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  • Designer Diary: Flutter, or Tiles and Monarchs

    by Matt Bahntge

    The Seed

    A spatial economy — that was the seed of the idea in 2018 that would ultimately become Flutter.

    I have always been fascinated by different market mechanisms like supply and demand, as well as by the games exploring them. I wanted to create something with the fun of speculation, risk management, and forward planning, without trending toward spreadsheet analysis (as market-heavy games often do). This seed would carry the game, initially titled "Gemcutter", through years of design and refinement until finding its final form, a game in which players are building a colorful meadow through an under-the-hood market of petals and pollen.


    The first prototype featured mine shafts producing rough gems that players would exchange for finished stones, but the long rectangular mine shaft tiles felt bland and unoriginal.

    In testing with Jeff Siadek, at some point I stumbled on the idea of more uniquely-shaped pieces: rhombuses, trapezoids, and triangles — all connecting with 60º or 120º angles. All of a sudden, the game felt unique, and looking for matches by joining the corners was satisfying in a puzzly sort of way.


    The market's inner workings fell into place: supply would be at the corners of the tile, demand would be in the center. You'd match corners to generate rough stones, and surrounding tiles to spend those stones on finished gems (i.e., endgame points) meshed seamlessly, leaving each tile placement feeling weighty and interesting.

    These two things produced the unexpected arc that has stayed with the game: the number of choices expands from the first tile placement, then shifts and levels off as tiles are enclosed. You generate more stones at the beginning, and even though it seems like you'll never be able to afford closing off tiles, you find more and more scoring opportunities that open up. This creates an organic introductory arc to the game, but also ensures that your options reach a wide (yet comprehensible) level about halfway through the game.


    Growth

    I continued to test the design with experienced designers such as John D. Clair and Josh Wood (whose advice I'm very grateful for) and made changes to try to highlight the most fun parts of the game. Enclosing a tile for gems and gaining stones felt great, but enclosing multiple tiles had your opponents envious. It turned out that allowing players to enclose open spaces enabled them to close even more tiles at once, creating pivotal plays and dramatic moments.

    The steps involved with each tile placement also had to be looked at: you gain stones from matching corners, pay stones for any corners that don't match, and exchange stones for points if you enclosed tiles. It became clear that gaining stones before you paid anything opened up possibilities, but led to waaay too many (overly mathy) options.

    Switching the order of those actions so that you always paid before you gained made the game much simpler to visually parse...and still left you weighing if and when you wanted to pay for non-matching corners.


    At this point, I felt the game starting to take full form. I noticed both that players immediately became engrossed in the puzzle of it even when it wasn't their turn, and that experienced players strategized ahead to increasingly impressive plays.


    Finding a Home

    Pitchspiration had struck, and I had the great fortune of getting the attention of Jason Miceli and Darrin Horbal of Phase Shift Games[company=40136][/company] in mid-2021. Despite having seen the quality of their Kickstarter and publication, I did not expect it to be such an incredible joy to work with these guys. After signing our contract a few months later, they helped me push and prod at the game from every angle of development.

    The first element we looked at was the theme, as the use of jewels and stones in "Gemcutter" was meant to appeal to a broad audience in the way that Splendor or Bejeweled do, but the flipside of that approach is that it lacked uniqueness.

    Inspired by the familiar-yet-unique thematic approach of games like Azul or Sagrada, we collectively wrote a small novel's worth of discussion over finding a theme that fit both the unique shape of the tiles, and the functional relationship between the elements in the corners and centers of tiles.

    The theme of assembling dreamcatchers with their beads and feathers representing the supply and demand of nightmares and good dreams was strongly considered. In a testament to their diligence, Phase Shift contacted several Native American elders and community leaders of the Ojibwe and found enough of a cautionary response that we decided against it.

    Crystallizing the Meadow

    Back at the drawing board, the proposed theme of a meadow where flowers were built at the corners of tiles for the pollinating critters (which we discovered were many more than just bees) was a perfect connection mechanically, but I couldn't fully get on board until the last remaining piece popped into my head: a low-poly world in which plants and animals alike all existed in an angular geometry.

    For me, this was the same "eureka" feeling I had with the fun of using these angular shapes, but from the thematic direction. This was the symbiotic relationship between the two. Phase Shift employed the fantastically talented Steven Tu, who brought this low-poly prototype world to life almost overnight, cementing our direction.


    Phase Shift wisely pushed for mechanical development as well, asking if we couldn't find that "little extra", and I'm glad they did.

    One element that had needed a little massaging from the beginning was which tiles could be played and when. Until this point, players were dealt one of each tile and the tiles were lined up randomly, allowing a player to use either the rightmost or leftmost tile of their line.

    While functional, this approach was also somewhat sterile, caused breaks in play (to deal out new rows of tiles), and felt a little overly balanced since it ensured that every player would play the same shapes. We found that using a rondel system for tile selection — with a sun token circling the sky as it travels around the tile-tracking position on the rondel — not only allowed for almost instantaneous set-up, but also created a whole new layer of interesting tactical decisions and options. You could now pay an increasingly steep price to skip ahead on the rondel, a move that you need to worry about only later in the game and once you have some experience with the system.

    Finally, to add a more long-term strategic element (while still keeping with the "no-cards no-text" elegance of the game), each player received a "bee" token. The bee allows players to effectively stake a bet on a tile and pursue a variety of strategies that emerge from this small addition, such as dissuading an opponent from enclosing the tile, or banking on one that they're eyeing...

    While all this was happening, Jason (actually a long time monarch-hatcher with his family) started a partnership with the Save Our Monarchs foundation to send proceeds from each sale toward monarch butterfly conservation. Migratory monarchs are not only endangered, they're also fascinating creatures that make multi-generational migrations between central Mexico and the entire United States...with a top speed of 6 mph no less. Crazy.


    We're extremely proud of the final product, and I have nothing but thanks for all the help I've gotten along the way in bringing Flutter to life.

