Friday, December 12, 2014

Steampunk Rally - More Shameless Promotion!

Steampunk Rally has been nominated on boardgamegeek as one of the most anticipated games of 2015, and right now it looks like we're at #6! If you want to go give it a thumb, we could use a hand to push it over the top!

I also did a followup to my earlier interview with The Inquisitive Meeple if you want to check that out.

Currently we're hard at work playtesting the 16 unique inventor powers and the Hoverdrome so we can finalize the art for the print 'n play files. Hope you like them as much as we do :)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sonic Retrospective: Gotta Go Fast!

I was raised as a Nintendo kid, so I didn't really grow up on Sonic The Hedgehog. Sure I have a few fond memories of the Genesis games from when I was younger, but mainly I was in the Mario camp. (Actually I was in the Donkey Kong Country camp, but that's another topic.) It's widely accepted among most gamers that Sonic games were fantastic until he tried to go 3D and, to put it mildly, failed to make the transition with the seemingly-effortless aplomb of Mario (though he undoubtedly fared better than some mascots).

Long ago I played through and quite enjoyed Sonic Adventure 2, but the other 3D entries I've attempted to play over the years, specifically Sonic Heroes and Sonic and the Secret Rings, turned me off them faster than almost any other games I can remember. SatSR was brave enough to attempt adapting the formula to motion controls, which for me wasn't the issue, nor did I have a problem with jumping required first doing a ducking-slide-thing. The issue was that this pre-jump slide thing, which you needed to do constantly, slowed Sonic's speed to a crawl (thus making the jump feel pretty wimpy), and worse, it took him an extremely long time to accelerate to full speed when allowed to run interrupted, making the whole experience feel a bit like trying to run through molasses or perhaps navigate rush-hour traffic.

Sonic's mission statement of going really fast was originally a gimmick to sell kids on Sega's “blast processing” (which arguably was not a thing). Leaving aside the issue that Sonic's capabilities don't really measure up to the hype, this focus on speed has been a constant difficulty in terms of game design. A fundamental issue has always been the struggle to find reasons for the player to actually want to go fast. Like most platformers, the Genesis entries rewarded patience and precision (i.e. not barreling into enemies and spike traps), which made for enjoyable gameplay but sort of ran anathema to the alleged central concept. Over the years, Sonic Team clearly realized this issue and has attempted to resolve it in two ways: give players time restrictions (e.g. something chasing them or a reward/pat-on-the-back for finishing a level quickly), give Sonic abilities (like the spin attack and homing attack) that reduce his vulnerability while going fast (to try and counter the inherent loss of control and response time), and add on-rails section where players can "cut loose" and go really fast without worrying about randomly running into a hazard (popping up even in the early 2D entries as pipes and loops).

Which brings us to near-present day and the game that not-so-subtly prompted me to contemplate Sonic's history: Sonic Generations. Despite everything I'm going to say, the game's really not bad (certainly superior to Star Trek: Generations). There's obvious visible effort in terms of honoring the character's history (without overly bogging it down with drawn-out cutscenes), catchy remixes of old songs, pleasingly rendered environments that pay homages to earlier entries and effortlessly transition between 2D and 3D, and even plenty of clever level design. Trust me, if Sonic Team were as incompetent as some people believe, these games would be virtually unplayable. It's obvious that they understand the difficulties associated with the character and continually work hard to try and ameliorate them. (In fact to be honest I'm having more fun with the 3D levels than the traditionalist 2D levels, which sort of runs counter to the popular narrative that the designers have somehow "lost their way" since transitioning to 3D, as does the lukewarm response to Sonic the Hedgehog 4.)

Yet those inherent Sonic-specific difficulties are definitely on display as well. In order to give that sense of speed, the game makes use of extended on-rails sections. I have no inherent objection to on-rails gameplay, in fact it can be extremely enjoyable. The problem is that combining on-rails gameplay with regular gameplay poses a number of additional challenges. If a player's control is removed entirely (e.g. the Genesis pipe sections), the sections are basically nothing but cutscenes: flashy but meaningless, and devoid of actual tension. But to give the player even a modicum of control invites the possibility of disaster. In one section of Generations, Sonic was intended to bounce off a spring and land on a grind rail, but because I was trying to help and was pushing the control stick towards the rail, Sonic somehow managed to overshoot it and die. As expected, on my second attempt Sonic made it onto the rail when I made no inputs with the controller. In essence, the game was punishing me for trying to play it at all. Yet just as often, Sonic will fall to his doom or barrel into an obstacle because I failed to give an input in time. Thus, like an ornery housecat, the frenetic action in the game has so far repeatedly come down to a central challenge of trying to deduce when the game wants me to play and when it wants me to leave it alone.

