Saturday, October 11, 2014

Steampunk Rally Kickstarter Preview

The first review/preview of Steampunk Rally is up!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Steampunk Rally Designer Diary - parts 1-5

The first 5 parts of my designer diary are up! You can read them here or on boardgamegeek.

For me, steampunk is about optimism. Popular media has long been down on science and creation. Most fictional visions of the future are dystopian. Even my longtime favourite film, Jurassic Park, is all about the perils of science, the message being that progress is to be feared. But there was a time when this message was not so ubiquitous. Before the horrors of WWI (and then again for a while during the Atomic age) we were pretty gung-ho on science and the future. Or maybe that’s modern revisionism and we were never gung-ho. After all, Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein in 1818. But whatever, I’m going with it.

I don’t have to tell you that there’s a dark side to this optimism. Colonialism, nationalism and environmental devastation all spring from this romantic idea that man (might as well throw sexism in there) can master the ways of the universe and bend them to his will for the good of all. There is definitely a naivet√© to this worldview. But gosh darn is it a refreshing change from the status quo of evil mad scientists, useless nebbish scientists, negligent corporate scientists, etc. Steampunk gives us the hero scientist! The savior who accomplishes great deeds not through marksmanship, luck, or some heroic destiny hokum, but by his (or her!) brains, tenacity and creativity! As a perpetually scrawny nerd, this is the sort of hero I can get behind.

Or maybe it’s just that adding lots of gears to stuff makes it look really cool.

Steampunk has popped up in a ton of boardgames (City of Iron, Mission: Red Planet, Leviathans) and videogames (Bioshock, Age of Legends, Steamworld Dig), and I love a lot of these games, but I’ve never found a game that really scratched my steampunk itch. Most “steampunk” games incorporate it as an aesthetic, nifty looking but interchangeable. The last game I remember that sort of felt steampunk in its mechanics was the edutainment game Super Solvers: Gizmos & Gadgets! and my memory is fuzzy on that one since I was about seven.

Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines made a pretty big impact on my child brain as well, seeing as I watched it about a billion times (perhaps only surpassed by the original 1961 The Absent-Minded Professor). It had a goodly dose of that scientific optimism I referred to earlier (the character Lord Rawnsley is much opposed to his daughter’s passion for airplanes, and he is depicted as a stuffy luddite), and the idea of racing over Europe in rickety, often barely-functioning machines always had immense appeal to me. Somewhere at the convergence of LEGOs and reality television (Junkyard Wars, The Amazing Race, Top Gear) the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go.

One element of steampunk that’s crucial is that it’s set at a time when technology was relatively understandable. Even if you know something about circuit boards and microchips, modern technology is extremely opaque. But steam-driven mechanisms are (conceptually) simple. You boil some water, it pushes on some pistons and turns some gears, cool stuff ensues. I wanted a game where I could do that. And most of my game ideas come about when something I want to play doesn’t seem to exist.

Inspired partly by reading about the legendary feud between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and from becoming more acquainted with “steampunk” as a genre, I first sat down and started prototyping Steampunk Rally, then titled "Tesla’s Wager," seven years ago, in my sophomore year at the University of Waterloo. I was pleasantly surrounded with nerds and engineers, so finding playtesters wasn’t difficult. Many racing games use some sort of Roll and Move mechanic, but mine was the reverse: Move and Roll. Based on the parts you had in your invention, you chose to move up to some allowed maximum, and then rolled one die per space moved. The terrain icons rolled were multiplied by the number of terrain spaces passed over, and you took this many “stress” tokens and distributed them amongst your parts. Take too much stress, and parts would fall off.

There were things I liked about this version. The multiplication added a huge risk-reward dynamic. And many parts allowed you to place stress tokens on them to trigger special powers, which added some tough choices since you were basically sacrificing durability to try and gain an upper hand. (My favorite racing videogame F-Zero GX did this by making “boost” and “shields” the same bar.) Overall though, the game was just too chaotic for its level of complexity. I hadn’t internalized the value of iconography that modern euros have embraced, and consequently most cards had reams of text to digest despite minimal variation. So you’d carefully decide on a set of parts to use after poring over your hand, make sure the total weight fell within the correct bounds (yeah, you had to calculate weight in older versions. I’m glad I realized this was unnecessary, and that I could make big clunky vehicles feel and act big and clunky through less literal means) and then you’d roll a bunch of dice and watch it fall apart because you rolled horribly. Also virtually everyone who played wanted the physical placement of their machine’s parts to be relevant somehow, and I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish this, so the game was shelved. 