    Matt Bahntge

    Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Streamer Standoff

    by Jeb Havens

    DrLupo Presents: Streamer Standoff started with an ambitious goal: to capture the chaotic (and sometimes ridiculous) world of streamers and influencers in a simple card game that is quick to learn, is packed with hilarious moments, and has just the right amount of strategic depth.


    To pull this off, I worked closely with co-designer Bobby West, publisher Maestro Media, and legendary streamer DrLupo, who is mostly known by his millions of followers for his video gaming and charity work — but he's also a big fan of tabletop games, so he was excited for the "epic collab", as the streamers say.

    The initial core concept almost wrote itself: Players would step into the role of budding streamers competing for subscribers. Early on, the phrase "The Race to 20 Million Subs" resonated with the team (and a random sampling of friends), so that became my north star.

    DrLupo was on board with the idea and liked that it let us (as well as the players) poke fun at the industry, but in a light-hearted way that never turned mean or disrespectful. We decided that the game should feel social, with some player interaction, while still being strategic. We also needed the game to work well on livestream (for obvious marketing reasons), so it had to be as much fun to watch as it was to play.

    Getting Scrappy

    As a designer, my process always starts with a lot of scrap paper, quickly prototyping and playtesting as early as possible. It's the fastest way to go from "seemingly-perfect idea in my head" to "fatally flawed idea from which I can learn", and it keeps me from spending too much time on any one concept until I've seen it "in motion" with some real players.


    Over the course of a few months, I built, tested, learned from, and iterated on about a dozen different simple prototypes. Each one focused on a core mechanism that could potentially be the foundation of a full design. Some prototypes focused on channel upgrades, some on predicting trending topics, some on the business of streaming, and some on the story arc of a streaming persona. From these simple prototypes and their iterations, I narrowed things down to two I thought were especially promising:

    Prototype 1: The first prototype focused on predicting a moving timeline of trending topics. Players revealed their moves simultaneously and jockeyed for position to make sure their channel was the most popular in a topic at the time it went viral (for a big payout in subscribers). The game had a lot of strategy and fun moments — such as a surprising shake-up just before the next hot trend popped — but it came at the cost of being more complex to learn and play, while having a longer playtime overall. Also, the "jockeying" mechanisms really shined only at 4+ players, and we knew we wanted something that could work great for as few as two.

    Prototype 2: The other prototype focused more directly on the humor and fiction of the streaming world. Players would see a few ridiculous trends in the middle of the table and take turns combining cards in their hands to make funny "Mad Libs-style" video titles to match one of the trends, claiming it and scoring some subscribers. The gameplay was much simpler to explain and understand, it moved a lot faster, and players were able to jump in and start having fun right away. (Also, it generated a lot of table talk as players joked about the crazy trends and video titles they came up with.)

    I presented both prototypes to DrLupo and the Maestro Media team, including Bobby West, one of the Maestro Media developers who then joined me as a co-designer. Everyone agreed the second prototype was a better fit for our audience and DrLupo's brand, and we knew it would play better on livestream.


    Putting It to the Test

    After the team agreed on the basic structure and feel, Bobby and I began a much more focused playtesting and iteration effort. We ran tests with a variety of gaming groups, and we found that players loved the theme and humor of the game, and they immediately understood the core mechanism of combining cards to make videos that matched available trends to score subscribers.

    A lot was working, but the arc of the game still felt a bit flat. We were missing the big "wow" moments, the feeling of building up a channel over time, and the all-important player interaction.

    We knew we'd seen some of these things in Prototype 1, so we pulled it out of the proverbial dustbin and raided its mechanisms to see what made sense to salvage. That prototype may have been too complicated, but it had some great spare parts.

    Early prototype, with playtesting fuel in the background
    Keeping Things on Track

    The first idea we brought over was the "trend track". Newly-revealed trends would start out on the left of the track as not very popular (and worth only a few subscribers), but would gradually grow in popularity as they shifted to the right, only to tumble in value once people were "over it".

    This reintroduced a sense of timing and urgency to the game. Players had to time their video releases for maximum payoff, but if they waited too long, another player could snag the trend first — or the internet might just decide it's not cool anymore.

    This change also simplified the components. Each trend no longer had to specify how many subscribers it would award; that was determined by its position along the track. Plus, testers had a lot of fun with the narrative as trends became "hot", then faded just as quickly ("Sorry, fanny packs, you had your time, but we're on to the next big thing.")


    Changing the Channel

    We also brought in some "channel development" mechanisms from the other prototype. As a player would capture trends in a given topic, their channel would become known for that type of content, making it faster and easier to capture similar future trends.

    So instead of having a flat pace from beginning to end, the scoring accelerated and players felt more powerful as the game progressed — but they also encountered new roadblocks as their channel specialized and got locked out of other trends!

    As a side bonus, this gave us an opportunity to add the concept of "collabs". Collaborating with other content creators is a big part of how real streamers grow their audience, so we were happy to find a natural place for it in the game. If a player's channel gained enough cred in the right topics, they could grab one of a limited set of "collab opportunities", giving them a big exciting windfall of new subscribers, which could often put them across the finish line.


    Playing Nice

    Finally, we had to tackle player interaction. We knew the game needed funny ways that players could mess with each other. Competitive multiplayer gaming and good-natured trash talking are a big part of DrLupo's brand. In early meetings, whenever he talked about the tabletop games that he loved to play with his friends and family, there was always an element of PvP.

    Many card games focus on direct player attacks, which can be very entertaining, but they can often devolve into "kingmaker" scenarios in which one player decides which other player wins, making the game feel a bit random and unsatisfying. We wanted the game to feel strategic as well as social, so we opted for a form of player interaction that was less direct, while still being funny and supporting the overall theme.