The other continued frustration in Sonic games throughout their history has been that the punishment for screwing up, aside from losing rings or potentially falling to one's doom, has been stopping Sonic dead in his tracks, which is extremely frustrating in a game about going fast. An important tenet of game design is that failure should be fun. It should be glorious and spectacular and perhaps darkly satisfying. But the way Sonic games punish you after every minor screw-up by abruptly halting the action is far too understated. Despite the power rings colorfully flying from Sonic's sprawled form (which does help a bit. Try and picture how jarring it would feel without the ring effect), the loss of momentum, in the context of a Sonic game, is anything but fun. It would be like if every missed note in Guitar Hero caused the music to momentarily halt rather than triggering entertainingly-dissonant notes to play. Instantly halting the action is the reason Bit.Trip Runner failed to reach the heights inherent in its premise (though Rayman Legends eventually made good on the concept simply by relaxing the required precision). Put more straightforwardly, it breaks flow. And by this point, Sonic Team must recognize that Sonic is best when he's going fast (*cough*werehog*cough*aka hedgewolf*). At slow speeds, his controls feel slippery, like he can't wait to get back on the open road.

Most platforming games don't suffer from these particular issues because they're not about going fast, but there is another genre that generally is: racing games. In F-Zero GX, a particular favorite of mine (and ironically published by SEGA), a player's race car is rarely stopped dead in its tracks (and if this does happen, the amusing novelty of it helps make up for the irritation). Instead, when a player screws up (e.g. runs into the side rails or other racers), they maintain much of their velocity but lose shields. Because the shields double as the boost gauge, the game tempts you into tense push-your-luck moments where the more you boost the more likely you are to run into obstacles and the more able to destroy you those obstacles become, so the central challenge becomes "how much?" which is a lot more interesting than Sonic's central challenge of "am I supposed to?" I've brought up the brilliance of this system before, but the relevant feature here is that screwing up and running into hazards doesn't put a damper on the action, rather it heightens the tension. It makes you think "maybe I should slow down a bit" while the racers around you immediately push those doubts from your mind and tempt you to boost just one more time. (Interestingly F-Zero GX also features the sideways dash which is so crucial to Sonic Generations' controls.)

So to summarize, if I could offer any advice to Sonic Team, it would be:

A) continue to try and find compelling reasons for Sonic to want to go fast. (Getting a final grade for finishing within an allotted time is not a very compelling reason.) Chasing or being chased (ala F-Zero GX) are good reasons. Letting Sonic smash through certain enemies/obstacles when he is going sufficiently fast (with clear visual indicators) would be another good incentive, as would enemies that punish tardiness (e.g. guided missiles) like in Sunset Overdrive.

B) find ways to punish failure that don't mean stopping Sonic dead in his tracks (losing rings is fine, though running in circles collecting them is irritating in 3D). Even having him sent flying in an unintended direction would be preferable (though I realize this pose level design challenges). Having him lose some velocity would also be acceptable, and could be very punishing were it actually necessary to go fast (though it's best if he has ways to quickly get back up to speed e.g. a dedicated "go-really-fast" button). Triggering things (e.g. alarms) that increase the perils of stopping or slowing down (e.g. the quantity of enemies chasing you) might also be a fun dynamic, forcing you to choose between proceeding more cautiously and facing the tidal wave of things you've triggered or doubling down and shooting the moon.

The other realization I came to is that, in my opinion, Sonic is best when he's racing through recognizably Earth-like environments. That's not because I want realism in my Sonic games but because it's much easier to get a sense of how fast Sonic's really going, and be awed by it, when he's running through an environment that you intuitively know the general scale of. For all it's myriad failings (including even having a freaking name), Sonic 2006 recognized this I think, and the real-world environments impart a good sense of speed. (Though perhaps they just did it for the sake of "gritty realism"; this is the team that brought us Shadow the Hedgehog after all.) Proper use of camera also gives a sense of scale and speed, though I realize how challenging this probably has been in the series (it was one of primary downfalls of Sonic 2006 and for what it's worth the camera only killed me a couple times so far in Generations, which is not bad considering). Showing off what's ahead better might not only help show off how quickly Sonic traverses it but also focus the gameplay more on timing and frantic choices rather than sheer reflexes.

