Design Notebook

Mechanics Makeovers

I love a game with theme, but a theme without a mechanic is a story, not a game. I also love logic problems, but a logic problem without a mechanic is a puzzle. A game is many things, but ultimately what makes it a game is its mechanic(s) and what makes a good game is good mechanics. (OK. Maybe overstated, but this is the Mechanics section, right!?)

Similar to a Game Makeover, a Mechanics Makeover takes an existing mechanic and explores variations to the mechanic that may provide insight into a new or modified use of it. Instead of dissecting a game to find out how it works and improving on it, I will analyze a (likely) well-known mechanic and look for ways to modify and hopefully improve upon it then suggest some specific uses for it in its new form.

Objective

Redesign a traditional or well-known mechanic to provoke ideas for new variations and uses. In this process I expect to post:

  • An evaluation of the existing mechanic for what is working and what needs work.
  • A description and rationale of each “improvement.”
  • Implementation in a game or gamelet (a mini game that exercises one mechanic).
  • The evaluation – redesign – playtest cycle for major changes.
  • Any tools that I use or create in the process.
  • A description with rules and PnP files (as appropriate) of any product.
  • (Maybe) A step or two further; exploring the mechanic in concert with others to form a more complex game design.

Hopefully you find this discovery process interesting and maybe even gain some inspiration from it.

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Mechanics Makeover: Dice in a Cup

This is the first in the Mechanics Makeover series.

From this page you can learn about the original mechanic, read about the background to some of my decisions and methods, or jump right into the makeover.

There will be images displayed throughout the series. You can see the all of the images used in the makeover in the Challenge Dice Gallery.

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Mechanics Makeover: Dice in a Cup – Introduction

Introduction

For the record, my complete title for this game mechanic to makeover is “Dice in a Cup,” but for brevity sake, I will often just call it “n Dice” where n is the number of dice rolled. The working title of the game that tests the mechanics in this makeover is called “Challenge Dice.”

5 Dice in a Cup is the primary mechanic of many popular classic games like Yahtzee, Liar’s Dice, Bar or Poker Dice, etc. 1 and 2 Dice are the basis for thousands of games. Although the basic mechanics are old (even ancient) and commonly thought to have been worn out, they are still very popular. Recent adaptations of 5 Dice are King of Tokyo and King of New York, but there are many such examples.

Objective

Redesign the traditional mechanic of “Dice in a Cup” to explore alternatives. Let’s see how far I can get with this well-known mechanic.

Why Dice in a Cup?

This is a special discovery for me because it gets to the deepest roots I can remember in my game design history and was the first place I went in my recent game design discovery as a testing ground (October 2013). On the Opie Games About page I talk about taking an interest in game design at an early age and mention specifically a version of Gin that I designed around age 10. Even before I started tinkering with card games, though, I was digging into dice mechanics – not that I knew then what mechanics are.

I loved dice and dice games. As a family we played Yahtzee (and Triple Yahtzee, which was an early variant on the Yahtzee mechanic) frequently and all we kids loved Cootie. May father often worked long and odd shifts so would be trying to sleep when we were playing Yahtzee after dinner and homework. He called it "Rattle, Rattle, Bang!" For one of my birthdays in there I asked for a set of dice or a dice game of my own. I got a Crisloid 5 Game Set that contained 2 dice cups, 5 regular “spot” dice, and some specially printed dice also; 10 bowling pin dice, 5 card faced dice and others, a total of 25 D6s. With my very own set of dice, I set out to make my very own dice games. I still remember a few of the mechanisms that I devised and have incorporated them into this makeover.

Concerns

First a couple concerns that I need to remind myself occasionally to keep this endeavor in check:

  • Although most of the work on this project came in fall of 2013, I am only writing about it now in January 2015. (In my January reflection on what I have done in game design I was reminded that I never published any of this work and should). I will still try to keep a fresh perspective on the effort and discuss some of the interim decisions.
  • This makeover is all about the mechanics, so it may seem dry. After all, how exciting is it to talk about Yahtzee? That is, unless you disguise it as a fire-breathing monster attacking a heavily populated city.
  • Is there really anything new to discover about this age-old mechanic? Let’s see.

At a Glance

In this first post let’s just take a glance at how the Dice in a Cup mechanism is generally used.

Note: Although, this discovery is a mechanical one, I have incorporated each mechanic into a gamelet and all of the gamelets into a simple filler game. A complete rule set of the game developed to test these mechanics will be posted in the Games section as Challenge Dice.

Description and General Mechanic

The primary mechanic in makeover here is on in which players take turns rolling a number of dice (usually 5 x D6). There are many nuances to this mechanic, but in the interest of not reporting a lot of information you already know, here’s a brief introduction:

Setup

  1. Simply put the dice in a cup or cup them in your hands.

Objective

  1. Achieve a prescribed set of dice after rolling.
  2. The desired set of dice (the hand) depends on the current objective of the game.

Play

  1. Roll all of the dice once.
  2. Keep/set aside any number of dice that are desirable toward achieving the objective.
  3. Roll the undesirable dice.
  4. Keep any combination of the originally kept dice and the second roll and set these aside.
    1. The player often changes strategies at this point if not making progress on the original objective.
  5. Roll the remaining undesirable dice, if any.
  6. Combine the kept dice with the last roll to form the best hand.

Typical Variants

When this mechanic is incorporated into a game, there are usually other variations to the typical play.

  • Restrict Rerolls:
    • The player cannot reroll specific dice.
    • The player must stop when a specific die or set of dice is rolled.
    • The player has fewer rerolls.
  • Extra Rerolls:
    • The player has additional rerolls.
    • Usually only one per turn or one at a time that can keep firing.
  • Extra Turns:
    • The player can start again if all the dice in one turn met a condition.
    • Usually if all the dice scored and the player risks all points on subsequent rolls.
  • Set a Die Face:
    • The player can set a die to a desired face instead of rolling.

These variations are introduced several ways:

  • A particular die face has an effect on the turn.
  • A player’s power can inhibit another player’s turn.
  • A player’s state (wound, curse) can inhibit that player’s turn.
  • A player can spend the game currency to take the desired action.
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Mechanics Makeover: Dice in a Cup – General Playtesting

Playtesting

A few words about the playtesting approach are in order so they are not necessary in every posting. While the specific variations in this makeover are relatively simple, a valuable aspect of this makeover is to review the testing approach to a highly variable game.

Approach

For playtesting an individual mechanic, I am introducing what I call a “Gamelet.” A gamelet (like an applet compared to an application) is a mini-game in the sense that it does the functions of a game, but in a very narrow sense. A good gamelet will exercise one mechanic in a very limited sense. In this case there are also Attributes that impact the operation of the mechanic. So there is a grid of Attributes and Gamelets to test if each attribute is tested separately.

 

Attribute 1

Attribute 2

Attribute 3

Gamelet A

 

 

 

Gamelet B

 

 

 

Gamelet C

 

 

 

 

However, I need to test how the different attributes affect each other also. Since I don’t have to test the same attribute applied twice in one scenario, those scenarios are not applicable.

Gamelet A

Attribute 1

Attribute 2

Attribute 3

Attribute 1

NA

 

 

Attribute 2

 

NA

 

Attribute 3

 

 

NA

 

Gamelet B

Attribute 1

Attribute 2

Attribute 3

Attribute 1

NA

 

 

Attribute 2

 

NA

 

Attribute 3

 

 

NA

 

Ultimately, then I end up with a grid for each gamelet or, more precisely a 3D matrix with two dimensions of Attributes and one dimension of Gamelets. The testing scenarios, then are [#Gamelets] x [#Attributes] x [#Attributes – 1]. So if I have 5 Gamelets and 3 Attributes, the total number of test scenarios is 30. I expect to have closer to 20 Gamelets and 5 Attributes, which creates a total of 400 test scenarios.

But we aren’t done yet. Each of those Attributes has 2 – 6 possible Values. Let’s say they each have 4 values to simplify. The number of permutations for 5 Attributes each with 4 Values is 1024. That puts our total possible game states at 400 x 1024 = 409600! This is just considering the mathematical variability of the game. Add in the testing iterations required when problems are discovered and then add in differences in the player tactics and strategies and the testing requirements have not only gone through the roof, but have escaped earth’s atmosphere.

Wow, all the more reason to make the testing fun! If the gamelets can be compiled into a game, it certainly will have a high degree of variability.

Testing 409600 different game states is a practical impossibility, so I will have to be smart about testing to get a sense as to how each variable impacts the game play. There are a couple approaches to testing that can help reduce the actual tests required:

Combine Like Scenarios: In this case, I have selected gamelets that are intentionally different, but in a game, there may be various actions or situations that are similar and testing can be done primarily on one and the impact inferred on the other.

Perform Thought Experiments: While the Thought Experiment is a tool that must be in every game designer’s bag of tricks, it is even more important in testing high variability game states.

Test Individual Attributes: This is probably the natural approach to testing for most designers. In fact, the designer most likely (and probably should) be introducing new Attributes to the game over time and so these will be tested as they enter the game. In this makeover, I am intentionally starting with a list of Attributes. So I need to test how each Attribute impacts each gamelet before testing combinations of Attributes. In this case, I will have to be extra diligent to understand the impact because I will have to infer impacts from the combinations later.

Test the Extreme States: In testing individual Attributes, I will want to pay particular attention to the extreme states and to note whether the impact is relatively linear across all values between the extremes. Example: if Attribute A has possible Values of 1, 2, 3, and 4, does the change in value from 1 to 4 have a linear impact on the game or does it act very differently, say at a value of 2?

Test Break Points: If the impact between extremes is not linear; there is a break point at which there is a big change to impact, then pay particular attention to these as well.

Test Combinations of Expected Dependent Attributes: Presumably some Attributes are more co-dependent than others. Special attention will need to be paid to these to determine where they may have break points as a combination.

Test a Random Sample: Finally, test a random sample of combinations of all Attributes. This may reveal other co-dependencies that were not anticipated and other combinations that just don’t work.

Test Outliers and Break Points: If any problems were discovered in the sample testing, then dig into them.

Breaking it down this way makes the number of variations/arrangements seem astronomical, but keep in mind that the number of variations/arrangements possible for a deck of 52 cards is 8×1067. When designing a game with a large number of dice or cards, these numbers are typical. For more information on how probability affects game design, read the great article “Probability for Game Designers” by James Earnst (of Cheapass Games) on the League of Game Makers.

What other testing approaches do you use to ease the burden of testing a high degree of variation?

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Mechanics Makeover: Dice in a Cup – Glossary

Glossary

In addition to the standard dice game terms, I have derived a few new ones for this makeover and for use in the Challenge Dice game. Not all are used right away, but this way the glossary can be referenced at any time. This may look like a lot of terminology for a simple game, but it is intended to be used intuitively. Defining terms helps that happen.

Challenge (Round): A turn where 1 player acts as Challenger and a final score is settled.

Challenge Roll: The result of the Challenger rolling the Challenge dice to determine the rules of that round.

Challenge Rules (Dice): The collection of rules created by the Challenge Roll.

Challenger: Indicates the player whose turn it is.

Clear Winner: When a roller wins a round without having to resolve the winner by tiebreaker.

Complete Round: When players have completed 1 Challenge Round as Challenger.

Concealed (Roll): Rollers roll the dice in secret and keep them concealed until resolving a winner.

Defender(s): Indicates the player(s) who has been challenged by the Challenger.

Final Tiebreaker: Compare total on Trash Dice according to the Challenge Goal: Big - Highest total wins. Little - Lowest total wins.

First/Lead Roller: The first player to roll the dice in a Challenge (according to the First Roller die.

Hand: The collection of dice used for scoring a round.

House Rules: There are many suggested rule variations and players can devise their own.

Natural: When a player's scoring dice include no wilds.

Rollers: Indicates the players involved in a particular Challenge (Challenger and all Defenders).

Scoop Foul: When a player scoops up her/his dice before fully scored.

Scoring Dice: Dice that have been collected for scoring the round.

Trash (Dice): Dice that were rolled, but were not used in scoring a hand.

Victory Point (VP): Earned for winning a round. Standard game is to 6 VPs.

Subject: 

Mechanics Makeover: Dice in a Cup – Round 1a

Design Workbench

Since I am starting to report this progress further into the design phase than previously, I will break up the “rounds” a little differently at first to catch up. Here’s how the first few rounds will shake out:

  1. I will catch up on the mechanics and their attributes, which I will call modifiers.
    1. Since there is a lot to report here, I’ll break this round up into two parts.
  2. I will catch up on the gamelets.
    1. Since there is a lot to report here, I’ll break this round up into three parts.
  3. I will catch up on the game created by compiling the gamelets.

At this point I have also published a glossary of terms as well. Some of them won’t make sense yet, as they are described in future articles, but it’s better to just get it all out on the table now. Since ultimately all of these mechanics and gamelets will end up in a game called Challenge Dice, from here on, I may refer to the collection of mechanics dice as the Challenge Dice, the rules resulting from compiling them as the Challenge Rules, the active player as the Challenger, and a gamelet as a Challenge Round.

Traditional Mechanics

As mentioned previously, many different games have introduced many different mechanics/modifiers to the dice rolling mechanic. These additions range from simply adding to or subtracting from the total, permitting or prohibiting re-rolls, locking certain die values, etc.

Something Old, Something New

In this discovery I have tried to find mechanics that can be introduced together and varied independently without breaking the game. I think I have several that work together and can show where they don’t work or don’t apply. However, the beauty of this approach is new modifiers can be introduced and the game system provides a means to test the interaction of that modifier with others.

Let’s start off by looking at modifiers individually. There are three basic sets of modifiers; starting from the bottom up:

  1. Those that affect the die rolls. (Roll Modifiers)
  2. Those that affect the goal of the roll. (Goal Modifiers)
  3. Those that affect the players rolling. (Round Modifiers)

In this round we will look at the first two sets and follow up with the last in the next round.

Roll Modifiers

Rolls/Rounds

Indicates the number of rolls/rounds (depending on the type of Challenge) to play to determine a winner.

Values

Description

Up To #

Each roller can take as many rolls/rounds as desired up to the number indicated.

Exactly #

Each roller must take the number of rolls/rounds as the number indicated.

Follow

The First Roller may choose to stop rolling at any number of rolls/rounds (up to 3).

The second Roller must follow with no more rolls than the Challenger.

Choice

The Challenger chooses the number of rolls or to follow.

Lock/Free

Indicates whether kept dice are Locked (cannot be re-rolled) or Free (can be re-rolled).

Values

Description

Lock

Kept dice cannot be re-rolled.

Free

All dice can be re-rolled.

Choice

The Challenger chooses whether dice kept are locked or free.

Keep/Throw

Indicates whether the roller is required to keep or throw a specific number of dice.

Values

Description

Keep

The minimum # of dice that must be kept in each roll.

Throw

The minimum # of dice that must be thrown in each roll.

None

There is no restriction on the number of dice to keep or throw.

Choice

The Challenger chooses any keep or throw rule.

Special Rules:

  • The Keep/Throw rule only applies if there is another roll.
  • A roller's turn ends if they cannot follow a Keep/Throw rule.
  • If a roller must keep dice that cannot be used, they immediately become Trash and cannot be used later.
    • (Exception when totaling for a tiebreaker).

Wilds & Wild #

Together these two dice indicate whether there is a wild number and what the number is.

Values

Description

No Wild

There is no Wild # in the Challenge.

Wild

There is a Wild # in the Challenge. A die that is wild is changed to the desired # on scoring.

Wild Once

There is a Wild # in the Challenge. A die that is wild is changed to the desired # before subsequent rolls.

Too Wild

There is a Wild # in the Challenge. The roller must stop when the number of wilds equals the wild number.

Choice

The Challenger chooses the wild modifier to use.

 

Values

Description

Wild #

Indicates the # that is wild.

Special Rules:

  • The Wild # may count as any number including the # that is wild.
  • The Wild # is also used for other rules, so keep it even if there is No Wild.

Goal Modifiers

Goal/Winning Condition

Indicates whether the goal of the challenge is to get the biggest/longest/highest or smallest/shortest/lowest score.

Values

Description

Big

The goal of the challenge is to get the biggest/longest/highest score to win the round (or Tiebreaker).

Little

The goal of the challenge is to get the smallest/shortest/lowest score to win the round (or Tiebreaker).

Choice

The choice can be Big, Little, or Big and Little (like High-Low Poker) for some games.

Difficulty: Easy/Hard

Indicates which game rules are in play, Easy or Hard.

Values

Description

Easy

Use the Easy (standard) rules.

Hard

Use the "Hard Way" rules (which usually make the game more restrictive).

Choice

The Challenger chooses the level of difficulty.

That is a lot for now and probably isn’t coming together yet for you, but hopefully it will when we get onto the gamelets and then you can refer back to this article.

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Mechanics Makeover: Dice in a Cup – Round 1b

Design Workbench

This is the second and final part describing the individual mechanics and their attributes – the modifiers. Again, there are three basic sets of mechanics; starting from the bottom up:

  1. Those that affect the die rolls. (Roll Modifiers)
  2. Those that affect the goal or victory condition. (Goal Modifiers)
  3. Those that affect the players. (Round Modifiers)

Picking up where we left off, in this round we will look at the last set. I set these apart from the other two because these only impact the die rolls in a meta sense. They don’t impact the actual rolls, but may impact the choices you make during rolling, since they impact who you are rolling against and who goes first.