    We liked the jockeying and bluffing elements in the more complex prototype, so we combined some of those mechanisms into a system of influence tokens. One token might let a player swap the position of trends on the track, while another would let them look at someone else's hand and steal a card. During one of our meetings with DrLupo, he made a joke about slapping a video with a DMCA takedown (referring to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that targets copyrighted material online), so we turned that into a token you can play on another player's video to delay its release by a turn.

    All the influence tokens are kept secret until played, so you never know exactly what other players could be plotting. Some tokens are even played face down and not revealed until after a trend is scored, allowing players to bluff other players into avoiding a trend they might otherwise try to claim.

    With all of these elements in place, Bobby and I finally got the dynamic gameplay arc and fun social moments that we'd been aiming for.

    Playtesting at Gen Con 2023
    Working with Ben

    It's no secret that when someone has millions of followers, there's a possibility they might be difficult to work with. Before originally agreeing to take on this project, I knew I'd need to talk directly with Ben Lupo (the man behind the channel) to see what I might be getting into.

    From the first meeting, I was convinced. Ben is a refreshingly sincere and down-to-earth guy, and was fantastic to work with throughout the process. He shared stories about his love of board and card games, and we bonded over playing (and often losing) games as a kid against our older brothers. Ben was genuinely excited to be involved from the ground floor, offering lots of great feedback and ideas, while at the same time putting his trust in the design and publishing team.

    We were able to leverage his insider knowledge for references, in-jokes, and a gut-check on what things his audience (and the streaming world) would find funny and authentic. We wanted his fans to love it, while also making sure it would appeal to a larger general mass market.

    Ben officially announced the launch of Streamer Standoff in March 2024 on his live birthday stream, playing a digital version of the game with three of his friends. The audience ate it up, loving the hilarious table-talk while also appreciating that this was a "real game" with a lot of strategy, not just a money grab with his name slapped on it. At one point, the chat started counting down in real-time as we quickly sold out of the five hundred advance copies that were available.


    Living the Stream

    Creating a licensed game is always challenging, and even more so when that "license" is a person. We wanted to capture the essence of DrLupo's brand as a competitive gaming and lifestyle streamer, but also his love of fun accessible tabletop games, his connection with his fans, and his sense of humor about the industry and internet culture.

    It took a lot of experimentation and prototyping and testing, and it was a team effort throughout, but I'm really proud of the game we ended up with. There are jokes and references just for the fans, but tons of humor that anyone can relate to. The gameplay is simple enough to learn and start playing within minutes, but with layers of strategy and depth for more competitive players to discover.

    If you think you're ready to try your hand at streamer stardom, the remaining copies of DrLupo Presents: Streamer Standoff hit retail in July 2024.

    Jeb Havens

    Designers cornered: Bobby West (l) and Jeb Havens Read more »
  • VideoGame Review: Link City, or Okay, Where Would You Put the Massage Parlor?

    by W. Eric Martin

    Throughout the 2010s, I visited NY Toy Fair each year to check out the new games being shown in the Jacob Javits Convention Center. In addition to seeing a small hobby game presence that slowly inflated over the decade, I got to sample games being presented to the mainstream market, with one of the regulars in that area being Blue Orange Games. As I wrote in 2018:
    If you're familiar with the titles from Blue Orange Games, then you generally know what to expect from them. Aside from a few outliers that make up their family game line (Photosynthesis, New York 1901, Vikings on Board), you know their games are going to be colorful and quick-playing, with instructions that take only a minute or two to learn and gameplay suitable for young players.

    Even titles in their family game line match that description, as with 2016's Kingdomino, Blue Lagoon (which I also covered in 2018), and — the focus of this post — Link City from designer Émilien Alquier.

    Link City is a city-building game that overcomes the tropes of that genre — the need to keep industry from nature, to place residences near stores — by placing building requirements entirely in the hands of the players, who build the city together according to their whims.

    To set up, place City Hall on the table, then place a random building along each edge. All 57 building tiles are double-sided, so you could choose which side to play face up, but I prefer going with whatever randomly comes out, partly to embrace that randomness but mostly to keep things moving.

    In each of six rounds, the deputy mayor — sitting left of the mayor — places cones in the town layout to show where new building has been authorized:


    Then the mayor draws buildings at random, places them behind a screen, and secretly assigns a cone color to each building. The mayor then reveals the buildings, and everyone else debates which building should go where. For example, where would you place the four buildings in this set-up?


    This is the heart of the game, and arguing over which buildings should go where is Codenames-level fun. Some choices are slam dunks — I mean, the business school should absolutely be placed next to the college and printing shop, right? But not all of the choices are obvious: What's the best neighbor for a casino and five-star hotel? The boxing arena for a Vegas atmosphere? The catacombs to create a tourist district? The gated community because this part of town is for the nouveau riche?

    Once the non-mayors have locked in their choices, the mayor reveals theirs. If everyone agreed on a building's location, it goes in that spot; if not, the mayor still adds the building to the city...but diagonally touching other tiles, which means you score nothing for that tile as points in the game are determined by the number of trees you complete via adjacent tiles.

    So much failure exhibited here...
    You can, of course, try to fill those empty spaces in future rounds, but having more buildings around a space doesn't always make it easier to determine what should go in that gap.

    If all of the choices match in a round, you add the fourth cone for the rest of the game, giving you four buildings to place in four lots — which means more potential scoring, but potentially more confusion in deciding what goes where.

    Additionally, when all of the choices match, you add a bonus tile to town, which likely means you complete more trees, but the colored edge of that bonus tile creates an off-limits area in the entire row projecting from that edge...so the good thing comes with a drawback. Such is life.

    The southwest of town is now a dead zone thanks to nuclear-powered cow launchers
    After six rounds, you count how many trees you have, compare that number to a chart on the back of the rulebook, then immediately forget the result because it doesn't matter.

    As with so many games, the joy in Link City is in the playing and interaction with others, not the final result. The game forces you to talk about the world around you and how you think it should be arranged, which means you're really talking about people and how they live and what you think about how they live. As Bruno Faidutti commented on the video below, "I'm usually very wary of games attempting to create political debates between players, but this one works remarkably well and is incredibly fun."