Admittedly I'm only a couple hours into Generations which is why I made this more of a retrospective than a review, and perhaps the pulled-back camera angles and real-world environments come in later, but my short time with the game (and the frequent transitions between old-school and new-school) helped clarify for me these fundamental issues that have always plagued the series through both good times and bad. So far I've enjoyed my time with Generations, but I suspect this will diminish as the difficulty rises since I've mostly been able to cheerfully breeze through everything, and the moment I've encountered any sort of adversity the above issues rear their ugly heads and tip things over into frustration.

Rather than restrictively categorizing Sonic as a platformer, thinking in terms of racing games might help point to (less-band-aid-y) solutions since he feeds similar aesthetics (and yes I realize that Sonic has been in actual racing games, but that's incalculably stupid on the face of it. Why does Sonic need a car! That's as dumb as the Flashmobile!!). And racing against no opponents, stopping the player on a dime, having their inputs screw everything up...

...it all starts to sound suspiciously like Big Riggs: Over the Road Racing!


And that's no good!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Coven

I just backed the boardgame Coven and you should too!
It was designed by my good friend Paul Saxberg, and I've been helping him playtest and develop it for several years! (You can read about the fascinating roundabout journey in his design diary)

But don't just back it because he's a friend of mine, Coven is a legitimately awesome game, and totally unique! (It won the 2012 Canadian Game Design Award!) Based very loosely on the novel A Night in the Lonesome October (which is also totally worth checking out; it's narrated by Jack the Ripper's dog), a coven of witches has gathered to perform a ritual that, with the help of certain goddesses, will usher in some sort of ancient Lovecraftian evil. However, some of the witches are secretly working for the forces of good and attempting to sabotage the ritual, so it's imperative that you discover which witches (and which goddesses) are which.

The game is packed with a bunch of cool nods to paganism, mythology and the occult (for example, counter-clockwise is referred to as "Widdershins"). In fact I recall that at one point Paul sent the game off to be blind-tested by an actual coven of witches.

In summary, this game is totally weird and cool and tends draw a crowd since the board is striking and it looks like you're performing some kind of eldritch ritual just by playing on it, so go check it out!

I'm pleased to see that the Kickstarter is already halfway to the goal after a few hours though (they just passed $6,666), so it doesn't look like they need my help. Regardless, dark things are in motion...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fiasco: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the 12-pound Mountain Howitzer

When it's firing on all cylinders, Fiasco might be my favorite game of all time. It's a weird mishmash of mechanics and GM-less roleplaying that basically lets you create a Cohen Brothers film. I just had one of the best sessions I've played yet and figured it was worth sharing. We used the Boomtown playset, which I've had good luck with; people seem to be comfortable with Western tropes, and they work well with Fiasco's themes. [gameplay details are in brackets. In Acts 1 & 2, each paragraph was a “scene.”]

The Setup
[Lacey & Anglebolt – The Past (relationship): a criminal & a detective – Weapon (object): 12-pound Mountain Howitzer]
[Anglebolt & Brisbee – Community (relationship): elected officials – Residence (location): a squalid apartment above a newspaper office]
[Brisbee & Doogal – Crime (relationship): gamblers – To Get Rich (need): through fraud and trickery]
[Doogal & Lacey - Work (relationship): professional/client – Information (object): contract with the Pinkerton detective agency]

Brisbee, a portly Southern gent with the sort of charisma possessed by used car salesmen, has been Mayor of Pendleton for quite a number of terms. This is because he's supported by...

James Doogal, a powerful crime lord (read “legitimate businessman”) who owns most of Pendleton legally or otherwise, including its mayor. Brisbee fell in with Doogal after accruing horrific gambling debts at his tavern, but he's been riding high ever since. However, the Mayoral election looms in a few days, and there are two relative newcomers he fears. One is a Lawyer, the other is...

Thomas Anglebolt, Pendleton's Treasurer. He's a rising star in Pendleton's community, but he has a dark past. He used to be a notorious outlaw, and staged a bank robbery with a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer he recovered from his days in the Civil War, but he has escaped to remote Pendleton to clean up his act and used his illicit gains to establish himself as a respected political figure. He has temporarily stashed his Howitzer in a small apartment he owns above the newspaper office, but he needs a more permanent hiding place lest it be discovered by someone like...

Dick Lacey. He's a private investigator with the Pinkerton detective agency who served alongside Anglebolt in the war and is convinced he is the masked outlaw he has been tracking for years, and he's come to Pendleton to find proof and closure.