Round Modifiers

Opponent

Indicates who the Challenger will play against.

Values

Description

Left

Challenge the player to the left.

Right

Challenge the player to the right.

Across

Challenge the player across the table.

Choice

Challenge any one player of their choice.

High Score

Challenge the player with the highest score (or next highest if Challenger is highest).

Low Score

Challenge the player with the lowest score (or next lowest if Challenger is lowest).

Special Rules:

  • If there are two possible Defenders, the Challenger gets to choose.

First/Lead Roller

Indicates who will roll first; the Challenger or Defender.

Values

Description

Challenger

The Challenger rolls first.

Defender

The Defender rolls first.

Choice

The Challenger chooses who rolls first.

Special Rules:

  • The dice are rolled secretly in some challenges, but they should still be rolled according to this rule. Based on the first roller’s demeanor, the second roller may choose to be more/less aggressive.

Modifiers Summary

Playtest

Prototype

Since I am reporting this after much has been done and several prototypes have come and gone, I will just describe the major prototypes along the way to give an idea of how they have developed. We will pick up with Prototype III later.

Prototype I

The initial prototype was just a set of d6 dice of different colors and a reference card that showed what each number for each colored die meant. This was functional enough to get the die rolling, but quickly proved to be too much effort and slowed the pace of testing down too much.

Prototype II

I created dice sides in Excel, printed them on a full sheet label, trimmed them, and stickered the dice. This made for much quicker resolution of the game parameters. At this point, though, I had dice to determine the gamelets as well, but this was too difficult to remember. Since Ithe players had to refer to the instructions often for the gamelet instructions, I will replace these dice with cards in the next prototype.

Playing

We’ll start talking about how to play and changes to the game play once we get through this long setup.

New Rules

Since there are so many variables in play here, I created a table of the recommended approach to introducing each of the modifiers into the game.

Working It Out

There is a lot in this notebook page and the next two as well. Hopefully, they are worth the trip. I’ll save any commentary on the progress of the mechanics once I have described them all.

Subject: 

New Games

We always have several game designs in progress at any given time. I will try to post progress on at least a few of them as they get to a stage that is more than just a concept.

Objective

Design new games or game systems that provide a fun, interesting, highly interactive experience. In this process I expect to post:

  • A description and evaluation of the game/system concept.
  • Iteratively look for and report what is working and what needs work.
  • A description and rationale of each “improvement.”
  • The evaluation – redesign – playtest cycle for major changes.
  • Any tools that I use or create in the process.
  • A description with rules and PnP files (as appropriate) of the “final” product.

Hopefully, you will find this discovery process interesting and maybe even gain some inspiration from it.

Subject: 

Game Makeovers

Not that I don’t have enough to do in working on several original designs and concepts, but the brain is always looking for creative distractions to “recharge under load” and to break out of neural pathways that rut so quickly. Who knows, maybe this process will result in something worthwhile itself as well.

There is value in deriving something new from something known; those who know the original are on their way toward understanding the new. It is a form of assimilation. Resistance is futile.

One might criticize, “A makeover isn’t original and is a waste of time.” I think that makeovers are not only valuable exercises, but they also result in very viable games. There are many and one might even say that most games are makeovers of previous games since something truly new comes maybe once a year. Here are a few popular makeovers of very simple traditional games:

Cheesonomics: Go Fish

Diamonds: Whist

King of Tokyo: Yahtzee

Oddball Aeronauts: Top Trumps

One Night Ultimate Werewolf: Werewolf/Mafia

Objective

Redesign a traditional game or game system to make a more modern, fun, interesting, probably less random and more interactive game while maintaining enough of the original game that it is still obviously “in there.” In this process I expect to post:

  • An evaluation of the existing game/system for what is working and what needs work.
  • A description and rationale of each “improvement.”
  • The evaluation – redesign – playtest cycle for major changes.
  • Any tools that I use or create in the process.
  • A description with rules and PnP files (as appropriate) of the “final” product (at least as far as I intend to take it) and a comparison to the original.
  • (Maybe) A step or two further; breaking my first rule of trying to maintain a recognizable semblance to the original game and seeing how far I can take the design.

Hopefully you find this discovery process interesting and maybe even gain some inspiration from it.

 

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Game Makeover: Nines

This is the first in the Game Makeover series.

From this page you can learn about the original game, read about the background to some of my decisions and methods, or jump right into the makeover.

There will be images displayed throughout the series. You can see the full Nines Makeover Image Gallery here.

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Game Makeover: Nines - Original Rules

Description and Rules

“Nines” is a simple set collection card game for 2 or more players played in a series of hands. The game is played with 2 or more standard decks of cards (jokers included), depending on the number of players. We play 2 decks for 2 – 3 players, 3 decks for 4 – 6 players. (I have not played with more than 6 players, but presumably the game will scale with more decks – it just won’t be fun.)

Setup

  1. At the beginning of each hand nine cards are dealt face down to each player.
  2. Each player turns over 3 of their 9 cards at random and arranges their cards into a 3 x 3 grid, putting the 3 face up cards wherever they want.
  3. One card of the stock is turned over to start a discard pile. The stock is the draw pile.
  4. The first player is the person to the left of the dealer.

Objective

  1. Score the fewest points by:
    1. Making the most sets of the same number in rows and columns of the grid. All cards in a set score 0.
    2. Having the lowest point total of cards that are not in sets; including some special cards that score 0 or -3.

Play

  1. In turn each player does the following:
    1. Draw one card from the draw or discard piles.
    2. Either:
      1. Replace any card in their tableau with the new card played face up and discard the card that was replaced.  -OR-
      2. Discard the card that was drawn.
    3. Their turn is ended.
  2. Play continues until one player has all nine cards in their tableau face up. They are done.
  3. The rest of the players turn all of their cards face up in place.
  4. The final round is completed with the rest of players having one more turn.

Scoring

  1. The hand:
    1. Kings always score 0.
    2. Jokers always score -3.
    3. All of the cards in a set score 0.
    4. Cards not in a set:
      1. Jacks and Queens score 10.
      2. All other cards score face value.
  2. The game:
    1. Keep a running total of player scores at the end of each hand.

Winning

As soon as at least one player has reached a predetermined score (usually 100) the player with the lowest total score wins.

Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Introduction

Introduction

I hope to spawn some dialogue about the redesigns described in this Game Makeover blog. However, in these first few entries much of the work described has already been completed and my actual efforts will probably be ahead of the postings for a few weeks. I don’t want this to discourage commentary, but I also don’t want my responses or lack of direction changes to be an indication that I am not listening to feedback. I figure that most of you reading (someone is reading, right?) are catching these much later than when they were posted anyway, so no harm done.  On to the makeover!

Objective

Redesign the traditional card game Nines (Nines on BGG) (also known as 9-Card Golf) to make a more “modern,” fun and interesting game while maintaining enough of the original game that it is still obviously “in there.” Let’s see how far I can get without making a different game.

Why Nines?

I started similar tweaking on a standard trick-taking game, but that is all the rage now; most recently by the grand master of card game makeovers, Mike Fitzgerald, in Diamonds (Stronghold Games, 2014). So I will leave my efforts for another day and makeover a game that is certainly less familiar, but hopefully just as ripe for the picking. Although Nines has an abysmal 3.25 average rating on BGG, there is some good in it. It is a typical traditional, family card game that appeals to those who would also like SkipBo (BGG average rating of 5.30). Please don’t let that stop you from reading on… I have played many games of Nines with family and friends and somewhere around the house there is always 3 decks shuffled together for this purpose.

Concerns

First a couple concerns that I need to remind myself occasionally to keep this endeavor in check:

  • Right out of the chute I am concerned with being able to keep the game appropriate for the casual card players who usually play it…
  • …while extending to other gamers. This tightrope may be razor thin.
  • Since the game is so simple, I am immediately adding to it and adding… “mechanics soup, order up.”

At a Glance

In this first post let’s just take a glance at how Nines is played, what’s good about it and what needs work . I’ll post these on a separate page so I can easily refer to them later. One of the first challenges is to define what the game is today – variants abound – so I will simply start with how I have been taught to play. The “original” rules are in a separate post so they can be referenced easily.

Note: As the design evolves, there will be new rules introduced and existing ones changed. For expedience, I won’t post every new rule set, but will try to describe those changes. When I have reached a game and rule set that I think are final, I’ll post the new rules in the Games section.

Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Traditional Variants

Imperfect Record:

In comparing the rules as I have learned them with what I have found online, it is obvious that I am working from an imperfect record of the original game.

Traditional Game Rules

Most people learn the rules for games from someone else, never have to read the rules, and therefore don’t really know if they are playing the game according to the rules.  This lack of rules knowledge is even greater for traditional games where the rules have been “handed down” verbally many times without any reference to the actual rules if indeed they exist. It is interesting to compare rules for the same game with someone who has learned them through a different genetic tree.

Like comparing documents derived through different paths from the same origin, one might reconstruct the original document. Don’t worry, I won’t go through all that, but an interesting side exercise for my Game Makeover of Nines is to compare some rules variations. I located several rules sets online, but for expedience will stick to a comparison of the rules as I learned them (hereafter known as the “JP Document”) to the rules recorded in BGG (hereafter known as the “BGG Document”). Let’s compare and evaluate the variations and maybe speculate a little as to why the variants exist. My assumption is that variations probably represent house rules made over time to tweak the game in different ways to make it shorter, easier, more fun, etc.

Variations

The variations are tabulated below with a color key indicating their relative benefit:

  • Positive
  • Negative
  • Neutral

BGG Document

Comparison

JP Document

Setup

Turn over two cards in different columns.

JP makes for a quicker hand and some (minor) decisions on placement – mitigating luck.

Turn over 3 cards and arrange however you want.

Game Play

A drawn card may be played face down on the tableau.*

BGG allows for some deception / bluffing, but with the option of only turning over 1 card at the end, it is minor.

All cards drawn that are placed in the collection go in face up.

The game is one hand.

BGG is faster. JP mitigates good/bad luck potential of one hand.

The game is a series of rounds to a predetermined score.

Final Round

Players have the option of turning one card over before their last play.**

JP allows for greater shift in final round – mitigating luck. (Though potential is still relatively small). Sometimes a set is made with the revealed cards.

Players turn over all cards once one player has completed their collection.

Scoring

Only cards in columns can count as sets.

JP allows for more sets and 2nd sets require only 2 cards – essentially applies a graduated scoring mechanism.

Sets can be made in columns and rows.

Aces score 0 points.

Minor difference. Aces (and 2s) are usually mixed with Kings and Jokers to make low scoring non-sets anyway.

Aces score 1 point.

* Not certain if this is only applies to cards drawn from the draw pile.

** Not certain if this is instead of drawing a card.

Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Glossary

Glossary

In addition to the standard card playing terms, I have derived a few new ones for this makeover. Not all are used right away, but I will keep a running glossary in a separate post that can be referenced at any time. This may look like a lot of terminology for a simple game, but it is intended to be used intuitively. Defining terms helps that happen.

  • Action: Specifically, the action described on an Action Card.
  • Action Card: A card that describes an Action on it.
    • Collection Actions: Actions that involve Clock Cards in that player’s 3 x 3 grid.
    • Card Actions: Actions that involve drawing and discarding cards.
    • Interactive Actions: Actions that can involve another player's 3 x 3 grid.
  • Action Space: The space below the grid where unused Action Cards are kept.
  • Cabinet: The thematic reference to the 3 x 3 grid or Complete Collection.
  • Clock Card: Any of the cards that have a clock on them and are used in collections.
  • Clock Type: The type of clock (effectively, suit and corresponding color) depicted on a Clock Card.
  • Collection: Any row of 3 Clock Cards that have the same point/time value.
  • Complete Collection: The 3 x 3 grid of Clock Cards.
  • Key/Key Card: Any Clock Card that also has a key on it.
  • Lock(ed): A row in the 3 x 3 grid that has been locked with a Lock Card.
  • Lock Card: A card that depicts a lock and is used to lock a row.
  • Lock Space: The space to the immediate left of the grid where Locks are placed.
  • Revealed: A card in the grid that is face up.
  • Reveal(ing): Turning a Clock Card in the grid face up.
  • Set: Any row or column of 3 Clock Cards that have the same Clock Type/color/suit.
  • Shelf: The thematic reference to the rows in the grid.
  • Time/Value/Points: All refer to the point value of the Clock Card indicated by the time on the clock.
  • Unrevealed: A Clock Card in the grid that is face down.
  • Used/Unused: An Action Card that has / has not been used for its Action.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Initial Assessment

Initial Assessment

Before doing a makeover of the game, I want to consider "what works" and "what needs work" in this initial assessment.

What Works:

Now with the rules understood, let’s see what is good about the game – what works.

  • Accessible
    • Simple Rules
    • Teach/Learn in 2 minutes.
      • No rules exceptions.
    • Simple Components
      • 2 – 3 standard decks of playing cards.
  • Scalable
    • 2-3 players with 2 decks.
    • 4-6 players with 3 decks.
    • Can push to as many players as you have decks (yawn).
  • Quick Setup (Initial)
    • From opening the packs of cards to playing the first hand is about 3 minutes.
  • Quick Rounds (Low downtime between plays in a round).
    • Typical time for a round is maybe 10-15 seconds per player.
  • Quick Hands
    • Typical time for a hand is about 5-6 minutes per player.
  • Game Length
    • Players can decide on a threshold score to end the game (and therefore the approximate duration of the game).
  • Scoring
    • “Low Score Wins”
      • Not rare in card games, but also not that common, trying to score low adds interest to the game.
    • Quick and simple scoring method. Though, you need a pad and pencil.
  • Finish Final Round
    • Once one player initiates the end of the hand, all other players get a final turn.
  • Streamlined
    • A combination of other factors listed here, but the game is just very smooth in operation.
  • Cascading (though Random)
    • Since discards can often be beneficial to the next player (particularly since many are discarded blindly) it is typical for a bunch of benevolent discards in a row.  In the metagame this often resolves to essentially passing the discard to the next player instead of discarding it with a sigh and an, “oh, sure!” (or something close to that).
  • Visual
    • Building the tableau in front of you has an attraction as well as it provides everyone with easy visual cues as to how close someone is to ending the round..

What Needs Work:

It appears that there is plenty to like about this game (though the reasons may be thin), but what makes it less than great – what needs work? (In no particular order).

  • Unmitigated Randomness
    • Easily 90+% luck. Make that 98% luck if all players have “card sense.”
  • Few Decisions
    • There are very few decisions and most are dead simple. (At least, a positive in that is even the most AP prone players don’t have much to cogitate on.)
  • Bland
    • Although the game is also called 9-Card Golf, it really has no theme. The golf reference is simply related to the similarity to golf in the objective is to score the lowest on 9 cards/holes and in some cases, the game is played in 9 or 18 hands.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire
    • There is almost nothing a player can do to affect another player.
    • The progress of other players is only interesting when they are close to ending the hand.
  • Game Length
    • The typical score threshold to cause the end of game is 100. The threshold has to be set high enough to mitigate a few random bad hands causing the end, but low enough to mitigate the game overstaying its welcome. Due to high randomness and low variation, that perfect threshold may not exist.
    • The end of the game is uncertain and not in full view of the players. (Not uncommon, but I think less than desirable for this simple, already very random game).
  • Redundancy
    • Play is essentially the same with very little change within a round, a hand, and a game. Someone may press their luck a little more if they need to make a big point swing in the last hand – go for broke – but there is little they can do if the cards aren’t there.
    • There is no narrative arc to the game.
  • Wasted Information
    • The card suit is ignored – half of the information is wasted.
  • Wasted Cards (Chaff)
    • Many cards have no real value in the game other than as filler. Any card with a value above 5 or 6 is generally ignored in collections unless luck has it that a pair is made quickly. It would seem that if few players are interested in face cards, the one player that is will easily collect them, but another player will be urged to rush to a finish to catch them with lots of points.
  • Frustration
    • Related to randomness. Since discards are often done blindly, the player often sees that they have discarded something they really wanted. Although, this has a gambling attraction for some.
  • Hand Setup
    • Although relatively quick in theory, shuffling 162 cards, particularly for a set collection game, every 12 minutes is wearing. (This is when the players refill their tea and chat about the weather.)
  • Narrative Arc
    • As suggested by the Bland and Redundant issues described, there is no narrative much less a narrative arc to this game. Maybe one isn’t to be expected, but we’ll watch for indications of what can be done.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – General Playtesting

Playtesting

A few words about the playtesting approach are in order so they are not necessary in every posting.

Approach

Most of the changes made are playtested one at a time to avoid ambiguous cause and effect unless two or more changes can be made either to complement one another (intentionally as a unit) or it is quite certain that they have unrelated effects.

