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  • Get a Relief Column to Peking, Resolve Russian Civil War Crises, and Battle in World War II in Twenty Minutes

    by Candice Harris

    Deluxe Edition(not final)• Wargame aficionados, in February 2021 Worthington Publishing launched a Kickstarter campaign (KS link) for a new deluxe edition of John Welch's solitaire gem Keep Up The Fire!: The Boxer Rebellion, which was originally released by Victory Point Games in 2011.

    Keep Up The Fire!, the tenth game in the States of Siege series, plays in 45 minutes and is getting a fresh coat of paint with updated artwork, all mounted boards, thick counters, and more.

    Here's a brief overview of the setting and challenges you'll face:
    Keep Up The Fire! is a solitaire States of Siege series game set in 1900 Peking (modern day Beijing), China where Foreign Legations (areas assigned to Imperial powers including ambassadors, business people, and a handful of troops to provide security) are besieged in their compound by Chinese anti-imperialist forces. The Chinese "Boxers" (Society of the Harmonious Fists), with the Imperial Manchu forces of the Qing Army, are angry and determined to expel these foreigners from China.

    At the Legation Compound siege, you must coordinate the various foreign detachments that have joined to defend their position until a Relief Column arrives. You also command the Relief Column, battling their way from the port of Taku inland through hostile territory to break the siege at Peking.

    Note that this game can also be enjoyed in teams working together (just as the Eight Nations had to), deciding how best to defend the Legation Compound and get the Relief Column to Peking in time!

    A set of five standards-based lesson plans are also available for classroom teachers should they wish to use this game as a teaching tool.

    The game is a race against time as the Chinese forces besieging the Legation Compound are attacking relentlessly while the Relief Column battles its way to the rescue. With limited time and relentless attacks on the Compound, will you manage to keep up the fire?

    • In addition to Keep Up The Fire!, Worthington Publishing's reprinted deluxe edition of Darin A. Leviloff's Soviet Dawn, which was originally released in 2009 from Victory Points Games as another solitaire game in the States of Siege series, will be available in March 2021.

    Soviet Dawn (Deluxe Edition) was successfully funded on Kickstarter (KS link) in late 2020 and has also been spruced up and upgraded with new-and-improved components thanks to Worthington Publishing. In more detail:
    Soviet Dawn (Deluxe Edition) brings Darin Leviloff's novel States of Siege game system back for a much larger storytelling adventure covering the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1921. Upgraded with a bigger, hard mounted game board, beautiful linen finish cards, large counters, full color rules, and more!

    With several enemy "Fronts" converging on Moscow, the fate of the revolution and the prestige of international communism rests on your ability to manage and resolve every crisis that the "Whites" can assail you with. As the headlines unfold, you draw upon military and political resources to help you, or try to reorganize the Red Army for special abilities that can greatly enhance your position. Who knows? You might even capture the Imperial Gold Reserve!

    Can you deal with the great crises of that time and defend the revolution? Will you withdraw from the Great War (WW1) or exercise the Bukharin Option and fight on? Can you execute the Czar in time, or will the Whites rescue him? Will you fortify Petrograd or press your offensives home? How will you deal with internal and external dissent? Play Soviet Dawn and see!

    This Deluxe Edition includes the expansion set.

    • Speaking of refreshing older games, in the February Update Newsletter from GMT Games, Gene shared some excitement for a new P500 addition: a reprint of Vietnam 1965-1975, Nick Karp's award-winning, classic Vietnam game of the 1980s.

    Vietnam 1965-1975, originally released by Victory Games in 1984, is a two-player game considered to be quintessential grand operational Vietnam game. There are no major rules changes expected, and GMT's primary goal is to modernize the components and clean up any ambiguity in the rules.

    Vietnam 1965-1975 has a jaw-dropping (for some) playtime range of 360-6000 minutes because it can be played as scenarios or you can strap in for the entire campaign as briefly described below from original publisher, Victory Games:
    This simulation game re-creates one of the longest, most complex, and least understood conflicts in U.S. history in all of its military and political aspects.

    Non-final P500 cover image from GMT's website
    The rules include detailed treatment of movement, terrain, search and destroy operations, special operations, firepower, air mobility, riverines, brigade-level formations, limited intelligence and auxiliary units in each scenario. The scenarios start out small with Operation Starlite, and slowly build in complexity, introducing more rules, until the entire Campaign Scenario which covers the entire war from 1965 to 1975 and introduces South Vietnamese politics, morale and commitment, strategic bombing, reinforcements, and pacification.

    • I was perusing some upcoming releases the other night and was excited to discover Paolo Mori's 2019 release, Blitzkrieg!, from PSC Games has a new "square edition" coming in Q2 2021. Not only will you save some shelf space, but this version also includes the Nippon expansion as an added bonus.

    If you're not familiar with Blitzkrieg!, it's an excellent, WWII-themed filler game for 1-2 players that's packed with fun, exciting, and tense moments and even features a solo mode designed by Dávid Turczi, who probably has a doctorate in solo game design at this point. It's also easy to learn and can be played quickly, true to its tag line: "World War Two in 20 Minutes". Here's a brief description with more details from publisher:
    The perfect wargame for non-wargamers, Blitzkrieg! allows two players to battle across the War's most iconic theaters, winning key campaigns and building military might.

    Original rectangular box cover
    Players draw army tokens from a bag to determine their starting forces and to replenish their losses. Rather than "fighting" battles with dice or cards, players allocate their military resources to each theater's campaigns, winning victory points, further resources, special weapons, and strategic advantages as they play. Refight World War Two several times in one evening!

    Blitzkrieg! is one of my favorite filler games, and I feel it is a hidden gem that deserves to be more widely known, so I'm glad that's it going to be available again for folks to check out! Read more »
  • VideoRace, Marry, Crawl, Meditate, Fight, and Dominate the Forest

    by W. Eric Martin

    I moved away from regular Kickstarter update posts a while ago, yet when I look at my inbox this week, recently announced Kickstarter projects dominate that space. Let's take a glance at a few of the projects holding out the hat for your gaming dollar:

    • On a turn in David Van Drunen's Block and Key from Inside Up Games, you either take blocks from a reserve or add a block you have to a shared gamespace, ideally completing objective cards when you do — but you can complete such a card only when your particular 2D perspective of the 3D playing area matches what is depicted on the card. You play the game on an elevated platform so that your eyes will be at board level without you crouching down to rest your chin on the table like a sad dog. (KS link)

    Zombicide: Undead or Alive will land in 2022, marking ten years since CMON Limited debuted with Zombicide, the game that arguably defined what a table game Kickstarter should be. This zombie-fighting design from the original team of Raphaël Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, and Nicolas Raoult is set in the mythic wild West and invites you to mow down zombies with dynamite and locomotives as our ancestors did generations ago. (KS link)

    • Designer Mitsuo Yamamoto regularly creates abstract strategy games from ceramic tiles, and for his current project he's offering a quartet of Shogi games — on a standard 9x9 board, on a 4x7 board, on a 4x6 board ("Le Shogi"), and on a 3x3 board ("Pop Shogi", which is Yamamoto's own design) — with a more accessible design for the pieces for those who don't speak Japanese. (KS link)

    • Within three days of launching, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition from Jacob Fryxelius, Sydney Engelstein, Nick Little, FryxGames, and Stronghold Games had garnered nearly $600k in support. The (KS page) could probably show nothing more than a logo and still do well, but of course it details the solo and co-operative play modes as well as the regular competitive gameplay in which you're once again trying to make Mars habitable.

    Bloodstone is a 1-8 player combat arena game from James Hudson and Druid City Games that was added to the BGG database back in 2017 and that will become a reality in 2022 — but only for those who back the KS campaign since the title won't have a retail release (outside of the publisher's webstore). Hudson explains why here.

    Scott Almes and Gamelyn Games are continuing their "tiny epic" game series with Tiny Epic Dungeons, this being a co-operative dungeon-crawling game in which 1-4 players must make it through a modular dungeon before their torchlight runs out so that they can face the "dungeon boss" that awaits for them in the second act of the game. (KS link)

    A Universal Truth is a Regency Era courtship game for 1-5 players from Patrick Einheber and Danger Toad Games that's filled with more than two hundred multi-use cards with which you'll earn money, build relationships with friends and family, get two people to fancy one another, then wed before anyone else. (The game ends at that point, so you will have to watch Bridgerton once again to experience the marriage's consummation.) (KS link)

    Root: The Marauder Expansion from Cole Wehrle, Patrick Leder, and Leder Games will be a thing, but you might know that already given the write-up from Candice Harris in mid-February 2021. The KS campaign has nearly $1.2 million in support as of Feb. 25, 2021, so apparently lots of people know.