Act I
Doogal confidently strides into the Lawyer's home. They exchange forced pleasantries and Doogal is given a sarsaparilla. Doogal explains that he has a longstanding “arrangement” with the current mayor, and after his goons draw weapons, the Lawyer hurriedly agrees to leave town (and even asks him to keep the glass as a parting gift).

Lacey comes into town and immediately heads for the saloon for information. The bartender doesn't know much about Anglebolt other than that he is very upstanding citizen, but he suggests Lacey should pay him a visit at his office above the local newspaper.

But Anglebolt isn't at his office, he's in a dank basement beneath the saloon playing high-stakes Poker and winning big. He slaps down another big bet and nobody will match him until... Doogal saunters out of the back room. He owns this place, it's where Brisbee first got in his debt, and he doesn't like the attitude of this upstart who is looking to challenge his friend's campaign. They agree to play another hand; if Anglebolt wins, Doogal agrees to take his “business” to another town. But Doogal's men rig the deck, and Anglebolt loses. Doogal lets him go unharmed (though significantly lighter in pocket), but says Anglebolt owes him a “favor.”

Brisbee pays Doogal a visit. He's glad to hear that the Lawyer has been run out of town, but he's nervous about his other opponent, the much-loved Anglebolt. Doogal says Anglebolt is too entrenched in the community to simply scare away or bump off without consequences, but his criminal network knows some things about Anglebolt's past that will serve useful, and he's heard that a new lawman has come into town...

Doogal arranges a meeting with Lacey. He tells Lacey that his network observed Anglebolt hauling a large crate into his office, that he thinks Lacey has been involved in illegally-requisitioned Civil War materials, and he's willing to hire Lacey for a substantial amount to expose the truth. Unbeknownst to Doogal, Lacey was already hot on the case, but he's happy to accept a bribe and some useful information.

Lacey pays a visit to the newspaper, but the receptionist won't let him upstairs without Anglebolt being present. He decides to stake out the place.

Despite Doogal being the “unbiased” moderator, Anglebolt crushes Brisbee at the mayoral debates. Brisbee waxes about his dam projects and the expansion of a nearby mine (which Doogal just happens to have stake in), but Anglebolt's plees for education and a railway win over the hearts and minds of the people. With the election a couple days away, Brisbee is getting hot under the collar.

Deciding that Doogal's approach is taking too long, Brisbee decides to take matters into his own hands. He discovers that Anglebolt owns insurance policies on several of Pendleton's amenities, including the mine. He drafts a document detailing an elaborate plan to break the dam and flood the mine, and he crudely forges Anglebolt's signature on it. He then attempts to break into Anglebolt's office and hide the document so he can later alert the Sheriff. However he lacks athleticism and struggles to try and reach the upstairs window, and he is discovered by Lacey (who has been staking out the premises) and flees into the night before he's identified, dropping some of the pages detailing the alleged plan!

The Tilt
[Innocence: the wrong guy gets busted – Mayhem: a frantic chase]

Act II
Lacey finds the pages and brings them to the Sheriff. The Sheriff happens to know that Doogal has stake in the mines and thinks he finally has something to solid on him. They immediately head to the saloon and arrest Doogal.

Seeing that nobody appears to be around, Anglebolt attempts to sneak the Howitzer out of the newspaper office so he can bring it somewhere where people aren't asking around for him. He loads it onto a wagon with the help of some criminal assistants, but Lacey returns to his stakeout just in time to spot him and the two recognize one another. A chase ensues! Lacey is in hot pursuit along with the Sheriff's men on horseback while Anglebolt flees with his men! Anglebolt manages to lose most of his pursers by escaping into the mine, but Lacey has a hunch and gives chase on foot. He meets a couple of Anglebolt's goons and without instruction (not knowing who he is) they decide to beat him within an inch of his life with mining equipment. Even though Anglebolt has no idea this even happened, Lacey lies in a hospital bed, consumed with boundless rage, thinking that his old friend ordered the beating. Now he doesn't just want Anglebolt brought to justice, he wants him dead.

Brisbee visits Doogal in his jail cell, panicking about his campaign. They both piece together what happened (though Doogal has to violently strangle Brisbee through the bars to make him explain that he went behind his back with the forged document plan).

Doogal is furious, but the evidence against him is shaky at best. He is told that he will be released.

Brisbee is summoned to Lacey's hospital bed. Lacey offers him a solution to his problems: they'll kill Anglebolt together.

Anglebolt wins the election in a landslide.

