Off to the races with Airship Challenge 1899 – a new 2-6 player racing game


Airship Challenge is a race game for 2-6 players, ages 8+ and takes 20-30 minutes to play.


The Year – 1899. The challenge – Your tandem team of dirigibles, racing through canyons, valleys and the open air, must field at least one airship that is the first across the finish line. It’s the first ever Airship Challenge!

Players are owners of Dirigible Manufacturers in this grand age of steam from an 1899 that never was! To highlight the latest in steam technology and lighter than air travel you have organized the first annual Airship Challenge.

How Airship Challenge 1899 Works

Got to run my first live game of Airship Challenge 1899! Of course I immediately changed some of the rules and we restarted. It was a 2 player game, me against my 9 year old (who won in the end). I also only had to scratch out 50% of the text on 1 of the tokens, which may be a new record for me in the first live playing of any game I’ve designed.


Each Owner has ships represented by colored pawns. Each player has 2 ships in their fleet. One player should take all of the ships in their hand, shake up the pawns and grabbing them randomly one by one place them in a line on the table. The first pawn on the table represents the pole position to start off the race.

Each player then places one Minor Tail Wind token in front of them. This creates the beginning of the race conditions in your game.

Place the rest of the 48 hexagon tokens into the bag, and shake it vigorously. Then the first player draws two tokens for every player, plus one extra token. (Tokens could also be hexed shaped cards)

These tokens are placed on the table where they are easily reached by everyone. The player to the left of the first player begins the draft by picking 1 token and placing it face down in front of them. The draft goes around the table until every player has 2 tokens. The last remaining token is put back in the bag.

These initial tokens form your hand of 2 tokens. At the start of the game, savvy players will know what each other player has in their hands. Your hands however will change rapidly during the game and it’s up to each player to decide which of the three race conditions in their hands they’ll encounter.

The first player then begins the game by drawing 1 new token from the bag. After looking at this token, they then choose one of the tokens in their hand and play it. Tokens must always be played touching at least one other token. When that token’s action is revealed, it triggers every other token it is also touching. Tokens triggered in this way do NOT trigger other tokens they are touching.


In this way, each player can trigger between two and five tokens on their turn. They may trigger these in any order they choose but they must carry out the actions on every token triggered.

If, through the play of tokens any player is allowed to take a token from the table and place it into their hands, they must only take tokens that will not leave any other tokens unconnected. All tokens must be touching at least one other token throughout the game.


This allows for some fairly strategic play, where you end up with race conditions like mine (above) where I chose to trigger only two conditions many times, or like those of my daughter (below) who chose to trigger multiple conditions, multiple times.


When the last token is played, the race is over. Score the race in the following way:

  • A ship in 1st place = 5 points
  • A ship in 2nd place = 4 points
  • A ship in 3rd place = 3 points.
  • All other ships = 1 point.


Here are the immediate issues I’ve found and I’m always open to suggestions as to how to handle them or what a change I could implement to make the game better.

Tokens. First, in a two player game there were way to many tokens. My first initial change before we even started the game was as follows:

  • 2 Player games use 24 (of the 48) tokens chosen randomly.
  • 3 Player games use 36 tokens.
  • 4+ players use all tokens.

I would love to have an additional set of tokens say 2 of each, 3 different types for six total new tokens so that even 6 player games would have some variability over what was in the game or so that a six player game could use all of them and extend out for an additional turn.

Pawns. I really like the mechanic of the actual race – the pawns really don’t go anywhere, they don’t travel around a track or move around the table. It’s only their position that changes. This works really well in every aspect except that its, for lack of a better word, fiddly. They do tend to migrate slowly up and down the table, depending on which pawn is moving ahead of another. Were I a publisher spending money on this game I may consider some kind of sliding cardboard thingy which would facilitate this. When you’re acting on these pawns up to five times a turn, while that bit is quick, its still… fiddly. I’m thinking on this aspect now but would love to hear any thoughts or ideas on it.

Adjustment to player expectations. Lots of people see the nice, chunky race condition tiles and think “Ooh! We’re going to make the game board as we go along!” This isn’t the case in this game, you’re simply constructing a series of conditions through which your airships (and other players airships) may travel through. My 9 year old is very adaptable and ran with it and I was expecting it but I can tell from initial reactions and responses to the pictures I posted on line that most folks don’t immediately go to that. I think this can be managed simply by being very up front with how the tiles are used.

The Two Player Problem. The game, with two players, is enjoyable and interesting but there’s just as many pawns out there as I’d like to make it really engaging and to make it feel like each player is making a real, tactical decision every turn. Two solutions I’ve though of is either adding in 2 extra pawns of any color, or giving each player 3 airships to race with. Either way the total pawn count climbs to six – in the first solution there are two extra ships you’re just trying not to let get in front of you. You’d prefer they be in front of the other player however. In the three pawns each situation, each player is managing three ships and have to take into account the scoring (that a 2nd/3rd place combo will beat a 1st/4th place combo). I feel like the second solution is the better but I’m going to have to play it out to find out.

So there it is – the second game I’ve put together over the past few weeks!


Making a big stink with Fish Pitch – a fish flicking game!


It’s been quite some time since I’ve had the time to actually sit down at my site and talk a little bit about game design. I’ve also had several projects which have gone beyond the realm of “Hmm, I wonder if this will ever get published” and moved into the realm of “Oh wow, it’s getting published!” Swamped being the one I can discuss openly right now.

So I’ve been putting a bunch of work into existing game ideas that you may or may not have heard about here on this site.

Last night though I had a few hours of uninterrupted time and decided it was beer and design O’Clock. I threw on the headphones, cranked up some light ambient mood music and stared at my screen for a bit.

Then I designed an area control/set collection/special powers in cards game that I’m not going to talk about just yet because it ain’t even close to a finished design, let alone a real game.

This morning I was thinking about that and then a strange thing happened. While walking to the train, I pass over a stream on a bridge. I thought I saw a fish in the stream and my mind immediately jumped to those folks in the Pacific Northwest who throw fish around. Fish Pitch. Fish Pitch would be a cool name for a game – you could…hmm, actually flick cards toward a cardboard person and score based on your aim!