Player Types

See my other post about using Player Types in Playtesting . A high level description of their strategies and how they are exhibited in this game follows. Due to the multiplayer solitaire history of this game, the player types that focus on their own collection will be the most common among players who know the game. In rough order of expected occurrence:

  • Perfectionists: In this game, a Perfectionist will try to get every Set and Collection possible to score 0 or less and won’t worry too much about the progress of other players.
  • Soloists: In this game, a Soloist completely ignores opportunities to impact others and does not try to hold cards that the next player can use.
  • Rushers: In this game, a Rusher hopes to catch others with an incomplete collection started with higher cards or with high cards yet Unrevealed.
  • Pushers/Pressers: In this game, a Pusher is willing to start Collections with higher cards, hoping they will be discarded by others and therefore abundant.
  • Opportunists: In this game, an Opportunist will ditch a Collection that has cards that are in decreasing number and take advantage of Action Cards.
  • Long-Gamers: Though the “long game” here is not very long, in this game, a Long-Gamer is more likely to hold onto their original Collections, waiting for the right cards to come.
  • Fiddlers: In this game, a Fiddler will most likely take advantage of Action Cards unless there is an obvious play to the Collection. They will focus on Action Cards that effect their own Collection.
  • Meddlers: In this game, a Meddler will most likely take advantage of Action Cards unless there is an obvious play to the Collection. They will focus on Action Cards that effect the Collections of other players.
  • SOBs: In this game, an SOB will most likely take advantage of the “Take That” Action Cards unless there is an absolutely perfect play to the their Collection. They will retaliate when possible.
  • Snipers: In this game there are not a lot of opportunities to be so selective with sniping, but a Sniper will try to attack the leader.

Note: The specific strategies of each of these player types varies based on the elements of the game at the time of testing.

Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Round 1

Design Workbench

I immediately had several ideas about how to change up this game and noted them on my planning board (subject for another article). However, I am applying the changes stepwise and analyzing the results before making other changes.

Theme Me

Since this exercise not only started with a mechanism, but a complete game, any theme at this point may be considered to be “pasted on.” However, I am generally a theme-first gamer so the first change I want to make to the game is to apply a theme so that all future decisions are impacted by and hopefully will conform to the theme. Like making over a room in the house, we already know the purpose of the room and are starting by pasting on the wall paper before we have selected the furniture and wall-hangings. We are setting the décor of this room with the theme.

First Thoughts

While extending the theme of golf may seem like the obvious choice, there is nothing about this game that makes me think of golf. However, a collection of things that have point values equal to the depicted number except the highest depicted point card has a value of zero made me think of clocks. So, some early thematic thoughts:

  • The 12 o’clock card scores zero. 12:00 is also 00:00.
  • Of course, these clocks have to be collectible so they are fancy and/or antique.
  • The collection already has clocks in it: some (3) that are known and some that are of unknown value.

So if the numbered cards are replaced by cards:

  • With clocks with times on the hour of 1 – 10,
  • And the Kings are replaced by 12:00 cards,
  • What about the Jacks and Queens? What about 11:00? Pitch them all.

OK, I have already broken the theme. I am using clocks on the hours without 11:00, but I’m moving on.

Early Graphic Design (concept)

Employing the clock and collections concepts to the graphic design and art:

  • The card faces for point cards have clocks with their faces depicting their values as times 1-10 and 12 on the hour.
  • The card faces depict suit (still 4) by the type of clock depicted (traditional mantle, pendulum, torsion pendulum, etc.)
  • The jokers are special clocks that do not match any others. For now, they can still be in their packing crates marked Fragile. (They must be Italian clocks).
  • The card backs depict a dusty clock obscured by cobwebs and in sepia tone or grey scale.

Name Me

So now the game is one of collecting clocks, but oddly enough, for the time displayed on their faces, not for the type of clocks. Collecting clocks for an odd reason? Hmmm. Welcome to:

Eclectic Clock Collectors

Story Me

A peculiar and scary old gentleman has hired you to complete his collection of antique clocks. He has three shelves with enough room to hold three clocks each. His collection starts with three clocks that you have identified and (for now) six clocks that are too dusty to recognize. More than just collecting clocks, though, the old collector says he is "saving time." You aren’t sure what he means by this, but he says you will be rewarded for collecting clocks that have stopped at the same time.

Playtest

Prototype

Using the 3 standard decks that I had assembled to play the original game, I just eliminated the Jacks and Queens.

Playing

I simulated 2 and 4 player games several times. The Jacks eloped with the Queens and were not missed. The increased percentage of valued cards (Joker, K, A, 2-5, maybe 6) is real. Though not highly perceptible, in game speed, the frustration of getting one of those usually unwanted face cards is gone.

New Rules

The deck has changed, but there are no specific rules changes yet.

Working It Out

So have I made any progress with these minor changes?

  • Bland
    • I have a theme that is at least a little more interesting and has potential narrative for game mechanisms.
  • Wasted Components
    • I have trimmed the deck by 15% and eliminated cards that are mostly overlooked or unwanted. Though, still a long way to go on this one.
  • Wasted Information
    • I haven’t addressed this directly yet, but I am making an artistic commitment to suit which will have to be addressed.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Round 2

Design Workbench

Starting the Game

The first thing that bothers me about this game is the first thing that happens. Each player turns up 3 cards as their starting collection. At least in the version I was taught, they can put these in the grid however they want, but this is still very random and a player can feel like they have nothing to start with.

So I introduced a market at the beginning to “buy” the first three cards. Instead of dealing 9 cards to each player and then turning up 3 each, I dealt 6 cards to each player and then turned 3 cards up in the center to form a market. Players in turn select one of the cards from the market and a new card is turned up to replace it. Once all players have 3 cards from the market, they arrange their grid. Technically, it does not matter if the 6 unrevealed cards are dealt before or after the market, but for now we’ll stick with the deal being first.

Thematically, the collectors start their collection by going to an estate sale or collectibles auction. The competition for the treasures is heavy, but they eventually come home with their first 3 clocks. This is called the Start Phase or the Auction Phase. So the game now has three distinct phases:

  • Start Phase: Drawing from the market and setting up the initial 3 x 3 grids (Cabinets).
  • Collection Phase: Drawing/Discarding and placing new cards into the Cabinet.
  • End Phase: Once one player completes their Cabinet to the end of the hand.

Ending the Game

At this point I also tinkered with the end of the game. Playing to a predetermined threshold is not uncommon, but it is arbitrary. Playing 9 or 18 hands (to simulate holes in golf) is arbitrary and a long game. I decided to see how the game would play with no shuffling and playing once through the deck(s). This would provide a predictable end to the game, keep the game length about the same for any number of players, and maybe add some interest on the last hand when the draw pile, and therefore time, is running out.

Playtest

Prototype and Playing

Still using the 3 standard decks that I had assembled to play the original game, I played several 2, 3, and 4 player hands using the 3 card market to select the original 3 cards for each collection. At this point, I am neglecting the higher player counts mostly since it takes so much more time to test and I am making minor changes and refining. The market is definitely most interesting at the lower play count (2-3) than at 4, since each player has a greater chance of getting a second card from the market that they have their eye on. If this doesn’t play well at higher player counts, I am assuming for now that more cards in the market will remedy the problem, so I am moving on.

Playing to the end of the deck (at its current size) the hands per game look like this:

  • 2 players = 4 hands
  • 3 players = 3 hands
  • 4 players = 2 hands
  • 5+ players = 1 hand with 3 decks, but boosting with another deck for every two additional players should get 2 hands.

While I was at it, I tinkered around with the idea that the players could go to a 3-card market for the entire game, but this did not seem viable in the current state, at least, so I dropped it.

New Rules

The new rules for the Start Phase look something like this:

Start Phase

  1. Draw one card from the market in turn order starting with the player to the left of the dealer.
  2. Replace the card in the market with the top card from the draw pile.
  3. Continue until 3 cards have been drawn.
  4. Arrange Cabinet however you want.

Working It Out

So have I made any progress with these changes?

  • Unmitigated Randomness
    • At least some of the randomness in setup has been mitigated. Players have options for the cards that they will keep instead of being completely at the mercy of the deal.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire
    • The improvement here is small since it only lasts as long as the setup, but right away the player is trying to guess how the other players will choose their cards. Many times the selection is obvious, but a mid to high rank pair in the market is an invitation, especially in a 2 or 3 player game.
  • Few Decisions
    • There are a few decisions that have crept into the setup as well to pick a strategy, though still light, on what collections a player may want to start with.
    • With the deck running low in the last hand players may have to change their strategies.
  • Game Length
    • The market adds a little time to the setup, but the increase is negligible or there maybe even a decrease since the players are likely to have a better start. Presumably, we have essentially cut through the first few rounds.
    • With the “once through the deck” idea, game length is at least predetermined.
  • Frustration
    • We’ve taken a chip out of frustration at setup, but the biggest frustrations, during play, haven’t been touched yet.
  • Hand Setup
    • Shuffling within the game has been eliminated, so the hands go quickly. (Now there is only scoring between hands.)
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Round 3

Design Workbench

Player Interaction

The next aspect of the game I want to address is the lack of player interaction. As the game stands, the only interaction is the occasional time that one player has a discard that the next player wants and the first player has the reasonable ability to hold onto it for a while. This doesn’t happen often since,

  • Many of the discards are done blindly from the unrevealed cards in the grid.
  • The discarding player often has no real choice in where to place a new card (and therefore which card will be discarded).

So there are few opportunities for even this light decision.

The way I see to incorporate some player interaction is through some actions that players can take on one another (seems obvious enough). Since this is a card game, those actions will be on cards, Action Cards. With a variety of actions possible on these cards, I can address some of the other aspects of the game that need work like dealing with some of the frustration related to the randomness of the unrevealed cards and adding some variety and decisions to change up each round.

I can also see a potential use for those unwanted high point cards, but for now I’ll just introduce the Action Cards to the deck and see how they work in play.

Here is a list of Action Cards that came about fairly quickly, categorized by their general effect (help me, hinder you). I wanted 3-4 cards in three levels of impact:

  • Help Me Cards
    • Related to the Collection:
      • Dust the Shelf: Reveal any unrevealed card in your collection. (Cannot be the last card in a Collection)?
      • Get an Appraisal: Peek at any unrevealed card in any player's collection (including your own).
      • Spring Cleaning: Swap any 2 cards on your shelves (revealed or unrevealed).
    • Related to Drawing/Discarding Cards:
      • Collector's Road Show: Draw 3 cards (or some number related to the number of players) from the draw pile and use the Card of your choice. Return the others in any order.
      • One Man's Trash: Draw 3 cards (or some number related to the number of players) from the discard pile and use the Card of your choice. Discard the others in any order.
      • Time and Time Again: Play Again.
  • Hinder You/Take That Cards
    • Back in Time: Turn over any revealed Clock Card in any player's cabinet.
    • Steal a Minute: Steal a revealed Clock Card from any collection.
    • Time Out: Send any Clock Card from anyone's collection to the discard pile.
    • Time Travel: Trade two Clock Cards between any 2 players.
  • Other Cards
    • New Action: I threw these in and played an action that would come to mind – what I wish the card would allow me to do at that time.
    • Swap Meet: Trade one Clock Card with any willing player. (I found there was a shortage of “willing” players – even when they were all me – so this is retired for now).
    • Time Warp: I wanted an action that would change the time on a Clock Card, but this is not feasible at this time.

A few of these actions may result in an empty place in a player’s collection. For now all the Action Cards have the wording: “That player immediately replaces the card with the top card of the draw pile, in the same state (revealed/unrevealed) as the card that is replaced.”

I created them through thinking about a combination of thematic, clock collecting/time-related ideas, and typical card effects. As a result, they all have time themed names that are descriptive of the action. Unfortunately, they are a mixture of names that represent physical things you may do related to collecting clocks and concepts related to time. So, though they sound consistent, they aren’t really. Even so, they will do for now.

Playing with Probability

Also at this time, I decided to try playing with the number of 10s in the game. I had wanted to do this earlier, but this change required a change to the testing decks (to be easily tested) that I was dragging my feet on. Since 7, 8, 9, and 10 are generally unwanted cards, I doubled the number of 10s in the game. New players of the original game usually ask if they can collect Jacks and Queens together anyway. So now there are:

  • 3 cards in 4 suits for values 1-9 and 12.
  • 6 cards in 4 suits for value 10.
  • 6 cards (total) of no suit for the “Special Treasures” valued at -3.
  • 3 cards of no suit for each of 10 “Action Cards” with no point value.

Playtest

Prototype

At this point the original decks aren’t going to cut it without modification, so I created labels for each card that I applied to the original decks. The Clock Cards have a clock face with the number that is their point value in large print. They are in 4 colors (black, blue, red, and green). I pasted over the Jacks for the second set of 10s. The Jokers now say “Unique Treasure” and have a picture of a crate with a “FRAGILE” sticker on it. The Action Cards have their name, a brief description of their effect, and a picture of an alarm clock.

 

Playing

There was a lot to test here so the improved prototype was very helpful. Especially since I was trying to determine the impact to the duration of hands and games, trying to figure out what a card means would be too disruptive. As it was, adding the Action Cards to the deck had several unwanted impacts, like increasing the deck size and therefore eliminating any chance of running out of cards in the final round. I was fine with the deck as is for this testing, though, as I was mostly interested in testing the actions allowed by the Action Cards – do they work, are they fun, etc. I played many 2, 3, and 4 player games and revised the actions throughout the process.

I also created a spreadsheet for recording several statistics for every hand and game, paying particular attention to the use of Action Cards. The spreadsheet allows for testing alternate scoring mechanisms and summarizes the results for the different player counts to show any oddities. (average, min, and max of time, cards, and scores).

As for the 10s, they are a lot more attractive now and make for great fodder for the Action Cards that manipulate cards in the Cabinets.

Note: With the addition of action cards that affect how cards are drawn, I have all but eliminated the possibility of using the market once the hand begins.

New Rules

As a result of having the Action Cards in the game, I had to create a few new rules. Some may be temporary, depending on how the Action Cards are ultimately implemented, but these will work for now:

Start Phase

  • If an Action Card is drawn for the market, set it aside (“burned”) and draw again.

Collection Phase Rules related to Action Cards:

  • An Action Card can only be used once.
  • An Action Card must be either played for its Action immediately or discarded.
    • If used for its Action, the card is discarded perpendicular to the discard pile to indicate that it is used and cannot be drawn. (Years of Canasta taught me this trick.)
    • If discarded unused, it is placed in the discards normally and the next player may choose to draw and use it.
  • If the use of an Action Card creates a hole in a player’s collection, the player immediately draws a replacement card and place it face down to fill the gap.
  • Once a player has completed a collection on a shelf (all the same number) that shelf is locked and another player cannot use an Action Card to disrupt it. (This may be temporary. I am considering the concept of “locking” a shelf and how that may be implemented.) This is to limit the ability of the “Take That” mechanism to drag out a round.

Working It Out

So have I made any progress with these changes?

  • Unmitigated Randomness
    • The Action Cards allow for several mitigations to randomness:
    • Pre-mitigation: Drawing multiple cards and choosing one.
    • Post-mitigation: Shuffling clocks on the shelves and between players.
  • Few Decisions
    • The Action Cards introduce quite a few new decisions and some that can be quite interesting. EX: I may want to force you to discard a low point card, but the next player will get it from the discards, so I may be better off causing you to discard a mid-level card that is paired up.
  • Bland
    • Some new actions that relate to collecting clocks have been added that generally function within the game as the thematic action would indicate.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire
    • Some actions have been added that allow players to effect other players directly.
  • Game Length
    • The Action Cards themselves do not add significant time to the game, but they present tougher decisions that can result in slowed play; particularly with higher player counts. EX: If you can trade a card with any of 3 other players, you are considering as many as 24 other cards.
  • Redundancy
    • The Action Cards do much to eliminate the redundancy of the game. With about 25% of the cards now providing an alternate play, most rounds are impacted by the Action Cards.
  • Wasted Cards
    • The 10s are now a vital part of the game and actually add interest to the use of Action Cards.
    • The 7, 8, and 9 point cards are still mostly unused and unwanted, so there is no progress on these (yet).
  • Frustration
    • The Action Cards alleviate some of the frustration by providing other means to get the cards you need and to retrieve a card that was lost.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Round 4

Design Workbench

Catching Up

In this round I am going to catch up on a few things that have happened over the previous rounds, but I have been building information over time.

Player Order

At first I was concerned that the player order would have some impact on which player went out first or the score (First Player Preference). Playtesting statistics so far don’t show a bias, even though in my testing statistics Player 1 is always the player to the left of the dealer, their average score is in line with other players at 2, 3, and 4 player counts.

In any case, I had some ideas to mitigate any problem that may exist which at this point are not implemented. On the shelf for future reference if needed are:

  • Players draw from the market in reverse order during the Start Phase.
  • The deal passes to the person who was the first to complete their Cabinet in the previous hand.

Round Dynamics

One of the issues that I wanted to work on in this game was the lack of variability in how each round, hand, and game played out. To be fair, each round has a slight arc, but the game is really just a series of rounds. There is not much difference in play one round to the next. Did the introduction of the Action Cards have any impact? With the introduction of some “Take That” opportunities there could be a pile on the leader in later rounds, but not so much if the “Take That” is limited or light as we have seen so far. So this is what a round looks like and how the use of Action Cards varies within them:

Round Dynamics Observed:

  • Early Round:
    • Establish Sets
  • Middle Round:
    • Collect Sets
    • Adjust Sets (based on card count/availability and potential risk, etc.)
  • Late Round:
    • Finish Sets
    • Limit Losses

Round Dynamics and Actions:

The Action Cards definitely have an impact on the decisions available and options taken, but the general round dynamics stay pretty much the same. Here is how the Action Cards seem to be used based on type:

  • Reveal Actions seem to have little importance in the Early Round and pick up slightly in the Middle Round.  They are very situational and pick up in the Late Round.
  • Draw Actions seem to keep the same relative importance in the Early and Middle Round – they are mostly situational – but pick up in the Late Round.
  • Interactive Actions have little use in the Early Round but seem to increase in importance in the Middle and Late Round.