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Board Game from Daryl Andrews, Morgan Dontanville, and Cryptozoic Entertainment is a solitaire game in which you play through the four "books" of Frank Miller's iconic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, with each book taking 90 minutes. Check out these ridiculously on-brand dice! (KS link)

    • In January 2020, I wrote about ZEN Tiles Solo from Youichirou Kawaguchi and ChagaChaga Games. Here's a short description:
    ZEN Tiles Solo is a solitaire board game that challenges you to look at yourself objectively while placing emotion tiles on a 24-hour timeline.

    To win, you need to find a spot to place twenty different emotion tiles above these time boards, so think carefully about "your yesterday". You might have become happy about yourself — "I had a positive thoughts!" — or were perhaps surprised: "I didn't realize that I have negative feelings every time when I see this person."

    In 2020, Kawaguchi released ZEN Tiles Basic, a lightly competitive version of this game that can be played with up to four people, and now the designer is using Kickstarter ( to make this game easily available to people outside of Japan.

    • At Spielwarenmesse 2020, BGG recorded an overview of Tiny Turbo Cars from designers Hjalmar Hach, Laura Severino, Alessandro Manuini, Jonathan Panada, and Giulia Tamagni — and now Italian publisher Horrible Guild has brought the game to Kickstarter (link) for delivery by the end of 2021.

    The hook in this racing game is that each player has a sliding puzzle to serve as their remote controller, and you program your moves for the round by sliding tiles into the middle two rows of the controller, with players moving in the order in which they lock in their moves. The faster you finish, the more likely you are to make the moves you set up — and the more likely you are to make mistakes, too. More details in the video below:

    Youtube Video Read more »
  • In Space, No One Can Hear You Complete Objectives

    by W. Eric Martin

    Game publisher Ravensburger has become well-known for its licensed adaptations of movies, comics, cartoons, and theme park attractions, and following the release of two such titles in the U.S. in 2021 — Disney Villainous: Despicable Plots, which lets you take the roles of Gaston, Lady Tremaine, and the Horned King, and Pusheen Purrfect Pick, based on the Pusheen comics — Ravensburger has announced a more high-profile title that will debut on August 1, 2021: ALIEN: Fate of the Nostromo.

    This game, designed by Scott Rogers and developed by Steve Warner, is a 1-5 player co-operative game in which you take on the role of Nostromo crew members Ripley, Lambert, Parker, Brett, or Dallas, all of whom are trying to survive on a spaceship that's been infiltrated by an alien. Executive Officer Kane has already been killed, and as for Science Officer Ash, well, we'll get to him. Here's an overview of the gameplay:
    Over the course of the game, crew members collect scrap, craft items, and fulfill different objectives. The crew will lose and gain morale as they encounter the Alien and other situations. If crew morale reaches zero, players lose the game.

    Each turn has two phases. In the Crew Action phase, players creep through the Nostromo's halls, gathering scrap, crafting items, trading scrap and items with other players, and using items and their special abilities. Brett, for example, can craft items with one fewer scrap than other players. If the Alien is within three spaces of the player with the incinerator, that player can use the incinerator to send the Alien back to its nest.

    In the Encounter phase, players draw and resolve an Encounter card. The Alien could be lurking behind any corner...

    Once the players fulfill their initial objectives, they face one of five final missions, each with a unique set of requirements. Players must fulfill the final mission's requirements simultaneously to win the game.

    In more detail, the game includes ten objectives, and during set-up you reveal one more objective than the number of players. You also choose a final mission at random, but you set it aside face down, revealing it only after you've completed all of the objectives.

    Each crew member has a number of action points that you use to move, pick up or drop items or scrap, craft items out of scrap, trade with other crew members, use an item (some of which can be used a limited number of times), or take your unique special action.

    The encounter cards move the alien around the board, with it always moving towards the closest crew member. If the alien and a crew member are ever in the same room, the team loses morale and the crew member must flee. What's more, the encounter cards replenish scrap in various rooms in the Nostromo, but they can also bring "concealed tokens", which must be revealed whenever someone enters that room. You might find nothing, or the alien might turn up — or Jonesy might surprise you, but don't worry because you can craft a cat carrier to catch him.

    Some of the final missions initiate the Nostromo's self-destruct sequence, giving all players four more turns to complete the requirements of that mission before the game ends with a bang. And should you find yourself having an easy time aboard the Nostromo, you can introduce Science Officer Ash to the game, with Ash moving through the ship to remove scrap and force the crew to lose morale. Read more »
  • Faiyum: Crafty Card Combos and Crocodiles in Ancient Egypt

    by Candice Harris

    In 2020, Friedemann Friese and his publishing company 2F-Spiele invited us all to relax with his uniquely-themed, "after"-worker placement game Finishing Time — but now it's time for us to get back to work in ancient Egypt during the reign of Amenemhet III to impress the pharaoh and develop Faiyum!

    Friedemann Friese's Faiyum is a deck-construction and hand-management strategy game fused with route-building elements in which 1-5 players take on the role of pharaoh's advisors in ancient Egypt, competing to earn the most reputation (victory points) by creating the best card combo-engine for harvesting resources and gaining money to build roads and structures, to gain the respect of the pharaoh.

    I picked up a copy of Faiyum for myself the minute I read that it featured "a card mechanism reminiscent of deck-builders and the market mechanism successfully used in Power Grid". I'm generally a fan of board games that include any flavor of deck-building, so it seemed right up my alley. [Disclosure: BoardGameGeek sells Faiyum through the BGG Store to provide distribution for the game outside of Germany. —WEM]

    When I unfolded the game board for Faiyum before my first game, I instantly loved its look and feel, and I was anticipating a pleasant gaming experience because of it. The colors are great and it's very well designed and illustrated by Harald Lieske. It also has this charming vintage appeal to it that I dig, which I'm assuming is a result of Lieske's history of contributing artwork to several older classics such as The Castles of Burgundy, La Granja, Arkwright, and many others.

    Game board set up for a two-player game
    The game board is a map of Faiyum with a channel dividing two separate peninsulas which are connected only by a dam, with both peninsulas being surrounded by a lake. There are resource spaces for wheat (yellow), grapes (purple), and stone (gray), clearly identifiable by color and graphics. All three types of resource spaces are considered "undeveloped" at the start of the game. Additionally, the wheat and grape resource spaces are swampy, and therefore covered with adorable, wooden crocodiles. (Googly eyes not included, but highly recommended!) There are also four building sites (brown) and one starting settlement space (red) on the board which are considered "developed" areas in Faiyum.

    Off to the left side of the game board is the card market that demands your attention if you want to impress the pharaoh and stand a chance at winning Faiyum. In the vein of Friese's popular classic, Power Grid, Faiyum's card market has four spaces for the current card market where players can buy cards, and four spaces for cards that will be available later in the game so that you can plot and plan accordingly.

    The current market (i.e., four lowest) cards with discount tokens

    The four highest cards can't be purchased until they slide into the current market
    During set-up, you shuffle the main deck of cards into a draw pile, then prepare a "final turns" stack which is seeded with four natural disaster cards that will trigger the end of the game. Each card has a unique, even number on it, and the card market is always sorted in ascending order such that the four lowest cards form the current market and the flour highest cards cannot be purchased until they slide into the current market slots.

    The cards in Faiyum are action cards, and they are the heartbeat of the game. You don't have a personal deck of cards from which you're randomly drawing, but instead your cards will either be in your hand or in your discard pile reminiscent of Concordia. There's a variety of different cards you can purchase throughout the game, which keep things interesting — but can also look a little crazy and complicated when you initially skim through them. Even though there are a lot of different action cards to familiarize yourself with, they will click and make sense faster than you'd expect thanks to a few key features in the game.