    I didn't even know this game existed until Blue Orange Games sent me a review copy — which I've now played four times, twice each with two and four people — and I'm delighted by the experiences this game has facilitated...although I can imagine Dutch city planners suffering apoplexy from the chaotic nature of this growth.

    Link City is an antidote to NIMBYism in the sense that everyone has something in their back yard, and you don't always have a say over what goes where. You live in a large linked world and need to compromise with others because folks are going to live their lives and your needs don't supersede theirs.

    For more examples of gameplay, watch this video overview:

    Youtube Video Read more »
  • Save the Knowledge of Atlantis, Sell Glass in Lisbon, and Engineer Smart Kabuki Tricks

    by W. Eric Martin

    The number of titles on the SPIEL Essen 24 Preview has nearly surpassed the number on the Gen Con 2024 Preview, and that's thanks partly to newly announced titles like these:

    • German publisher dlp games has revealed its big late 2024 release: Atlantis Exodus, a 1-4 player game from designers George Halkias and Konstantinos Karagiannis. Here's a summary:
    The legendary Atlantis is shrouded in so many stories and myths, an island realm that was reputed to have completely drowned in only one night.

    Atlantis Exodus presents the player kings with the challenge of rescuing as many citizens as possible before the impending downfall and, by doing so, saving the knowledge they have acquired for a different world and time.

    Thanks to an innovative rotation mechanism, 1-4 kings have to face constantly changing conditions and keep adjusting their own strategy to the different action possibilities in order to ultimately become the savior of the achievements of their time.

    • In addition to this title and the previously announced Orléans Jubiläumsbox, dlp games will release Evenfall: The Crystal Path, an expansion for Stefano Di Silvio's Evenfall that is co-published with Nanox Games, and Pirates of Maracaibo: Commanders, an expansion for Pirates of Maracaibo from Ralph Bienert, Ryan Hendrickson, Alexander Pfister, and co-publisher Game's Up.

    Finally, dlp games and Game's Up will also co-publish Balz, a German edition of Bower from Pierpaolo Paoletti and Cranio Creations.


    • Another 1-4 player game gracing the halls of Messe Essen will be Stephens, a design from Costa, Rôla, and Pile Up Games, with Capstone Games releasing the title in North America. Here's an overview of the game:
    After the big earthquake of 1755 that tore down Lisbon and most of Portugal's southern coast, it was necessary to rebuild an entire nation. The demand for window glass increased so much that William Stephens, a British businessman, saw the opportunity to expand his business in Portugal by investing in the glass industry.


    In Stephens, players compete amongst one another in the role of master glassmakers working at the famous "Stephens" Factory to become the most prestigious figure in town...after Stephens, of course. Through clever and cunning planning, all players will develop their works, invest in new businesses, and promote the creation of jobs. Through a unique action-selection mechanism, on their turn players choose from a variety of options, either by activating the Stephens factory or by activating one of their personal investments.

    The game ends when the Napoleonic forces arrive in town, at which time the player with the most prestige wins.

    • A much smaller game awaiting at SPIEL Essen 24 will be Kabuki Tricks from designer Geoffrey Chia, founder of Singaporean publisher Good Spirit Games. Here's how to play this 2-5 player game:
    It's showtime in Kabuki Tricks, with players becoming producers of Kabuki performances in which the quality of showmanship depends on the number of tricks to be won. The game is played over a number of rounds, with each player having a chance to play as the dealer. Each round plays out as follows:

    Box with company mascot
    — Each player gets a hand of a joker and seven random cards, which come in four actor suits. The dealer then arranges the separate actor cards in order to determine the rank of the suits, while also determining whether low or high cards are best.

    — The dealer leads to the first trick, and all players must follow suit, if possible — except that one non-lead player can play their joker instead of matching suit. When someone plays a joker, they place one of their player cards face down above one of the actor cards; their player card is a bet that they will win 1, 2, or 3 tricks, and the actor they played above is a bet that their final card will be that color. Additionally, they can either flip the High/Low card to affect which numbers are best or swap two adjacent actor cards to change the rank of the suits.

    — Whoever played the highest/lowest card in the highest rank wins the trick, then leads to the next trick.


    — After seven tricks, players reveal their bets and score: 1 point per trick captured, 1 or 2 points for correctly bidding the number of tricks they won, and 1 point if their final card matches the actor card they chose. Alternatively, if a player's last card is their joker and they won zero tricks, they earn 5 points.

    The player with the highest score after adding the scores from each round wins.
    Read more »
  • Redecorating Hachi Train for a Ride around the World — Well, Two Rides Actually

    by W. Eric Martin

    This is the story of a game that is, in fact, three games...while still being only one when viewed in a certain way.

    In 2021, Japanese designer Toshiki Arao released the card game Hachi Train through his brand Ateam, with players representing the heads of railroad companies who are trying to ditch their inventory as quickly as possible. In game terms, here is what's is going on:
    In Hachi Train, you want to not be the last player in the round to have cards in hand. When dealt cards, players cannot rearrange the cards in their hand. The starting player leads a card or set of cards with the same value — but they can play multiple cards only if the cards are adjacent to one another in their hand. If cards have been played on the table, to play you must play the same number of cards with a higher value or a larger set of cards, e.g., 2 < 5 < 3,3 < 6,6 < 2,2,2 < 1,1,1,1. When you overplay someone, you pick up the cards you beat and add them to your hand where you wish.

    If you cannot or choose not to play, you must pass, drawing a card from a facedown pile and adding it to your hand. These cards have two values on them, e.g., 1/2 or 5/6, and can be played as either number.


    If all but one player pass, clear the table, with the player who last played leading to an empty table. When all but one person has emptied their hand, the last player loses one of their two lives. After four rounds or a player losing all of their lives, the game ends, and whoever has the most lives remaining shares victory.