Playtest

Prototype

There were no updates to the prototype for these changes.

Playing

I continued to collect stats on the use of the Action Cards and noted (not hard stats) these uses by Action Card type and point in the round:

  • How many Action Cards are “burned” in the initial market?
    • Since at this point there is no way to add an Action Card to the grid, they are immediately “burned” and a replacement card added to the market.
    • The number of Action Cards burned this way was frustratingly high, but I must have patience for now.
  • If an Action Card is drawn from the draw pile is it likely to be used?
    • A high percentage of Action Cards were used.
      • Sometimes the rationale was purely to prevent the next player from having the action available to them.
  • If an unused Action Card is in the discard pile is it preferred over drawing an unknown card from the draw pile?
    • This was highly situational as described in the Round Dynamics and Actions section above.
  • If an Action Card is drawn from the discard pile is it likely to be used?
    • At this point there is no other reason to draw an Action Card from the discards.

We’ll look at these questions again as we continue to incorporate the Action Cards into the game.

Working It Out

This round did not introduce any changes, so there isn’t much to report here.

  • Unmitigated Randomness
    • The potential changes to player order were intended to address any problems here that may turn up, but as yet, I don’t have the data to indicate a problem.
  • Few Decisions and Redundancy
    • Not only did the Action Cards provide new decisions, but these decisions and when an Action Card is seen as a good option vary throughout the round.
  • Hand Setup
    • Having the Action Cards implemented as separate cards in the deck, makes managing the deck a little more fiddly. So this is something to monitor as they are fully implemented.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Round 5

Design Workbench

The Key to Incorporating the Action Cards

As mentioned in previous rounds and in “What Needs Work,” the 7, 8, and 9 point cards are generally not used and not wanted. The 10 point cards had a similar problem until I doubled the number of them in the deck. Certainly it would not be advisable to double the count of all the unwanted cards, but I have been saving the 7, 8, and 9 cards for this next change.

Since there are 3 different types of Action Cards and 3 values of unwanted Clock Cards, I have applied the actions to the point cards. (I have been heading this direction from early in the design process, but didn’t want to give life to an idea that I would later have to kill). I have called the ability to use the action on a Clock Card a Key (picture a clock winding key). Since the lower point cards are more likely to be kept in a collection, they might best be used for the higher value actions. However, the difference between keeping a 7 or a 9 seems to be negligible – the decision is based more on the perceived availability of the cards than the avoidance of a penalty. So I have applied the “higher value actions” to the higher point cards, which seems to be more intuitive to the casual player. The perceived value of a particular action is subjective and some players would not value some of the actions at all (e.g., a Take That action is undesirable to some). So here, higher value = greater blast radius (impact):

  • 7 = Iron (black) Key = “Help Me” Collection Action Cards
    • Originally, I called these Brass Keys which seemed more thematic for collectible clocks, but the color is too close to gold, so I quickly changed to iron.
  • 8 = Silver Key = “Help Me” Drawing Action Cards
  • 9 = Gold Key = “Hinder You” Take That Action Cards

Graphically, these cards continue to have the clock, but also have a picture of the appropriate key. They can be used as either a Clock Card or to activate/acquire an Action Card, though the likelihood of them being used as a Clock Card is even less than before.

Locking-in Progress

Until this point I have had a rule that a Take That Action cannot be done on a Clock Card that is in a completed collection – the shelf was described as “locked.” It was convenient to have locking happen automatically for a while, but now it is time to consider how a player can lock a shelf. If the player has the option to take a turn to lock a shelf a few positive things happen that are described in the Working It Out section below.

Micro-iterations: Making these changes at the same time might be moving two balls at once, but I see them as integral and did short iterations (a few hands) on each. The decision to take an Action Card is based mostly on the current state of the collection.

Playtest

Prototype

These were the changes for this prototype:

  • I pulled the Action Cards back out of the deck and pasted a picture of a lock (of the appropriate material: Iron, Silver, and Gold) on the back.
    • I hope this is a good idea because pasting on the back of the card essentially commits to pulling these cards out of the deck.
  • I wrote the name of the appropriate key on the faces of all the 7, 8, and 9 point cards.

Playing

Separating the Action Cards from the deck cut the deck size back down and eliminated the confusion about what to do with them. I like the decision on what to do with a Key Card and have used them for the Lock to protect a row with a completed set or a low total. Their use to buy and Action Card is still uncertain because there are 3 or 4 possible Action Cards in the draw pile for each type of key. I thought about laying out the different types, but this made a mess in the center of the table. The table starts to look a little overwhelming for a casual gamer. Eventually, I decided to provide the option to use an Action Card immediately or to save it for later. This seems like a solid change; making the randomness of the Action Card drawn less bothersome and providing another option, but at the cost of a turn. The new rules are below.

Having to buy the locks is a nice addition. Leaders are quick to spend a turn to protect what they have accumulated.

  • How many Action Cards are “burned” in the initial market?
    • This problem has been eliminated.
  • If a Key Card is drawn from the draw pile is it likely to be used to acquire an Action Card?
    • Except in the case when an equivalent Key Card was placed in the collection during the initial draft, this is exclusively how the card will be used.
  • If an unused Key Card is in the discard pile is it preferred over drawing an unknown card from the draw pile?
    • This often seems like a press your luck strategy (since the exact Action is not known until after the Action Card is drawn).
    • This may be done to acquire a Lock to protect valuable rows.
    • Providing the Action Card Space to accumulate Action Cards makes them even a little more enticing.
  • If a Key Card is drawn from the discard pile is it likely to be used to acquire an Action Card?
    • Except in the case when an equivalent Key Card was placed in the collection during the initial draft, this is exclusively the reason to draw it.

Though, there are a few more ideas worth investigating, the current rules and configuration need more playtesting to collect statistics and to accumulate player comments before changing more.

New Rules

  • When a Key Card is used to buy an Action Card, the Action Card can be:
    • Used immediately for its Action.
    • Used as a Lock to protect a row in the grid.
    • Placed in the Action Space for later use. A card in the Action Space may be played on any turn instead of taking a normal turn. The options for use are the same as when drawn.
  • When a Lock is played to protect a row, it is played Lock side up to the Lock Space – the space immediately to the left of the row.

Working It Out

So have I made any progress with these changes?

  • Unmitigated Randomness
    • Allowing players to put an Action Card in the Action Space for later use mitigates the randomness of the card drawn. It can likely be helpful later.
  • Few Decisions
    • Having the option to keep an Action Card for later use, though at the cost of another turn, makes the decision a little harder to turn down.
    • Having the option to lock a shelf – protect it from changes – provides players another decision that makes the game more interesting. The decision to lock/not lock might be based on the other player types at the table which adds to the metagame.
  • Bland
    • Hopefully, the game is getting a little more interesting.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire
    • With the ability to lock a shelf, but requiring a turn to do it encourages other players to interfere with progress more quickly.
  • Game Length
    • The game length has not changed significantly as a result of these changes. The setup is a little longer to setup the Action Card draw piles.
  • Wasted Cards (Chaff)
    • Although there are several Clock Cards that are still not interesting as Clock Cards, they have value for their actions.
  • Frustration
    • Having the option to lock a shelf allows players to lock in progress and protect themselves from other meddlesome players.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Going Micro

Introduction

At the time that I am doing this makeover, card games, particularly ones derived from traditional games, are quite popular. Even more popular are “micro games” and micro card games are all the rage. There is much discussion among game designers, developers, publishers, and enthusiasts about what makes a game “micro.” I won’t dwell on that, but will proceed with the following definition:

A micro game is significantly simpler, quicker, and smaller (has few components) relative to a “full size” game of the same genre while providing a similar experience.

Some call it streamlining, but I would hope that most games, including “full size” games go through a streamlining process throughout development anyway. So it is more than just streamlining.

So, in Microsizing Nines (or more accurately, Eclectic Clock Collectors) I am going to trim the game that I have designed to this point (somewhere between Round 5 and 6) down to its very basics. I will also strip the theme and look for an appropriate one that matches the final game play (or leave it abstract).

Global Objectives

I would like to keep some of its basic game play and introduce some “improvements” while avoiding some obvious traits. Here are some main objectives to guide development.

  • The rules will be very simple – even simpler than the base game.
  • The strategy will be “deeper” while the game will still be accessible for casual play.
  • The opportunity for combos (back-to-back actions that are more impactful than the actions alone) will be opened.
  • The micro game will be even more of a race than the base game.
  • Although the game will naturally have some memory element, it will not become a “memory game” (a game where one’s memory of the hidden information is the central element to winning).

There will be images displayed throughout the series. You can see the full Nines Micro Image Gallery here.

The rules for this game will be periodically updated at this location: Nines Micro Rules.

A Print-n-Play version of the game is available here: Nines Micro Print-n-Play.

Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Round 1

Design Workbench

Design Objective

The goal of going micro is to drop the game down to its bare essentials in components and rules while keeping the essence of the game. I’ll start by dropping the card count down (assuming 2 players) to:

  • 18 = Minimum for the player grids.
  • + 3 = A trade row of 3-5 cards (depending on player count, maybe n+1)
  • + 3 = A few cards that are taken out of the game to hide some information; hopefully, making it more than a puzzle and keep it interesting.
  • = 24 Total cards.

Now let’s see how that meshes with the card characteristics:

  • Every card has a point value, but the 0 and “Treasure”/Wild (-3) cards stay in the game.
  • All point cards 1-x have an action.
    • Options for Point Value – Action card combination.
      • Coincident Value System: Action ranges in scope/value coincident with Point Value. Lowest point cards, highest value, have the highest value actions. Since this game has negative scoring, I will start with this option.
      • Counter Value System: Action ranges in scope/value counter to Point Value. . Lowest point cards, highest value, have the lowest value actions. This is the likely eventual outcome since it balances the two values a card may have so that all cards are attractive – there are no cards that are a bad draw.
      • Some other pattern or arrangement based on playtesting.
  • Potentially: Cards can change orientation (square cards or tiles).
    • This allows actions that change card orientation.
    • This may change the actual value of the card or just how it is scored.
    • Keeping this in mind, but not implementing at the outset.

That allows for:

  • Point cards 0 – 6 in 3 colors. (21 cards)
  • 3 Wild cards.
  • = 24 Total cards.

Setup

  1. Deal 3 cards to form a “Trade Row.”
  2. Players take turns drawing one card from the “Trade Row” and replacing it from the stock to a total of 3 cards drawn.
  3. Deal 6 more cards face down to each player.
  4. Players arrange their cards into a 3 x 3 grid however they want.
  5. The 3 cards forming the Trade Row remain between the players.
  6. The remaining 3 cards in the stock are set aside without looking at them. They are out of the game for this round.
  7. Optionally, about 12 “lock tokens” are placed near the trade row.

Play

The basic rules with some options to try are:

  • Each player in turn does his choice of one of the following actions:
    • Reveal a card.
    • Conceal a card to use its action. (See available actions below.)
    • Lock a card, a row, or a column. (Or a diagonal?) Your choice.
      • This can be designated by turning the card sideways or setting a lock token on the card(s). Since card orientation might be introduced as important later, I am using the lock tokens.
    • An option to try later: Unlock a card, a row, or a column. (Or a diagonal?) Your choice.
  • The start player switches to the last player in each turn.
    • This provides the opportunity to play action combos that compound and/or protect the results.
    • This may effectively reduce this to a 2 Player game only.

Additional rules:

  • Locked cards cannot be manipulated by either player.
    • However, concealed cards that are locked will be revealed and scored at the end of the round.
  • Wilds – Score Options: (in order of preference and testing)
    • Option 1: (but may be too powerful)
      • Count as any color/suit.
    • Option 2:
      • Count as any number only.
    • Option 3:
      • Count as -3. (Like the Treasure cards in the base game).

Actions

The initial Action descriptions and Point – Action combinations are below. I am starting with basic actions, but there can be further changes (e.g., a Reveal Action may become a Reveal or Peek Action).  The rank of Actions is estimated and may prove to be different based on playtesting – due to unexpected uses and possible combos.

Points

Action on Card

Player Affected

Basic Type

6

Reveal a card in any player’s grid.

Either (+/-)

Reveal

5

Reveal two cards in your own grid.

Self (+)

Reveal

4

Trade a card in your grid with the Trade Row.

Initially, the card must be revealed, but also try concealed cards and leave them at their current state (revealed/concealed) in the Trade Row.

Self (+)

Trade

3

Swap any two cards in your grid.

Self (+)

Move

2

Force another player to trade a card with their choice of card from the Trade Row.

Initially, the player forcing the trade can designate the card to trade, but also try allowing the affected player to choose.

Other (-)

Trade

1

Trade a designated card with another player. The player taking the Action gets to select both cards.

Self (+)

Other (-)

Trade

0

At this point I am keeping this action open. It is also worthwhile trying to keep these cards face up, by not having an action. There may also be other actions that are worth trying out.

 

 

There is still room for another action or two to replace one or more of these. As in the original Nines Makeover, I want to look for moments in playtesting when the player thinks, “I wish I could…” Alternately, if the cards are symmetrical, new actions can be related to changing the orientation of any card in any grid. In the back of my mind I see a possible future for this design where the values of the cards are represented by patterns rather than numbers and a row of the same cards with the same orientation is absolutely obvious and pleasing.

End of Game

  • Once one player has revealed all cards in their grid, their round is finished.
  • The other player(s) gets to take one more turn.
  • The other player(s) reveals any concealed cards.
  • The round is scored.
  • The player with the lowest score wins. (Still using low scoring model for now).

Glossary

Since I have scrapped the theme, there is less to report here, but I also want to change the definition of “Set” to be consistent with typical card games.

  • Action: The action described on a card that can be enabled/activated by concealing the card.
  • Coincident Value (System): Lowest point cards, highest value, have the highest value actions.
  • Collection: Cards in a row or column (and optionally diagonal) that are all the same color.
  • Counter Value (System): Lowest point cards, highest value, have the lowest value actions.
  • Grid: The 3 x 3 grid of cards in front of each player that acts as their hand.
  • Lock(ed): A card that is prohibited from any further action by any player.
  • Set: Cards in a row or column (and optionally diagonal) that are all the same number.
  • Single: A card that is not part of any Set.
  • Trade Row: Three cards between the players that are used initially to draw a starting hand and that remain throughout the game to be traded when an appropriate Action is used.

Scoring

  • Wild Cards: Wilds count as any number or color desired when scoring any set or collection.
  • Sets: Cards in a set score 0. A set is any row or column (and optionally diagonal) all of the same number.
  • Singles: Cards not in any set score their point value (0 – 6).
  • Collections: Any collection of all the same color in any row or column (and optionally diagonal) scores -3.
  • Locks: Locks have no impact on scoring. (I don’t anticipate this changing, but have them listed here in case there is cause to change this.)

Playtest

Prototype

Here is a great use for Uno cards – one might say a better use for Uno cards. I separated out cards from an Uno deck that match the stats for this game (3 Wild and 1 each of 0 – 6 in 3 colors). I printed stickers that describe the actions for each card and affixed them to the appropriate cards. I added 15 black tokens to represent locks to complete the components. As mentioned earlier, the lock function can be further simplified by turning a card sideways to signify a lock, but I am keeping card orientation open for other possibilities for now and don’t want to train my brain that it strictly means locking a card.

Playing

After the first few plays, it is obvious that this microsizing has turned a relatively simple game into a brain-burner. (The original Nines game could be described as very simple). With the various scoring options, the plan of attack can be very mathy. However, there is still the option of playing conservatively and only using obvious actions, so the game may still be very approachable.

The Draft

Depending on the cards that are turned for the Trade Row, the initial draft is fairly straight forward. There can be some decisions based on:

  • Color vs. Point Value: Pick a card with a matching color to one(s) already drawn instead of a lower number that does not match.
  • Action: Pick an action that the player can see as useful based on other actions already drawn or generally useful.

Although the typical decision is still very simple, having any decision and a better chance of getting something useful mitigates the luck of the draw.

Grid Play

Depending on what cards are in the grid at the outset, the first few turns might be fairly straightforward; reveal a few key cards in your own grid to determine the best strategy, but they can also be very tricky and highly interactive; go after the opponent’s low point cards to 1) get a lower score and 2) take away their ability to get at your cards.

Switching the first player each turn provides the opportunity for combos which make planning moves more complex and interesting.

More plays and introducing some of the options discussed here (e.g., optional point-action cards, use of diagonals, peeking instead of revealing, exchanging concealed cards with the Trade Row, etc.) are necessary to do a deeper analysis.

Working It Out

So have I made any progress with these changes?

Unmitigated Randomness

  • The Trade Row provides some mitigation.
  • The Actions that allow trades with the opponent and the Trade Row and swapping cards in the grid provide mitigation.

Few Decisions

  • The number of decisions for a player that wants to do the math have jumped up significantly.

Bland

  • At this point this game is an abstract, so there is nothing thematically to make it more interesting.
  • The complexity and opportunity for combos have made it technically very interesting.

Multiplayer Solitaire

  • There is definitely much more player interaction and interdependence (Actions that affect the Trade Row or the availability of desirable cards in the opponent’s grid.)
  • It is hard to figure what the opponent will do so it is not like playing against an AI, but more playtesting is necessary to see if dominant strategies emerge.