    First of all, there's an awesome card glossary that comes with the game, and it explains every card really well with plenty of excellent examples. I would be very surprised if anyone had a question after checking the card glossary, but regardless, there's more. [Second disclosure: I edited the rulebook, so this is nice to hear! —WEM]

    The iconography on the cards is excellent. After you learn what the action is from the card glossary, the images on the card make sense and more often than not, you won't need to look up a lot of cards after a game or two. For example, there's always the main action graphically represented and then at the bottom of each card you'll see the cost for playing the action always has a red background and the benefit always has a green background, which makes the cards easy to parse at a glance. I've played Faiyum only with gamer friends, and they picked it up quickly due to the clear iconography, but I get the impression that even non-gamers can pick it up fairly quickly especially with a good teacher.

    On top of the wonderful card glossary and iconography, each card falls into one of four types of actions, and when you understand how one type of action works, I found it easy to grasp how different cards of the same type worked. There are harvest actions to help you gain resources; build actions which allow you to develop Faiyum with settlements, roads, bridges etc.; commerce actions to help you earn money; and "other" actions the feature some different gameplay effects.

    For example, everyone starts the game with three Farmer cards, which are harvest actions. Farmer cards allow you to place a worker on an undeveloped resource space adjacent to another space that has a worker on it and gain one matching resource based on the space where the worker is placed.

    Examples of harvest action cards
    Other harvest actions look and function similarly as you can see above from the following examples: The Senior Farmer works the same, except you gain two matching resources, the Grower allows you to gain two roses (a wild resource) when you place a worker on any undeveloped space adjacent to the channel, and Harvest Hands follows the Farmer rules, but allows you to spend $1-$3 to place 1-3 workers and gain 1-3 resources depending on where you place the worker(s).

    Along with gaining resources, if you place any workers on a space that has a crocodile on it when taking a harvest action, you remove the crocodile from the game and gain $1 since you're draining the land and opening it up for development opportunities. There are even cute little crocodile icons on the top corners of harvest action cards as a reminder.

    The building action cards function just like they sound and let you develop crocodile-free resource spaces by building a variety of different structures in Faiyum. When you build roads and bridges, they create a network connecting spaces and you'll usually gain some reputation from these action cards, plus a bonus reputation each time you build the first direct connection between two settlements, two building sites, or a settlement and a building site.

    A key thing to note is that everything built on the board does not belong to a specific player; it is all common property for all players to interact with. This, combined with the card market variation, lends itself to a great deal of variety and some interesting player interaction.

    Faiyum has a smooth flow to it and moves at a decent pace. It doesn't have any rounds or phases, but instead players simply alternate taking turns, in turn order, until the end of the game is triggered. Continuing with the vibe of simplicity, there are only three actions you can take on your turn, which I found makes it fairly easy to teach and get into for your first game:

    1) You can play a card from your hand, either using it for its action or to get money for it.
    2) You can buy a card from the current card market, placing it directly in your hand after paying the cost.
    3) You can take an administration turn and do admin-y things such as gaining income and refreshing your hand and the card market.

    Everyone starts the game with a hand of five cards (three Farmers, Settlement, and Two Roads) and some amount of money depending on turn order. When it's your turn, you can play a card for its action or discard it to gain $2. Regardless of the type of action card, you'll typically be playing cards to gain resources, money, and reputation (victory points) in some form, whether it's from harvesting, building, or taking some other late-game scoring cards. There are also "other" cards mixed in that allow you to do fun different things like take cards from the market at a set price or copy the action on the top of your discard pile.

    You can instead buy a card from the current market and take the card directly into your hand after paying its cost, which will be discounted if there's a discount token on the card. Discount tokens are placed on all four current market cards at the start of the game, and they're also added to cards when players take administration turns. The cards in the market with discount tokens are usually hot items and timing is very important in Faiyum. You don't want to sleep on a good deal because odds are it won't be available next time it's your turn.

    After you take your newly purchased card, you draw a card from the main deck to refill the market. Remember whenever you add cards to the market, you shift them to ensure all cards are in ascending order from the start of the market. This could shift existing cards in the current market making them cheaper in some cases, and more expensive in other cases. Again, it is important to pay attention to the card market and try to catch good deals before your opponents. Of course, there will be many occasions where you unfortunately won't have the funds you need to seize the opportunity, so money is also important to have on hand.

    I found the key to doing well in Faiyum is all about gaining cards that can be comboed with your existing cards so you can build the best money, resource, and reputation engine. For example, one game I had a card that allowed me to gain roses, then I was able to get another card that let me convert roses into reputation. Another time, I had the Plantation card that let me build a workshop on a grape resource space to gain grapes and reputation, that I comboed with the Vintner, which let me place a worker on a space with a grape workshop to gain reputation and money.

    Finding these card synergies is where it's at in Faiyum...and the more card combos you can create and execute, the better you'll do. With the main deck being shuffled every game and different cards coming into the current market at different times, I really enjoyed the mystery of not knowing exactly what my engine would look like each game, but just constantly surveying the card market for good cards, good deals, and good combo opportunities.

    Eventually after buying cards and playing cards from your hand into your discard pile, you'll be wanting to get your cards back into your hand. That's when you should plan to take an administration turn. Administration turns have three main steps to them for gaining income, buying back cards from your discard pile, and replacing cards in the current market.

    For income, you first (potentially) gain money based on the amount of cards remaining in your hand. It's always $3 minus the amount of cards in your hand, so if you have three or more cards in your hand when you take an administration turn, you won't earn any base income. Then you can remove 0-2 workers from any spaces on the game board earning $0-$2 accordingly. Sometimes this decision doesn't matter too much, but it mostly does. The reason is that if you remove a worker from, let's say, a settlement space, and your opponent has a card in hand that allows them to place a worker on a settlement space to get some goodies, you probably don't want to help them with that — but on the other hand, you may need to clear some workers for your own sake, and it ends up being a tough decision. Finally, you gain the top three cards back from the top of your discard pile (for free).

    Next you can optionally buy back additional top cards from your discard pile by spending $1 per card. Your discard pile is never shuffled, and this makes it very important to consider the order in which you play your cards in Faiyum. Buying cards back from your discard pile can get expensive, so if you don't consider the order when you play your cards, you might not be able to afford to pick up some of your best cards, and that would be sad. With this in mind, it's also a good way later in the game to bury weaker cards towards the bottom and just never pick them back up. Although, there's no hand limit, so you could always hold onto the weaker cards and cash them in for $2 by discarding them towards the end of the game, and that might help you buy some juicy, late-game scoring cards.

    The last step of your administration turn is to replace 1-2 cards in the current market based on player count. You'll always remove the lowest card(s) with discount tokens on them first, then the lowest cards. The remaining cards in the current market get discount tokens, then you refill the market, always shifting cards into ascending order.

    Players continue taking turns, playing cards, buying cards and retrieving cards from their discard pile until eventually, the fourth natural disaster card makes its debut appearance in the card market. When this happens, players can no longer take administration turns, which can be rough if you're not planning for it. In most of my games, I was the one to trigger the end of the game by strategically timing my final administration turn well. This allowed me to swoop up all of my cards one last time and the others were stuck with whatever they had in hand. If you try this at home and make your friends bitter, you didn't hear it from me.

    Natural disaster cards in a four-player game
    After the end of the game is triggered, players can only play cards, buy cards, or bow out by taking the natural disaster from the card market with the most reputation. In a four-player game, the first player to quit gains 10 reputation, the next player gains 6, then 3, and 0 if you are last. This often adds a bit of tension since it becomes a race to snag the extra bonus points before the end of the game. The player with the most reputation wins the game and is considered the pharaoh's most cunning advisor!

    I didn't get to play Faiyum with five players, but I'd imagine it would be a bit wild since the card market would likely change a lot in between each of your turns and therefore it would be harder to plan out your turn. It could be totally fun, though! I'm sure I'll give it a try at some point, but alternatively, I was pleasantly surprised how well Faiyum plays with two. It was quite enjoyable, and there were plenty of moments of tension with the card market. Plus, I really like that you use the full deck of cards for every player count, but with the timing of administration turns, you never really know which cards will end up getting removed from the game and this adds to the variation of Faiyum.

    The solo mode is similar to the multiplayer gameplay, so there aren't a lot of new rules to learn if you plan to play Faiyum solo. You can play one-off games and try to beat your best score, or for something a bit more interesting, they've also included campaign challenges. You have seven different goals to achieve, starting with gaining at least 150 reputation in a game, and each time you fulfill a goal, you can unlock a variety of achievements that change the solo rules slightly in your favor.

