Sunday, January 6, 2019

2018 gaming year in review

2018 was a challenging year for many reasons, personal and professional.  Nothing particularly traumatic or heart-breaking... just challenging. Kids, research, teaching, our government, the inexplicable inefficiency and incompetency of other human beings.  But let's ignore all that and focus on games!

By far the biggest and most important gaming news for me this year was the development and successful Kickstarter funding of my second boardgame design, Maniacal (previously, Infamous).

The development and publication of Maniacal has been a rollercoaster ride with far too much unnecessary stress.  I've worked with five (!) different "lead developers" since EGG signed it in 2016, and each time a new person took over the project, there was a loss of time, a large burden placed upon me, and substantial stress.  This is a game that could easily have been ready for Kickstarter in late 2017, but instead we launched in August 2018.  I wish that we could have done more promotion & playtesting at various conventions leading up to the Kickstarter.  I wish that we had had a consistent art director and graphic designer on task from day one.  And I wish that far more advertising and promotional work had been completed before we launched.

But on the plus side, I'm thrilled that EGG was willing and able to hire the amazing Rob Guillory to do all (!) the artwork for the game.  I love how the graphic design ultimately came together.  And I think we ended up shoving an extraordinary amount of good content into the game, even though I had to leave a bunch of cool ideas by the wayside (for now, at least).  And finally, I'm of course thankful that we actually funded the project successfully.

On that note, the Kickstarter itself was a bit of a letdown.  We never quite generated the enthusiasm and momentum that we had hoped for.  I had honestly imagined that we would hit $50K easily and had the potential to reach $75K if enough people heard about the project.  I believe we were adequately prepped for the KS itself (rules 100%, stretch-goals all planned, art and graphic design around 90% complete) with the exception of lining up enough previews/reviews.  But there's a lot of competition nowadays, and it's hard to stand out in a crowded market.  Maniacal is, at its core, a card-driven game without a lot of component flair.  I'm not a well known designer, by any stretch of the imagination.  So perhaps this was a project that consumers wanted to "wait & see."  Fair enough.  I hope that when it's released, we garner some good reviews and convince people to try it out.

The stress and inefficiency of Maniacal's development has had a couple unfortunate consequences for me, personally.  I had to put a lot more of my time and energy into prepping Infamous/Maniacal than I had originally hoped, in large part because of the inconsistent leadership from EGG.  This ended up stealing away time that I wanted to put into some other designs that I currently have at the prototype phase. I was hoping to show one or two of these at Origins this year, but they weren't even close to being ready.  The second consequence is that I'm feeling more cynical and less motivated about boardgame design and publication now.  There are too many games coming out, publishers are exploiting designers too much, games aren't going through enough development, consumers aren't spending enough time with games before judging them, and I personally have not found the process efficient or satisfying.  I hope that my attitude changes once Maniacal is finally in print.

With regards to personal gaming, this was a great year.  My gaming group is a solid core of four wonderful friends, and we were able to get together once or twice a month - sometimes more.  We shared a ton of laughs and together came to appreciate our "collective" tastes in gaming.  Generally speaking, when we play together we prefer combative strategy games, especially area control games.  Blood Rage is our favorite game to play, and we probably got it to the table 10+ times this year.  It's good every time. We also played a fair bit of Rising Sun, with which I have some problems.  I find it overly long, tiring, and lacking in finesse.

We played Scythe 2x this year, and while I love aspects of the design, overall I found it to be a frustratingly constraining experience.  I tried to get the group hooked on Civilization: a New Dawn, but only two of us liked it and one actively hated it so now it laments on my for-trade shelf.  We had a fairly thrilling session of Black Orchestra, but it never hit the table again.  I was happy to play Concordia at least twice this year, as it's probably my favorite Euro and I've played it enough now to actually play well.  I re-discovered the joy of the "command and colors" system through Battlelore, Second Edition which I think is a thoroughly fun game.  I don't play 2-player very often nowadays, but I really hope to get this one to the table more in 2019.

For solitaire play, I played a hefty amount of the LOTR LCG, which I'll always keep in my collection.  Also, Nemo's War, the new Fallout boardgame, some Mage Knight, and Dungeon Alliance (which I eventually traded away).  Surprisingly, I barely touched Spirit Island at all, even though I absolutely adore the design and it happily squats in my Top 10.

Excitingly, Inara (my older daughter, now 7.5) started to get more into boardgames this year.  Together with my wife, Aili, we played a decent amount of King of Tokyo and Kingdomino.  We even futzed around with Castle Ravenloft a bit, and next year she'll definitely be ready for the full ruleset.

I didn't play much "new" stuff this year.  I have a copy of Dice Throne: Season 2 sitting on my desk which I want to play, as well as Martin Wallace's Wildlands.  Overall, I was more conservative with my purchases, in part because Eric (a member of my gaming group) has been buying more and growing his collection.  On Kickstarter, I supported only Tang Garden and The Ancient World (2nd edition).