I furiously emailed the details to myself and spent some free time mocking up some very simple cards. The cards are all different sizes, their are 4 of each type of fish and 4 “Fish Guys” (which will change once I actually get some non-clipart art).

In brief – you place your Fish Guy two feet away from the edge of the table. Then, as fast as you can you place your fish cards hanging just a bit off the table and flick them with your finger at your FG. If they land anywhere on the FG card, you score the points on the fish card. If they land in one or both of the red areas around the hands you score those points as well.

But flick them fast because the first person to have flicked all of their fish ends that round.

Here’s a few images that I’m using for the cards – they’re not card-shaped but you’ll see how basic they are.

Crab-ROUNDCard GreyFishSmallSquare SnapperSquareCard

It’s interesting though because I really want to test this with actual cards, so I’ve ordered them from The Game Crafter. That’s fine – but it’s a relatively expensive prototype because each of the 4 cards are from a different size and shaped set – meaning I essentially seem to be paying for a whole sheet for the 4 cards I want. Ah well, if it works and it’s a fun game, there’s always that!

Here’s what I’ve actually written about it so far: it’s an unaltered, certainly unedited look at how I design a quick little game like this.

Fish Pitch

A Dexterity Game by Benjamin Gerber

1-4 players | Ages 6+ | 5-10 Minutes

Fish market – Seattle – throwing fish, etc.

(Note: Fish Guy is a guy only because it’s the first piece of public domain art I found that I could use. If this ever goes beyond this stage, there will be four Fish People and they will be diverse).

Place your Fish Catcher on the table in front of you. Fish catcher should be at least 24 inches away from the edge of the table.

Played in 1-3 rounds – with the highest score at the end winning. In the event of a tie – a fish-off is held – one player selects the fish, the other player goes first.

Place your Fish cards with roughly ? of the card hanging off the edge of the table.

Squint down the card to sight out to Fish Guy.

Flick that card toward Fish Guy.

You score the points on the card if your card touches the Fish Guy card at all.

You score the points on Fish Guy’s hand(s) if you can overlap the red spaces with your fish card.

You automatically score the full points (Fish Card + Both Hands) if you can flick at least ½ of the fish card underneath the Fish Guy.

Players may flick whichever fish they like, in any order.

The first player to flick all of their fish, successfully or not, calls “Done!” and that round is over.

Add up your score (by removing Fish cards 1 at a time) and score for that round.

Determine if the next round is needed by arguing about who’s winning or not.

Single player games are played in one single round with one or both of the following:

  1. First game – count your score. Second and beyond attempt to beat your score or hit the maximum obtainable points.
  2. Beat your best time reaching the maximum obtainable points.

Design Notes

This would work awesome with clear plastic cards a la Gloom!

Publishers note: If you’d like to publish this little game, I’d like to talk to you!

Game School: Designing a heavier game with Magic City

Magic City

I’ve put together a few card games, some of which I’ve opted to sell the Print on Demand route and others I’m currently working with third parties to see what happens. There are also a bunch more that haven’t yet seen the light of day. I’ve been creating these card games for three reasons. 1. I love creating games. 2. Card games are (to me) easier and faster to create, prototype and design. 3. I wanted to teach myself some design basics and card games seemed like a good place to start.

So start I did, and I’m cranking through designs like nobodies business. Now that I’ve got a few games out, a few games skulking around other people’s business and 5 other designs still in the works, it’s time to move on to something a bit… more.

I still really enjoy the thought of deck building and using cards in games but I’m getting a bit frustrated with the old starter deck. I think the main reason behind this is the 12 or so Ascension games I have going on my iPad, plus the umpteen games I play there solo. I used to be enamored with that ‘fresh start’ feel. Then, thanks to my friend Mark, I got introduced to the game Seasons, and with that game, a form of card drafting I’ve come to love. The gears in my head started to turn a few months ago.

Early this week, they ground to halt and an idea was there. What if I made a game that incorporated a deck of cards – say 120 of ’em. 60 unique cards, doubled. In any given game you’d only use a portion of the full deck so every game would feature different cards. And rather than start with your basic 10 deck (2 of these here attack cards, and 8 money things) you just drafted a starter deck from the main deck of cards. Each player draws 10 (or maybe 8 – I’m still working on this aspect) cards. They pick one, hand the rest off in a clock-wise motion and do it again until everyone’s drafted a started deck of 10 (8?) cards.

I’ve also been toying with some simple worker placement, like that found in Lords of Waterdeep. So, thought I, what if each player not only had these cards to play, but could use workers on a board to affect the game as well? By this time I had finished my walk where I was thinking of all this and was on the train. I started making some notes and this is what popped out yesterday.

Picture this with a lot more in the looks department.
Picture this with a lot more in the looks department.

Working title: Magic City. Potential theme: You’re already rich, and already powerful, so what more could you want? Why full control, that’s what! Become the elected leader of Magic City (I already don’t like that name, by the way) by using your political advantage, the events of your times, hiring the right people and of course, a bit of the old magic. The prototype is just about the ugliest thing I’ve ever done. Although I will admit it has a certain Soviet-era architectural charm too it.

Here’s how it works

Each player gets a player track board thing – it’s got the meeples on it in the picture above. This is how you keep track of your hand size, your reserve size (more on that in a bit) and the size of your worker pool. As the game starts, every player is handed 10 cards from the Market deck. Depending on the number of players, this deck will be 60 – 100 cards in size. The market in Magic City (ugh) is where people meet, deals go down and anything can be had, for a price. Each player looks at their cards, chooses 1 that they wish to keep and then hands off the remaining 9 cards to the person on their left. This continues until the last card is handed off.

Cards come in four flavors. Politics (A), Events (B), Magic (C) and Hirelings (D). Each card type allows you to do one of three things when you play them, depending on where you play them. If you play a politics card, you can either score a point or use the card effect. Events let you either remove workers from the board and return them to your pool, or they have effects. Magic cards simply have effects. Hireling cards can be used to place workers on the board or you can use their effects.