    Faiyum is an interesting deck-construction, hand-management game that seems to have a lot of variation from game to game, which I find especially interesting considering you use the same deck of cards each game. I can't really think of a game that feels exactly like it, which is a plus for me. I'm a deck-building fan, which is originally what drew me to it. If there's deck-building of any sort mixed with player interaction on a game board, I'm all ears, so I'm not surprised that I've been enjoying Faiyum.

    It's not a very thematic experience, but the cardplay is where it really shines. I appreciate how each game I played evolved completely differently depending on the timing of when different cards appeared in the market, which ones got purchased, and how different players chose to execute the card actions relative to the state of the game board. Plus, creating those rewarding card combos always felt very satisfying. The more you play, the more you'll know the potential of the cards, which could seem like it'll eventually get boring, but when you have no clue when different cards will be available or when they'll be removed from the market from an administration action, you have to be flexible and prepared to readapt your strategy each game.

    Then you have the game board being built up differently each game, too, which helps keep each game feeling fresh. For example, one game I placed the first worker on the smaller peninsula and we were off to a tighter start and had a different experience than when the first worker was placed on the larger peninsula.

    I appreciate the simplicity of Faiyum. It's awesome that there are only three main actions you can take on your turn, and you can explain the cards as they appear in the market, so it ends up being a straightforward teach and quick to get into with new players. Don't get me wrong, though, because while the game structure is relatively simple, the decision space gets deeper and more complex, the more cards you acquire.

    If you enjoy strategy games with awesome cardplay opportunities, player interaction, and/or adorable wooden crocodiles, then Faiyum is worth checking out. Read more »
  • Metal Gear Release Plans Less Than Solid, and UNO Gets Remixed

    by W. Eric Martin

    • At PAX Unplugged 2018, IDW Games announced Metal Gear Solid: The Board Game from designer Emerson Matsuuchi, teasing the game as "Coming 2019" in a tweet from the show.

    Yet 2019 has come and gone, not to mention 2020, and on Feb. 15, 2021 Matsuuchi announced on BGG that the game is not coming to market anytime soon — at least not with IDW Games:
    The decision was made back in December [2020] not to move forward with the MGS Project. Since that time, I have been pursuing a myriad of options to keep the project going. I have offered to put in capital from my company to help fund the last leg of the project, and even to buy out IDW's interest in the project along with purchasing all of the assets. Unfortunately, I couldn't get any traction with those options.

    The rights to the design were finally given back to me a few weeks ago. So I have reached out and enlisted the help of a friend that is a bonafide expert in licensing and has connections with Konami. We're working to keep this project alive and exploring possible options. While there are no guarantees that our efforts will bear fruit, I'm still optimistic that we will be able to get the MGS game to market, to the patient fans that have been kept waiting.

    Answering questions in that thread, Matsuuchi says that crowdfunding the design with a MGS license is not an option based on the licensing agreement, and he is willing to re-theme the design should it be impossible for another company to acquire the MGS license.

    For a taste of what could have been — and what might still be — you can watch this overview of the game from Matsuuchi that BGG recorded at Gen Con 2019.

    • Let's follow up my profile post of Damon Saddler, a Key Lead Designer at Mattel, with news of yet another new version of UNO, one that will likely feel familiar to folks who play hobby games.

    UNO celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021, and to mark the occasion Mattel is releasing many editions of the game, which makes sense given that by many accounts UNO is the best-selling game in the world. Thus, we now have a specific "50th Anniversary Edition" that includes a gold-ish coin as well as a small box version that has gold Wild cards, not to mention five themed versions for the various decades in which the game was sold.

    In addition to all of those — and what is undoubtedly more to come throughout the rest of 2021 — in February 2021 Mattel released UNO Remix, which works as follows:
    UNO Remix features familiar UNO gameplay, with players trying to empty their hand by playing cards that match the value or color of the topmost discard play, but now you can personalize the deck to make it your own and change what's possible during the game.

    At the start of each round, you add special cards or write-on cards to the deck. You can personalize cards to specific players, e.g., "Skip to Aldie" or "Draw 2 Chad", you can add a mark to a card to increase the number of cards drawn the next time it's played, you can introduce cards that block penalty cards, and much more!

    And as always, when you have only one card left in hand, you must yell "UNO!" to warn others that you're about to win.

    Yes, legacy elements of game design have come (back) to mainstream titles, and their implementation here makes perfect sense given that (due to their low price) these UNO titles are often viewed as disposable commodities anyway and (due to the condition of the world) you're probably going to be at the table with the same group of people, which will make the in-jokes more entertaining, as with the legacy-originating and now decade-old Risk Legacy. Read more »
  • Revisit Great Western Trail, Then Follow Trails Elsewhere

    by W. Eric Martin

    Plan B Games, which owns the eggertspiele brand, has announced a second edition of Alexander Pfister's Great Western Trail.

    You can see the changes immediately from the box, with artist Chris Quilliams taking inspiration from Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, using black bands across the box top and bottom to give a panoramic, cinematic feel, with the image also stretching around the sides of the box. Quilliams has also created new art for the game board and cards, with Plan B planning to reveal the new look bit by bit over several weeks.

    On top of this, Pfister and eggertspiele are working on two additional Great Western Trail titles, each of which will use elements of the original game — deck-building and a rondel — but in new ways. Says Martin Bouchard of Plan B Games, "Alexander is re-exploring the core mechanisms of the base game because it's an open field for creativity."

    The second edition of Great Western Trail is due out in Q3 2021, while Great Western Trail: Argentina will debut in mid-2022 and Great Western Trail: New Zealand in mid-2023. Bouchard notes that unlike Plan B's Century series, these titles will all be standalone games that don't have crossover elements.

    A new edition of Rails to the North, first released in 2018, will also arrive in 2021 to be compatible with the second edition of GWT. Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Inkling

    by John Keyworth

    This is a short designer diary about the development of Inkling, a word card game designed by me and published by Osprey Games in February 2021.

    To help make sense of a game you are unlikely to have played here is a brief overview of the final game: Inkling is a game about using letter cards — in any way you can — to help the other players guess words on a secret clue card. Longer words are worth more points, and you are playing in two teams at once, one with each neighbor.

    Concept and Prototype

    I've always been bad at word games as correct spelling does not come naturally and anagrams remain completely opaque, but in March 2019 I was listening to the latest Ludology podcast — all about word games — and I thought rather than start with the letters and make words, you could start with the words and make letters, and in that way you can play with words even if it's not normally your thing.

    The prototype came together quickly, and the core of the game has remained the same: Drafting letters to spell words on your card for people to guess.

    The components were the letter cards from Lexicon and the word cards from Concept. Both were ill-suited to the task, but making up words proved fun enough to develop the game further.

    Design and Playtesting

    The bulk of playtesting happened at the UK Playtesters group in Oxford and Oxford on Board, although I also took the design to the playtest area at the UK Games Expo 2019, which let it receive feedback from a much wider variety of people.

    There were three challenges to work on before the game could be finished: the clue cards, the letter cards, and the scoring.

    Clue Cards: Dedicated clue cards were the first component to be made — the same list of the most common English words with 4 to 9 letters that made it into the final game. The problem was word distribution as early versions had very easy cards and very hard cards depending on the letters in the words.

    Fixing this took learning what made cards easy or hard, then making a formula to calculate a difficulty score in a spreadsheet. I then played with the word lists until each card was balanced with the others.

    Clue card prototype and final design
    Letter Cards: While the word lists were being balanced, the letters needed designing. First, the cards became stylized, which gave players much more scope for playing with them to make words. After that, a new set was printed without the black border of the originals.

    Letter card prototypes and final design
    Scoring: This was originally both more chaotic and more rule-intensive. You were limited to guessing 1, 2, and 3 words in rounds 1, 2, and 3, and these words could be from anyone. You received the points from words you guessed, as well as from each of your own words guessed by at least one other player.

    You may be able to imagine the problem already, but with six players it could take a while to look at everyone else's creations, with players often getting up from the table and walking around it. There was also some unwanted randomness in whose words received the most attention, and some unwanted strategy that emerged from a mixture of competitive and co-operative incentives.

    Laying the problem out like that makes the eventual solution seem much more obvious that it was, but ultimately, instead of playing as individuals, players would guess only their neighbor's words and total their scores as a team of two (so each player is on two teams).

    The game became much more comfortable to play, the time taken was more consistent across player counts, and all you had to worry about was creating good letter combinations for your neighbor to guess.