    Hachi Train was well-received, both in Japan and elsewhere, and as happens somewhat often with self-published games from Japanese designers, a larger company licensed the design and released a new version. More specifically, in mid-2023 Arclight Games released ナナトリドリ (pronounced "Nanatoridori"), with players now serving as guides at a castle where a bird party has just concluded. You want to help the birds return home as quickly as possible, the "birds" being cards in your hand.


    Gameplay in Nanatoridori is mostly the same as in Hachi Train, but it differs in details that will make a difference for some players. The deck has 63 cards — nine each of the numbers 1-7 — instead of having 3-5 copies of the cards 1-8 for games with 3-5 players.

    When you overplay in Nanatoridori, you're not forced to add the overplayed cards to your hand, but can discard them instead, giving you the option to build stronger sets or just keep your hand size shrinking.


    When you pass, you draw the top card of the deck, which consists of everything that wasn't dealt, so no special dual-use cards await, but you can keep or discard this card as you like.

    Nanatoridori was present at SPIEL Essen 23 in a Japanese/English edition, and Arclight Games — which received worldwide rights to the design — has licensed its version to MeepleBR, which released a Portuguese edition in Brazil in 2024, and possibly other companies as well.

    However...

    At roughly the same time that Arclight Games acquired a worldwide license to Hachi Train, French publisher Cocktail Games had also acquired a worldwide license (excluding Japan) to Hachi Train.

    Cocktail spends a lot of time developing designs, as with Antoine Bauza's Hanabi, which debuted in a tiny French production in 2010 and which Cocktail developed into a Spiel des Jahres-winning package that has now sold millions of copies around the world. It did something similar with ピクテル ("Pictel"), a 2015 design from ボドゲイム (Bodogeimu) that it developed into the As d'Or-nominated Imagine in 2016, and most recently Cocktail redeveloped Kaya Miyano's card game ナナ ("nana") as Trio, which won the 2024 As d'Or and was a 2024 SdJ-recommended title.


    Cocktail was far along in its development of Toshiki Arao's design when it became aware of Arclight's Nanatoridori, and hmm, well, what to do about this?

    All involved parties — Arao, Arclight, Cocktail, andJapon Brand, which had represented the designer in the Cocktail deal — met in Japan during Tokyo Game Market in April 2024 and, as Cocktail representative Julia Klokova writes, "all agreed after this meeting that the games were different enough to co-exist peacefully".

    Cocktail's version of Arao's design — Jungo — will debut in January/February 2025 with a simultaneous release of roughly a dozen editions in various languages.

    Ready to sit next to Trio on the shelf...
    How does Jungo differ from Hachi Train? It uses a deck of 64 cards — eight copies each of cards 1-8 — with the size of the starting hand varying based on the player count.

    The dual-use cards — such as the 1/2 and 5/6 — are present, giving players move possible sets when they draw them. As in Nanatoridori, when you overplay cards and when you draw a card after passing, you can choose to discard those cards instead of adding them to your hand. (Interesting to see that change in both designs...)

    What's more, if you pass and draw a card that gives you a stronger combination than what's on the table, you can put into practice the "Law of the Jungo" and play that new combination immediately!


    Finally, gameplay in Jungo lasts only a single round. Whoever first empties their hand wins.

    So are these games — Hachi Train, Nanatoridori, and Jungo — one design or three? How much do these changes matter in the feel of the gameplay? Are you leaning toward trains, birds, or monkeys in the jungle? Or perhaps you'd like to license the design for an edition of your own? Too bad, as I think three editions is all the market can bear...at least for now. Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters: Anniversary Edition

    by Brian Yu

    I can't believe we're celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Geister, Geister, Schatzsuchmeister! When we looked at the calendar and realized we were coming up on a major milestone, I knew we had to celebrate in a big way.

    June 23, 2014 — Hamburg, Germany
    Ten years ago, I had just become a father a few months before heading to Hamburg for the fated Kinderspiel des Jahres awards ceremony. It was a whirlwind trip and an experience I still cannot top as a designer.

    I've now played many games with my daughter, and once she was old enough, we started playing Geister as a family. She loved all of the things that I had designed into the game. She loved the co-operative play; everyone wins or loses together and has to work together to do it. She loved the kid movers and ghosts and haunting figures, especially putting the treasures into the backpacks. And she loved the art so much she would just get the cards out and look at them on their own.

    Photographic evidence of my daughter's first game of Geister (Sorry it's blurry!)
    One thing she didn't love was that the game has only one female player character. She would always take the red figure and force Mom to play a different character. This wasn't isolated to just my family. I've gotten numerous requests for extra red figures from parents who were looking for a way to increase the number of female characters to fix the game to better suit their needs.

    This made me want to change the team dynamic of the kid characters. When I first designed the game, it had three boys and one girl. This was a good mix in 2013, but I wanted better representation in the game, so I opted to make the kids two boys and two girls in the Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters: Anniversary Edition. Once this was decided upon, I also decided to re-sculpt all the figures, including the ghosts and the hauntings. All the figures in the game now have an updated look. Little known fact, the red and yellow movers are based on me and my wife!

    Sketches for the new movers
    Next, I wanted to find a way to bring back the original game for new players since it has been out of print for a few years, while giving something for longtime fans to get excited about as well. In my mind, the art and presentation of Geister are clearly part of the success the game has had, so first things first, I reached out to Pierô to see whether he could work on this new edition. He answered yes, and we started making a plan on how big of a project this would be.

    Pierô's cover idea from sketches to final
    We knew we would want a new cover to differentiate this version from the original. Pierô started sketching new ideas as we discussed what else we could do. Once we started seeing new art on the cover, I wanted to see a fresh coat of paint on the whole thing. We committed to all new art, so the anniversary edition features new art on the cover, the cards, and the game board. Pierô knocked it out of the park! I couldn't imagine doing this new edition without him and his art.