Bad board 1
The Market

Now each player has their starting deck of 10 cards. This gets shuffled and put to the side as the rest of the board gets set up. The remaining Market deck is put next to the Market. The market has 12 spaces for cards, divided into 3 areas by cost. The top four cards cost 3, the middle four cards cost 2 and the bottom four cards cost 1. What is this cost? Why it’s cards of course! I’m a big fan of making cards do more than one thing, so in this game, they are not only things that happen, but they are the game’s currency and allow for two ways to score victory points. The top 12 cards from the deck are used to fill in the 12 spaces in the Market, starting with the lowest cost spot on the right and ending with the highest cost spot on the left. These are cards you can purchase during the game. After all of this is done, the bottom 10 cards are removed from the deck, and the Election card is shuffled into them. They are then placed back at the bottom of the Market deck. When the election card is drawn from this deck, it signals the immediate end of the game.

Challenges and the score track

Each player now has their starting deck, and the Market is set up with 12 cards that cost between 1 – 3 cards. To pay that cost, you discard cards from your 5 card hand. Each player also has a pool of meeple workers provided to them. At the start of the game, that pool consists of 1 worker. The rest of your meeples are used to either keep score, keep track of your current game state or put off to the side where they wait desperately to be included. At the start of the game, each player not only has their 5 cards in hand from their 10 card drafted deck, but a meeple in their worker pool, a hand size of 5 and a reserve size of 3. Again, we’ll get to the reserve in just a bit now.

The second portion of the board is where you’ll find the Challenges. Challenges come from a separate deck (which in a fit of originality I called the ‘Challenge Deck’) made up of 60 unique challenge cards. Right now the theme is non-existent so rather than have cool names and images, these cards have between 2 and 4 letters on them. These letters are in combinations of AA – DDDD. I’ve put the full list of combos at the end of this post. Each Challenge card is worth from 2-6 points. The way you complete challenges? You play cards to your reserve, rather than to the board. In most cases (a few cards break this rule) cards played to your reserve have no effect on the game. They can be stashed in your reserve to do one of two things.

Bad board 2
Worker placement and the public cards.

They can be added to your hand at a later time, or be used to meet challenges. Each Market card has a letter associated with it – Politics (A), Events (B), Magic (C) and Hirelings (D). If you’d like to complete the AB challenge (worth 2 victory points) you need to have any A (Event) card and any B (Magic) card in your reserve to do so. Astute readers will now note that your reserve size is 3, and some challenges that are worth the most, take four cards.

Also along the edge of the challenge board is the score tracker. Ideally if this game makes it to a publisher and begins development, the board will not consist of three 8.5″ by 11″ pieces of paper and will have some art too. The score tracker would then go above 69.

Now you know that players have cards, and that there are challenges that need to be met. So what about those meeples? There’s also a portion of the board that has spaces for 8 workers to be placed. Each worker placement spot does something different for the player who puts a worker there. Here’s what the 8 spots do:

  1. Turn Order. Most workers placed goes first. If no workers placed, 1st player changes every turn, around the board clock-wise.
  2. Hand size increased by 1.
  3. Reserve size increased by 1.
  4. Hire a worker (4 max, 5 in 2 player game).
  5. Play an additional card.
  6. Take 1 cost 1 card from the Market.
  7. Remove and replace 1 challenge (your choice).
  8. Score 1 point.

You’ll also notice on the worker placement portion of the board, there are four more spots for cards, and these card have a cost of 4. These are generic cards, five of each available to anyone who needs to purchase them. They are basic Politics (A), Events (B), Magic (C) and Hireling (D) cards and are there should the deck not provide the cards you need to complete a challenge. But they’re expensive! Each player has a chance during the turn to place workers. When a worker is placed, it remains on the board, in that spot, until it’s pulled back into that player’s worker pool. Placing workers, and pulling workers back into your pool are both accomplished by playing cards (for the most part) that allow you to do so.

Now that you have the general layout of the game, let’s walk through a turn to see how all of these things mesh together.

Game Play

Each turn is divided into four phases, with every player going in player order during each phase.

Phase 1 -Draw cards up to your hand limit (5 without modification). You may choose to draw any or all of your cards from your reserve first, and then from your deck.

Phase 2 – You may play up to two cards and immediately resolve their effects or play them into your reserve. If you play no cards you may place a worker onto the board, or move a worker back into your worker pool. You must do one of these three actions.

Phase 3 – Resolve worker actions for all workers currently on the board. You may also resolve any challenges during this phase.

Phase 4 – Any cards played to the table are moved to your discard pile and the Market is refreshed.

That there is one turn. Lets dig a little deeper! The key thing to remember in this game is that to do anything other than resolving a challenge or playing a card, you must have a worker available.


In Phase 1, you draw up to your maximum hand size. The default hand size is 5, but certain happenings in the game can increase this. If you have previously played any cards into your reserve, you may put any, all or none of them into your hand before you draw from your deck. Then you draw from the deck you constructed in the draft that happened during the game setup. If you do not have enough cards in your deck to make a full hand, shuffle your discard pile and this becomes your new deck. If you still don’t have enough cards, you simply won’t be drawing as many as you have the potential to draw.

Phase 2 is where you get to play cards. Any Hirelings (D) card you have in your hand will allow you to place a worker on the board (it’s got a Meeple icon with a + sign next to it) or you may choose to do what the card says in the text. Early on in the game it may make more sense to place a worker. If you wish to purchase a card, you must place a worker in that space in the market. There’s only room for two workers per market space. If you choose to place a worker in one of the 8 other board spaces, here’s how it works. First player in that spot gets the benefit by placing 1 worker. Second player in that spot also gets the benefit by placing 1 worker. The third player who also wants to utilize that space must place 2 workers. There are only spaces for 4 total workers on each spot. The only exception to this is Spot 1 – turn order. There are 4 spaces available, and 1st player is determined by the player with the most workers on this spot.

Playing almost any Event (B) cards will allow you to remove a worker from the board and place it back into your pool, or use the effect on that card. They have a Meeple icon with a – sign next to it. Politics cards allow you to score between 1-3 points or use the effects on the cards. Magic cards have effects but do not allow you to use them in other ways. Cards played for effect go into effect as soon as they are played.