    Come September 2019 I was playtesting the game at the UK Playtesters event in Oxford, and Anthony from Osprey Games was also there. He liked the game, they took it back to the office, and it was soon signed.

    Image: More Games Please
    While most of the game was finished at that point, we continued playing with the word list until it was as balanced as we could make it.

    That all seems like a lifetime ago, with how long 2020 has been, but I'm very excited to be able to see the game in print come February 23, 2021.

    John Keyworth Read more »
  • Welcome New Factions to the Woodland, Survive on Mars, Prepare for a Siege, and Return to the West Kingdom

    by Candice Harris

    Patrick Leder, Cole Wehrle, and the creative team at Leder Games have cooked up yet another savory Root delight: Root: The Marauder Expansion, which I'm thrilled to announce is coming to Kickstarter (KS link) on February 23, 2021:
    Root: The Marauder Expansion introduces two new factions and new gameplay options:

    • The Warlord is both charismatic and terrifying. He rules over a vast horde of warriors recently arrived to the woodland and is interested only in its domination. To help speed his conquest, he lights massive fires which can spread throughout the woods and destroy the buildings of other factions. The Warlord also interacts with crafted items, which he can plunder from players. These items increase his strength, but also cause him to develop an increasingly fearsome monomania.

    • The Stone Seekers are strangers to the Woodland, here only to recover the scattered and lost relics of an ancient civilization. The Seekers work to establish way-stations across the woodland and form alliances with other factions in hopes of recovering their relics more quickly. They will often find themselves deep within enemy territory as they search for their relics. Thankfully their finely crafted armor makes them difficult to dislodge.

    image posted by Cole Wehrle
    Both of these factions are suitable to Root's two-player game, bringing the total number of two-player factions up to five without the use of bots.

    Root: The Marauder Expansion also introduces a new level to the conflict for the woodland: minor factions! These small factions can be used at any player count and introduce surprising new power combinations as well as a chess-like tension to lower player count games of Root.

    Finally, The Marauder Expansion also includes a new set-up draft system suitable for both casual and competitive play.

    In true Leder fashion, Cole, Patrick and Joshua Yearsley have already posted a few designer diaries (Designer Diary 1, Designer Diary 2, Designer Diary 3) sharing Root's backstory and fascinating insight on the development of the The Marauder Expansion. I'll try to contain my drool as we await updates from Leder Games.

    Vital Lacerda and Eagle-Gryphon Games are sending us back to Mars with a new co-operative expansion for On Mars called Surviving Mars, which is targeted for a Kickstarter campaign around May 2021.

    There aren't too many details available yet as you will notice from the brief description below, but I love the idea of having more heavy co-operative game options to play. It also seems like a great way to ease players who might otherwise be intimidated into Lacerda games. Here's what we know:
    Surviving Mars is a short story expansion to On Mars made in four chapters with four different modes of play, and it uses elements of the Paradox digital game by the same name.

    Draft cover posted by the publisher
    The short story is called "Alien Invasion" and contemplates the following Chapters and modes of play:

    Chapter 1 - The Invasion - 1 vs All - 3 to 5 players
    Chapter 2 - Outbreak - Co-Op - 2 to 4 players
    Chapter 3 - Power Shortage - Co-Op - 2 to 4 players
    Chapter 4 - Monolith - Solo - 1 player

    • In 2020, I fell in love with Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson's Undaunted releases (Undaunted: Normandy and Undaunted: North Africa) from Osprey Games. In true Candice-fashion, I ended up ferociously digging around BGG to see what else they designed, which led me to discovering the abstract, bag-building strategy game War Chest from AEG and the same dynamic designer duo, which also became an instant hit with me.

    Naturally, I was pumped to hear that War Chest: Siege, the second expansion for War Chest, is available for retail pre-order and will be released in March 2021. Here's the description of the Siege expansion from the publisher:
    Not all battles are fought on the open field. In many cases defenders hide behind the thick walls of mighty castles. Now is the time to prepare for siege! As castles grew larger and stronger throughout the middle ages, new ways evolved to scale, knock down, and even undermine their walls.

    In War Chest: Siege, you will be confronted with fortified locations. Fear not, though, as you have siege towers and trebuchets at your disposal and hardy sappers to both build your own fortifications and undermine your opponents'. Can you successfully return to the battlefield with your war engines in this ingenious and engaging game of tactics and strategy?

    In more detail, the Siege expansion comes with four new units (shown below), fortification coins, and fortification map cards. During set-up, you randomly select one of the six map cards to determine where the initial four fortifications will be placed. The fortifications aren't units, but can be attacked like units.

    The Sapper, one of the new units, allows players to build additional fortifications throughout the game. The other three new units (Siege Tower, Trebuchet, War Wagon) introduce siege weapons and tactics to War Chest to further spice things up.

    New unit card images provided by David Thompson
    From reading the Siege expansion rulebook, I can already tell the addition of siege weapons/tactics and fortifications will add a lot of variety and refreshing, new choices to War Chest — and with the added bonus of minimal, additional rules to learn. I'm very much looking forward to playing this!

    • Two new expansions are coming in 2021 for the ever-popular West Kingdom Trilogy games — Architects of the West Kingdom and Paladins of the West Kingdom — from designers Shem Phillips and S J Macdonald and publisher Garphill Games.

    In the Works of Wonder expansion for Architects of the West Kingdom, players compete to build wonders as described below by the publisher:
    In Architects of the West Kingdom: Works of Wonder, builders from far and wide have travelled to partake in the King's latest endeavor: five glorious monuments to beautify the city. However, not just any architect can be entrusted with such a task. Only those of influence and charitable reputation shall receive this great honor. Will you accompany the Princess as she surveys the projects, or rally support from the elusive Profiteer?

    Works of Wonder introduces an extension to the main board to hold the new Contribution/Consequence Cards and keep track of players' Influence. Players compete to construct the five Wonders, while gaining support from the new Princess and Profiteer tokens moving about the main board. Also included is an entirely new solo system with six unique opponents against which to compete.

    In the City of Crowns expansion for Paladins of the West Kingdom, players will seek support from noble allies as described below:
    In Paladins of the West Kingdom: City of Crowns, noble allies have responded to the recent attacks against our borders. Only through careful negotiation and diplomacy will these dukes, barons, counts, and margraves offer the aid we so desperately need. Will you be able to muster enough support to once again defend this great city, or will you crumble beneath the weight of indecision and apathy?

    This expansion adds new extensions for both the main board and player boards. Players have a new attribute to manage and new actions available on each turn.

    In either case, I'm looking forward to hearing more about both of these expansions since I've enjoyed my plays of the base games! Read more »
  • Collect Coins — and Trophies — in The Witcher: Old World

    by W. Eric Martin

    Polish game publisher Go On Board has announced a deal with video game developer CD Projekt RED to release a new board game set in the world of The Witcher. Here's what you can look forward to in The Witcher: Old World, designed by Go On Board co-founder Łukasz Woźniak:
    In The Witcher: Old World, you become a witcher — a professional monster slayer — and immerse yourself in the legendary universe of The Witcher franchise.

    Set years before the saga of Geralt of Rivia, The Witcher: Old World explores a time when monsters roamed the Continent in greater numbers, creating a constant peril that required the attention of expertly trained monster slayers, known as witchers. Five competing schools trained their adepts through brutal regimes, and once fully prepared, these now-recognized witchers set off to explore the land, seeking trouble and adventures and helping others for coin.

    In this competitive adventure board game, 2-5 players travel across a vast map, embarking on masterfully penned quests, encountering and making ambiguous moral choices, fighting monsters — and sometimes brawling with other witchers to defend their school's honor!

    The game lets players construct their own unique decks of cards by choosing from a wide range of abilities: attacks, dodges, and witcher combat magic — known as "signs". Through card synergy, players aim to achieve powerful combos as they utilize their witcher school's hallmark abilities to their full potential. Quests, battles, and even dice poker allow each player to earn money, obtain new items, and train their skills.

    The first player to acquire 4-6 trophies, with the number being set at the start of play, wins the game instantly. You can obtain trophies by killing monsters, instigating and winning chaotic tavern brawls against another witcher, training attributes to their highest level, and resolving certain quests throughout their adventure.