Game Length

  • The limited number of cards and the almost automatic progress toward an end make this a bit of a race.

Redundancy

  • There is little wasted action in the game now, so there aren’t repetitive, meaningless turns.

Wasted Information

  • Essentially every card has 3 properties: Value, Color, and Action (Wilds excepted). All of these have importance in every game.

Wasted Cards (Chaff)

  • There are no wasted cards. Technically, I could eliminate 1 set of 3 cards, but at this point having 3 set aside to keep some mystery in the game is a bonus.

Frustration

  • There may still be some frustration but it is more likely to come from option overload. We’ll have to watch for an AP problem. Not that anyone (except “That Guy”) would spend all night on a turn, but this is supposed to be a quick game.

Hand Setup

  • Even with the draft from the Trade Row at the beginning of the game, this is a very quick setup. All the cards get oriented the same at the end of a hand and all get shuffled together, so a new hand is very quick to setup.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Round 2

Design Workbench

Design Objective

It didn’t take very many more test games to figure out that a stalemate condition could arise; where Player 1 would perform an Action (or more likely 2 Actions) and Player 2 would immediately perform an Action (or likely 2 Actions) to exactly counter or undo Player 1’s Action(s). Now Player 1 is set to do the exact same thing. Details are discussed a little later in the Grid Play section.

Let’s see how we might fix this issue without creating more rules.

Playtest

Prototype

We started with the same prototype, but changed it in the middle of this test as follows. All Actions were moved to the card opposite them in the value order: The “1” Action became the “6” Action, the “2” became the “5”, etc. So now the Value-Action table looks like this:

Points

Action on Card

Player Affected

Basic Type

0

At this point I am keeping this action open. It is also worthwhile trying to keep these cards face up, by not having an action. There may also be other actions that are worth trying out.

 

 

1

Reveal a card in any player’s grid.

Either (+/-)

Reveal

2

Reveal two cards in your own grid.

Self (+)

Reveal

3

Trade a card in your grid with the Trade Row.

Initially, the card must be revealed, but also try concealed cards and leave them at their current state (revealed/concealed) in the Trade Row.

Self (+)

Trade

4

Swap any two cards in your grid.

Self (+)

Move

5

Force another player to trade a card with their choice of card from the Trade Row.

Initially, the player forcing the trade can designate the card to trade, but also try allowing the affected player to choose.

Other (-)

Trade

6

Trade a designated card with another player. The player taking the Action gets to select both cards.

Self (+)

Other (-)

Trade

 

The cards now look like the ones pictured here.

Playing

The Draft

My son and I just played the draft part of the game multiple times trying the two different point-action systems to see how the system affected the strategy:

  • Coincident Value: Low point (high value) cards have high value actions.
    • As noted before, the choices are pretty obvious here.
  • Counter Value: Low point (high value) cards have low value actions.
    • Wow! The player may set out on a completely different strategy based on the cards that are available and the cards taken by the opponent.

Although the typical decision is still very simple, having any decision and a better chance of getting something useful mitigates the luck of the draw.

Grid Play

An unintended consequence of combos is potential stalemate. Since an action card is concealed to use its action, without the first player switch each round it would take two turns to use that action again and the other player could change their grid to prohibit making the exact same action. With the first player switch, though, a player can repeat the exact same action and the other player can take the exact same defensive action to undo it; thus creating a stalemate scenario. An option to deal with this could be to introduce new rule(s) to prohibit or mitigate the potential: (with some quick observations)

  • Temporarily lock a card that has just been either used for its action or manipulated by an action.
    • Prohibits player from using it differently.
  • Conceal a card that has just been acted upon by an Action.
    • Assumes that Actions cannot be performed on concealed cards.
    • Slows game play – the objective is to reveal all the cards. Another cause to conceal them draws out the game.
  • Prohibit taking an exact opposite action (an undo action).
    • Not horrible.
  • Prohibit using the exact same action two turns in a row.
    • Not horrible, but more to track.
  • Institute a threefold repetition rule as in chess that immediately initiates the end game when the same play has been made three times in a row.
    • Could be catastrophic to the game – could happen on round 1-2-3.

Ultimately, introducing a new rule is not desirable; especially since one of the main objectives of micro-sizing the game is to trim it down to the absolute minimum rules. So a system approach would be far better. A change to the Counter Value Method for the point-action system may be the key.

New Rules

The objective of this round was to mitigate the stalemate condition without introducing new rules. So far, it appears that we have accomplished this, so no new rules are introduced here.

Working It Out

So have we made any progress with these changes? There are several impacts of these changes with the most dramatic listed here.

  • Few Decision: The Counter Value system increases the number and complexity of decisions available.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire: The Counter Value system also adds more risk-reward calculation to interactions so knowing what is in the other player’s grid is more important.
  • Game Length: The game doesn’t appear to necessarily take any longer, but with more analysis comes more time. More playtests are necessary to determine this impact.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Round 3

Design Workbench

Design Objective

Now that we have a sense of how the game plays, we are ready to make a few more changes. Although we started with fairly stripped down rules, we are going to try to strip them down a bit more. Previously we only allowed Actions and Locks to be played on Revealed cards. That made it simple to think about what was happening, but also imposed a rule; “the card must be revealed” that may not be necessary and may actually inhibit the game play. So what if the state of the card Concealed/Revealed doesn’t matter?

Is the game more interesting? Is it easier or more difficult to understand, explain, score, play, etc.? What new problems may arise from this new mechanism? Does it reduce or increase the rule set?

Playtest

Prototype

There are no changes to the prototype in this round.

Playing

Opening the ability to affect Concealed cards changes the game significantly.

The Draft

There are no changes to the draft this round.

Grid Play

Some observed impacts of this rule simplification so far are:

  • Positive:
    • The first obvious positive impact of manipulating Concealed cards is the introduction of bluffing. It may not be obvious until you play the game, but the first time a player decides to Peek instead of Reveal, the other player is immediately curious and probably nervous about that card.
    • Trades with the Trade Row “open up” a bit. It seems that in most games trading with the trade row goes stale fairly quickly unless a player can force trades. Now, with Concealed cards in the Trade Row, players seem to be more interested in them. They are more willing to press their luck than to trade for a less optimal card.
  • Potentially Negative:
    • It depends on what you are looking for in the game, but one of my initial goals was to not make this a “memory game” – one where memory plays a principal role in winning. Manipulating Concealed cards and Peeking at them without Revealing them certainly increases the role that memory plays in the game. Though, each player can choose how much they want to play this way and there remain other viable strategies that don’t require so much memorization.
  • Still Uncertain:
    • Although the rules are generally simpler with this implemented, it may be harder for players to understand the simplified rules. Understanding the best direction requires further testing. In playtesting so far the first and common question is, “When I move/trade a Concealed card, do I Reveal it?” Rather than the obvious, “Leave it as is,” the expectation is one of the following:
      • Always Reveal a moved/traded Concealed card.
      • Reveal a moved/traded Concealed card if the card it was swapped/traded with was Revealed.
    • Keeping cards Concealed can increase the total game time. So far it hasn’t been obvious, but more playtesting is required. It will definitely be a negative if the game is routinely and measurably longer and if the race element of the game is negated.
    • Part of the interest in the game is related to programming Actions – setting up a trade with a predecessor Action. With Actions now on Concealed cards, there appears to be less forward planning and programming required. More playtesting is required to see if this is a real change and whether that change is positive or negative.

New Rules

Playing the game now with the ability to affect Concealed cards creates the possibility for more options to the Actions and requires some revision to the rules.

  • Obviously, all references to “Revealed card” in the Actions are removed.
  • All “Reveal” Actions now read, “Reveal or Peek…” The Player can Peek at the card and then decide whether to Reveal it or not.
  • The End Game can now be initiated before all cards are revealed, so this rule must be changed. There are a couple options yet to be tested:
    • Once one player has revealed all unlocked cards in their grid, their round is finished.
    • Once one player has revealed or locked all cards in their grid, their round is finished.
    • Once both players pass on taking any action in successive turns, the round is finished.

Working It Out

So have I made any progress with these changes?

  • Few Decisions
    • The players now have the additional decision to Peek or Reveal.
    • The decision to use an Action is more frequent – they don’t require as much staging.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire
    • Actions on Concealed cards have opened more trades with the other player.
  • Game Length
    • Possibly negatively impacted due to more turns used to Reveal all the cards, but this requires more testing. Locking Concealed cards may mitigate the effect.
  • Redundancy
    • More options available every turn means less redundancy in those turns.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Round 4

Design Workbench

Design Objective

Now with a game that seems to be pretty solid and fun it is time to introduce Orientation as a card state. Orientation is the final (at least that we can think of at this time) card state important to the game. Its importance comes from the original goal of having a purely graphical game in which the scoring is obvious by the appearance of the grid. Along with making orientation important comes providing an action to manipulate it.

Will card orientation introduce more fun and new (desirable) player challenges or just complicate the game with little or no benefits? Let’s see.

Playtest

Prototype

There is one simple change to the prototype this round. We add an action to the “0” cards that allows changing orientation. So the Value-Action matrix now looks like this: (The Conceal/Peek changes from Round 3 are also incorporated).

Points

Action on Card

Player Affected

Basic Type

0

Change the orientation of any card.

Either (+/-)

Orient

1

Reveal/Peek at a card in any player’s grid.

Either (+/-)

Reveal

2

Reveal/Peek at two cards in your own grid.

Self (+)

Reveal

3

Trade a card in your grid with the Trade Row.

Self (+)

Trade

4

Swap any two cards in your grid.

Self (+)

Move

5

Force another player to trade a card with their choice of card from the Trade Row.

Other (-)

Trade

6

Trade a designated card with another player. The player taking the Action gets to select both cards.

Self (+)

Other (-)

Trade

You may notice that the updated “0” cards in the image are a new set of Uno cards. This is due to the fortunate circumstance of having to provide my original set to someone else to test. The image also shows a Yellow “0” card which we haven’t used yet and is an indication of what is to come in the next round.

Playing

The initial and expected use of the “0” action is to reserve the action to change the orientation of the other player’s that affects the scoring of 2 rows/columns.

The Draft

There are no changes to the draft this round.

Grid Play

Orientation is intended to be a third priority scoring element - on the order of something like this:

  • Numbered Sets = Meat
  • Color Collection = Potatoes
  • Orientation Collection = Gravy

Some observed impacts of introducing the Orientation Collection so far are: (with a few solo tests)

  • Positive:
    • There is an additional option available to the players.
    • There are no bum cards, so each player has points and actions equating to a valuable draw every game.
  • Possibly Negative:
    • Potentially introduces too much fiddliness.
    • Based on the current rules, orientation may be almost completely ignored.
  • Still Uncertain:
    • The scoring method in general is still uncertain and Orientation may point out some flaws. (Which is positive in progressing the game design, but uncertain in outcome.)

Much more playtesting is required at this time. This should be close to the final 2-player game unless something needs to be thrown out. The scoring mechanism still needs trimming which could affect the whole game play, but here is a good spot to test the smoothness of play further before making those changes.

New Rules

With card orientation now playing a role in scoring the game and with an Action related to changing orientation, some new and revised rules are required:

  • Any time a card is Revealed, the player taking the Reveal Action may set its Orientation however they desire.
  • Scoring:
    • There are now two types of Collections; Color and Orientation.
    • Collections: Any collection of all the same color or orientation in any row or column (and optionally diagonal) scores -3.
      • We are starting here for simplicity (not in scoring necessarily, but in degree of change from one rule set to the next). We expect that the scoring for an orientation collection if done this way will be less than that for color (probably -1) or to take a different approach to scoring altogether.

Working It Out

So have we made any progress with these changes?

  • Few Decisions
    • Orientation provides another option which results in additional decisions and more complex decisions. However, orientation may be an almost trivial aspect so the impact to decisions will likely be small. (Though at least the small impact is in the right direction).
  • Bland
    • At this point orientation does not have an impact here, but this element is being introduced to see if a purely graphical card/tile can replace the current numbered cards. If successful, this should have a big positive impact on the “blandness” of the game.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire
    • The “0” action allows players another option to affect each other’s grid. However, it still needs to be seen how often that action is used. As with the decisions, the impact is small, but in the right direction.
  • Game Length
    • No significant impact.
  • Redundancy
    • No significant impact.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Round 5

Design Workbench

Design Objective

In this round I will try to address two seemingly unrelated observations: The “1” Action (Reveal/Peek at any card) does not get used much and a player may run out of time sooner than they want. According to the major objectives for this game, both of these observations may not be recognizing negative conditions, but they may be more pronounced than desired. Let’s break them down a bit into what is actually positive about these observations and what might be negative:

“1” Action

  • “Is there really a problem?”
    • The 1 Point card is intended to have the least valuable action and therefore should not get used much.
  • “Yes, but…”
    • It should get used occasionally and I don’t think it is used at all.

Player Running out of Time

  • “Is there really a problem?”
    • The game is intended to be a race and quick, so players should run out of time.
  • “Yes, but…”
    • Some players (mostly Perfectionists) prefer to have more time to organize their tableau better.
    • Some manipulations just take a few rounds to complete.
    • As long as both players are cool with another round or two, what’s the harm. A player that wants to keep the game a race can still do that.

Playtest

Prototype

There is a simple change to the prototype for this round. Simply add the word “Conceal” on the 1 and 2 Point cards.

Playing

The expected use of the conceal action is to slow down the opponent:

  • A player always has the ability to conceal a card by using its action, so buying time this way is always available anyway.
  • This action can break an opponent’s combo.
  • This action can slow down the opponent long enough to essentially extend a combo across turns.

We saw this action used immediately in the first games played with the new rule, so something is right. Better yet each time it was used the player performing the action had a sense of success and the player acted upon had to modify their strategy. Though the action wasn’t met with frustration or anger, but more of a, ”Nicely played.” After a dozen or more playtest with two different groups this looks like a positive change.

New Rules

The rules changes to accomplish these tests are really simple. Add the word “Conceal” to the rules and on the cards as such:

  • 1 Point Card: Reveal, Peek, or Conceal any card in any Grid.
  • 2 Point Card: Reveal, Peek, or Conceal two cards in your Grid.

Working It Out

This change was intended to have two specific effects, but have I made any general progress with these changes?

  • Unmitigated Randomness
    • Players have a little extra leeway in rearranging their grid to overcome the input randomness.
  • Few Decisions
    • There is now a “real” decision for the 1 Action.
  • Multiplayer Solitaire
    • The new conceal action is mostly used on the opponent, so keeping track of their grid is now more important.
  • Game Length
    • From early playtesting, these changes appear to extend the game on average by about one action.
  • Redundancy
    • A player can use the conceal action to break the opponent’s repetitive combo.
  • Wasted Cards (Chaff)
    • The 1 Point card plays into more strategies.
  • Frustration
    • The “Take That” aspect of concealing an opponent’s card may cause some consternation, but so far it doesn’t appear to be frustrating. However, one playtester admitted that he was sheepish the first time he used the action on his opponent, who also happened to be his wife. Once she had a chance to use it effectively, though, the gloves were off.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Round 6

Design Workbench

Design Objective

Since it has been a while since I last reported on this project and the game is actively being playtested, I thought I should report on progress even though there are no major changes. I propose a few tweaks here that may cause changes to the rules and the cards, so by the next round I may post all new documents for rules and for building a deck. Historically, I have introduced new ideas in this notebook after they have been tested and changes decided. I am going to break form in this entry and suggest a couple new rules that we will be testing in the coming weeks. With many successful tests behind us, these are in the range of fine tuning. We are not experiencing any major problems with the game.

Playtest

Prototype

The prototype hasn’t changed from the last round, but I have a proposed change this round that may change it for next round.

Playing

The first thing worth mentioning is I have offered to play other games to my key 2-player tester and he is only interested in playing this game. We have played about 30 games (10 sets of 3 games) and are still discovering new tactics and strategies within the game. Surprisingly, one recent tactic is at the setup. We are taking more stock in what the other player has showing in placing our initial 3 cards; anticipating cards to be traded away and others to be unavailable for matching.

Stalemate

With many games under our belts, we have now had one instance when we could have hit a stalemate; each player uses their two actions to counter the other player’s turn. The change many months go to allow two actions per turn has mitigated this possibility, but apparently it hasn’t destroyed it entirely. This was the scenario:

  1. Player 1 was using a 5: Force Trade with the Trade Row to force Player 2 to trade an important card (one of a set) to the Trade Row. This required 2 Actions each turn – Conceal the card to use its Action then Reveal it.
  2. Player 2 was using a 3: Trade with the Trade Row to get the card back. This required 2 Actions each turn – Conceal the card to use its Action then Reveal it. Player 2 did not have the ability to use another card action to disrupt the Player 1 action (force a trade, swap a card, etc.).

Although it is not uncommon for each player to have the necessary cards for this to happen, it just doesn’t because there are many other actions available. However, it was late in the game and Player 2 was ready to conclude the game, but could not get enough actions to Lock or Reveal the remaining cards. Player 1 did not have any other valuable actions and was not happy with his grid.

A rule to call the game after a certain number of repeats could help, but the timing of that call would have been very important since it was the difference of a set to Player 2 and coincidentally an unused Wild. The point swing would have been 8 points for Player 2; the set was of 3’s and there was a 0 in the Trade Row, but it could have been a lot more. Ultimately, Player 1 decided to reveal his last card and force the end game since neither player was advancing.