You can also skip playing cards in this phase and choose to either place or remove a worker.

Playing cards or using workers happens in player order, around the table. Any cards played to your reserve, sit in your reserve. Any cards played to the table for effect remain on the table, visible, until Phase 4.

Phase 3 is where you resolve what all those workers on the board are doing, again in player order starting with player 1. If they have placed 1 worker on the Market spot that costs 2, and one worker on the Hire a Worker spot, they’d take one of their spare meeples and add it to their worker pool, plus they would discard 2 cards and select one of the cards in the Market that costs 2. The card they bought would be placed in their discard deck. As soon as a card is purchased from the Market, all of the other cards move down the line to fill in the blank spot, and a new card is drawn off the Market deck and added to the highest cost (3) row, on the left. Cards move from left to right, top to bottom.

Workers placed to purchase cards in the 1-4 cost slots allow players to discard cards to purchase them, but do not require players to do so during this phase. Other workers will automatically do what their board spots say they will do.

Remember, unless you remove a worker from the board (or someone else does it too you) they’ll remain in their spot, allowing you do take whatever actions they’re triggering.

Phase 4 is the cleanup phase. The card in the right most slot of the 1 cost area in the Market is discarded. All other Market cards are moved forward on their track, and a new card is drawn from the top of the Market deck and put into the 12th space (the left most top space in the Market). This means that regardless of whether or not any cards were purchased, the deck always moves closer to an Election at the end of every full turn. It also means that higher cost cards will eventually become lower cost cards as they are cycled through the Market on their way to being discarded.

Also in this phase, any cards played to the table for effect are placed in their player’s discard piles.

Third turn!
Third turn!

And that’s where I stand with this right now. The picture above shows the 2 player play test I did last night, which was the first time this game has ever been to any table, anywhere. I should note that I was playing both players. So far things are going well! There’s a hell of a lot of play testing in my future with this game, as there always is. This will be a bit of a challenge for me as well as it’s the first fairly deep game I’ve ever designed. I’d class it right now as a middleweight game, a bit heavier than my Upgrade Wars or Lords of Waterdeep.

There’s a lot going on in this game, which is something I was looking for so I figured I’d just build it. There are multiple paths to victory, with a bit of a “point salad” thing going on where doing lots of things can earn you points. It’s also going to be a slightly different game with every play, as the cards will not be the same – there will always be at least 20 cards from the full Market deck left out in every game, and the Challenges will change with every game as well.

I’m hoping there’s enough player interaction to keep everyone on their toes throughout the game, with tension rising as the Market deck gets thinner and the election comes closer. I’ll have to keep an eye on kingmaking though. I don’t think there’s a runaway mechanism in the game but I won’t find it if there is until I do a lot more testing. I was also toying with the idea of throwing in some secret agendas but I think there’s enough moving parts right now and adding more into this game may take away from the game play rather than add to it. As it stands, you have to build your card engine, keep your workers where they need to be, watch out for other players doing nasty things to you and your workers, spend cards that could be very useful to you to purchase other very useful cards, put cards out of play temporarily to overcome challenges and score points.

Now, about that theme….

Also, for those interested in the Challenge card breakdown, here’s the list I went with, followed by their victory point value if that challenge was met.

  • AB 2
  • AC 2
  • AD 2
  • BC 2
  • BD 2
  • CD 2
  • AAA 4
  • AAB 3
  • AAC 3
  • AAD 3
  • ABB 3
  • ABC 3
  • ABD 3
  • ACC 3
  • ACD 3
  • ADD 3
  • BBB 4
  • BBC 3
  • BBD 3
  • BCC 3
  • BCD 3
  • BDD 3
  • CCC 4
  • CCD 3
  • CDD 3
  • DDD 4
  • AAAA 6
  • AAAB 5
  • AAAC 5
  • AAAD 5
  • AABB 5
  • AABC 5
  • AABD 5
  • AACC 5
  • AACD 5
  • AADD 5
  • ABBB 5
  • ABBC 5
  • ABBD 5
  • ABCC 5
  • ABCD 5
  • ABDD 5
  • ACCC 5
  • ACCD 5
  • ACDD 5
  • ADDD 5
  • BBBB 6
  • BBBC 5
  • BBBD 5
  • BBCC 5
  • BBCD 5
  • BBDD 5
  • BCCC 5
  • BCCD 5
  • BCDD 5
  • BDDD 5
  • CCCC 6
  • CCCD 5
  • CCDD 5
  • CDDD 5
  • DDDD 6


Indie Talks Episode 46 – Game School with Aerjen Tamminga


Aerjen comes on the show to talk about his newest project, Pleasant Dreams, a card game currently on Kickstarter and doing quite well, thank you very much! He’s also an avid student of game design and design theory and we go into what it takes to make a good game. Aerjen’s got some interesting insight that I’ve not really stumbled upon before! We also talk about a local (to me and him) event, the Boston Festival of Indie Games.

Like what you hear? Support the podcast through Patreon! $2 a month from you allows me to create a lot more content, get more great guests and improve the quality of the show!

We would love to get your feedback about our show! Contact me with comments:, follow me on twitter @trollitc, and also check us out on iTunes! Hell, you can even catch us on Stitcher.  While you’re at it, there’s the Indie Talks Facebook page and the Indie Talks Google+ page. MySpace…well, I won’t go there if you wont. Please do rate this podcast on iTunes, and leave feedback through any of these links!

Game School: Indie Talks Episode 36 – Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games


Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games joins us today to talk about board games, publishing and what it’s like to live the dream! Stephen takes a nice, deep dive into game production and talks about lots of juicy details that go into actually producing a playable product. We also talk nerd rage, craft beer and microgames, among other things. Please visit Stronghold Games online, find them on Facebook and hit up Twitter as well!  Also check out the three latest titles released – Space Cadets: Dice Duel, Going, Going, Gone! and Space Sheep!

We would love to get your feedback about our show! Contact me with comments:, follow me on twitter @trollitc, and also check us out on iTunes! Hell, you can even catch us on Stitcher.  While you’re at it, there’s the Indie Talks Facebook page and the Indie Talks Google+ page. MySpace…well, I won’t go there if you wont. Please do rate this podcast on iTunes, and leave feedback through any of these links!


