Short Story RPG

An unexpected side benefit of sending off Valour to a publisher for evaluation, is that I got a chance to turn my focus to a project I’ve had cooking for a while but has been stalled (much to the chagrin of my collaborators) while I worked to push my board game across the finish line.

That project is Short Story RPG. I love tabletop role playing — it’s such a dynamic medium for human-to-human interaction, and a few dice and a little bit of imagination, you and your friends can spin a tale to rival many mainstream movies. Some of my fondest memories involve sessions of Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu.

But those games have a problem. Two, actually: Firstly, while I understand that nerdy genres like high fantasy and sci-fi are gaining ground in public opinion, let’s face it… they’ve still got a long way to go. Ask a person on the street what they think of Dungeons & Dragons, and you might as well have said Dungeons & Dorks. Secondly, even those of us who are into such things have an entirely other problem: Scheduling. An ongoing tabletop RPG campaign requires coordinating the calendars of five or six people with jobs, other hobbies, possibly kids, etc. etc. etc. We’ve all been there, the group misses a session, then by the next session, half is spent catching everyone up on what was happening, then your mage has to leave early… Continue reading

Valour’s “Divine Mandate”


Dumnorix’s successor as chieftain of the Aedui is a playable character in Valour!

Last night, I headed to Denver to see one of my favorite bands live — Eluveitie. Their “Folk Metal” brings elements from Celtic tradition into the metal genre; for real: There’s a woman in the band who can simultaneously play the hurdy-gurdy and headbang. No joke.

One of their most popular albums, Helvetios, was my soundtrack when training for the Highland Games (both times), but most importantly for this post, working on Valour. Embarrassingly, it took a number of episodes of Eluveitie-fueled late-night hacking through Valour rules and/or Creative Suite documents of boards and cards to realize that the album is actually also a retelling of the Gallic War, just like Valour.

The album’s track list includes so many of the same references as Valour that I’m clearly an idiot for not picking up on it sooner: Helvetios, Alesia, Uxellodunon…! But once I realized this, it definitely became official. Any time I go heads-down to push through to a milestone, this is what I put on.

I don’t go to many concerts, but when Songkick told me these guys were coming to town, I bought tickets that minute, from my phone, at the bar at Root Down in the Denver airport. While the show would have been a sick way to get pumped for this year’s Highland Games, the timing actually ended up being perfect.

Sometimes a concert gets you right in the feelers in a way that seems cheesy to relate in retrospect; but that’s exactly what happened to me last night. I attended the show with a hardcore ‘fuck it’ attitude, as part of a recent attempt at slaying my mammoth. After forty-five minutes in the mosh pit (in a kilt), I was sufficiently out of my comfort zone to start thinking about the deeper questions about life and all that shit.

Eluveitie’s false-finale is a song called Alesia, an alternately brutal and wistful retelling of The Battle of Alesia, fabled turning point of the Gallic war, when Gaul’s defeat became inevitable. In my shields-down state, the sadness and loss in this song really got to me. I spaced out through the encore, and left the show trying desperately to hold on to the feelings that hearing Alesia live had invoked, in the face of driving all the way home, and sleeping in so I wouldn’t pass out at work today. I had something important to remember.

My conclusion was this: the world needs Valour to ship. The profound sense of loss expressed by Eluveitie, and the historic indignation of Terry Jones can’t be expressed in enough different media, to enough varied audiences. No matter what setbacks or obstacles: This must happen.

ps: I’d be incredibly pumped if the band were to see this post, or hear about the board game. If you could share this, or the tweet I sent during the show, that would be so cool :D.

After A Publisher Comes Knocking

IMG_4868 copy

“Yeah, well, so, the thing blue should do is… ah frack, lemme figure that out.”

As a first-time designer, one of the big questions I’ve always had is what the publishing process looks like once a design is picked up by a publisher. This summer, I got my first glance into that world.

This year’s Protospiel event in Ann Arbor was a pretty big success for me. I tabled my game Valour twice, once with a big name in the tabletop publishing space and two other designers. After a game full of the most lighthearted but over-the-top shit-talking I’ve experienced in quite some time, the publisher indicated that it was something he might be interested in publishing…(!) We spoke a few more times throughout the weekend, and we settled on a course of action. I imagine this process is similar for most publishers, so I’m putting it here, in case it will be valuable for anyone else.

Continue reading

Get Out of the Game Room!

talon slopeThere’s an aphorism in the ‘startup’ world, where I spend most of my non-gaming time.

“Get out of the office!”

