game to a publisher who took 23 months to give me an answer…

Prolix 101

My baby

My incredibly artistic game cover

Prolix is my baby.

I’m a fairly literate guy.  I’m not afraid of multisyllaballatic words, I have a decent vocabulary, and I can write fairly well.

So why have I never gotten into word games?

I don’t enjoy Scrabble.  Never have.  The closest I came to was when my college buddy Jones and I played “Sounds Like” Scrabble, where you have to come up with not-words.  Scoring was crazy high with bingos left and right, as the only restriction on a word was that a) it couldn’t be real, and b) you had to come up with a definition.

But real Scrabble?  Where turns take 30 minutes, the slightest skill discrepancy results in a blowout obvious after the first three turns, and a prerequisite for success is memorization of obscure two- and three-letter words?  Where you’re always one tile away from that awesome word?

Nope, don’t enjoy it.  Not for me.  And that was that, for awhile.

I guess it was at a con in November of 2005, when I played a card game that was significantly influenced by Scrabble.  I’ll withhold the name to protect the guilty, but I’ll say this: it’s awful.  It has all the problems of Scrabble, plus arcane, counterintuitive rules, and the “feature” that someone else can play a card to cancel out one of your words.  Ack!

So an amusing thought came to mind: couldn’t I do better?  People played this card game like crazy.  Okay, maybe they saw something in it that I didn’t, but still, was this the best of all possible word games?

As a lark, I threw together some rules and ran them by some players.  Slowly but surely, I started realizing that I had an honest-to-goodness good game.  I’ve designed 3 games that are done or close-to-done, and of them, Prolix is my favorite.

The main feature of Prolix, and the first thing I put in the game, was the idea that you don’t need all letters present in order to score a word.  So there are a bunch of tiles out on a central board, and on your turn, you say a word.  Any word.  Okay, nothing capitalized, apostrophed, or hyphenated, but it’s so much less restrictive.

And the words people come up with!  Bacchalaureate.  Ornithicopter.  Words that you’d never see in Scrabble, or any other word game.

This isn’t to say that the game was easy to design.  On the contrary, it’s been a real pain in the tuckus.  It’s an incredibly elegant game, which sounds like a boast, until you playtest the damn thing, and realize that anytime someone makes a suggestion, no matter how good, there’s no leeway in the ruleset to slide it in!

I mean, if you’re designing a game that’s about the battle of the 5th Cavalry of Foontcawcil charging into the fray of savage Hoodkivliar barbains, and you feel that the Hoodkivliarians’ ranged attacks are a little underpowered, you can toss in a whole lot of rules to fix that imbalance.  But in a simple word game, the slightest change, the slightest tweak, messes up the whole works.

For example, one problem I had was that the game kept locking up.  People would take forever on their turns, and it would drive me crazy that a game meant to be played in 45 minutes would take two hours.  There were a bunch of ways I addressed this, but one of the easiest?  I changed the number of letters out on the board.

But wait!  I quickly found out that if I had too many letters on the board, a player could immediately shout out “antidisestablishmentarianism” and get a decent score.  There had to be enough letters so that there was at least one good word out there, but not so many letters that any stock big word would earn a respectful score.

So tweaking the game has been a lesson in emergent complexity for me.  Slight changes over here would result in massive changes over there.  I’ve gained a huge respect for those simple games like Lost Cities and 6 Nimmt! that just seem to design themselves.

There are a bunch of other features the game has that I haven’t even gotten to yet, but I’ll save that for later.  Suffice it to say: I’m pretty proud of this game.  It’s a game where a player says a word, and then everyone makes a hushed, respectful “Ooooh.”  There’s a real skill to playing it, and with all due respect to all you Scrabble pros, it feels much better to score big points from the word “bicentennial” than it does from the word “xi.”

So when will it be published?  Who knows?  I’ve had it at one publisher for a surprisingly long time, but I’ve already given them a November date as to when I’ll start shopping it to other publishers.

Prolix will be one of those things I’ll keep mentioning in this blog, so stay tuned…