Indie Talks Episode 35 – Angelia Parenteau and Total Confusion


This episode I’m joined by Angelia Parenteau, Media Director for the gaming convention Total Confusion! TotalCon takes place in Mansfield MA in February of every year and it’s by far my favorite convention to attend. I’m tacking this one into my Game School section of podcasts as well, as we talk an awful lot about how to actually run a convention – everything from planning meetings to pulling off four days of gaming.

Total Confusion bills itself as the largest gaming convention in New England. It may not be the largest (I’m looking at you PAX East) but it certainly is the largest aimed strictly at table top games. If you’re anywhere near New England this February 20-23 you should absolutely attend! Say hello to me, and a whole bunch of people I’ve had on this very podcast.

You heard me speaking about Patreon at the intro to this podcast. If you’d like to support me and the podcast, as well as have a chance to support my small box game releases, please drop by and consider becoming my patron!

We would love to get your feedback about our show! Contact me with comments:, follow me on twitter @trollitc, and also check us out on iTunes! Hell, you can even catch us on Stitcher.  While you’re at it, there’s the Indie Talks Facebook page and the Indie Talks Google+ page. MySpace…well, I won’t go there if you wont. Please do rate this podcast on iTunes, and leave feedback through any of these links!

Game School: Life, the Universe and Play Testing – being creative when life happens

jim cc
Pictured: Jim White, Brian Liberge in reflection, Guinness and Comet Cowboys.

This started off as a simple post about play testing my game Comet Cowboys, but in the course of 36 hours it turned into something else entirely. A common theme I see, a question I get asked a bit is this: How do you (in the generic sense, not me personally) continue to create when life throws everything at you? How do people go about play testing a game when they’ve had an awful day, or look at artwork when they’re battling a nasty flu? In short – how to do you stay creative when life happens?

I’ve been giving this a bit of thought lately in that space at the back of my mind normally reserved for nearly subconscious pondering and winning old arguments in the shower. I recently asked a whole bunch of design enthusiasts – folks who have not yet been published by an actual publisher – what their biggest hurdle was. Of the 12 or so folks I was talking with, 8 of them said they’re always running out of time, or that life just gets in the way. So how do you keep going in the face of, if not adversity, then life itself?

Know how you work

This is probably the most important point in this whole post. Everyone works a little differently and it’s very important that you step back for a few minutes and figure out now why you’re interested in creating games, but how you best go about doing so. Do you work best in silence? Alone? Positioned in front of the television with Voltron streaming by? What’s your most productive time? Now think of what’s your most productive time that you actually have available to you? Nail down how you best create, and when you best create, and then do everything in your power to carve out some time for yourself that best matches.working

Seems rather simple, but for the longest time I wasn’t doing that for myself. I’ve always known I’m a night person, but it wasn’t until the last year or two that I finally started setting aside a night or two a week where I can plug my headphones in, crank up my 80s thrash and then not listen to it for a few hours while I plug away at something. That’s how I best work, so I do my best to carve, wrestle, and otherwise steal time in my office to do so.

Find and define your passion

Okay, you’ve come to realize that crazy as it sounds, You’ll be getting up at 5am twice a week to have 2 hours of design time while the rest of the world sleeps. Now what? Here’s what! Work on what is currently keeping your brain clicking along. If that’s the one design you’ve been noodling with for years, get to it! For me, I like to have 2-3 games in active design at any one time. If I’m getting frustrated with pushing gravestone counters full of comets around in my head, I’ll take a break and focus on medieval Japan. If that’s just not in the cards for me that day, I’ll move over to my pirate racing game for kids. My passion is having as many of these things up in the air at once as I can. My passion is also whatever mechanic or style I happen to be playing a lot of an dissecting in my head. Currently that’s small box games.

Are there going to be days when you’re not passionate about anything game related? Absolutely. Sometimes I’m so damned tired or frustrated with other aspects of my life that I just don’t want to sit and design something. On those days Reddit calls me and I find it hard to stay away. So…

Set limits on procrastination

I allow myself one day a week where I can slack off. That’s right, if I’ve fought hard for two nights in my week where after the kids are in bed I can be designing and thinking, I may take one of those days and truly piss off with it. I don’t feel guilty because I’ve already made this bargain with myself. In fact, more often than not now I’ll find myself doing other game design related things which I can then file under productivity. Writing these articles for instance, or reading up on current trends in games. I sometimes find myself deep into art and design sites poking around to see what’s out there and getting even more ideas to plug into the “know how you work” section.

Make a real commitment

gymHowever it is that you work, and whatever your passion may be, after you set your limits you’ve just got to commit. Already blew off two hours of design time the day before but still don’t feel like working now? Tough. Like going to the gym you’ve just got to pick yourself up and get to it. Even if whatever is flowing out of your head and onto your word document is crap, at least you’re creating it. Who cares if you type out two pages of pure drivel if at the end of the time you’re actually creating. You’re still creating and this will help you later down the line. Also like going to the gym, the more your work out those muscles (your creativity) the more defined they get. Do this for a few months and even on your off days, you’ll be outputting better stuff than you did a few months prior. Most of the time, anyway.

Find others in your tribe

This is really important. You cannot do this in a vacuum. Really, it gets very, very lonely pushing around cards and cardboard all by yourself. Find some friends that share your enthusiasm for playing. Find yourself some communities online where other like minded people hang out. Board Game Geek, Google Plus, Facebook, the forum of your favorite publisher – all good places to start.

Once you do find your tribe, make sure you get and stay engaged. Make a real effort to contribute on a daily basis if you can. It will not only broaden your horizons, but it will also get other people interested in your ideas. You really can’t buy the kind of interest you can generate by being truly and honestly engaged with your tribe. Contribute! Comment! Add something of value! You’ll come away with two added bonuses. First, you’ll meet a lot of people who are similar to you and can encourage, commiserate and share with you. Second, you’ll come away with some great ideas and great advice.