Every designer I know “shelves” things. We never officially give up on games, we just put them on a shelf somewhere, with the fervent hope that one day we will discover how to take them the rest of the way. Most of the games I’ve shelved over the years sit in boxes in my basement and files on my computer, untouched and only occasionally thought about. Steampunk Rally was different. Over the years I returned to it again and again with the fervid intention of discovering how to bring the theme to life. I prototyped versions with part tiles of varying sizes, with cards representing terrain and optional routes, with deck-building mechanics, with cubes and icons of all sorts. I knew I had an awesome theme, I just didn’t seem to have the skills to properly execute on it. I needed to become a better designer.

One thing I learned along the way was that I wanted a system where different types of energy flowed throughout a player’s machine. I’ve played a lot of “engine-building” Euros, and there’s a reason this term is used. It’s because it feels like you’re building an engine which processes one type of resource (money, actions, cloth), converts them into various other resources, and ultimately churns out Victory Points (or “VPs”). But VPs are so dull. What is a VP? I’ve never seen one in reality, nor do I particularly care to strive for them in my escapist entertainment. I was a maverick, and I felt a need… A need for speed! 

So the game was to be an engine-building Euro. But instead of VPs, these engines would generate speed, or more accurately distance. Instead of a VP track I would have a racetrack with hazards, opportunities, and forks (I always felt the VP track in Carcassonne was so pretty, and yet such a waste of table and design space). That was what the engines would output, but what would players feed into them?

In some of the earlier versions I had cubes representing heat, steam and electricity (the purest building-blocks of steampunk, along with brass) which could be placed on and generated by (and even move between) part cards/tiles. A recurring problem I recognized was that a lot of this ended up amounting to busywork. Eurogames generally introduce whatever player interaction there is by making basic game resources, the fuel for your engine, central in some way, such that everyone’s pulling from a limited pot. But aside from adding interaction (as it may be), it introduces the crucial element of uncertainty and risk which keeps things from devolving into deterministic mathematics (except for the ones that have a fetish for mathematics and keep that part too, *cough*Powergrid*cough*). This sort of dynamic of competing over central resources felt incorrect for a racing theme, but then as soon as players go off in a corner with their resources uncontested, it has a tendency to become busywork. (I have electricity and my wheels require steam so obviously I’m going to put them through the chain of cards that turn them into steam just like every other turn.) If I wasn’t going to have the players fighting over a central resource pool, then the use of the resources themselves had to be unpredictable in some way.

And this is how I hit upon the idea of dice-placement and after seven years finally had a game people wanted to play. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Game. Of. The. Year.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Steampunk Rally Designer Diary


I'm pleased to announce that Roxley Games will be kickstarting my game Steampunk Rally on my birthday, October 23rd!

In the weeks leading up to this, I will be posting a designer diary about how this game came to be. If you have a boardgamegeek account, you can subscribe and follow it from here. So far I've posted Part 1 and Part 2, but we haven't even gotten rolling yet![/hilarious puns]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Favorite Gaming Moment


Well said :')

I just got home yesterday from MCing my friends Sean and Becky's wedding in Ontario, which was hands-down the coolest wedding every. Three words: mass lightsaber battle. Once everyone had collapsed from dancing with glowsticks and gorging on milk and cookies, we started reminiscing about tabletop gaming stories, and eventually came around to my favorite gaming moment:

In my last year at Waterloo, Sean and his friend Ian decided to run a game of Mage: The Awakening with 10 players split into two rival teams. I was a player in Sean's group, and we were racing against Ian's team, who were playing in another room (with information passed back and forth between Sean and Ian), to acquire several magical artifacts scattered around Chicago. My character was a modestly powerful mage with spells involving opening portals.