    The board layout is the same — that is, the number of spaces between rooms and where the doors are located hasn't changed — but we decided to have a little more fun with the art of the rooms. I like to imagine that new owners bought the old house and did some renovations and home improvements after weird things kept happening in the house, but nothing they did could release the ghosts and hauntings trapped within these walls.

    Original game board vs the anniversary game board
    With the art and components updated, it was time to look at the game play offering. I was of two minds on this. I could just reprint the base game and the Creepy Cellar expansion in a single box. This was a great solution as you could get everything Geister in a single box, but all that content cost too much to put in a single box for the price point we wanted at Mattel. I also felt like this offering was a little underwhelming to original fans who helped make the game the success it had become; I wanted to give the longstanding fans a reason to get excited, too.

    I started looking at other ways to expand the original game while offering something new. The Expansion Pack and Creepy Cellar Expansion already covered a lot of ground, so it was daunting to find new design space without retreading on older ideas. I finally settled on trying out an all-versus-one idea in which one player would control the ghosts and play against the other players working together as the treasure hunters.

    I had a couple of design principles I wanted to stay true to:

    • This new mode of play should still function like the base game. I didn't want players having to learn two sets of rules.
    • This new mode should be wholly additive, so everything that comes in the base game is used in this new mode. I didn't want players having to sort through cards and bits to figure out which game mode they were playing.
    • Since this game won Kinderspiel des Jahres, this new mode, while introducing new mechanisms, still has to be accessible and playable by kids.

    With that in mind, I started designing the new "Head Haunter" mode. I quickly got a rough prototype worked up and settled on the main mechanisms to let a player control the ghosts. The Head Haunter would have a hand of cards, and anytime a player rolled a ghost icon on the movement die, the Head Haunter would play a card. This gives the ghosts and hauntings more agency, so it really feels like they're out to get you.

    When designing an asymmetrical game, it is difficult to strike the right balance between the two sides. Suffice it to say, I went through many iterations in which the Head Haunter was just destroying the treasure hunters. I removed some OP cards from the Head Haunter deck, most notably a one-time-use instant haunt card. I loved the idea that the treasure hunters couldn't feel safe with five hauntings on the board, even if no rooms had two ghosts in them, but this card spelled doom too many times for the treasure hunter team, so even though Head Haunter players loved it, it had to go.

    On top of this, some of the more powerful Head Haunter cards became single-use effects. This not only helps the treasure hunters' chances for victory, but gives the Head Haunter a more juicy decision for when it's the right time to use their powerful cards.

    Head Haunter cards
    The other additional rule I made was doubling down on my design of the movement die. I couldn't change the die layout as I didn't want to add icons that you used only for Head Haunter mode and ignored in the original game, so I looked at increasing the power of the 6.

    Lots of people have complained that the 6 having no ghost and the 1 having one doesn't feel good or balanced. My thought on this is rolling a 6 is the best feeling in this game; you can move as far as possible AND not add a ghost to the house. Rolling a 1 is the worst; you can barely move AND you add a ghost. If the die sides were flipped to 6+ghost and 1+no ghost, you'd now have two meh possibilities instead of the extremes.

    Thinking along these lines, to make treasure hunters feel like 6s are even better in Head Haunter mode, a 6 allows a treasure hunter to randomly discard a card from the Head Haunter's hand. This design choice also helped solidify the Head Haunter turn order, with them drawing a card only after they have a turn, which means that if the treasure hunters roll at least three consecutive 6s, the Head Haunter will end up with no cards in hand and be forced to skip their next activation. It's a great, albeit rare occurrence, but it does feel great for the treasure hunters when it happens.

    Some unused concepts and the final art of the new re-roll card
    The last thing I added to the treasure hunters' repertoire was a single-use re-roll card that each player starts with. This card allows a treasure hunter to re-roll a single die and accept the new outcome. It provides a great re-do moment that comes with shouts of joy or groans of anguish.

    Ghostie fingers forever!
    I'm super happy with how the Head Haunter mode turned out. I think it's a fun addition to the classic game and adds a new wrinkle of challenge for even the most seasoned players. Hopefully you'll check out the new Anniversary Edition of Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters and enjoy the new Head Haunter mode!

    Brian Yu Read more »
  • Best Opponents in Middle-earth, Enter the Jungles of Delthrak, and Fight among Flickering Stars

    by W. Eric Martin

    BGG user Rick Fuss is maintaining a GeekList of promos that will be available at Gen Con 2024, and I thought I'd supplement that list by highlighting a few things I've seen in passing:

    • At Gen Con 2024, Double Exposure will run the "War of the Ring: The Card Game Gen Con 2024 Grand Prix", a tournament for up to 64 people that plays out over three rounds, "each using a unique scenario specifically designed for the event by Ian Brody".

    Ravensburger is running a $64 Illumineer's Quest – Deep Trouble tournament that gives you four booster packs of the Ursula's Return set of Disney Lorcana, with the prime draw apparently being a "Flotsam & Jetsam" promo card and a first anniversary Mickey Mouse pin, as well as the "Scrooge McDuck – Uncle Moneybags" promo card that all event goers will receive.


    Avalon Hill has stated that HeroQuest: Jungles of Delthrak will be available for demo at Gen Con 2024, but apparently it's available only via ticketed events. I've now updated that game's listing on BGG's Gen Con 2024 Preview, but this is a reminder that the preview might be only the first step toward actually playing a game, the first breadcrumb that you can follow to get where you want to go.

    • Speaking of Avalon Hill, in September 2024 it will launch a Gamefound crowdfunding campaign for a new edition of Asara, a design by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling that Ravensburger released in 2010.

    In Gen Con-related press material, Avalon Hill states that you can "ign up to play prototypes of this reimagined classic" — but I don't see any events listed for Asara in the Gen Con catalog, so maybe you'll just find a copy set up on a table? Who knows?