Brisbee arranges for the inauguration to take place just outside the mine since it's “a symbol of the town's prosperous future.” As he ceremoniously passes off the key to the city, he makes sure that he gets Anglebolt to stand directly in sight of Lacey, who hides in the mine with a rifle. However, Lacey's injuries, combined with an untimely glint of sunlight in his scope, cause him to miss his target and strike Brisbee directly in the heart!

At that very moment, Doogal arrives at the ceremony and steps out of his carriage with a theatrical flourish. Unfortunately he does this precisely as Brisbee is shot, appearing to have signaled the attack, and the Sheriff immediately takes him back into custody for murder.

The Aftermath
[Brisbee – 3 black]
[Doogal – 10 black]
[Lacey – 3 white]
[Anglebolt – 15 white]

As Brisbee lies dying on the ground, with nobody around caring all that much, he thinks to himself that if he were to be involved with further crimes, he probably ought to just leave it up to the professionals.

Doogal calls in his favor with Anglebolt and is soon after released again. He decides it might be best to move his enterprises to a different town.

Lacey lies injured in the mine, fleeing further inside to avoid the authorities. With nothing left to lose, he searches for Anglebolt's mysterious crate. Locating it, he uncovers the 12-pound Mountain Howitzer. In a blaze of fury, he arms it and fires into one of the mine's primary support structures, causing water to rush in and bringing the whole thing down around him and his enemies!

Except that Anglebolt is long gone. Settling nicely into his new position as Mayor, he's surprised to discover that some insurance policies he held on the recently collapsed mine will be paying him substantial dividends, and he uses them to help fund a new railway and usher in a golden age for Pendleton! Sometimes he wonders what ever happened to his old war buddy Lacey though.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Steampunk Rally - 565% funded!

The Steampunk Rally Kickstarter has just closed out at an astounding $237k and 565% funded! From the bottom of my soul, thank you so so much to everyone who contributed! I wish I could personally buy each of you a pint, but Gavan tells me that's tricky to send through post without spilling.

I was hopeful that we would fund, I was cautiously optimistic that we might manage that 75k and get sexy metal cogs, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined that we might become the #1 highest-funded Kickstarter from Alberta ever (by quite a lot!) or the second-highest tabletop game from Canada!

And we even got that pony!

Once again I want to thank David Forest and Lina Cossette for their breathtaking artwork (check out the trailer for Davids amazing looking upcoming short film), Joe McDaid for his fantastic video and editing chops, Tom Sarsons and everyone else who helped us shoot it, Adrian Vaughan for lending us his incredible voice, Gavan for a spectacularly professional and tightly-run campaign, and all of you who backed and helped spread this project. It means the world to me, and I'm eager to see what I can present to you next!

You folks are the Real McCoys!


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Speaking of Cannibalism


[Possibly NSFW and/or damaging to one's soul]

No Words

This may be the single greatest video the internet has ever produced:

Bonus points for the Citizen Kane reference.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Steampunk Rally Designer Diary - parts 6-10

The last 5 parts of my designer diary are up! You can read them here or on boardgamegeek. From the bottom of my heart, thanks so much to everyone who's helped make this Kickstarter such a resounding success. (currently we're 216% funded with ten days yet to go!)

One of the core ideas of Steampunk Rally's theme is that you're frantically clamping new components onto your vehicle as old ones break and fall off, tenuously managing an ever-changing mass of jury-rigged gizmos, sometimes having everything work perfectly in tandem but never able to hold on to the perfect combo for too long. In order to have parts fly off, I needed some method of constantly introducing new parts into the game.

The most logical thematically was that you'd stop at various towns and villages along the way and spend time rebuilding and reconfiguring your invention, and this was how things worked in early versions. However, this paradigm had two basic issues I never found elegant solutions for. The first was how to deal with players breaking down between towns. Would you go straight back to the previous town, or have to drag yourself to the next? Both were pretty dreary options. The other issue was that in a racing game, spending turns not getting to race feels like work. Even if the decisions are interesting, it's still like “eat your peas and next turn you can have dessert.”

The other idea for distributing parts I never got to work properly is having players' destroyed parts create card-draw tokens which can be picked up by players behind them. I still think this is really thematic and adds a cool catch-up dynamic, it just maybe belongs in a different game. If the draw tokens were claimed by being landed on, then a player directly behind someone playing very recklessly would get a huge windfall, so to be fair they probably needed to stay on the board, benefiting every player behind the one who spawned them. But this made the rate of card-draw very swingy and nearly impossible to balance because I couldn't (or rather didn't want to) directly control the rate at which players lost parts. The mechanic also provided no cards to the player in first, so it didn't fully address my original need.