After some tribulation we managed to beat Ian's team to an artifact located deep in a sewer, but we knew they were hot on our trail and likely to intercept us. One of my character's spells allowed me to open a portal to any location I had physically been, and it just so happened that my backstory involved a backpacking trip through Nepal. Thus I was able to open a magical portal to Nepal, but escaping through it would be terribly inconvenient seeing as the rest of the artifacts were still in Chicago. However Kaitlin, one of the other players on our team, specialized in invisibility magic, and she happened to be a high enough level that she could hide our entire team from view, provided we huddle together very quietly in the corner.

When our rival team shortly arrived on the scene, they spotted the open portal (as well as the absence of any artifact) and "pursued" us through it without hesitation, after which I closed the portal and stranded them all in Nepal without them even knowing that we were comfortably still in a Chicago sewer. This of course meant that Ian's next session would require writing a completely extraneous adventure in Nepal that would lead them nowhere. Knowing I was the portal mage, when Ian met me alone in the hall after the session, he simply muttered "I hate you so much" a couple of times before walking away.

It made me so very happy :)

(Also Ian looks like a young Jim Carrey, if that happens to improve the story at all.)

Also also! SU&SD mentions my good friend Paul Saxberg's award-winning upcoming game Coven in their latest news post!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Crawl

Well dang, this looks pretty awesome!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Steampunk Rally

I'm very pleased to announce an upcoming boardgame I designed called Steampunk Rally!

It recently won the international Ciutat de Granollers design competition in Barcelona (as well as currently being a finalist for the Canadian Game Design Award), and will be pubished through Kickstarter by Roxley Games.

You can check out some of the fantastic art by David Forest and Lina Cossette on boardgamegeek.com, but here's the 140-character Twitter pitch:

"Famous inventors at the turn of the century construct fantastical steampunk contraptions in a no-holds-barred race through the Swiss alps!"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My Game Design Course

If you're in Calgary this Fall, I'm running a game design course with Mount Royal University's faculty of Continuing Education. I'll be talking about both boardgames and videogames, and there will be lots of hands-on prototyping and playtesting.

Classes run from September 30th to October 21st, Tuesday and Thursday nights from 6:00 to 9:45 (seven nights total). Maximum enrollment is 27, so everyone should be able to take active part in discussions. Check it out and register online! (course registration code: 90981)

[update: I will be running this class again! Tuesday nights only from February 3rd to March 7th]

It'll be my first time teaching, so wish me luck! Here are summaries of what I'll be covering in each class:

Class #1 (Tues Sep 30th) - Digital vs Non-Digital
After introducing the class format, we discuss the relationship between designing digital and non-digital games and the relationship between “mechanics,” “dynamics” and “aesthetics.”
Class exercise: Play a eurogame

Class #2 (Thurs Oct 2nd) - Resource Economies
We discuss the ways resources interact in various games including the often-critical resource: time.
Class exercise: Examine the resources in a popular videogame, then implement those resources in a boardgame adaptation

Class #3 (Thurs Oct 7th) - Success and Failure
We discuss how a player’s goals affect gameplay, and how to achieve different styles of inter-player dynamics.
Class exercise: Figure out how to remove elimination from Risk and also speed up play with the objective of finishing a playthrough within the time allotted

Class #4 (Tues Oct 9th) - Randomness
We examine some of the math and psychology involved in employing randomization, as well as two central game dynamics: push-your-luck and rock-paper-scissors.
Class exercise: Prototype and playtest a simple game that involves push-your-luck, then play Incan Gold

Class #5 (Tues Oct 14th) - Theme and Narrative
We discuss game mechanics as representation, their relationship to game narrative, and the tradeoffs of complexity.
Class exercise: Design a simple game that simulates a historical or fictional event

Class #6 (Thurs Oct 16th) - Game Balance
We look more critically at the process of iterative design, and discuss some pitfalls of balancing games.
Class exercise: Rework a game previously designed in class to feature asymmetric gameplay or starting conditions

Class #7 (Tues Oct 21st) - Psychology
We examine some psychological techniques and how to use them to your (and preferably the player’s) benefit, what feels “fair,” and how games can teach us.
Class exercise: Play San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, discuss the advantage and disadvantage of each presentation style, and analyze the aesthetics both games evoked during play

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Look ma, I'm on TV!

The local Game Artisans (including myself) were just featured in a story by the Calgary Journal!
Thanks again Neil and Brent!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Harry Potter VS Star Wars

"Live long and prosper." -Ben Franklin