I’ve noticed over the past few years a cool and interesting thing happening with my and my involvement with social media and gamers. It’s bleeding from online to real life. Just this past Tuesday I met with a whole bunch of people writing, creating and playing games at a bar in Cambridge. The picture above was taken at this gathering, as Jim and I tested out one of my new games, Comet Cowboys.

Step back

No one can do the thing they love 24/7/365 without burning out. If you start to feel like you’re burning out, head back to the “set limits on procrastination” bit and realize that not everyone can possibly be GO! GO! GO! all the time. Take a day off. Take a night off! Go out and do something utterly unrelated for a while. Hang out with your spouse, play with your kids, go fishing. You’ve got to give your unconscious time to unwind and hit on those neat ideas too.

Dive in

Although this is the second to last point I’ll make, it’s the most important to me personally. I don’t design games to make bucket-loads of money. I don’t do it for fame. I do it because it’s something it turns out I really, really love divedoing. It took me nearly 35 years to realize this. So when the world goes a little crazy, when I’m stressed out beyond belief, when I sometimes feel like I just want to get into bed for a full 24 hours, I turn to design. It’s a cathartic experience for me, making something simple and hopefully, eventually, elegant. I enjoy it like I enjoy nothing else because it’s not like anything else I’m doing in my life.

Recently there was a death in my family. The kind of emotional roller coaster emotional event that drags everyone along with it regardless of who they are, or what they’re doing. It was an awful time, with some awful circumstances and when I wasn’t feeling the pull of it at that moment, someone close to me assuredly was.

I also found that more than my usual and healthy escapes (a bit of television, reading a good book, going for a walk) that designing games was extremely cathartic for me. I actually entered a creative period greater than any I’ve experienced before and I’m still fine tuning designs I came up with over the past three months. I suppose it was a mix of doing something I enjoyed, and having the kind of pent-up, stress fueled energy I don’t normally have to deal with. Heck, if you can’t sleep and your mind’s racing, I thought, might as well put it to good use and do something creative at the same time. Hopefully what I’ve come up with will help bring some other folks a bit of enjoyment and fun in their lives as well.

Putting my money directly into my own mouth

These points above are what I’ve first unconsciously, and over the past half year or so entirely consciously done to spur myself into designing more, designing smarter and making overall better games. And it’s working! Here’s a very brief list of the games I’ve created in the last six months, or improved on significantly, in no real order.

  • Fools! (A push your luck card game with a hidden hand mechanic).
  • Gaido (A very small card game based on card facing and timing, mixed with some luck).
  • Upgrade Wars (A fairly in-depth card engine you use to create giant robots and field them on the table as they fight each other for dominance).
  • So You Want to be a Pirate? (A racing game with pawns and cards, that features hand management and a slight bit of backstabbing).
  • Comet Cowboys (Based off of Othello, and then off of a design idea laid out by Daniel Solis, this tile laying game has you trying to herd the biggest bulk of water ice comets into your little part of space).
  • A Little Bit of Evil (A re-theme of the four hundred year old game Poch, with a few twists. Cards, boards and 120 markers representing the hapless humans you’re all fighting over).
  • Zombie: Shambling and Hungry (A sit down, up to 4 player card game of being the best and brightest of the undead. Also, a game with which you can systematically infect your group, your friends or an entire convention).

Game School: Play Testing or how I learned to stop worrying and love the criticism

You’ve spent your time designing your game, you’ve gotten together enough scrap paper to make a physical version of your game and there it sits on your table, staring back at you.  Now what? I don’t care if you’ve spent 45 minutes working on this game, or 4.5 years. If you haven’t play tested it yet, and if you haven’t done it with people you don’t know and had it done while you weren’t even there, you don’t have a final product.

play testing
Never use animals to play test your games. This is probably not what this image was originally intended for.

I believe that play testing board, card or role playing games should happen in three broad swaths, which start at home with you, and end up having you play your game with as many people as possible, as publicly as possible. Let’s dive right into our swaths and swaddle ourselves in play testing.

Swath the first – Go it alone

As you can see, I didn’t play test that metaphor at all. On purpose. It’s horrible. Who swaddles themselves in swaths? Who over the age of, oh, four months swaddles themselves in anything?  There’s a reason why games are play tested, and thats because there are two, possibly three people on this great Earth who can sit down and design a wonderfully honed, functional game in one go. That person isn’t you and it sure as hell isn’t me. Play testing allows us to find the things in our games that aren’t quit right. They can be small things, such as moving that number from the top right of a card to the top left, to better facilitate fanning out your hand of cards. They can be large things, like a mechanic that just plain doesn’t work, or takes away from the game as a whole.

That’s why the first thing you’re going to do is sit yourself down at that table with your hand drawn, or quickly printed prototype and play the hell out of it. By yourself. Alone. Solo. By the way, Han shot first.

Take the role of the lowest number of players you can play your game with and have at it. This is where you get to fire up the game mechanics and see what they do in the real world. And more importantly, you get to do with yourself so you can find those deal breakers. The rules that make no sense when you try to actually implement them using the bits you created on the table. That win condition that is never quite reached, causing your 15-30 minute game to last 73 minutes. The way over powered move that can let you win the game in three moves, every single time. I think this is the second most critical phase of play testing. You want to get this stuff out of the way before you bring others into the mix. If you find your game is unplayable the way it is, and you find this out all by yourself, you’ve done yourself and your future play testers a great service.

If that happens, it’s back to the design phase to smooth things out, or clarify the rules so that the mechanics make more sense. Then, once you’ve got the big issues ironed out (if there were any) ramp up your self play testing. Take the role of as many players as you can stand playing and have a go at it for a few games. Once you’re comfortable with what you have in front of you, and nothing is obviously broken, it’s time to move on.

Swath the second – Failing with friends and family

If your friends and family do this after a play test, you’re probably on the right track.

Okay, you’ve ironed out all the show stoppers that you could find on your own. You’ve played through several games and nothing’s come up that would prevent the game from moving on – it’s not terribly broken! Congratulations! Now comes the public failure. I suggest you start this phase with your friends, family, a few trusted people who, while they may not give your the most honest opinion, will still sit down and play a potentially broken game with you for an hour or two.