It became pretty clear that, for things to stay exciting and strategic, everyone had to somehow be getting new parts constantly.

I really like auctions. They allow everyone to walk away with an advantage over others, they make direct conflict palatable to Eurogamers, and they auto-balance items of different value, making my job that much easier. Thus, the first card-distribution idea I tried under the new dice-placement system was an auction.

I knew I wanted players to be able to remove dice from their inventions in case they couldn't manage to get new parts that synergized, but I also knew I wanted it to be more efficient to add new parts so as to encourage players to keep building and changing their invention. Having new part acquisition and dice removal hinge on the same resource would let players choose how heavily they wanted to lean on one or the other, and a player with a big awesome invention would have tons of dice to remove, thereby pulling their resources away from the n00bs with small inventions and few dice who thus needed new parts the most. So players used “time” every round to bid on the right to select new cards first, and any time they had left over was used to remove dice.

The auction worked great, and it did exactly what I wanted it to. The problem was that it slowed the pace of the game to a crawl, and felt especially out of place because the rest of the game was resolved simultaneously. This was the hardest change for me, but eventually I was convinced (largely by Gavan) that it had to go.

What would take its place that could do the things I needed in a hastier manner? It turned out that the solution was more simultaneity: a card draft! Originally part cards could be discarded during the draft to either receive or remove dice, presenting a difficult choice between adding parts, renewing parts, and powering them. The final change was having cards be discardable for cogs, which could be spent to remove dice, rather than directly removing dice through discarding. Both functioned nearly the same, and the primary reason (aside from adding a bit more planning) was that playtesters frequently didn't realize that they could discard cards during the draft to remove dice, whereas it’s harder to miss a whole separate phase devoted to dice removal.

The lesson I learned is that occasionally a purposefully clunkier and less elegant turn-structure improves everything for everybody.

After the auction went, simultaneous turn resolution was the last major point of contention between Gavan and me. By this point he'd told me he wanted to publish the game, and I was totally on board. Gavan is a great game designer, so I knew than any changes he wanted to make would at least be sensible. And he's an amazing graphic designer by trade, so I knew whatever he did with the art and presentation would be mind-blowing (was I wrong?). We just needed to get Steampunk Rally to a state we were both happy with.

The vast majority of boardgames out there are turn based, and resolving stuff in turn order has some notable advantages: it's more familiar, it's easier to learn a game when you are watching other players interact with the mechanics, and when you do something cool everyone gets to (has to) watch you. The problem is that if I made the current Steampunk Rally mechanics turn-based, the game would be maybe three hours long with crushing amounts of down-time.

The damnatory term “multiplayer solitaire” has been leveled against many euro-style games over the years, but I see this not as an indictment but rather an opportunity. If a certain portion of the game does not involve other players, why must they wait for me? Steampunk Rally has interactive elements (counter-drafting, offensive boost cards, watching in fear as an opponent creeps past you), but when it comes to operating your lovingly-crafted invention by placing dice on it, it's all between you and the machine. We experimented with several turn-based round structures, and eventually Gavan conceded that these didn't do a whole lot except slow the game down. Through the development process I learned the value of traditional turn order as well, and I'd suggest resolving the racing phase in turns for the first couple rounds if you're learning the game for the first time. But by resolving simultaneously, Steampunk Rally crams a ton of game into a short playtime with virtually no downtime, where everything resolves at the speed of the slowest player. And I think, whether or not you prefer it to more traditional turn resolution, it will feel different from any other worker-placement game you've ever played.

The last design element to come together was boost cards (originally called action cards). In earlier versions, there had always been the option to equip vehicles with weapons of various sorts that could blast away at opponents Mad Max style. But these proved incredibly awkward to implement under simultaneous turn resolution. If you and I both have the potential to shoot at each other, we both want to wait and see how the other is operating their invention first so we know how much damage we need to deal with (and how much vengeful retaliation is necessary). Because of this, all the ideas for parts that could affect other players were converted to action cards that could be kept hidden and played at specific moments. (I also liked the idea of having virtually no text on the parts comprising your invention since it makes them much easier to visually scan, lets us make the cards a bit smaller to conserve precious table-space, and just looks cleaner. Action cards with text gave us a way to play around with wacky ideas outside the basic mechanics.)