Point-Action Value Adjustment

As we have been playtesting, we have realized that the action to swap two cards in your grid (the 4 Action) is probably the second most valuable. Meanwhile, the action to force a trade with the Trade Row (currently the 5 Action), even though it affects the other player, is possibly less valuable than even the action to trade with the Trade Row (currently the 3 Action). So a new alignment of Point-Action Value may be in order. We will test this in the coming weeks.

New Rules

Stalemate

At this point, with only one occurrence in many plays in which the players worked it out, I’m not ready to create a new rule to deal with the stalemate. A chess-like “threefold repetition” rule may be necessary, but I would like to avoid that still. It would be better to prevent the condition, so it is on the playtest hit list.

Peek at the Trade Row

Note: There were a few rules changes in Round 5 and as we have been playing another opportunity to simplify has arisen. The new rule is to change:

  • 1 Point Card: Peek at, Reveal, or Conceal any card in any Grid.

To:

  • 1 Point Card: Peek at, Reveal, or Conceal any card.

This allows a player to use the action to Peek at or Reveal a card in the Trade Row. It also opens up the action to Conceal a card in the Trade Row, but I doubt anyone would do that. However, there have been a few times when a Player may want to know what is concealed in the Trade Row.

Dealing with a Dud Hand

Although it hasn’t happened yet in our playtesting, it is possible that a player could get a grid that does not have any actions that allow manipulating it. There are only nine cards in the game with actions that will move a card in a player’s grid (3 each of 3, 4, and 6 – the 5 moves a card in the opponent’s grid). Fortunately, three of the remaining four point cards that would make up that player’s grid are the lowest cards, so they will likely still get a low score. They would also almost certainly have at least one 2, so they could rush to the end game as they discover their predicament and catch the other player with unmatched high cards. Even so, that isn’t very exciting. Additionally, if they have any Wilds, they may get stuck with them going unused and a 5-point ding to their score.

For them truly to be stuck, the other player would also have to withhold using the 6’s and possible 5’s to trade cards in their grid as well. It just isn’t very likely. However, I am going to test a new rule to help mitigate this remote possibility. Since the Wilds have such scoring power, they have no actions and they have the penalty for non-use. In a hand like I’ve described, though, they are dead weight (with a rope around your neck). So here’s a new rule that we will implement to see if it ever gets used (for this reason or any other):

  • A Wild may be traded with the Trade Row as an action.

Although, the intent has always been to take three cards out of the game to eliminate the possibility of perfect information, optionally this rule could allow for trading with the discards. This trade makes 3 more cards available to the player.

This should require a truly desperate player to take advantage of it. This now brings the total cards in the deck that have a move action to twelve (half of the deck). It would take (almost literally) a perfectly awful deal for a player to get no cards that have a move action. Since there are three cards in the Trade Row and three cards out of the game, one player may still get no movement cards. Going back to an early decision in the design, the draft is also intended to mitigate a bad draw of cards. each player will have access to a minimum of five cards through the draft; two in addition to the three they take. So a player has a total of eleven cards available. I would really like the number of cards that activate movement to be at least 14 to completely remove this from possibility.

Alternatively, allowing for trading with the discards brings the total number of cards available to a player to fourteen, assuming the payer gets to choose from them, which eliminates the problem. However, it also could be used to gain additional information about the opponent's cards, which is not the intent and at this point undesirable.

So, the questions is whether this issue is more important to remedy than the actions available on the 0, 1, 2, and 5 (soon to be 3) cards; particularly, if it is more important than including orientation in the game, since that action hasn't been activated in the game yet. A truly bad deal could result in a score of 18 (allowing for trading away a Wild).

Self-Activating

Finally, until now there has been a rule that a card cannot be used to take an action upon itself. Given the stalemate condition discussed earlier and a common desire to break this rule, I am reconsidering this rule. We will test some games with the rule removed to see if it has a positive impact.

Summing Up

So incorporating all these suggestions into the Point-Action Value chart we get: (Green is new, Red is changed).

Points

Action on Card

Player Affected

Basic Type

0

Change the orientation of any card.

Either (+/-)

Orient

1

Reveal/Peek at/Conceal any card.

Either (+/-)

Reveal

2

Reveal/Peek at/Conceal two cards in your own grid.

Self (+)

Reveal

3

Force another player to trade a card with their choice of card from the Trade Row.

Other (-)

Trade

4

Trade a card in your grid with your choice of card from the Trade Row.

Self (+)

Trade

5

Swap any two cards in your grid.

Self (+)

Move

6

Trade a designated card with another player. The player taking the Action gets to select both cards.

Self (+)

Other (-)

Trade

Wild

Trade this Wild with the Trade Row.

Self (+/-)

Trade

Working It Out

The new rules to allow Peeking at a Trade Row card and to allow trading a Wild to the Trade Row make a little progress on opening up the game more.  Unfortunately, the discovery of the stalemate condition causes us to lose ground on a few factors:

  • Few Decisions
    • Simplifying the 1 Point card Action provides another choice for that action.
  • Game Length
    • A stalemate condition can drag out a game.
  • Frustration
    • A stalemate condition is frustrating.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Round 7

Design Workbench

Design Objective

In the last round, I proposed some rules changes to address a couple issues that had come up in testing that, though rare in occurrence, were frustrating problems when they did occur. In this round I will discuss how I have addressed those issues and what appear to be some final refinements. We are nearing the end of this game’s design phase and are at a level of refinement that can only progress through hundreds of playtests by dozens of people.

Playtest

Refinements through playtesting have been slow to reveal themselves because I am now trying to address issues that happen very infrequently.

Prototype

The prototype hasn’t changed from the last round, but I have posted a new set of stickers to make the cards. Remember, these can be applied to a set of Uno cards. This is easier and faster than printing and cutting a set of cards anyway. I bought an Uno deck at a major chain discount store for under $6.

Playing and New Rules

After the last round we had a few open items that I will close up now.

Stalemate

This problem has not come up again in playtesting and some of the changes made open up more actions such that it may be all but eliminated. At this time I am still not implementing a special stalemate rule, but will consider it again when the game development moves into massive playtests.

Dealing with a Dud Hand

This issue still hasn’t happened in our playtesting, but a better resolution/prevention dawned on me during our first playtest after Round 6 was reported. The change is to incorporate a fairly common bad luck mitigation mechanic that actually works well in this game. The rule looks something like this:

  • Conceal 2 cards with the same point value to use any available action in any player’s grid.

This is the good old mitigation of; if you don’t have something valuable, you can use two things that are not valuable to mimic the valuable thing that you don’t have.

Self-Activating

For the sake of having the simplest rules, I have conceded on allowing a card to perform an action on itself. This is the case of a card being concealed to use its action and then making that same card the object of this action. The reason that I concede now is that it opens up the number of actions allowable on any grid and in particular may help a player who otherwise has limited actions; particularly ones that allow movement.

Ultimately, this rule is one that needs a lot of playtesting to determine if it has an impact, but we will play it this way for a while and see if there is any difference in ease of learning the rules and game play.

Working It Out

These last changes move the game in the right direction in a couple aspects:

  • Few Decisions
    • Simplifying the 1 Point card Action provides another choice for that action.
  • Game Length
    • Mitigating a dud hand keeps the game moving along.
  • Frustration
    • Mitigating a dud hand eliminates some possible frustration.
    • Self-activation eliminates the frustration of being stuck with a card that needs the action that it depicts. This happens fairly frequently – maybe once per game.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines Micro – Final Round

Design Workbench

Design Objective

A theme and a name.

As discussed in the early entries of doing these makeovers, I prefer to start a game design from a theme, but by their nature, these makeovers start with one or more mechanics. Finally, though, I am theming this game as the last improvement for this first stage of development.

There is contradicting advice available in the marketplace of game design ideas about whether to present a game design to a publisher with or without a theme. In this case, I can see that basically, the game is an abstract and any theme is to make it more interesting. Obviously, the theme is not integral to the mechanisms since it is being applied to a mostly completed design. However, I have been thinking about the theme for this game over time and the theme I have in mind is not a wholesale paste-on. I think it fits quite well.

The theme came to me when I had the unfortunate experience of finding a packrat living under the hood of my truck in May 2014. (I don’t drive the truck often, especially in in the winter, as it is expensive to drive and I bought it primarily to tow trailers with horses or ATVs and that doesn’t happen often in the winter).

Playtest

Prototype

Unfortunately, I do not have the graphics skills to prepare a prototype that represents the theme well, but I do have some changes that are an attempt at evoking the theme while maintaining playability. At the same time I will try to apply some colorblind-friendly practices that my Uno-based prototype was lacking.

Working It Out

At last I have entered this game into the games section on the website as “Picky Packrats.” You can read the description and instructions there, but for those who have read this far, here’s the pitch!

The Pitch

In Picky Packrats you are packrats arranging the treasures you have collected in your middens (nests); adding treasures that you find by raiding the house or other packrat middens. You are very particular and want everything "just so." Unfortunately, you, like most packrats are forgetful, so you need to remind yourself of what treasures you have already packed away, while you try to arrange them in your midden to near perfection. When you really like where the treasures are, you can cement them into your midden. Once you or another packrat has either revealed everything or cemented everything in your midden, you compare middens. The pickiest packrat; the one with the most organized midden, wins!

 

Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Thinking Outside the Box

Design Workbench

Design Objective

It has been a while since I first did the makeover of Nines to form Picky Packrats and I have played hundreds of rounds of the game as-is. So, why would I change anything? Well, to see if I can make it better. In this design round, we break the game layout out of the box and into a circle. A circle is more reminiscent of the rat midden that our theme is suggesting and it opens the game up to more scoring possibilities.

Playtest

I have played a few full games of 4 rounds each with my fellow expert player to test out the new layout and accompanying rules changes.

Prototype

The prototype hasn’t changed from the last round, but ultimately the game would layout better with symmetrical circular or, better yet, octagonal cards. Circular are easily doable thanks to the ubiquitous Spot It and circular cards are available on Game Crafter. Unfortunately, octagonal cards or tiles just aren’t a thing. Hexagons, of course are everywhere in gaming, but they just won’t do.

Playing and New Rules

The rules are essentially the same with a minor change that has a measurable impact on play and scoring. Instead of arranging the cards into a 3x3 square (really a rectangle with standard cards), the tableau is arranged into a circle of 8 cards around 1 in the center.

Scoring

Scoring changes as follows:

  • Any 3 numerically matching cards across the center or around an arc cancel out.
  • Any color matched cards of 3 or more across the center or around an arc score -1 for each card in the match. So, -3 for any match across the center and potentially, with at least 2 wildcards, -3 to -8 around an arc.

Simpler Yet Harder

Although the change provides more options and flexibility to overcome a bad deal, it also seemed to make the decisions harder; trying to get more out of the color-matching.

Wilds in the Center

When playing the original game, the first discovered Wild card seems to find its way to the center position. This is even more apparent in the circular layout since the game is basically opened up to what would have been diagonal scoring in the 3x3 grid. However, additional Wilds have more scoring opportunities in the arc.

What’s in a Circle

If I had simply described the change as allowing diagonal scoring, it might seem that would be the same as a circular layout. However, conceptually it is very different. Particularly with the addition of scoring arcs for numbers and colors. Although it is essentially the same thing with a grid, the scoring arc is much more readily understood when it is an actual arc. When we laid out the cards, we placed the cards longways away from the center, but the obvious choice would be to use cards that naturally layout either omnidirectionally (circles) or that fit like a quilt (octagons).

Working It Out

These last changes move the game in the right direction in a couple aspects:

  • Few Decisions
    • This change seems to make decisions simpler, but the tendency to maximize the scoring opportunities (which actually minimizes the score), made the game brainier.
  • Game Length
    • The games did not seem to last measurably shorter or longer once we played a few rounds and were accustomed to the change. After many plays, I suspect that the average number of rounds will be very slightly fewer and the time per decision will be very slightly longer.
  • Frustration
    • The change seems to decrease frustration since there are more choices for matching (3 instead of 2) and color plays a greater role.
  • Marketing
    • Octagonal cards or tiles will raise the production cost of the game. Since the cost is going up, though, maybe tiles will feel more substantial and add a tactile value to playing.
Subject: 

Game Makeover: Nines – Further Exploration

Design Workbench

Introduction

With the Picky Packrats game essentially design-complete, I do not intend to dedicate much more time on the Nines game framework – at least for now. However, through the design process several other alternate uses of the framework came to mind that might be explored. Some of these mechanics seemed like great ideas, but were left out of the design for various reasons: They didn’t fit the original game of Nines and its target player, they added unnecessary complexity to a game that was intended to be dirt simple, or they didn’t fit the feel or theme of the game. I describe them here with a minimal amount of detail in part for posterity, but also in case one of them insists on my attention. Game design pieces conceived in the process of one game’s design process tend to find their way into other games. In fact, I describe a different game at the end that incorporates some of these lost ideas.

Alternate Directions

Here are some of the alternate or additional mechanics that have come to mind through the design process that I chose to leave out (or at least, leave for another day).

Common Initial State

The initial state in Picky Packrats still retains much of the randomness present in the original game of Nines. As stated in my original objectives, I was trying to mitigate the absolute randomness of the game, while trying to maintain an “acceptable” amount to keep the game recognizable to those who play the original. There are many who enjoy this input randomness.

A game with a common initial state (like chess or checkers) probably tends toward the abstract, which was admittedly my starting point, but not my desired endpoint. A common initial state also results in a greater competition of skill, which was definitely outside the realm of the family game I was targeting – one in which new or young players don’t always get pummeled. Also, given the game’s simplicity, this would drive the game too much toward puzzle instead of game.

Common Actions – Action Selection

Obviously, Action Selection (like in worker placement games) is an extremely useful and appreciated mechanic. There are many flavors of this as well, so it is difficult to address the mechanic so generally.

In Picky Packrats due to the minimalistic approach and also the intent of each card having variable and conflicting value – point vs. action – action selection was not really an option. It could effectively be achieved if each player started with the same deck, but there are many reasons for this combination to be ignored.

In designing Eclectic Clock Collectors, I definitely considered using a limited supply of known actions that players drew. This would accomplish much of the typical outcomes of the action selection mechanic; known, limited actions, blocking, etc.

Special Information – Cards Held in Hand

Special information, like holding cards in hand only known to one player, can add a greater degree of strategy to a game.

In part in trying to maintain a semblance of the original game and especially targeting the prime objective of paring down the components to the bare minimum, I opted to exclude any player cards held outside of the tableau. The cards that are left out of the game accomplish part of the objective of special information (technically imperfect information), but does not gain all the benefits.

However, in my original Nines makeover, Eclectic Clock Collectors, players can keep action cards for later use, which tries to take advantage of this mechanic, though still a slightly limited way (only certain cards can be held).

Spatial Elements – Orientation

Obviously, Picky Packrats is a very spatial game (pun intended), but throughout, as much as I wanted to incorporate card/tile orientation into the game, ultimately I didn’t. Orientation just seemed like a great fit for the framework, a missed opportunity or even a missed requirement. I leveraged all other states and attributes of the cards – Location, Exposed Side, Content (Point Value, Color, and Action). However, it never seemed to fit with the direction I took, particularly in scoring.

Finally, when the game transmogrified from Nines Micro to Picky Packrats, card orientation especially felt like it was perfect, but for a different game. Orientation seems to fit best with a game that:

  1. Tiles (or at least, square cards, but chunky, weighty tiles in particular).
  2. A Prescribed Pattern (rather than general layout objectives like in Picky Packrats).
  3. A Thematic Reference (a reason why orientation matters).

Variable and Hidden Objectives

The variable objectives mechanic opens a lot of opportunity within a game to pique player engagement and to extend re-playability. In Picky Packrats everyone has the same objective (make sets and collections). The sets in rows and columns is the very basis of the original game and adding the color collections was as far as I wanted to deviate from that original framework for this game.

Making the personal objectives hidden can prevent others from dashing their opponent’s efforts too easily. Given my primary objective in the design of increasing player interaction, this mechanic may have moved the design the wrong direction. Hidden objectives can also add an element of deduction to the game – what is she trying to build over there? Given the intended short duration of the game, though, that deduction may have been a lost cause.

However, both variable and hidden objectives could still be integrated into Picky Packrats with a slightly modified scoring model.

Variable Player Powers

The variable player powers mechanic also opens a lot of opportunity within a game to pique player engagement and to extend re-playability.

Variable player powers may not be the first thing you think about when you think of packrats, but it is not outside reason that one packrat would have special abilities or, at least, preferences. This mechanic could still be added to the game without much effort and without breaking the game (given testing), but was beyond the level of complexity that I desired for the game. I was trying to keep it accessible to players of the traditional Nines game and this mechanic would put the game firmly outside the reach of the targeted players.

A  New Game Emerging

Miniature Golf Course Designer

This game design has been developing in my mind in parallel with Picky Packrats and has almost been compelling enough to pull my attention to it next. I intimated the possible direction by calling Nines Micro “Miniature Golf.” I think it has potential to be a great game, but a few reasons I am leaving it on the shelf for now are:

  1. I don’t want to be constrained to one game framework (or to appear to be limited in my ideas).
  2. I have only limited time to dedicate to this endeavor and other design ideas are boiling over on their back burners.
  3. Picking it up while Picky Packrats is still fresh in my mind may drive me to use too much of the same material and concepts.