The point is that if you get bogged down in what you think is cool, you won’t actually build something that’s useful to others. I think the same concept applies in game design. And while an obvious application of this is to get your design in front of people who aren’t in your immediate friend / gaming group, I think there’s a broader sense here too. The last three weekends I’ve been in Breckenridge (in the rocky mountains) doing outdoorsy things like climbing Mt. Democrat or tubing down the Colorado river with coworkers (also playing my first game of Agricola… whaaat?). Continue reading

Playtesting Tips Round Two — Lessons from Protospiel 2015

Not long ago, I wrote a post with some baseline strategies for running a successful playtesting session. I just got back from Protospiel 2015 in Chelsea Michigan (full conference write-up to come soon!) and had a few new observations for this helping to tune this process. Continue reading

Game Balance: Solving the Brigadier Problem

5 Galaxy MapOnce upon a time, I built a web-based MMO called Galactic Impact. This was intended to be an async-multiplayer game in the spirit of such classic computer hits as “Master of Orion” and “Pax Imperia”. Build out your home planet, construct colony and war ships, dispatch them to neighboring planets, and respectively, colonize or obliterate them. Essentially 4X in a browser, with 3 hour turns, the ability to queue commands if you weren’t going to be around, and a modest tech ladder (the minimum-viable feature of a tech “tree” :))

Because this was multiplayer, and these games tend to have an exponential growth curve, there were some balance issues with first player advantage, and since it was meant to be an MMO with players signing up any time, this was a major issue. Solving this is what has, in the interim, stymied development on the project. However, during the game’s first small-scale playtest (25 active players), a really interesting situation arose which I think about often while developing and balancing board games. I’ve termed this the “Brigadier Problem”. Here’s what it was, and how I solved it.

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Facebook Stole My Money

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 9.42.59 AMI’m taking a quick hiatus from my philosophy of positivity to share my observations around a distinctly non-positive experience I had recently.

I ran a “Boosted Post” from my Facebook business page, as a little experiment. I had new content, I’m working to build my audience as I gear up for a Valour kickstarter campaign, Facebook display ads convert really well for Mobility on Demand, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

The boosted post featured original content from this blog. (Specifically, the Valour backstory.) Full disclaimer, I know this wasn’t an ideal ad: several equally-emphasized calls-to-action, many clicks through to a ‘conversion’; more on crafting a good ad in another post. But as we’ll soon see, my ad content never had a chance to fail on its own merit. Continue reading

Theme-first Board Game Design is Awesome

Concept sketching for some mechanics being born of theme.

Concept sketch showing the exact moment a game mechanic was born from a  theme.

I know some in the board game design community consider it sacrilege, but I’m definitely a theme-first designer. I make heavy use of my Catch Sheet day to day, while sitting in meetings, walking around, or wasting time reading articles online. Usually several times a week, I’ll be struck by an interesting economic interaction in real life, and want to build a game around it.

As I’ve gone over in the inception story (here, here, and here) for Valour, that design was entirely theme-first. I started making game notes based on the factual events from the history, and I was able to distill some really incredible game mechanics from them. While I’ve had to iterate multiple times in order to keep the rules and mechanics tight, it was an amazing starting point, and the reactions I get from seasoned gamers when they play Valour for the first time are universally positive, and many say that some of the mechanics are things they’ve never experienced before.

Now, don’t get me wrong — in now way am I arrogant enough to think that anything I’ve conceived of by starting from a real-life scenario and extrapolating a unique game mechanic is as revolutionary to boardgaming as, say, Dominion’s deck building, or Caylus’s worker placement/action drafting. And I also would never disagree with people who assert that games ARE the mechanics (I saw a comment online recently which implied that story without mechanics is just a novel). But theme-first game design is so much more than that. Continue reading

Playtesting Feedback Tips

IMG_4525A few weeks ago, Valour was tabled FOUR times in one weekend, with four entirely different groups. One group, after having the game significantly stalled early on by an edge case I hadn’t yet considered, soldiered on to completion late into the night.

Overall, feedback was extremely encouraging. Many of the mechanics are feeling more streamlined, and the repeat players all said this was the best session yet. A few systems in the game which are absolutely critical to gameplay are still experiencing some ambiguity and confusion, so those are the next things I need to address.

I’ve seen a lot of posts recently from other first-time designers struggling with how to react to feedback during a playtest. This can be really hard, but I’ve developed a few strategies to make the most of it, no matter what the situation. Putting them down here in hopes they’ll be useful. Continue reading

Recovering from Setbacks

It finally happened — I overcommitted.

I thrive on driving the throttle right to the edge, week in and week out. I despise the word ‘busy’, so I don’t use it, but on balance, I’m not sure what people generally do with downtime, so I fill it with things: pet projects, occasional contract work, blog posts. Like you do. (Right?)

Then, a member of the team I run at my day job departed. The added mental effort and extra hours of covering part of his workload while looking for a replacement pushed me past some kind of threshold. Obviously this is in no way his fault, but upsetting the delicate equilibrium was enough to topple the house of cards. Continue reading