But even as action cards, these powers needed to be constrained. It wouldn't feel good to resolve your turn carefully budgeting sustainable damage only to have someone play a weapon card right before resolving damage and incur catastrophic losses. Weapons were meant to add another challenge for players to deal with, not random screwage. So I made these action cards only playable before the racing phase, right after the draft, but this introduced other issues. If players could play them in any order, there were frequently timing issues, so the opportunity to play action cards was resolved in turn-order, which felt incredibly clunky. And since action cards mostly affected multiple opponents (to limit kingmaking), the game changed radically with different player counts since this affected the rate at which these cards were played.

I experimented with several variant ways of incorporating these interactive effects, at one point even having public events that players could claim or trigger by blind-bidding cogs. (As I said, I like auctions.) It turned out the solution was much simpler: I just had to reduce the number of cards that affected other players, replacing them with Gavan's suggestion of cards that give personal bonuses which can be played at any time (and changing the name to “boost” cards to reflect this change in focus). These cards add lots of fun planning since they are essentially mini-goals you can strive for to try and maximize their effectiveness, and a reduced frequency of offensive cards sped up flow of play, evened out the wonkiness of different player-counts, and actually made the attack cards feel a lot more special and impactful.

Sometimes it turns out the mechanics are working fine, it's just the math that's off.

Steampunk Rally has lots of dice. That's one of the many production challenges we've faced thus far. (We even played around with ways to mechanically reduce the potential number of dice used until Gavan thankfully found a supplier that will provide bulk orders within our budget.) Full character standees are awesome yet require the racetrack to be made that much larger to accommodate them. But for every unexpected challenge, there've been two unexpected delights. I am absolutely blown away by the game's art. David and Lina Forrester are incredible talents, and their work on Steampunk Rally has continually exceeded all expectations.

As always, I'm also extremely impressed with our video guys Tom Sarsons and Joe McDaid. As I write this, I'm merely preparing to spray-colour a very important wig, but I know that by the time this is posted, Joe will have edited together whatever disjointed shenanigans we manage to capture this weekend into some breed of cinematic masterpiece. [Update: Was I wrong??]

I also want to give a huge shoutout to Adrian Vaughan, our voice of Tesla. I based the script for our video off of the amazing trailer for the indie videogame Crawl, and having their voice actor agree to do ours feels like writing a Star Trek fan fic and then having Leornard Nimoy agree to narrate it. This man deserves to be famous.

Above all though, I want to thank Gavan Brown for funneling some of his manic energy into a project so dear to my heart. After seven years, the feeling of seeing this game come to life with such verve and passion behind its production, and having it meet with such cheerful enthusiasm by the gaming community, can't be adequately described in words. (The fact that I still love playing it after all this time is just icing on the cake.) And so instead I'll just say that I know with his talent and dedication, Roxley's going to have a breakout hit sooner or later, and regardless of how this one ultimately pans out I thank him for letting me along on his caffeine-powered ornithopter and feel like a hero-scientist for a while.
[Update: This one seems to be panning out pretty well seeing as we funded in a week! You people rock so hard!!]

Several years ago, an intelligent, informed and well-intentioned man advised against my developing a game with a steampunk theme as he felt it was probably a flash-in-the-pan fad that would be over in a couple years. Much thanks to all of you for making this wonderful subculture bigger than ever, or at least letting it stick around long enough for me to finish this darn thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ada Girl! Steampunk Rally has funded!

Steampunk Rally has officially funded!!
That means that the inventor poll has officially closed, with Ada Lovelace the strong front-runner (sporting awesome artwork). But don't worry, there's still plenty you can do help out. Go check out Roxley's contest on facebook and enter to win a free copy of the game, 'like' our images on boardgamegeek so it gets up in the hotness, and tell a friend so we can get metal cogs! Or check out my interview with Meeple Mechanics, which just featured us as their #1 Kickstarter pick!

(...and if you hurry, we just put out another round of handcrafted deluxe 'Tesla' editions, so you might be able to snap one up before they dissipate into the aether.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Steampunk Rally - Stretch-Goal Inventor Poll

A day into our Steampunk Rally Kickstarter and we're already halfway to our funding goal! Fantastic!

It looks likely that we'll hit stretch goals (*knock on brass*) so it's time for us to choose our stretch goal inventors, and by us I mean you!

Go to boardgamegeek and add your suggestion (one per person), and vote on your favorites by 'thumbing' who you want to see join the Rally.

We'd like to bring in a little more gender parity, so we'd like 3 of the stretch goal inventors to be women! (But you can also suggest a man, we've got room for one more! Or for that matter, if you know of a cool Victorian transgender or transsexual inventor, we want to hear about them too!!)