Digital gaming definitely toned down this year, continuing a consistent 5-year trend. Nowadays, I eschew complex RPGs, massive open-world games, and multiplayer FPS's (which I used to adore) for more bite-sized strategic experiences.  I thoroughly enjoyed completing Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, which is a fantastic real-time, squad-based stealth game.  I also loved Northgard, a cool hybrid of civilization-building, RTS, and colony survival.  Offworld Trading Company, Into the Breach, Tesla vs. Lovecraft, and Darkest Dungeon also got significant play-time.

I hope you had a great year gaming too.  While we can sometimes feel guilty about spending time and money on something so "luxurious" and decadent as gaming, remember that play is - and always has been - a critical mediator of cognitive development and an essential component of the human experience.  And playing with others is one of the great joys in life.  Excelsior!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Infamous update: less than a month to go

The Infamous Kickstarter is scheduled (currently) for August 10th, so that means I have less than a month before life gets insanely stressful.  As if it wasn't stressful already...

The big project for me since Origins has been working with our exceptional graphic designer, Kody Chamberlain, on the Infamous rulebook.  Rulebooks are always a bear, and this one is no exception.  I do wish I had the graphic design skills (like Vital Lacerda, or Ryan Laukat) to do the rulebook myself.  Then I wouldn't have to worry about minimizing the number of revision requests I make, and I could obsess over small details and changes on a never-ending basis.  Actually, that sounds terrible, so maybe this is all for the best.

All will be revealed...
Otherwise, I've asked Kody to make a few minor adjustments to the components, per some feedback I received at Origins.  And while EGG and I have a fairly good idea of what the Kickstarter for Infamous is going to look like, there are a number of details to still work out:
  • Kickstarter video needs to be recorded
  • Kickstarter page graphics needs to be designed (wish I could do this myself)
  • Specific order in which we reveal stretch-goals needs to be determined
  • Promotional work
It's that last bullet-point - "promotional work" - that really sticks in my craw.  Some companies (and designers) are better at this than others.  It seems so hard to stick out in a crowd of so many games, to generate enthusiasm for yet another Kickstarter, to reach potential backers & buyers who just don't know you exist.  Over the years, I'd read so much on this topic:  from Jamey Stegmaier's amazing blog series on Kickstarters, to dozens of post-mortems.  I do wish that EGG did more than they do now; they are not the most nimble or creative company when it comes to promotion.  Having said that, they have a solid presence and reputation in the industry, they reach international customers better than many companies, and they do have a very solid "following" of customers who often support EGG games.

I did recently post a nice summary of Infamous on BoardGameGeek, and you can read it here if you want:

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Origins 2018 recap

That's me next to Dr. Hominoid, just this past weekend at Origins 2018 in Columbus, OH.  Origins is the one big game con that I try to go to every year.  In part because my brother lives in Ohio, so it's an opportunity for us to get together for 4 days, hang out, and play a lot of games.

This year Origins was special because I was able to show off a brand spanking new prototype of Infamous.  Eagle-Gryphon had to cancel a lot of their events at the con because they just didn't have enough volunteers/Wing People to help out.  But they didn't cancel Infamous, and we ran 4 demo sessions per day for pretty much the entire show.  I personally demo-ed or explained Infamous to over 50 people, and by the time the show was over, I was feeling simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated.

The public response to Infamous was universally positive.  Now, a big part of this is self-selection bias, since the people who came over to try it were probably most likely to enjoy it.  And there's a bit of cognitive dissonance working there too, since they did just spend 2 hours learning and playing a game.  BUT I observed a lot of smiling and laughing, and many people told me after playing how much they enjoyed the game and couldn't wait to buy a copy for their game group or family.  I choose to take them on their word.

Teaching people the game took right around 15 minutes.  Playing a complete 4-player game took another 90 minutes, on average.  We also ran at least one 3-player game and one 5-player game.  There were no particular rules that seemed to trip people up, although it's important to emphasize the timing of Scheme cards.  This doesn't really surprise me, because it's not a particularly complicated game and there isn't too much rules overhead.  I would periodically remind people to check and see if any of their rooms provided helpful benefits during contract resolution - and to hire Mercenaries if they were thin on henchmen.


What did people enjoy the most?  Probably the theme, the flavor, the humor, and the smooth mechanics.  As I hoped, players immediately grokked and enjoyed the idea of building a base that attracts specific types of henchmen. I think people really enjoyed debating whether to send their lackey out on contracts to gain the free re-roll.  And people loved grabbing fistfuls of custom dice to roll.  This is not a brain-burner of a game, but there are fun decisions to make all the time and the game is regularly rewarding you with amusing text and great art.  I was particularly thrilled to see some father-daughter pairs play the game and really enjoy it, as I hope to play Infamous one day with my own two daughters (currently 7 and 1 years old).  Thanks to everyone who played, just in case you're reading this.