Why not jump right into some public play tests? You can if you want, but my suggestion is going to be going with a small group of people you know well and trust. They may not provide the most honest feedback, but there’s a reason for this, so we’ll go explore that!

If you’ve got friends and family like mine, they’re probably excited for you because you’ve just finished this new game idea thingy. Excited and proud, and perhaps a bit perplexed. They’ll gladly sit down with you and play your game, even though it looks like a 3rd grade art project at the moment. They may give you lots of praise, and when you ask for criticism, they may say something like “oh no, dear, I think it’s wonderful! I especially like how you hand tore the cards! It makes them look so… hand made!”

That’s fine. You should take their praise and stockpile it in the back of your mind, because you’re going to need it later. You should also be thankful for their good will and the fact that they’ll play this thing with you. It allows you to take a good, hard look at how the game plays with actual living people who aren’t you. You can see how someone who hasn’t spent the last twelve years honing their Settlers of Catan strategy may approach your game. In short, they’ll do things, and think in ways that just wouldn’t occur to you. And that’s your game’s second real test. Does it stand up to other people mucking about with it?

Chances are you’ll find a few more issues, big or small, which are important to take care of in the next step. So finish up playing with your close people, buy them beer, chocolate or flowers as appropriate and prepare to fail in a spectacular, public way!

Swath the third – Fail big, fail publicly

failureYou’ve already begun your journey to public failure, now it’s time to move on down, move on down, move on down the road. This is, without a doubt in my mind, the most important phase of play testing.

You’ve first got to become comfortable with the fact that your game design may not stand up to public scrutiny and play. At least, not the first time. Or it may do very well but run into that one person. You know, that person. The one who finds something wrong with every game. They may do so loudly, and at a table with you while playing your game. Which brings me to another point – where does all this stuff happen?

That’s a damned good question, and this may be the hardest portion of your journey to thoroughly play test your game. It’s not always easy to get strangers to sit down and play an unknown game with you. Especially one that consists of bits cobbled together from your ancient collection of family games, note cards and no attractive graphics. This leads you to a have to make a decision. Should you pretty this up before you go public with it? You’ll have to answer this before even we find this table to sit down at with that person.

I talk a bit about doing this in Prototyping 101, which I invite you to read. Whatever your decision, let’s get you to the table with your game.

First, I’d suggest pulling out all the stops with your own gaming group, should you have one. And by that, I mean ordering a pizza and saying “look folks, I need your honest opinions here. Tell me what works, sure, but tell me what doesn’t and why it doesn’t too.” And thus your public career as a game creator has begun.

Next, you’re going to want to broaden your circle of play testers.  You’re going to want to prepare yourself for this too. You may run into folks who just don’t like your game, even if it’s a great design. You may also run into people who find flaws with your game – real things that need to be fixed, that can stop  a play test cold. That’s fine! Prepare to fail, and prepare to run up against people who just don’t like your game. You can’t please everyone, and you can’t create a perfect, platonic game the first, second or fifth prototype out. Fail publicly, where others can point out your game’s flaws. Fail often, but fail early.  The more you play test like this, the more likely you are to find things that critics and gamers may pick apart later on and stomp them out of your game. This can be surprisingly hard to do – but never fear, I’m here with some helpful tips. We’ll divide this into two sections – Blind Play Testing and Vanilla Play Testing.

Vanilla Play Testing

This is where you sit down with people and play your game. It covers all of the testing you’ve done above so far, and anything that will happen afterwards where you’re present and either playing or actively explaining the game as your players move through it.

The easiest way to get this done is with your friends, family and gaming group. Even if they’ve already taken part in the second swath above, include them here. It can be good to have folks who’ve seen this game mature and get honed down into something worth play over and over again. It’s also a good way to judge how engaging your game is going to be.

However, you’re going to want to get some folks into this who haven’t seen or played your game before. It’s really critical that you do so because those extra sets of eyes will see things that you and those closely associated with you may not. That’s a good thing.

First, try your friendly local game store (FLGS) – see if they have a game night or two, and ask if you can stop by, use a table and demo your game. Your responses may be mixed but in my experience you can get folks to at least try out a few turns, with a good number of people sitting down for a full game.

Second, conventions. Conventions are the lifeblood of game networking. Many larger conventions will have a protospiel area set aside just for people like you. Participants go there with the express purpose of trying out new games before they are published. This can be a gold mine for a game designer. Not only can you get plenty of play testing done, but you may even bump into a publisher who would be interested in your design.

Third, there are online options. Google Plus Hangouts have a few plugins that allow you to upload components and cards to simulate a board game online. If you can’t find people close by to test with, this is always an option.

Last, give Meetup a shot! There are often local groups of gamers in your area who use this online tool to schedule times and locations to get together and game. Feel a few of these groups out, if you can. Join up (it’s free) and head out to a few events to see if folks are amenable to play testing. There may even be a Meetup group in your area full of fledgling or experienced game designers like yourself.

Blind Play Testing

This is where you get your game, with the rules, in front of a bunch of people and then hurriedly leave the room. Or at least pretend like you don’t exist for a moment. This is a critical part of play testing. It lets you see what happens when people try to play your game without you around to explain it to them. Should your game go to publication and be available at amazon, this is what the vast majority of players will go through. The trick though, is finding people to do it.

Your first option is to create a Print and Play version of your game, and then pack it up and head online with it to beg and plead for people to play it. I find this is a great way to get people to download your game, and a lousy way to get feedback. If 100 individuals download my game, into which I’ve packaged a quick survey with my contact information, I’ll generally get 2 responses. Not a great ratio. And then you have to convince people to download the game in the first place! Board Game Geek, Google Plus, Facebook – use all of these resources. Beg and plead (without becoming spammy).

Another way to get some blind play testers is to save a few folks from your personal circle. Don’t include them in your first few sit downs. Let them know that you’re looking for their thoughts on your game without you explaining it to them, give ’em the prototype and the rules and let them have at it.