That said, Miniature Golf Course Designer was evolving precisely because I was not using some of the mechanics that came to mind in Picky Packrats that made perfect sense for this game. Thinking of the Mystery Rummy series of games reminds me that exploring different games within a simple framework is not always such a bad idea.

Some reasons why Miniature Golf Course Designer deserves some attention:

  1. It leverages some of the alternate mechanics considered in Picky Packrats that were grudgingly left out.
  2. It leverages all attributes of a tile’s state (Location, Exposed Side, Content, and Orientation).
  3. It is (to my knowledge) a previously unexplored theme.
  4. It is a very “fun” theme – who wouldn’t want to design their own miniature golf course?
  5. Though of the same origins, it is a very different game from Picky Packrats and Eclectic Clock Collectors.

You can read all about Miniature Golf Course Designer in the Games section. At the time I am writing this, it is in the Concept phase, but maybe by the time you are reading this it has progressed from there. I may not cover its development process in this blog as closely as I have done for Picky Packrats and Eclectic Clock Collectors, but the outcomes will be (hopefully) maintained in its Games section entry.

 

Subject: 

Game Design

In the exploration into new game designs I will certainly come upon ideas that have been tried, successfully and not, in other games. I also just might come upon some ideas that are "new"; that is, new to me or not well known. This notebook will document some of that exploration.

Objective

Explore game design "ideas" and post any research and insights regarding:

  • Game Design Process
  • Game Genres/Classes
  • Game Components
  • Game Setup
  • Game Mechanics
  • Victory/Winning Conditions
  • Game Design Tools
  • Game Design Resources

Hopefully, you will find this discovery process interesting and maybe even gain some inspiration from it.

Subject: 

Game Genres

Game Genres is a chapter in the Game Design notebook that focuses on various game genres.

Subject: 

Game Mechanics

Game Mechanics is a chapter in the Game Design notebook that focuses on various game mechanics.

Subject: 

Playtesting

Playtesting is a critical part of the game design and development process that is apparently given less attention that is healthy to the hobby. (I say that assuming that game designers don't set out to produce broken or awful games and end up there primarily due to a lack of playtesting). This notebook will document some of the research, efforts, and insight I make in playtesting.

Objective

Study playtesting efforts of my own and others and post any research and insights regarding:

  • Playtesting Methods
  • Prototyping Tips and Tricks
  • Playtesting Tools
  • Playtesting Resources

Hopefully, you will find the resources here interesting and helpful to your own playtesting process.

Subject: 

Playtesting Tools

This is a collection of both virtual (ideas) and literal (utilities) tools to assist in playtesting.

Subject: 

Player Types

Since I (like anyone designing games, I suppose) have to do significant playtesting solo – simulating multiple players – I have identified several player types to emulate. Unfortunately, “Player Type” is not a very descriptive term. You might think of the “Alpha Gamer,” “Sore Loser,” or “Sore Winner” as player types, but I would call these Gamer Personality Type. There are other uses of the phrase, but the term as I am using it might best be described as “Player Engagement Type” which I will explain.

In his excellent book and online reference, “The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses” (on Amazon) Jesse Schell discusses “player types” and what “game pleasures” they are seeking (Chapter 8, Lenses 16 and 17). He shares “Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types” (from game designer Richard Bartle) and “LeBlanc’s Taxonomy of Game Pleasures” (from game designer Marc LeBlanc) and instructs game designers to look at the game experience from the perspective of players fitting those types and others. I encourage any game designer to read Schell’s book and consider these player types and the game pleasures they seek.

As Schell suggests, I will playtest from the perspective of different player types. So why do I need my own list of player types? Firstly, I started developing my list before reading Schell which was fortunate because I was taking a different angle than Schell and now have two different playtesting tools. The player types I describe here focus on how players interact with the game on a more technical/mechanical level (what the player is trying to do inside the game) than experiential level (what the player is trying to get out of the game). The types intersect where motivation meets action, but I won’t include further study here.

There are many good things to discover through these player types and I can think of many house rules that have been created to counteract the habits of some of them when they have a negative impact on the game, especially when they are implemented as a single-minded strategy.

Most of the player types I am describing are not mutually exclusive and some naturally overlap, but each has its objective and I have tried to explain the nuances.  You will likely have blended types that will better serve your testing and real people are more complicated than what can be created here. I expect this list to grow as I test more games and will never be comprehensive and some can explode into many when getting into certain aspects of the game (see Dreamers). You can ignore mine altogether, but I encourage you to create your own that apply to your game.

Some of these player types are good to use throughout testing, while others at particular times to test particular aspects. Timing of their utility in testing is largely dependent on the game and some are not useful at all for some games, but I have tried to identify when and how they are most useful. An important note: Not every game is intended for every player type, so the fact that any of these players would /would not be successful in your game is not a value statement in itself. What is important is that their success is consistent with your intent, whether their presence can controvert the enjoyment of other players, and whether your game is successful with them.

Also, once you get to testing with real humans (other than yourself) who are playing their own natural way, it doesn’t hurt to label them in your notes so you can see how their feedback and success in the game line up with expectations for those player types. If you are not present during testing, some questions about the types of games they enjoy can help you figure out what type of player they are.

  • Analysts: These players analyze every play to the nth detail. Although they have greater value to testing than this trait, they are prone to Analysis Paralysis (AP) if the game provides the opportunity. In this case they become Perpetual Analysts.
    • Example:
      • Positive: In a game that has a tech tree, an Analyst will think through the cost-benefit of each branch.
      • Negative: In a game that provides several intersecting factors to a single decision that have multiple long term implications, an Analyst will try to think all of the paths before picking one.
    • Use:
      • Early: Use to explore options that new additions/changes to the game provide.
      • Mid: Use to explore the options that you think you have provided. Are they viable/productive?
      • Late: Use to refine optional paths.
      • Throughout: Use to test for AP potential.
  • Artists: These players try to make something beautiful in the process of the game.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a tech tree, an Analyst will think through the cost-benefit of each branch.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to see if there is potential for beauty in the game.
  • Dreamers: These players look for opportunities to get lost in the game. For them, the game experience is more interesting than winning. When testing theme, you may find you need many Dreamers with different ideas of what they want out of the game.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a strong theme, a Dreamer will try to be consistent with the theme in their actions even if those actions don’t advance their position.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to test theme-mechanics consistency and thematic immersion.
  • Engineers/Builders: These players look for opportunities to build something in the game that has permanence. For them, building something lasting is more interesting than winning.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has anything that can be built, an Engineer will try to build it solid and lasting.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to tweak the building process. Does it make sense?
  • Fiddlers: These players look for opportunities to fiddle within the game and tend to think that these are usually better options than a suboptimal direct play. For them, exploring the game is more interesting than winning.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a tech tree, a Fiddler may try to take one tree to its ultimate end even if that isn’t necessary to win. (Though a Perfectionist may do the same thing, they do it for different reasons).
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to tweak and refine mechanics.
  • Long-Gamers/Tortoises: These players are usually Analysts that play for the long game, but are not necessarily Perpetual Analysts. They aren’t necessarily try to mentally play the game to the end every turn, but are patiently pursuing a strategy that will “win in the end.”
    • Example:
      • In a game that provides a benefit that will pay 5 gold now or 1 gold every turn to the end of the game, a Long-Gamer will take the annuity.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to see if there are long-game strategies in the game.
      • Throughout: Use to see if there are late game surprises.
  • Meddlers: These players look for opportunities to win by dragging their opponents down.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a “take-that” mechanism, a Meddler will use it every chance they get.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to see how much player interaction there is and whether it can become vicious.
  • Novices: These players take the obvious play based primarily on observing the play space and a simple interpretation of the rules.
    • Example:
      • In almost any game, a Novice will look to the theme or card text or game board for an indication of what they should be doing.
    • Use:
      • Early and Late: Use to see if the game is as accessible as you want it to be.
      • Throughout: Use to see if there are obvious actions each turn. Are there times in the game when a player simply won’t see anything for them to do?
      • Throughout: Use to see if the theme helps players know what they should do next?
  • Opportunists: These players modify their strategy based on the best opportunity that is apparent at the time. These players are usually short-term Analysts who will switch between strategy and tactics quickly.
    • Example:
      • In a game that provides a punctuated competition for resources, an Opportunist will take the most expedient counter-play until the dust settles.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to see if there are multiple productive, though not necessarily optimal, plays every turn.
  • Perfectionists: These players try to get the perfect score, the perfect layout, etc. They are often Soloists in some gaming systems, but not necessarily.
    • Example:
      • In a tile-laying game, a Perfectionist will try to complete every feature that they have started even if they may get more points (or benefit by blocking another player) laying the tiles in a different place.
    • Use:
    • Early and Late: Use to determine what perfection in your game looks like. Is the pursuit of perfection a winning or even viable strategy in your game? Should it be?
  • Pushers/Pressers: These players will push/press their luck for the chance of a better outcome.
    • Example:
      • In a game that allows a player to risk everything for a chance to double their points, a Pusher will take the chance.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to see if a press your luck strategy has an appropriate (not necessarily balanced) risk-reward ratio.
  • Retaliators: These players are like Meddlers, but will retaliate and risk losing to get back at someone. There are many names for this player type that are more descriptive. (When listed alphabetically in this list, they should appear somewhere between SOA and SOC).
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a take-that mechanic, a Retaliator will be dedicated to attacking another player that wronged them earlier that game (or in childhood, but we can only go so far back).
    • Use:
      • Late: Use to see if there are particularly devastating blows that can cause someone to become so injured.
      • Late: Use to see if there are ways to single out one player for retribution.
  • Rushers: These players try to cause the end game as quickly as possible. They will accept suboptimal play if they can catch others before they have their strategy in full swing.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a deep tech tree to build combat units, a Rusher will find the cheapest way to field a light army and attack while the other players are investing in heavy units and have little or no defenses.
    • Use:
      • Mid-Late: Use to see if a rushing strategy can terminate the game early or worse, create Zombies of one or more other players.
  • Snipers: These players look for opportunities to attack the current leader.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a take-that mechanic, a Sniper will use it to attack the current leader.
    • Use:
      • Late: Use to see how difficult it is to determine who is perceived to be the current leader.
      • Late: Use to see if one or more Snipers can drag a game on past its welcome.
  • Soloists: These players are almost exclusively concerned with their own play space and ignore all but the most critical events of other players.
    • Example:
      • In a game that involves trading that is not absolutely required, a Soloist will probably not actively participate.
    • Use:
      • Early and Late: Use to see if the game falls apart if one player isn’t interactive.
  • Strategists: These players either come to the game with a set strategy or determine early in a game that is new to them. They stick to this strategy regardless of how it is working for them. They are more accurately called Single-Minded Strategists.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a strategy that appears to be solid, a Strategist will stick to it and double-down on it.
    • Use:
      • Late: Use when there are clear strategies to victory. Are there alternate paths to victory or ways to counter the winning strategy?
  • Tacticians: These players look for specific cause and effect actions and prefer to play at the low level of the game. They stick to a tactical approach regardless of how it is working for them. They are more accurately called Single-Minded Tacticians.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has a 1-step option and a 3-step option to gain VPs, a Tactician will take the 1-step option.
    • Use:
      • Throughout: Use to see if there is balance between tactical and strategic options.
  • Vigilantes: These players look to do their own thing, find cracks, and break the game.
    • Example:
      • In a game that uses resources, a Vigilante will try to break the game by hoarding all of one resource. Do you need more of that resource in the game or a rule that allows for alternate counters for infinite resources?
    • Use:
      • Early-Mid: Use to explore the rules and bits and walk through the game solo.
      • Late: Use when you think the game is pretty tight. There are too many ways to break a game early in development to place the Vigilante at the table with others.
  • Zombies (Kingmakers and other Bored Losers): These players will entertain themselves when the game has left them uninterested or ineffectual.
    • Example:
      • In a game that has “silent elimination” (players are eliminated from a possible win, but are not eliminated from the game – maybe a topic for another article) a Zombie will look for other, usually destructive, ways to entertain themselves to the end.
      • A Kingmaker will try to help someone else win when they don’t have a clear way to win themselves. They may accomplish this through a combination of dragging down the leader and assisting someone else (In testing, assume that they are anointing the player who appears to be second in line to win at the time they switch to Kingmaker). They can be any other role leading up to the point of becoming Kingmaker.
    • Use:
      • Mid – Late: Use to identify if players know too early that they have no way of winning and therefore may turn to other ways to entertain themselves to stay engaged. Have you “all but” eliminated some players from the game?

Player Type Tool

I have created a simple document that can be printed on card stock and used like name tags at the table to remind yourself and other testers what mindset they should have while playing. Another document provides cards with each Player Type and instructions on how they should play. You can add specific instructions to them here. I have not tried this yet, but it might be interesting to have each player keep this role a secret. Then at the end of the playtest try to identify which role the others had – make a game out of playtesting. They win the playtest if others can tell who they are.

Subject: 

Player Awareness

Generally, in an actual game, players are often aware of the habits/tendencies of their fellow players which can impact their own strategies. They may react anywhere along a spectrum of:

  • Ignore – hold to their principal tendencies.
    • Even though every time they open the door they get a bonk on the head, they keep opening the door.
  • Adapt/Morph – change their tendencies to mitigate the effect of their opponents’ tendencies.
    • Every time they open the door they get a bonk on the head, so they stop opening the door.
  • Respond/React – change their play style to counter their opponents’.
    • Every time they open the door they get a bonk on the head, so they jump through the door with a shield raised, swinging a mallet.

This dynamic is hard to simulate, so I stick pretty much to an initial Player Type regardless of the other Player Types in the game. (Though some Player Types have adaptation built in, they aren’t changing type). This is one of many reasons why real playtesters are important.

Subject: 

Game Publishing

Although the expertise and focus of Opie Games is not to analyze the game publishing industry, as we design and develop games we are considering the current marketplace when deciding which game designs to pursue. Time to design is always a limiting factor, if not the most limiting, so working on something for which the market is quickly diminishing or is over-crowded may be equally wasted. These studies may also be helpful in providing information for a pitch, to differentiate what Opie Games has designed from what is available. How this information is not being use is to determine what game to start thinking about. Ideation is upstream of this process.

Objective

Survey and analyze (to the extent reasonably possible) the game publishing industry to:

  • Inform the Opie Games process decisions from design into development.
  • Become knowledgeable about the game publishing aspect of the table top game industry.
  • Identify game publishing trends to forecast the market needs of the near term future.
  • Provide the game design and development community information that maybe helpful on its own or may seed further analysis.

Hopefully, you will find this analysis interesting and helpful in your own forays into the game publishing industry.

 
Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014: Introduction

Introduction

The card and board game design and publishing industry has been growing rapidly in recent years. Some might call it a boom, some might worry that it is a bubble, and some optimists (like me) say it is only the beginning. Beyond the sheer quantity of cardboard distributed, the number of new releases is also rising and some argue that the general quality of design and production is improving; they suggest that we are in the “Golden Years” of game design.

Without casting aspersions, much of the discussion regarding the industry, though, is anecdotal and relies heavily on speculation. Exactly what is happening to the hobby as an industry is difficult to gauge due to the lack of public information about specific distribution and dollars figures. Many of the companies involved in what might be described as the most dynamic sector (hobby games) are small and privately held. Others are large, international organizations for which the tiny hobby game sector is a small segment of their operations.

Fortunately, there is some public information available and thankfully, there is a ton of information held in the Board Game Geek database that can be gleaned (and cleaned) for this purpose.

What started as an inquiry into a specific category of games for the purpose of testing the originality of a “new” concept quickly grew into a much broader survey of the industry. What started as, “What’s happening now?” quickly expanded to “What trends are impacting the now?” This series of posts will walk through various aspects of the industry from 2000 to 2014 and peek at what has been targeted for 2015.

An important note: I am publishing this information as it becomes available to me and as I can digest it. (This is not a completed work). The designation "Notebook" is intended to convey this fact. Further, think of this notebook as a wiki where not only will new articles be posted, but existing articles will be edited, refined, and improved upon over time. If this information is interesting to you, please let me know so I can alert you to changes. I will use the Design Blog with the Game Industry tag to summarize updates. I will only make a few observations of the data as it interests me, but provide it here for your own discovery.

The Rules

First, a huge shout-out is due to Board Game Geek for maintaining a wealth of data which is the primary source used in this analysis.

Second, some caveats:

  • At this point I am using the public interface to the BGG database to query the data, which is limited and requires a slow, inelegant process to collect and consolidate.
    • At times an analysis of the BGG database itself is critical to understanding any analysis of the market.
    • I will make note of the limitations, assumptions, and estimates required of the data within each section, but a general statement about data quality and access is in order.
      • The BGG database is a treasure trove of data, but it has changed over time and is not maintained to a degree of consistency and accuracy required for deep analysis.
      • Some of the data populations are very small, which can introduce error that cannot be tested out.
      • The data presented here was obtained through the Advanced Search interface. There is an API available for easier searching, but it is also limited in the query parameters allowed and the results returned.
    • Ultimately, the analysis is necessarily high-level.
  • Although I am very analytical by nature, I am not a market analyst by trade and I haven’t been required to know much about statistics since college (at which time I was also required to own and know how to use a slide rule).
  • Since I am posting this information quasi-live, there may be discoveries later that alter earlier analysis and conclusions.

If there is enough interest in this information, I may inquire with BGG for further access to delve deeper and tidy up the whole study into something more formal. This is your chance to ask questions that may drive the discovery.