    Mock-up design
    • In early June 2024, I mentioned a game that had little info available, but now publisher Friendly Skeleton has provided a moderately longer game description of Flickering Stars, a 2-4 player game from Matt Leacock and Josh Cappel that will be available for demo games at Gen Con 2024 ahead of a November 2024 release:
    Transform your tabletop into a galaxy at your fingertips in Flickering Stars! Choose from two rival factions — the Children of Arha or the Terran Coalition — then take command of a powerful fleet, discover planets rich with resources, and battle it out with your spacefaring rivals in a quest to claim a piece of the stars!


    1. FLICK your ships across the table.
    2. FIRE missiles and plasma balls at your rivals to thwart their plans.
    3. FINISH your objectives for the win!

    With over one hundred custom-designed plastic pieces in the box, you can transport your table from the dining room to a war room in space as you face off in three scenarios. Start with an evacuation drill in scenario 1 to learn the basics of the game, then step it up in scenario 2 with a new ship and objectives. Scenario 3 brings it all together and more, adding refineries, outposts, and hubs. Each faction comes with five ships that serve different functions, including launching projectiles!

    Read more »
  • Designer Diary: The Adventures of Making Cyber Pet Quest

    by Kryzak

    Cyber Pet Quest is a small-box, co-operative, multi-chapter campaign game in which cybernetic pets embark on a thrilling adventure to rescue their owner. Taking the roles of the four pets, 1-4 players investigate and interact with the environment, complete chapter objectives, gain power items and charms, and outsmart the enemies who are trying to stop them.


    Ideation

    Our original idea, titled "Adventures of Jane", was for a solo dice battler. The player would assume the role of Jane the cybernetic cat, a character in the most popular faction from our first game, Omicron Protocol. The idea was born at Gen Con 2022 when we were demoing Omicron Protocol and the Lunar Rush prototype. We felt that a small game would round out our game product offering and also be something that we had the bandwidth to design and develop ourselves.

    Four months later, at PAX Unplugged, while we were selling small games and enamel pins designed by Ta-Te Wu alongside our products, we witnessed the appetite for small and casual games firsthand, especially ones that feature cats in the art! That motivated us to commit to making Cyber Pet Quest real, and our first version was born: a tin box dice battler in the style of 1990s Japanese RPG video games.

    Bernie (l) and Brendan
    As with all of our games, we ended up with a very different game than we planned. It is certainly bigger, but offers so much engaging content — and it is still our smallest game yet!


    Art Style

    One of the hardest things we had to decide early on was the art style of this game. We knew it had to be cute, but there are so many different ways to do cute: traditional cute, 3D cute, simple cute, complex cute, or even chibi cute. Since neither of us are artists, we looked through all kinds of cute animal art online and created different mood boards for art styles that we liked — and also the ones we didn't.


    Ultimately, these mood boards helped us convey the style we wanted to our myriad initial artists. We worked with five artists and commissioned a few different pets per artist to determine which artist's style we liked the best. Over multiple rounds, we were able to learn more about each artist's style, and in the end Alex Pei, the artist who also did some of the Lunar Rush art for us, won.

    This was the most comprehensive art exploration phase we've ever done with our games, partially because we really wanted to get the art "right" and partially because for the first time we had a good base of artists with whom we've worked before. We definitely credit the cuteness and coolness of the final art to the time spent on this testing phase!


    Development

    Tin Box Dice Battler Phase
    We centered the original game around the lore and combat mechanisms that we had developed for Omicron Protocol. Pets and enemies would face each other. They could move between front and back rows of their area, but could never cross the centerline or occupy the same space as an enemy.

    We whittled away and simplified the combat, but ultimately, early feedback was mixed. Playtesters wanted progression, they wanted inventory, they wanted more story! It took us a long time to let go of the "tin box" idea and let the game grow in the direction it needed to grow...and so started the evolution into a tactical campaign game.


    Campaign with Finicky Mechanisms Phase
    We've wanted to do a co-op campaign game for a long time and had already started designing a big-box campaign in our Omicron Protocol world over the past few years, but it was such a massive project that we knew we would not be able to do it justice at the current stage of our company. It took us by surprise that our little tin box game, now called Cyber Pet Quest, was taking us in that direction, albeit on a much smaller scale.


    We started by outlining a story focused on Jane the cat and seeing the Omicron Protocol world from a pet's perspective. Once we had a beginning and an end, we planned out a branching storyline and mapped out four distinct paths through the game, with the story splitting at different points. Then, one by one, we started writing the chapters.

    During this phase of development, there were many exciting ideas and things to try, but there was always too much going on and too many mechanisms that didn't justify their own weight. It was fun, and people were starting to enjoy the game a lot more, but the rough edges were very apparent. It was pretty good, but we needed a shock to take it to the next level. Luckily, we had one coming...

    Post-Origins Unpub Phase
    At the Unpub at Origins Game Fair 2023, we did a lot of playtests, trying to simplify the unwieldy mechanisms. Most people who played there seemed to understand the game after detailed explanation, but we could tell that some elements confused people or weren't intuitive. A chance playtest with a well-known designer (unknown to us at the time) gave us direct and blunt feedback regarding the mechanisms, which fortunately forced us to commit to simplifying the rules.

    We spent the next few weeks boiling down the mechanisms until only the essence remained, removing most of the finicky aspects along the way. It was a huge transformation for the game, and in the playtests that followed, for the first time we were able to explain the rules within a few minutes. We knew we had succeeded when even the most casual board gamers learned and enjoyed the game as quickly as experienced ones!


    Polish, Polish, Polish!

    After we achieved the level of complexity we wanted to make this game as accessible as possible to all gamers, we spent the final few months instilling our signature balance and rulebook clarity to the game. The goal was to make each pet feel like "equals" to the other pets, but play different roles in the game. We also spent a lot of time ensuring the game mechanism terms we used were consistent throughout the rulebook to avoid potential confusion.