Your other big option is to go to your friendly local game store (FLGS) or head off to a convention or four and recruit people there to blind play test your game. This is not as easy as sitting down with them to play test, but the results can be wonderful, and you’re right there to get their feedback when they are done.

the endMade it all the way down here, did you? Good on you! When you think game design, play testing should be first on your mind right after actually designing the game. It’s a critical step that every designer, and I feel I’m correct in saying this – every designer play tests their game. Or if they have the clout, they do it themselves for a select group and then have their publisher do broad blind play test to a hand picked group of volunteers.

How do I know play testing is critical? I’ve designed seven card and board games so far. While none of them have been published by someone other than me (something I’m hoping to change soon), every single one of them has or is going through as much play testing as I can get. I always, always find flaws with my games when I first play test with them. It’s a fact of game design that you cannot foresee everything.

Also, while I can’t name names, I’m currently involved in a broad, print and play test for a large game company. You can be absolutely sure that if the big name designers and publishers do it, it’s just as important that we all do.

Game School: Gaido play test update – things change

If you were ever looking for a reason to do more play tests than you were expecting to do, this is it.

I was pretty convinced that Gaido was getting on just fine and nearing it’s version 1.0 – a version I’d have no problem selling or showing to publishers. Why just last night I played a quick 2 player game with my Father-in-law, who’s a very analytical kind of guy. We stumbled on not one, but two things that need to be changed with the game, that I didn’t see (or didn’t focus on) in all the previous umpteen play tests. Boy am I glad I played that game last night!

DTC-Journeys End 4

To understand how I arrived at these problems, you’ll need to understand how the game works. If you’re familiar with it, skip this section. If you’re not, here’s the basics.

How Gaido plays

Medieval Japan has so much to offer in the way of scenery! Vast mountains, quaint villages, hidden shrines and much more. The real treasures however are those that jump and fly – the rare brown squirrels, cranes, egrets and eagles who make their homes in remote locations. These hard to find creatures are the ultimate destination of any tour of the countryside.

In Gaido, players take on the role of guides and travelers journeying through the countryside of medieval Japan. Guide duties are shared, with each player taking the responsibility for one day of their journey. The guide directs the group of players through the Japanese landscape, to their journey’s end. Only the current guide can decide when a journey is over.

There are four animals the group is trying to spot, squirrels, cranes, egrets and eagles. These animals are found in four different locations and represent the end of a journey. On the play table, players will create four stacks of cards, called Journeys. These stacks represent the different paths to the four animals.

Every Journey card has a Kanji symbol on it which indicates how many points each player will receive when that stack is scored. Cards can be played facing any direction. There are sixteen Journey cards and four Journey’s End cards which, when played on one of the four journeys will immediately end that journey and score that stack of cards.

Gaido offers interesting play choices, with a strategy that’s deeper than it first appears and a simple play style. Only 20 cards and 24 counters in size, it’s played in an average of 15-20 minutes.

The problems arise

In this game, there are four journeys, represented by four different images. Each card also has four numbers (written in Kanji) on them. That’s 16 cards so far, right? Still with me? Easy. Now, here’s where the problem lies.

Each card set (4 cards) have these four numbers on them that start facing the player who played them, this would be at the bottom of the card art, and progress around clockwise. The card sets are numbered like this (Bottom, Left, Top, Right) 1,1,1,1 | 2,1,1,1 | 3,2,1,2 | 4,3,2,3. In game play, you try to get the top card laid out on any stack to score the way you want it – either the highest number facing you, or the number of cubes you want to take facing you, depending on the in-game situation.

As it turns out, I ran into a situation where I couldn’t play the 1,1,1,1 card at all, and it was my final card. The Journey stack that I wanted to play to had not be completed and my Father-in-law held also only 1 card, the last Journey’s End card. I hadn’t accounted for this situation in the rules. What do you do when you can’t play a card at all? And even more concerning, why couldn’t I play a card? In this game, I want players to always be able to do something – either play or discard and that wasn’t happening here.

It was in the cards

journey 1a
The 1,1,1,1 card

With the 1,1,1,1 card, I realized several things. First, that’s really the only reason I ran into this problem was that it was impossible to play this card as anything but the first card in a stack. Second, this problem is more likely to come up in a 2 player game than a 3 or 4 player game as you tend to have players ending journeys a lot quicker in larger games, and not holding out to the bitter end to see what their opponents will do.

The 2,1,1,1 card
The 2,1,1,1 card

What to do?

I don’t want a card in this game that can only be played as a lead off card and is otherwise dead weight for any player that draws it. There aren’t many options in this game, only 16 Journey cards in total, so I don’t really want to waste any of them, or make players feel like their hand is wasted. After giving it some thought and looking at the numbers, I decided that the 1,1,1,1 just has to go. Goodbye card.

What I will be doing is replacing it with a 2,1,1,1 card. This is still a fairly low value card, but gives players more of a chance to actually play it without trumping the other two cards in the set. Suddenly this card has a lot more value to a player. In a 2 player game, it’s going to be a fairly straight forward battle, in a 3-4 player game having 2 of these cards really changes the dynamic and makes the lower cards a viable win inducing choice. In some cases.

There’s one issue hopefully taken care of. I’ve got some more play tests scheduled very soon and am also going to be receiving another physical prototype in the next few days, so I can substitute this card out for easy testing.

The other issue is the ‘I cannot play,nor discard’ issue which still may come up from time to time. This I’m going to handle on the rules side, not the physical cards side. If you ever find yourself in this situation, that’s the end of the road for you in that round. Since the game is played in at least 3 rounds, and this situation comes up rarely now that I’ve made the card switch, it shouldn’t be too bad. In keeping with the game’s theme, if you can no longer travel (play your card(s)) then you’ve failed as a guide and must return from when you came to mull over your mistakes until the next round.

Even if a player is knocked out (and it won’t happen until relatively late in the round) they’d only be not-playing for a minute, perhaps two. In a game where each round lasts 5 minutes or less, I don’t see it as that much of an issue for a rare player knock out.

If you’re interested in this game, I invite you to head on over to the Gaido Board Game Geek page and become a fan! Your support would mean a lot to me! You can also download a (now slightly obsolete) Print and Play file with the rules and all 20 cards.

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