The state of the game is fantastic.  We just have to make a few finishing touches to the graphic design and hammer out a professional rulebook.  EGG is currently sending out protos to previewers/reviewers, so that we'll have some solid video coverage in time for the campaign.  We have our campaign and stretch-goal plan worked out.  At this point, I'd say with 100% confidence that we'll be ready to launch in early August.

Thanks, Origins!  See you next year.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Infamous: status update

Perhaps not surprisingly, Infamous is absorbing an enormous amount of cognitive and emotional energy right now.  The rules are set, the components are set, and we have a solid plan for the next couple months.  The final stages of graphic design came together very nicely, and I'm desperate to show people how everything turned out.  Here's what the final gameboard will look like (or pretty close to it):

Given the many staff changes that have happened at EGG this past year, I ended up being de facto art director for Infamous, and working directly with both Rob on the final set of illustrations and Kody Chamberlain, our freelance graphic designer.  There are pros and cons to being this closely associated with the artwork of your own game.  On the one hand, I can in some ways ensure that the art and design-work mesh with my original artistic "vision"; on the other hand, I'd prefer to have a bit more distance from this process.

Having said that, I really enjoy working with artists, and both Rob and Kody have given us some amazing work.  I hope that the art and LOOK of Infamous will be a big draw.  After all, looks sell on Kickstarter (maybe even more than gameplay!), so I think it obviously benefits us to have such exceptional, unique artwork in the game which we can splash through the KS campaign.

Our final push to get all components print-ready by mid-May means that we should have new prototypes ready to show off and demo at Origins this month.  Should being the operative word here.  I will definitely be there, as I go to Origins every year with my brother and my friend, Flip.  This year will be special, as I'll get to demo Infamous at the EGG booth at least once or twice every day while I'm there.  I just hope all the pieces come in on time, including the custom dice.

The next big project for Kody and I is to generate the rulebook.  I have high hopes for how good it's going to look, and how well it will exude the theme of the game.  But rulebooks are always a bear, and I regularly wake up in the middle of the night thinking of small edits and revisions I should be making.  For the Clockwork Wars rulebook, I got to work with my close friend (and pro graphic designer) Benj.  Because we were close, I was able to request several revisions and work with Benj until the rulebook felt just right.  In the end, I think that rulebook came out great.  With Kody, there won't be as many opportunities for big revisions (unless we're willing to pay), so I have to be careful from the beginning.

Otherwise, I'm having lots of tough conversations with EGG folks about whether we want to push forward with an Infamous expansion right away, what the content of that expansion should be, and how much it will cost.  From my end, I have a decent amount of expansion material that I think is ready to go; but I understand that investing in an expansion before you even have a sense of how many basegame copies you're going to sell is kind of crazy.  And yet - a lot of KS's have expansions built into the campaign, and it's a nice way to give backers access to additional content if they want it.

I don't know if I've written about this before on my blog, but I often have conversations with my wife about this:  game design and publication is equal parts exultation and stress.  There are many times when I truly don't think it's worth the hassle.  So many (unpaid) hours brainstorming ideas, writing copious notes, trashing those ideas because they're derivative, meticulously crafting prototypes, organizing playtest sessions, selling to potential publishers, showing off your work to strangers, reading about game design, feeling like you spend way too much time thinking about game design.  And then you sign a contract!  And it's amazing!  And then there's a HUGE wait, and after that wait passes, there's an insane truckload of new stressors ready to wreck your sleep schedule.  And for what?  A board game?  A vacuous cultural product that will eventually sink into the trash-heap of humanity's decadence?  One game, amidst the multitudes published every year (over 3000 by some counts)?

The joy comes when you see your game in "the wild" and watch strangers play it and enjoy themselves.  And that joy doesn't really fade.  If your boardgame is good, people can continue to discover it and play years after it is released.  So there's pride and satisfaction and some sense of giving back to this hobby that's given you so much joy, but it really is tempered by this nagging feeling that the cost is just too damn high.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Supervillain #5: Gorgonex

And last, but certainly not least, is the petrifying Gorgonex:  a beast out of legend, a horrific hybrid of a minotaur and gorgon.

Gorgonex has made his lair beneath the ruins of the Athenian Acropolis. Contracts in Europe and Africa are within close reach.

Thematically, my goal was to include one supervillain that tied into ancient mythology. In part, because comics have always tapped mythological traditions for amazing story-lines (see Wonder Woman for a good example of this). Also because, in some general sense, comic books are a form of modern myth. Part of what draws us, and our children, generation after generation to comics is because they present archetypal stories of good vs. evil, of human frailty and strength.  