And as a sidenote, if we manage to hit that 75k funding level, every Kickstarter copy of the game will come with metal cog tokens. I have seen the production samples, and they are amazingly cool, so spread the word and let's hit those goals!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Steampunk Rally Kickstarter is Off to the Races!

The Steampunk Rally Kickstarter has been up for a couple hours, and we're already over 6k (and growing every time I refresh the page) so things are off to a strong start!

Check out the seriously awesome video below (seriously, it's awesome):


You can also check out an interview I did for The Inquisitive Meeple.

Or this excellent gameplay runthrough:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

That's wright, brothers!


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Steampunk Rally Kickstarter on the 27th


Heads up! We are pushing back the Steampunk Rally Kickstarter till Monday (the 27th) to make sure everything (including our super-awesome pitch video) is in order.

On the evening of the 27th, there will be some sort of launch party/tournament/shindig at The Sentry Box.

Additionally, we are pleased to announce that as stretch goals on the Kickstarter, we will possibly be extending the number of supported players to 7 or 8(!) by adding new inventors, the identity of whom will be decided by a poll on boardgamegeek. Stay tuned!

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 (course registration code: 30941 )]

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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spritz

I'm not the world's fastest reader. Maybe it's because of too much stuff like game rules and technical material, and not enough light reading, but my style is very plodding. Good comprehension, but for me reading a novel is like 'wait, what color were the drapes? Did he peer around them or past them? Was he tall and gaunt, or gaunt and tall??'

Well apparently I will soon be able to read 1000 words per minute, and so will you! The Spritz app is a piece of software that has apparently been in development for a couple of years, and makes some lofty claims. 1000wpm is more than four times(!) the average reading speed, and it means you could devour the average novel in around 90 minutes. What's more, retention allegedly improves. The app will supposedly be available soon and could presumably be embedded with articles, or as an app to paste things into on your smartphone (I assume).

I was definitely skeptical at first, but then I tried their demo and found myself able to read 600 words per minute no problem with no practice. They won't let you crank it up to 1000 yet, but definitely check Spritz out if you haven't already. I know this reads like a sponsored advertisement or something, but it's not every day I come across something that strikes me as a legitimate game changer.

Of course this raises a few important questions. Do you actually WANT to read your favorite novels at 1000 words per minute? Will our ability to read normal words on a page atrophy until trying to read the old fashioned way is physically painful? And what will happen in a future where nerds everywhere suddenly have way more free time? I'm concerned they might take over the world and force every movie to be about comic books.

Monday, February 24, 2014

*Donations Wanted*

My friend and colleague Sen-Foong Lim made me aware of a facility opening this year called the Be Brave Ranch that will be dedicated to the treatment of child sexual abuse victims. As part of therapy, they plan to use boardgames to help children and their families interact. If anyone who reads this is looking to trim their collection and help an important cause, you can mail new or used games to:

924 91 St SW
PO Box 53548
Edmonton, AB T6X 0P6 

Ideally these games should be non-violent and suitable for children ages 8 to 14.

Games may also be purchased and donated from a local source.

We will now return to our regularly scheduled twaddle.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fail Faster

This week's Extra Credits knocked it out of the park. Totally obvious once you have any experience designing games, yet it's a truth nobody seems to grasp. In fact the mantra of pursuing and embracing failures is a good general rule for life I think.

Interestingly, when I saw the title "Fail Faster" I assumed they were going to talk about making the player's failures in-game quick and spectacular rather than drawn out and painful, which is another design cornerstone. (The exception being something like Cold War: CIA vs KGB where watching your opponent trying to fruitlessly dig themselves out of a progressively-more-hopeless quagmire is half the fun. (for you.))

By "spectacular" I mean that failure is generally much more frustrating when its visceral feel is muted. A great example of quick and spectacular failure can be found in Super Meat Boy. When you die, you literally explode in a shower of blood (which arguably less distasteful when you consider that the protagonist is after all made of raw meat) and then instantly respawn and try again. A few dozen attempts (that would be frustrating if not for their brevity) leave the stage completely coated in the gory allegory of your own incompetence, and it is glorious.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

48 Hour Global Game Jam #2

Just went to my second Global Game Jam and had an even more awesome time than last year. Great fun all around!

I had quite a balanced team this year, with two artists, an SFX guy, and three coders (though one of them mysteriously vanished after the first day. Local grues are being questioned).

Our game is called 80s Tycoon and I did design, writing and music. Check out the sketchy video I jury-rigged out of outdated gameplay footage in 20 minutes! We want to polish it up and eventually give it a proper release.

I also did a bit of music for another game called Bring the Light. You can check out their trailer here!