    In more detail, each player chooses to be a witcher from a different school: Wolf, Cat, Viper, Bear, or Griffin. Schools have a unique deck and specialties — including skills that can be used to gain an advantage over other players:

    • A Wolf's Swordsmanship makes them masters of the blade.
    • A Griffin's Magic helps them in the most dangerous fights.
    • A Cat's Speed keep them to one step ahead of the opponent.
    • A Bear's Armor makes their skin almost impenetrable.
    • A Viper's Venomous Steel enables them to inflict poisonous wounds.

    You begin with a deck of ten cards specific to your school, with cards representing different attacks, blocks, dodges and magical signs. Various opportunities in the game allow you to gain or lose cards, with you trying to build combos and advance your skills. Each card has its own color, and most cards have "combo extensions" that allow you to play an additional card if it's the proper color. The more cards you play and
    link together, the more powerful your combo.

    In a press release announcing the game, Rafał Jaki, Business Development Director at CD Projekt RED, wrote:
    "Our studio is full of board game enthusiasts and creating one tailor made to fit The Witcher universe is something that we've felt very passionate about for quite some time now. We wanted the game to be easy to learn, hard to master, and offer high replay value. Story-wise, we thought it would be interesting to focus on times when witchers were more frequently seen throughout the world. We also wanted to show how the different witcher schools tackled unique monsters that inhabited the continent in abundance. I'm looking forward to seeing how gamers take to Old World when it releases!"

    A Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for The Witcher: Old World will launch in May 2021, with base and deluxe versions being available and with the game currently scheduled for release in April 2022. Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Waddle, or How I Learned to Love Penguins

    by Isaac Shalev

    Waddle was designed by Raph Koster and Isaac Shalev. Raph's part of the story comes first.

    Raph's Story

    Hi! As you read this Waddle is just hitting the market from WizKids. It is my first published tabletop game after designing several dozen. My career is as a videogame designer, and for a long time, my tabletop designs were just things that I would prototype, get printed into presentable versions, and play with friends and fellow designers at videogame developer conferences.

    Even though I am a game designer by trade, and videogame and tabletop design have a lot of similarities, there are also some huge differences — but frankly, the differences between the businesses of board versus digital are a lot bigger. I had no idea how to go about getting any of these turned into a real thing.

    Now that the game is actually going to be hitting store shelves, I thought it might be interesting for people to see the process of getting Waddle from a vague notion to something that will be on FLGS shelves soon!

    The Idea

    The earliest design document I can find was nothing more than a sketch. Long ago, I used to carry a pad of paper or a sketchbook with me everywhere I went to take notes and sketch out ideas. I switched over to an iPad a long time ago, and I've used various different note-taking apps ever since.

    I think this game was originally prompted by a vague memory of Eric Zimmerman telling me at a Game Developers Conference (GDC) dinner about his new game installation Interference, probably in 2013. (See this page on his website for a description.) I don't actually know the rules for the game, but I do recall how the images of the game struck me: hanging sheets of cut metal, with pegs that are placed in holes in the sheets. The sheets are arranged in ovals, and each oval has a different number of pegs and slots in it.

    I would not be surprised if the following notes were taken at GDC fairly soon after the conversation with Eric, to be honest. I don't have an exact date, but these are from early 2013, and before May for sure because I have a date of the contents of the next page in the notebook!

    The text is a bit hard to read from the image, but the idea is quite short, which is pretty normal for me. It reads:
    A board with spaces on it. You get to put in your pieces anywhere...but we rotate through win conditions per turn. So who owns the space changes as the win condition does.

    Probably the most notable thing about this quick idea is that this is not what the game ended up being at all. Waddle is not an area-control game, so there is no "owning" of spaces!

    After that come some questions and elaborations:
    Do they rotate with dice? With cards? Can you see in advance what is going to come up? And do you score at the end or when you end a phase and the condition changes? Or maybe you choose from your hand each turn: play a piece (or several) and then play a card.

    The answer to these questions ended up being "with cards, no, and yes, it will work like that!" So in the space of just a couple of sentences, the original idea was already dead, and the bare bones of Waddle started taking shape.

    At the bottom are then the seeds of the actual strategy behind the game: the varying scoring conditions that you can play in order to score the individual spaces on the board: Majority — minority — even — odd — multiple — empty neighbors — neighbor count — empty...

    The struggle in the game development process was going to be about picking the right set of scoring rules, the right number of spaces, and the right number of pieces. This would turn out to be a lengthy process.


    I instinctively lean towards abstract strategy games when I do tabletop design. This is a little weird to those who know my videogame work, which is mostly big sprawling online worlds with tons of mechanisms and systems. The commonality is that even in those giant projects, I try to keep each system small and super simple. This also means that I tend to design games for two players, which isn't necessarily in step with the market realities of tabletop gaming.

    You haven't gotten to play the game yet, but here's how it ended up working: You have different colored tokens that go into spaces on the board. Each space has room for five tokens. There isn't really a spatial relationship between the spaces. Each turn, you either place several tokens into spaces, or choose one space to empty of all tokens and redistribute them to the other spaces. Then you play a card that has a scoring rule on it. You get as many points as there are now spaces that match your scoring rule. You get to play each scoring rule only once, and you cannot play the same scoring rule as the previous player.

    I often do the first few iterations entirely in my head, or playing against myself. The original board consisted of five circles drawn on a blank sheet of paper, shaped like a five-spot on a die. I had plenty of glass beads laying around to use as the tokens. Pretty quickly I was calling the game "Pebbles" in my mind.

    It's my habit to rewrite the rules from scratch every time I do a big design iteration, while keeping the old version in the document. It turns into a longer and longer design history of how the game evolved. It means I can often go back to earlier versions and check out discarded ideas to see whether they once again fit into the game.

    Version 2

    The very next ruleset I wrote down looked like this:
    There are five wells on the table.

    Player starts with either three cards or all of them.

    Each player has white and black pebbles to distribute. Each turn they get to put a pebble on the board or move a pebble on the board. A given well can have only five pebbles in it. Is there a cap on the number of pebbles? Say, 16? (works out at avg of 3 per well)

    Each player has a hand of cards. Each turn after their pebble actions, they get to choose to play one of the cards in their hand to claim points according to the rules on the card.

    The cards are things like:

    ● A point for each even well
    ● A point for each odd well
    ● A point for each empty well
    ● A point for each well with more white than black but split
    ● Each well with more black than white but split
    ● Each evenly split well
    ● All white
    ● All black
    ● Each full well (five)

    When they play that card, the pebbles in the wells that score are removed from the board, and that card is discarded, never to be played again. The player gets one point for each well that meets the criteria of the played card. Play ends when all players have gone through all the cards.

    The big new thing was the idea that the scoring rules were a consumable resource. This imposed a length limit on the game; it would always consist of the same number of turns. This is a nice thing for a tabletop game, I think, many of which have unpredictable durations.

    I also baked in a couple of things after that early playtesting: five spaces and 16 tokens total. Why those numbers? Because they have awkward relationships to one another. Perfect multiples here would lead to a lot of symmetry and repeated moves, I thought. I eventually tried out letting players pick from pools of white and black beads, letting them get more beads over time, letting them play varying quantities of beads in a turn, but kept coming back to the idea that this would be a game about fixed resources, about managing a decline in choices.

    Version 2 suffered from really disjointed pacing. You added only one pebble every turn, which meant that spaces didn't build up fast at all — you rarely got to a full space before the game ended. Most of the scoring cards were useless. Emptying the wells when you scored them added to this. If you play version 2, you will find it truly sucks and doesn't really feel like a game at all.

    Version 3

    In the next version I am still stubbornly hanging on to forcing the player to choose from among three cards. In an effort to make the board more dynamic, you now can choose from several actions — what I tend to call "verbs" from my videogame design life.
    Players shuffle their decks.
    They choose three cards to lay in front of them.
    They take turns adding or moving a pebble, then playing a card from the three they laid in front of them.
    New cards:
    ● Add a pebble
    ● Move a pebble
    ● Remove a pebble
    ● Empty a well

    Total failure. This didn't help the game at all.

    But there was something to keep, something I still had strong faith in: the scoring rules mechanism. It was the beating heart of the original idea, and it had evolved into basically a permutation space: every axis of comparison that I could think of for two sets of five. I explored having scoring cards for exactly 1, exactly 2, exactly 3, and so on, but discarded it as less interesting; it made the game longer, but also meant that players had too many choices on their turn.

    It was time to make radical changes. The problem was that choices weren't interesting yet, even though the scoring rules, I felt, were solid.

    Live Testing!