My original conception of Gorgonex was more medusa than minotaur, because mechanically I wanted a villain whose strength was an enhanced ability to attract henchmen but whose weakness was a penchant for overly extreme punishment. When Rob heard the general idea, he pitched a minotaur-medusa hybrid and we all loved it.

Gogonex's strength is "Intimidation," which grants you 1 free attraction point at the start of the Henchmen Phase. The timing of this is optimal; at this point, everyone has played their rooms for the round and made their "bids" for various henchmen types. You can then use this 1 extra attraction point to give yourself that final push you need to score a key henchmen.

His weakness is "Pitiless Contempt." Mechanically, this ability went through numerous versions before I hit on this one. Your henchmen can never heal (Gorgonex doesn't care about their pain!), so Injury tokens are permanent. Furthermore, if a henchman ever gains a 2nd Injury token, they are immediately Captured. This weakness becomes a real nuisance once you realize there are Scheme cards out there that let your opponents directly injure your henchmen. So if you play Gorgonex, you've got to continually push for lots of henchmen and treat them like expendable commodities. After all, you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs, eh?

Friday, May 25, 2018

Supervillain #4: Empress Ishii

Empress Ishii is, in many ways, an example of the classic "criminal overlord" trope. She'd fit right in in a James Bond flick. Indeed, the inspiration for placing her secret base location inside of Mount Fuji came straight from You Only Live Twice, which influenced me quite a bit as a child (as did most James Bond movies).

So I apologize if any of this sounds just too derivative; I've tried to be playful with many standard comic book tropes in Infamous.  Think of these supervillains as archetypes; representations of our collective unconscious, brought to life by Rob Guillory's expert pen.

Empress Ishii doesn't want to freeze the world or watch it burn or eradicate humanity. She just wants to make lots and lots of money. Oh, and be really really powerful. Simple. To that end, she and her side-kick, Ninja Girl, train an army of geisha-assassins within the bowels of Mount Fuji, using them to expand her vast criminal network across the globe.

Ishii's unique strength is, in fact, "Criminal Network."  She can automatically trade time for money (e.g., spend 1 week to gain $200,000), which can be incredibly useful if your contracts aren't paying out as much cash as you'd like.

Her unique weakness is "Perfectionism."  Attempting hard contracts costs an additional week of time, while legendary contracts cost +2 weeks.  Ishii does not tolerate failure and likes to plan out every variable before hatching a new scheme. As such, when you play Empress Ishii with all the fixins', you'll need to be heavily conscious of time as a resource to manage carefully.

Rob's original pitch for Ishii was "Akira-like Neo-Tokyo Yakuza Queenpin" and the first sketch was pretty amazing. I somewhat regret us moving away from that original idea. But we decided we wanted Ishii to be a bit more "empress-like" - more formal and intimidating and traditional?  All I know is I wouldn't want to get on her bad side. That smile is vicious.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Supervillain #3: Pachacuti Jr.

Ever wanted to be a reincarnated Incan god-emperor?

Pachacuti Jr.'s has founded his base at Machu Picchu, rebuilding the ancient Incan citadel into a modern-day supervillain fortress.  His closest continent locations are South and North America.  Thematically, I envision Pachacuti as insanely powerful but somewhat naive and comically dim-witted.  He garners his mystical power from the sun (and human sacrifice, of course), and his schemes consistently revolve around how to harness the sun's energy more effectively.  His lackey, Priestess Quilla, is more of a co-conspirator and administrative assistant than "lackey."  Truth be told, if it wasn't for her sagacity and organizational skills, Pachacuti would have destroyed himself and the entire planet in his last plot to shift Earth's orbit (directly into the sun).

Pachacuti Jr.'s strength is "Solar Power":  after revealing a contract, you can exhaust Pachacuti to lower the target value of that contract by 1 (making it easier).  Or you can exhaust both Pachacuti and Priestess Quilla to lower the target by 3!  This is an incredibly powerful ability that will greatly reduce your likelihood of failing contracts - especially Easy and Hard ones.

Pachacuti Jr.'s weakness is "Heretical Dogma":  every time you succeed at a contract, you lose 2 attraction points.  Basically, Pachacuti becomes more insufferable and demanding with each success he has, making him a less attractive supervillain to work for. Strategically, it means that you might want to think twice about simply trying to complete as many contracts as possible; focusing on fewer, but higher difficulty contracts is likely a better option.  As is looking for other ways to earn Infamy (via Room card effects and Scheme cards, for example).

When Rob first showed me his sketch for this piece, I went gaga.  It just wasn't what I was expecting and surpassed anything my imagination could have come up with.  Another example of how Rob just sees the world differently from the rest of us mortals - and thank goodness!