    The final stages felt slow and painful, with many late nights going over the rulebook and card text "just one more time". For better or worse, we could not leave something alone once we saw that it could be better — and just when we thought we were done, we would notice another major issue with the flow or an inconsistent way of describing a rule. It finally came down to a week in which we both stayed up discussing rules and clarifying text until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. most nights!


    Now that the game is complete, we can rest knowing that we gave it our best, and we are very happy with the way the game has turned out. When we get the game out to the world later this year, we hope you'll enjoy the game, too!

    Bernie Lin and Brendan Kendrick
    Co-designers of Cyber Pet Quest and owners of Dead Alive Games Read more »
  • Establish an Energy Empire, Find Food for Thought, and Spot the Linq between Players

    by W. Eric Martin

    • In May 2024, I mentioned that a second edition of Marc André's Barony was in the works from Grail Games, with this edition including the Barony: Sorcery expansion.

    Non-final front cover
    Turns out the second edition of Barony will also feature new asymmetric player powers, with a crowdfunding campaign coming in the second half of 2024 ahead of a 2025 release.

    • Another Grail Games title following the same path to release is Food for Thought, a new edition of Karen Knoblaugh's 2019 release Consumption: Food and Choices that will include the Picky Eater and Extra Helpings expansions previously released separately.


    Here's an overview of this 1-4 player game:
    Food for Thought is a worker-placement and resource-management game designed by a dietitian. Over six rounds, players shop for ingredients, cook recipes, dine out, and engage in activities — calories-in, calories-out! The player who best manages their body's needs will win, all in the pursuit of health and happiness.

    • And still another title seeing a new edition from Grail Games is The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, a Tom Jolly and Luke Laurie design that Minion Games released in 2016.

    Grail Games plans to include the Cold War expansion in this new edition, which will feature art by Heiko Günther, along with "new goodies and modules that have not been released before". If enough crowdfunding backers express support, Grail will reprint the original edition of Cold War, which had a limited release in 2022 due to complications following the death of Minion Games owner James Mathe in 2019.

    • In a July 2024 post about AMIGO's late 2024 releases, I remarked upon the continuous market presence of No Thanks! for the past two decades.

    Another 2004 release that's still on the market in new editions is Linq, a design by Andrea Meyer and Erik Nielsen that French publisher OldChap Games released anew in May 2024. Here's an overview of this 4-8 player game:
    Part word game, part bluffing game, part strategy game, Linq is a team game in which you don't know who your partner is!


    Each round, two players will have cards with the same word on it, while the other players will have bluffing cards. The object of the game is to find out which two players have the same card — that is, which two players linq — by listening to the clue words that all the players give. For example, if the linq word is blue, a player holding that card might say ocean. A player who is bluffing might follow by saying shell. It's not yet clear who has the linq, until the other player can describe blue in a different context.

    After round one has been completed, players can guess who they think has the linq, or pass on guessing until after round two. When the linq is revealed, players earn 2 or 1 points for correctly guessing after, respectively, round one or round two. (The two players who are linqed score only if they both identify one another.)

    The first player to score 10 points wins.

    Interesting to note that the game hasn't yet been licensed outside of English, French, and German when the design should work in all languages. Maybe the designers or publishers just haven't reached out to the right partners...or maybe it's a cultural issue, with France being the ideal market for the spirit of the game. Curious...

    Read more »
  • Rediscover Dorfromatik in Japan, Tile a Parisian Café, and Explore Uwe Rosenberg's Portals

    by W. Eric Martin

    • In October 2024, Pegasus Spiele will release Dorfromantik: Sakura, a standalone sequel to the 2023 Spiel des Jahres winner Dorfromantik: The Board Game from Michael Palm and Lukas Zach.


    No gameplay details have been revealed to date beyond the back cover, which suggests that this game will be the same, yet different from the original, with 1-6 players once again working together to lay hexagonal tiles to create a beautiful landscape and fulfill the orders of the population, with higher scores allowing you to unlock boxes of new material to add to the game.


    • Another October 2024 release from Pegasus is Intarsia, a Michael Kiesling design for 2-4 players developed by Deep Print Games. Here's an overview:
    For countless years, the Café de Paris has offered moments of carefree relaxation and a wonderful opportunity to pause and breathe amid a bustling city. Unfortunately, the café must close for emergency renovation to ensure that it continues to attract numerous guests.


    In Intarsia, players compete for the contract for the coveted redesign work on the parquet, embellishing it with stylish intarsias. To win the contract, players have to prove their skills by refining the floor with stylish inlays and outdoing their competitors with new tools.

    Each floor ornament can consist of one to four filigree wooden elements that are puzzled together from the outside inwards. The more pieces the ornament consists of, the more victory points it scores! During the building phase, wooden elements can be paid for with material cards and built according to the building rules. Whoever fulfills the requirement for a tool receives the tile that scores points. Only the person with the best building skills can secure the contract and give the café a new lease of life!

    Image: Henk Rolleman
    The B-side of the floor plan offers variation for this clever and high-quality placement game.

    • Deep Print Games has also revealed the final cover of Stefan Feld's Civolution, another October 2024 release.


    • To veer from the well-established to the novice, let's turn to Squink, a new German publisher that will debut in 2024 with the Uwe Rosenberg title Portals, a game for 1-2 players:
    Portals is a two-player tile-placing game set in the fantasy world Lorakis, which houses uncountably many fairy realms, marvelous and dangerous alike. Portals connect these magical places to the known world, and as an apprentice of the Portal Guild, you must prove that you can follow the trails of magical energy to find portals...but only one of you can become a Path Master.


    In the game, you collect magical energies of the fairy realms by drafting tiles and placing them in your area. Whenever you collected enough magical energy of one type, you open a portal to the corresponding realm, allowing to place a portal stone on one of your tiles. Whoever first places all of their portal stones wins.
    Read more »

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