    I cornered one of my kids, we sat down at the game table, and we started playing. I would change the rules every few turns, just to see whether more interesting choices appeared. When they got sick of me changing rules, and as the changes started becoming less frequent, we set my phone up on a tripod, pointed it at the board, and used video calls to loop in other kids so that they could do head-to-head matches while I watched.

    One of the first things that changed was the realization that there was no need to limit players to just three scoring card choices. In practice, the board layouts tended to force a small set of choices on you. Even with nine scoring rules on the first move, most of the possible choices were obvious dead-ends, so it never felt overwhelming.

    Where a limit of three cards had made the game feel like you were pushed into bad choices or had no real choice but to play a given card, allowing you to choose from all the cards put agency in the player's hands and made them feel like every choice was in their control on every turn.

    In fact, this led to an interesting change in the dynamics of the game over time. Some scoring cards have pretty low utility early in the game — the one that calls for full spaces, for example — while others are of limited utility late in the game, such as the one that calls for empty spaces. Even though those are the two most obvious examples, it holds true for all the cards: their "potential" value changes over time in the game. Some move in a straight line, some swing back and forth.

    I visualized it in my head as a line graph: What's the "potential value" of this card, on average, as the game progresses? This landscape of intersecting curves headed in different directions was very interesting to me. I now had a lens through which to look at the game for tuning it as a system.

    All About the Value Curves

    This realization led immediately to the choice to not allow beads to be removed from the game. Otherwise, you didn't get a nice clean set of graph lines. They bounced around too much. I was persuaded that having regularity to these curves helped the game. Players could speed up the demise of the empty card's value through their choices, but it was always doomed to go down over time. This created a sense of risk-taking: How fast is this curve going to decline? It contributes to a sense of pushing your luck, without actually using that formal mechanism.

    Pretty soon, I was thinking of the mechanisms all in terms of these curves. "Empty" versus "full" was a natural progression through the game, but we could get more curves to be strategic. In the earlier versions, both players had access to both colors of beads. By giving each of the two players control over only one of the colors of beads, rather than a mix of both, they each controlled the ramp of availability of a color. This then affected the curves of all the scoring cards that called for scoring based on color.

    The last scoring card curve that needed to be put under player control was the odd/even pairing. Adding beads one at a time was not only really slow paced, but it tended to move this curve in far too predictable a way, swinging back and forth. The earlier versions of the game let you break the pattern only by skipping a bead, that is, by moving a bead from one space to another. This basically was a parity shift, but in itself wasn't that interesting. Both problems could be solved at the same time by letting players place a varying number of beads in any of the spaces. Now there was a new curve to manage the speed of: running out of beads, which could happen very early or very late depending on player strategy.

    Lastly, the old moving mechanisms were now obsolete. We didn't need them as cards. Moving a single bead felt pointless now that you could place a bunch at the same time, yet a board that only accumulated felt too static, so I kept the rule that allowed you to empty a space, but now the beads had to be redistributed to other spaces, as long as they were not full.

    I now had what I felt was an interesting mathematical landscape. Players, through their choices, were basically pushing the game along these curves. Every choice they made was going to affect more than one of them, sometimes perhaps in ways they didn't see (though a thoughtful player could work it out). There were enough curves that even though the game has no hidden information, it's more than you can reasonably keep track of. Every scoring choice you make is actually deeply consequential — which they had to be because you got only nine of them.

    Making It Pretty

    What I had, at this point, felt very much like a battle of wits. It was determinedly two player and very simple in appearance: five circles, and white and black beads. It conjured up the unholy marriage of go and mancala, despite not playing very much like either, so I decided to skin it that way. I used The Game Crafter, my usual go-to for making pretty prototypes, and put together something that I was trying to make look ageless or timeless.

    I even thought about actually making a real wood version of it, but I am not a very good woodworker.

    The final ruleset was still quite small and elegant:
    There are five wells on the board. Each player starts with eight beads, either black or white. Each player has nine cards as well. White goes first.

    Each turn, a player can choose one of the following actions:

    ● If the player has beads left, they can place between 1 and 5 of their beads in the wells. These beads can be distributed into any wells you choose as long as a well does not exceed five beads total.
    ● Select a well that has beads already, pick up the beads in it, and distribute them into the other wells. They can be distributed into any wells, as long as the destination wells do not exceed five beads total.

    After performing one of these moves, the player plays one of the nine cards from their hand. The cards have rules for scoring on them:

    ● Score one point for each well that has only black beads in it.
    ● Score one point for each well that has more black beads than white beads, with at least one white bead present.
    ● Score one point for each well that is split evenly between white and black beads.
    ● Score one point for each well that has more white beads than black beads, with at least one black bead present.
    ● Score one point for each well that has only white beads in it.
    ● Score one point for each well that has an even number of beads in it.
    ● Score one point for each well that has an odd number of beads in it.
    ● Score one point for each well that is full, at five beads.
    ● Score one point for each well that is empty, with zero beads.

    Set the card face up on the discard pile so that the other player can see what it is. Scoring markers are placed in the spot on the board that matches that card. The next player cannot play the same card in their next turn, unless it is their last card.

    Players then play until all cards are exhausted. Tally up the points, and the player with the most wins.

    I came up with an abstract way of indicating all of the different scoring methods, and used that to guide the card designs and the scoring boards next to the card wells.

    On the Road

    Once printed, the game made for an attractive package despite the uninspiring name of "Pebbles". I started to take it with me to game conferences in 2017, four full years after I had first jotted down the notes for the original concept. At 2018's Austin Game Conference, it was played by famed videogame designer Dr. Cat, who quite fell in love with it — so much so that I gave him my test copy. As a designer, of course, his big interest was whether the game was going to break because of its small size, that is, whether there was a degenerate strategy that resulted in always winning.

    I was pretty sure that the permutation space of the possible states in the game was too large for the game to be easily solved — but as the game went on the road, I did start to see something that had never happened in earlier playtests: playing to a draw. And so I had to add a rule for breaking the tie.

    In 2018, I took all my prototypes with me to the Tabletop Network conference, where I had been asked to speak by my friend Tim Fowers, designer of many wonderful boardgames, including Burgle Bros., which I had helped workshop when Tim lived in San Diego. I spoke about applying what I call "game grammar" to tabletop games, using poker as a particular lens.

    It was a great chance to reconnect with many friends who work mostly in tabletop, such as James Ernest and Scott Rogers, as well as meet some folks whom I mostly knew only from online interactions. I felt a bit like a fish out of water there as I quickly discovered that tabletop's ecosystem for aspiring designers, pros, and publishers is quite different from that of videogames. They were all encouraging about taking my prototypes to publication, but also cautioned me that my predilection for two-player abstract strategy might prove to be a barrier to getting the games signed.

    One of the folks I met there for the first time was Isaac Shalev, who worked with my acquaintance Geoff Engelstein on a boardgame design podcast and later book. Isaac and I played many prototypes together (not just mine — playing each other's games, and other people's, was the primary evening activity for the event, of course). I mentioned to him that I felt like several of the games were good enough to get published, but it was clear that given my day job, there was no way I would ever have the time to go to all the boardgame conventions and pitch. Isaac kindly offered to take my bag of prototypes on the road with him!

    And so it was that our partnership on this game began. Little did we know there was one more huge design hurdle ahead of us...

    Isaac's Story

    I enjoyed Raph's prototypes because they were both beautifully rendered as products, and they were unapologetically mathematically tight. I like games that balance on the edge of a knife, and I enjoy the way playing an abstract game almost feels like communicating in another language. I knew that these games could be published, but they needed to fit the taste and aesthetic that publishers and gamers were looking for, and it was my job to develop the design further, based on the feedback I received from playing the game with others, from gamers to industry professionals.

    At Dice Tower Con 2018, I had the opportunity to show "Pebbles" to Tony Gulloti, who was working for Arcane Wonders, the publisher of Onitama. I thought that "Pebbles" could perhaps be the "Go" of that world, and in any case, Tony understood what it took to sell a two-player abstract that meshed a classic movement and spatial mechanism with a modern card-based system. Tony's advice was to make the game work for a higher player count. He wasn't alone. Designers, publishers and players all agreed that the game was compelling, but nothing about it suggested that the game had to be for only two players.

    I had already been toying with some ideas for increasing player count. I knew that the game's math was wound pretty tightly, and the symmetry of both players playing the same nine cards over nine turns was something I could unwind a bit. I knew I could create new scoring cards and loosen the game some by cutting a turn or two off, giving players a smaller hand of scoring cards, and having players play with only a subset of the scoring cards in each game. But how to add more players?

    At first I thought I'd try to add more colors — one for each player! Instead of using white versus black on scoring cards, I tried to have your color versus opposing colors. When I ran it by Raph, however, he pointed me to some problems. It would be easy to score some of the opposing colors cards and hard to score some of your own. We could rebalance how the cards score to account for the difficulty, but it might still make for lousy gameplay.

    At this point, I discarded the idea of multiple player colors. I almost discarded the game entirely, to be honest. Just prior to Tabletop Network, Geoffrey Engelstein and I had begun to write Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms, and that consumed a lot of my time and design thinking over the next year — but in the back of my mind, "Pebbles" was still percolating.

    Elm City Games, a New Haven, Connecticut game store and design community, was hosting Fantasticon, and I knew it was my best shot to get a lot of players playing "Pebbles". This is the advantage of having a nice prototype with components that players want to touch — you're never short of playtesters at public events. With the event upcoming in March 2019, nearly a year after Raph and I had met, I finally came back to working with only two colors.

    Raph had previously shared some math on how the game worked in terms of the overall number of stones (16), the limits of each well (5), and the total number of wells (5). I realized that something would have to change, but I also knew that solving an equation is hard when there are too many variables. I determined that the capacity of each well would remain at 5, which was a nice number that felt good in the hand. However, the number of stones in the game would increase, as would the number of bowls. For three players, I added three wells and eight stones, and four four players I added five wells and sixteen stones.

    This approach succeeded in replicating the overall feel of the game and the density of stones on the board. But because a well could never have more than five stones, it was not possible to impact all the wells on the board in a single move. On the other hand, some scoring cards — particularly Odd, Even, White, and Black — were overpowered because they could score too many points now that there were more wells to count. I considered simply declaring a maximum score for these cards, but the circumstances that would allow a player to score the maximum amount cropped up too often and with little effort.

    Another problem child was Empty, a card I had misgivings about from the very start. In my many early games of "Pebbles", I found that players typically chose from one of a couple of standard openings, either dropping one stone in each of the five wells to play Odd or White/Black to score five points, or playing a single stone to score Empty for four points. I had already nerfed the first opening by changing the mix of stones players received. To help unmoor the game from its two-player roots, I chose to give each player four white and four black stones. This meant that the maximum score from White or Black as an opening was now four. You could play this opening, but you would concede the ability to add stones of one color for the rest of the game. Odd was still viable as a five-point play, but now the player had to have the card in their opening hand, which happens less than half the time, and in any case, Odd was a reliable high-scorer later in the game, and stronger players concluded that opening with Odd and giving up five stones was unsound.

    But Empty! Even in the original game, playing a single stone to score four points using a card whose scoring potential only continued to decrease seemed like a very strong play.

    In the game that was slowly becoming Waddle, all those extra wells, those extra locations, made Empty even stronger. In a four-player game, it was not uncommon for the first player to score nine points on Empty with nobody else able to score better than six for it. Disaster!

    Design disasters are not really disasters, though; they're oracles. They provide clear feedback that something fundamental is not right, and that you ought to consider making changes to the game's core structures. Earlier in the process, I had dealt with the issue of how to translate the rule that you couldn't use the same scoring card your opponent had just used from its two-player version into multiplayer. I tried having the rules apply only to the next player in turn order, but this led to some awkward ping-ponging in which alternating players took advantage of a good board state while the other two players were a bit snookered. I decided that the bar on playing the same scoring card would apply for as long as the card was face-up in your discard pile, that is, until the end of your next turn.

    Surprisingly, this led me to the big breakthrough. By taking the deck of scoring cards, adding a few, and then having players play from a smaller hand of cards, I had limited the chances of particularly unfair arrangements of cards and stones from cropping up, but I hadn't eliminated them — and the existence of more wells, and thus more scoring potential, had exacerbated their impact. A play that earned 6+ points could create a massive swing, and players couldn't counter by playing the same card, both because of the rule against it and because the odds that they had the card in hand was low.

    I realized I needed to address both sides of the problem. First, I introduced the Copy card, which allows players, once per game, to copy the card an opponent has played previously in the round. This is an insurance card. Every player starts with Copy in their hand, and it gives players a tool to counter the overly-good fortune of another player.

    The first half of my answer broke a fundamental rule of "Pebbles", but the second half of my answer was even more transformational. I realized that all these new wells could be organized into two separate domains. In essence, in a four-player game, there would be two regions of five wells each, and players could manipulate one of those regions and score it, but could not freely manipulate all ten wells. Either you could add stones to one region and score it, or you could redistribute stones all into one region — whether the region of origin or the other region — but you could not add stones to both regions in one turn, or empty a well and distribute its stones to wells in both regions. Your scoring card would apply only to one region: the region to which you added or redistributed stones. In the three-player game, three wells would count as being in both regions, creating two overlapping regions of five wells. Frankly, this worked a lot better than I initially expected!

    Three-player set-up in Waddle
    With the concept of two regions, the flow of stones and their balance was closer to the two-player game. There were no huge scoring plays that felt undeserved. At the same time, the tactical space of the game increased as players could consider how the two regions were evolving, and how that might suit their cards. It also opened up design space to create some new cards and adjust some old ones.

    Empty had now been conquered. The Copy card curbed its advantage as an opening, and the regions diminished its top-score potential. In fact, it was now a bit of a problem when Empty showed up in hands later in the game when it was hard to use effectively. We tweaked this by introducing the concept of a special action. Instead of taking the normal action of moving stones around the board, you would instead empty a well and give the stones back to your opponents before scoring. On the one hand, Empty guaranteed you an additional point thanks to the special action; on the other hand, giving stones back to your opponents gave them a bit more power, a few more options for their turns. The idea of a special action also expanded the template, the possibilities of what a card could do, and opened up even more design space.

    Full, the mirror-image twin of Empty, now got my attention. In the two-player game, Full could score only a maximum of three points because there were not enough stones to fill more than three wells. This was always a bit of a letdown for me. Going to the fully open, non-regional board had rescued Full from its weakened state, but with regions, Full was back to being a poor-scoring, uninteresting late-game card.

    Four-player set-up in Waddle
    And then it hit me — just because there are regions does not mean that ALL cards must be limited to scoring a single region! A card like Full could score both regions! It would still top out at no more than six points in a four-player game, and achieving that condition was difficult and satisfying. Another OG card, the card now known as Equal benefitted from similar treatment. It had previously been somewhat challenging to score well with this card for wells with an equal number of white and black stones. Early in the game there aren't enough stones on the board, and later the board is too tight to manage the manipulation, leaving only a brief mid-game period in which a good score was possible. Allowing Equal to score both regions made the card more powerful, while increasing the ways players could cleverly construct the right arrangements.

    It took some time to finalize these new cards and make all the little adjustments and decisions that take a game from "fun" to "ready to be signed". Fortunately, Zev Shlasinger, whom I've been lucky enough to know from before I even started designing games, had taken an interest. Zev saw the game over the summer convention season in 2019 and took the prototype for further evaluation. We had an agreement to go forward at BGG.CON, where Daniel Solis, the Wizkids product manager — and the graphic designer for Building Blocks — began to consider the theme, product, and packaging as well.

    Penguins chillin'
    My design goals for "Pebbles", now Waddle, were to extend the game to four players and to loosen it up a bit, to make it more fluid, fun, and not quite so tense! I knew I succeeded when Daniel came back with the art and the re-theme for the game. We had always thought of "Pebbles" as an Asian-inspired game of stones and wood and leather wingback chairs with smokey scotch and a cigar in amber light. It was Serious and Formal — but that was the game that we started with. At the end of our design work, the game was much lighter on its feet, and the movement of the penguins from place to place brought more smiles than grimaces to the faces of players. It took Daniel and Zev seeing what the game in front of them was and bringing that to life, instead of being tied to the game that had been.

    Raph came up with this game back in 2013. We met in early 2018. The game was signed nearly two years after that in late 2019. It will arrive in stores in February 2021. This eight-year journey is not even that unusual in tabletop game design. Sometimes that's simply how long it takes. But the journey from "Pebbles" to Waddle, from stones to penguins, and from two-player mindbender to a delightful family game is, like the march of the penguins itself, remarkable. Read more »

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