Enough with the rules already… Let’s play!

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 1: Game Publishers

Publishing Companies

A study of the hobby game market should naturally start with an analysis of the companies publishing hobby games. Given the lack of public information about publishers and distribution volumes previously described I can at best provide a survey and more speculation to add to what is already available.

At a Glance

The big news of 2012-2013 was the increasing number of Kickstarter marketed card and board games by individuals and small companies. That was followed in 2013-2014 with the increasing number of large game companies (in hobby game company size terms) using Kickstarter in what is commonly recognized as a pre-order system. The big news in mid 2014 was the expansion of Asmodee through the, as reported), acquisition of Days of Wonder and the merger with Fantasy Flight Games.

The Data

A significant complication to understanding the activities of game publishers is that most games have multiple publishers at the same time for different markets internationally and several over their lifetime in any given market. There is not enough specificity in the BGG data or likely in any public source to attribute game releases over the last 15 years across the world.

A series of events in the last couple years indicates a growing global market and greater attention to the North American market by European companies. European publishers are exercising a greater presence in US trade shows and US companies are aggressively seeking international cooperative distribution agreements.

Conclusions

Unfortunately, this section of the analysis is quite weak, but it is placed here to demonstrate that it was not forgotten and to identify the issues in reporting on it. The intent is to provide further analysis when data is available. Until then, I’ll conclude with the following observation.

Without providing data to support this statement: It is not uncommon for an industry to see consolidation at the high end (large companies) at the same time and possibly resulting from an explosion of entrepreneurship at the low end. Music and video content producers went through this with the explosion of YouTube and other outlets for user generated content in the last decade. Consolidation and mutual operating agreements of larger game publishers and launches and growth of the smallest publishers will both likely continue through 2015.

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 2: Game Releases

Annual New Releases

Before we can begin evaluating any particular subset of games released (by category, genre, mechanic, etc.), we first need to establish a baseline for total games released.

At a Glance

It is no secret that the number of games released annually is increasing. Every measure I have heard is increasing - the number of games released: at Essen Spiel, at Gen Con, through Kickstarter, etc. So this analysis may not provide any surprises or insights, but is necessary to establish the baseline for all other release statistics.

The desire here is to focus on the “hobby games” industry, but in the BGG database differentiating the data for mass market games vs. hobby games is not direct. Ultimately, I can narrow my focus in some ways, but not others. Hopefully, the end result is indicative of the market I am trying to represent.

The Data

All Games

First, a look at all (as recorded in BGG) games released in the years 2000-2014. These numbers include expansions and promos – if there is a record in BGG, it is included – which may bias the data. Since I am concentrating on trends over what has happened in a particular year, I will also present a 3-year running average here and will use this method for most comparisons.

The increase in the number of games released appears to be fairly linear over the entire range, but particularly over the last 7 years.

Hobby Games

As stated, the object of this analysis is “hobby games,” but the ability to focus on this market is limited. So, a few specific game categories that are fairly exact will be eliminated from the data while a greater volume of games will have to remain due to their inexact classification. Note: A complete survey of the BGG categorization of games follows in another article.

Please don’t think less of me, but I will combine Children’s games and Mature/Adult games into the category of games that can be removed from this study. I am sure that Children’s games will make a very interesting study, but it is not my current focus. Also removed from the data are “Books” and “Fan Expansions” categories which don’t really represent published games. Combined, these categories represent a small percentage of the total games, so the improvement to the data is also small. However, several of the categories intended to study are even smaller. Of games released 2000-2014, these are the numbers:

  “But wait!” you say, “What about Cards Against Humanity?” Yes, excluding the Mature/Adult category removes Cards Against Humanity from the data and 29 other BGG ranked games. The other 328 games that are eliminated are, shall we say, lesser known. In general these games are not in the Hobby Games class.

Eliminating these categories produces the illustrated trend. The trend for what I will call the Study Games is not greatly different from the trend for all games, but there appears to be a steeper rise in new games in recent years which may be significant.

Looking at the difference in the two trends is enlightening. The percentage of non-Children’s games released has increased significantly (from 75% to 92%) over the last 15 years. Though, the increase has not come linearly. A sharp increase in the early 2000’s was followed by a period of relative stability or slight decline, then followed by another sharp increase. Is the trend going to cycle again or is it now on a clear, continual upward path? The actual data for 2014 indicates that the curve may be flattening again, but one point does not a trend make. With the percentage already at 92% however, there is not much more room for growth.

Note: The difference is measured between the actual data for each year then the 3 year average is calculated from the result.

Without providing detailed numbers here are some thoughts. Fan Expansions, Books, and Mature/Adult game releases all have increased over the last 15 years and increased faster as a percentage of all games released in recent years. Excluding them would tend to drive down the recent increase for the Study Games list. Since 64% of the games removed from the study are Children’s games, and the other excluded games have increased, new Children’s games releases have probably declined. There may be an interesting study regarding the trends for those games. Unfortunately, “Children’s Games” in BGG is spread out over a Category and a Subdomain that overlap partially making analysis more complicated and effort than desired at this point.

Turning to the rate of increase in games releases, the data is striking. There appears to have been a boom in the early 2000s followed by a reset in 2006 with the years since being fairly flat.

The trend for the Study Games is very similar with the rise over the last few years still evident. In both sets of data there is only one year, 2006, where the rate of increase dropped below 0 (the rate of releases actually decreased) and this was small.

The average increase in growth rate for all games from 2007 to 2014 was from about 5.4% to about 6.2% - a growth rate increase of about 0.1% per year.

The average increase in growth rate for the Study Games from 2007 to 2014 was from about 4.4% to about 6.6% - a growth rate increase of about 0.2% per year.

2015 Games Announced

Although at the time this data was acquired in early January 2015, taking a peek at games already listed as 2015 publications provides some insight into the data. The database likely includes a date when the record was created, but that data is not available through the search engine. The data collected to demonstrate what can be derived from forecasting game releases is dependent on research that has not been released yet, so I will revisit this in the near future.

Conclusions

All Games Releases

It comes as no surprise that the number of games released each year has been increasing every year.  What may come as a surprise is that the rate of increase is fairly flat for the last 8 years. Anecdotal accounts indicate that the rate has been increasing significantly in the last few years. The Study Games trend shows at least a slight rise in recent years, but neither indicates that the industry is on the leading edge of a boom.

Hobby Games Releases

While I am primarily interested in “Hobby Games,” I will try to be specific when I think I am getting closer to that specific class of games. I will usually refer to this list as the Study Games since unfortunately I cannot be so specific. Even so, the increase of Study Games (non-Children’s Games) as a percentage of total games released indicates an increase in the releases of Hobby Games over the last 15 years and at an increasing rate in the last 4 years.

If the Study Games can be assumed to represent Hobby Games, there are a few trends worth noting. As with all games, Hobby Games are increasing in production but at a higher rate than the industry over all. Although there are many new sources for games releases (small publishers and Kickstarter) the total new games being introduced is increasing at a fairly flat rate.

New Game Announcements and Projections

Although the data has not been represented yet, it is important to report the following at this point. The 2015 data indicates that on BGG hobby games are announced and records are generally created as soon as they meet the BGG qualifications while mass market games are recorded after they are in market as a matter of historical accuracy. This difference in documentation methods may skew data for recent years; some hobby games projected for 2014 release may not have made it into market and recently released mass market games may not have been recorded. The best correction I can propose is to compare statistics gathered in 2014 with those gathered at the same time in 2015 and 2016 for comparison. So we will have to wait for that analysis.

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 3: Game Categories

Categories and Classifications

A very common and expected next step in a market analysis is to classify and categorize the data to make comparisons.

At a Glance

Breaking down the release data by game category seems like a relatively simple process, but it gets sticky quickly.

Let’s start with what seems like a simple question, “What game categories are you interested in analyzing?” This is where I started this whole discovery process. I wanted to analyze a category of games often called “Social Deduction” games; specifically ones that implement the mechanics of “hidden identities/factions” and “hidden objectives.” Neither of those categories exists on BGG. Let’s take a look at some of the categorization challenges and what we have available for categorization (short of categorizing thousands of records myself).

The Data

BGG categorizes games by several criteria that are loosely based on the following four classifications:

  • Subdomain: This is presumably a base classification (since there are only a few options), but it overlaps considerably with Category.
    • It is noteworthy that this classification is maintained by BGG users through voting and therefore, not all games are assigned a Subdomain.
  • Category: This is a loose classification based on genre, intended audience, source, principal components, etc. and overlaps considerably with Subdomain.
    • All games appear to have at least one Category and usually several.
  • Mechanic: Obviously, the mechanics in the game. This is what I consider to be the “purest” category of the four.
    • Unfortunately, not all games have a Mechanic assigned.
  • Family: This is another loose classification to indicate a family of games that are associated together through any of a number of criteria including: Intellectual Property, Game Series or Expansions, Mechanics, Genre, etc.
    • Many games do not have a Family assigned.
    • There is no means within the BGG Advanced Search functionality to compile a complete list nor to designate or filter on Family.

Without getting too linguistically technical, one of the main problems in analyzing this data is that the established categories cross classes. Due to the limited number of designators (4), those designations are overloaded. Another difficulty is the ambiguous or unexpected use of the terms within a category.

An Example

An example that may help illustrate the challenge in dissecting this data is described here.

Let’s say we want to exclude “lone-guy crap-games” like ones maybe I’d publish myself (geez, I hope not). A Publisher of “(Self Published)” indicates the obvious and a Category of “Print & Play” should do the trick, right? Not so fast. Each indicates a game that has ever been self-published or ever had a PnP version and both are assigned to the production version record for the game. “(Self Published)” gets you games as trivial as Twilight Struggle and a total of just over 2600 games in 2000-2014. “Print & Play” returns BattleCON: War of Indines and several Kickstarter games that have done quite well (a total of almost 3400 games in 2000-2014).

Combining the two criteria narrows the list to about 600 total games, 516 within the Study Games, and once again Cards Against Humanity is right there near the top. This list has only 34 rated games in it, so it looks like an opportunity to eliminate some obscure games from the list. However, since this list is compiled through a negative test, it would have to be removed from the Study Games manually year by year. What a pain, but it might be worth the effort.

One can guess that with the decreased cost of home printing there would be a trend here worth noting, i.e., there could be value in excluding them.  It could also be wasted effort if the trend for the games on this list matches the trend for all games, then it is just background noise.

Ultimately I have left them in the Study Games and will report on some interesting trends within them in a separate article. Hopefully, this gives you a sense of the challenge.

The Categories

Although there has been much debate on BGG forums about suggested alternate categories, these are what are currently available.

Note: The terms in red are the categories that were excluded from this study.

Subdomain

Abstract Games

Children's Games

Customizable Games

Family Games

Party Games

Strategy Games

Thematic Games

Wargames

 

 

Category

Abstract Strategy

Action / Dexterity

Adventure

Age of Reason

American Civil War

American Indian Wars

American Revolutionary War

American West

Ancient

Animals

Arabian

Aviation / Flight

Bluffing

Book

Card Game

Children's Game

City Building

Civil War

Civilization

Collectible Components

Comic Book / Strip

Deduction

Dice

Economic

Educational

Electronic

Environmental

Expansion for Base-game

Exploration

Fan Expansion

Fantasy

Farming

Fighting

Game System

Horror

Humor

Industry / Manufacturing

Korean War

Mafia

Math

Mature / Adult

Maze

Medical

Medieval

Memory

Miniatures

Modern Warfare

Movies / TV / Radio theme

Murder/Mystery

Music

Mythology

Napoleonic

Nautical

Negotiation

Novel-based

Number

Party Game

Pike and Shot

Pirates

Political

Post-Napoleonic

Prehistoric

Print & Play

Puzzle

Racing

Real-time

Religious

Renaissance

Science Fiction

Space Exploration

Spies/Secret Agents

Sports

Territory Building

Trains

Transportation

Travel

Trivia

Video Game Theme

Vietnam War

Wargame

Word Game

World War I

World War II

Zombies

 

Mechanic

Acting

Action / Movement Programming

Action Point Allowance System

Area Control / Area Influence

Area Enclosure

Area Movement

Area-Impulse

Auction/Bidding

Betting/Wagering

Campaign / Battle Card Driven

Card Drafting

Chit-Pull System

Co-operative Play

Commodity Speculation

Crayon Rail System

Deck / Pool Building

Dice Rolling

Grid Movement

Hand Management

Hex-and-Counter

Line Drawing

Memory

Modular Board

Paper-and-Pencil

Partnerships

Pattern Building

Pattern Recognition

Pick-up and Deliver

Player Elimination

Point to Point Movement

Press Your Luck

Rock-Paper-Scissors

Role Playing

Roll / Spin and Move

Route/Network Building

Secret Unit Deployment

Set Collection

Simulation

Simultaneous Action Selection

Singing

Stock Holding

Storytelling

Take That

Tile Placement

Time Track

Trading

Trick-taking

Variable Phase Order

Variable Player Powers

Voting

Worker Placement

Conclusions

As mentioned several times, the data available on BGG through Advanced Search is problematic. However, it is also a rich data set that can be used to derive trend information for the game industry as a whole and for specific categories of games. The analyst must be careful in dissecting and assembling this data.

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 4: Expansions

Categories Focus: Expansions

As with fans of the movie or TV industry (one I am most familiar with), in the game publishing industry it is common to hear from consumers, “They don’t make anything new anymore. They just keep making serials/add-ons/expansions.” Is there any truth to that sentiment? Before we get into some deeper analysis of specific game categories, let’s take a look at expansions.

At a Glance

Fortunately, BGG has an indicator on a game record identifying it as an expansion. Unfortunately, like so many other factors of interest, this identifier is not available in the advanced search in a way that allows us to search for all expansions. Instead there is a means to filter expansions out – to return a list of games that has no expansions in it. This meets the common request of gamers to list base games, but makes this study more difficult. The only way to get at the number of expansions is to exclude them from the list and take the difference between the two numbers (total Study Games – Study Games that aren’t Expansions = Study Games that are Expansions.) I am expecting some error to be introduced, but hopefully it is minor.

The Data

Despite the indirect method of obtaining the data for expansions, there appears to be a very consistent trend revealed. Similar to all Study Games, the number of releases has been steadily increasing over the last 15 years.

Now to address the criticism that the percentage of releases that are expansions is increasing, we compare Expansions within the Study Games to all Study Games. Although the percentage of releases that were expansions decreased significantly between 2000 and 2002, it has been steadily increasing for the last 13 years; passing its 2000 high of 27% in 2008. In 2014 the percentage of game releases that were expansions was a whopping 35%; a rise of 13% in the last 12 years and 7% in just the last 5 years.

Conclusions

Like the number of games in general, the number of expansions released each year is steadily increasing. What’s more, the rate of increase is greater for expansions than for new games. So the anecdotal observation (and oftentimes complaint) that there are more releases, but more of them are expansions is validated. For a discussion about the different types of expansions, expand your reading with my article The 4X's of Expansions

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 5: Economic & Business Games

Category Focus: Economic Games

Now that we understand a little about the categories available on BGG to direct our study, it is time to dive into our first one; Economic Games. Fortunately, BGG has an Economic game category, so our challenge is partly met already. However, we might also consider the question, “What makes an “Economic” game?” A recent Board Game Hour discussion revolved around “Business” games. Are all Economic games Business games and vice versa? Maybe not, but some other game categories and mechanics were mentioned in that discussion to identify a “Business” game that may be relevant, so I’ll take a look at those attributes as well.

At a Glance

Studying “Economic” game releases is complicated by the fact that there is one game that has monopolized the releases in this class for many decades; Monopoly. Monopoly is just one game, right? One game wouldn’t bias the data…

A common gamer complaint is that the standard response to their statement, “I play board games,” is “You mean like Monopoly?” The frequency of this response doesn’t come without cause. The Monopoly franchise is huge and the number of releases of Monopoly per year is also significant. When there is a new version of Monopoly, like the implementation of a licensed IP, there are many releases in different languages and production quality. A “single” release of Monopoly can bias the data for any given year. There is much to be said about Monopoly (and its clones), so we will save that for the next investigation round. Of note here is how I will report the data; with and without Monopoly.

Monopoly vs Modern: Additionally, I will include/exclude the “Roll/Spin and Move” mechanic, which represents many Monopoly clones (as well as Monopoly versions that don’t have “monopoly” in their title). It may be perceived as an unwarranted bias against a particular mechanic, but Monopoly and its clones, represented by the “Roll & Move” mechanic, skew the data for the games that are of primary interest to me. I will call all other games “Modern” Economic games, which may be a slanted term and the data set will surely include some traditional games, but I believe that the trend demonstrated by the data represents that of the modern, hobby game. Note: I will continue to use this term, Modern, and practice with other game categories to be reported later.

The Data

Economic Games

First, let’s look at total games released for all “Economic” games (including Monopoly and all mechanics). There is a steady increase until 2011 and then the releases start to fall off.

 

 

Since all game releases have risen steadily in the same period, we can expect the declining trend as a percent of games released to be even more pronounced. The peak in 2005 is consistent with all games releases, so that should smooth out some, but the low output in 2003 and 2004 is peculiar to this category.

As expected the releases of Economic games is fairly stable until 2007 when it starts a fairly steep drop. The raw data indicates that there may be a leveling out over the last 2 years, but we’ll have to wait a year or so to see if the decline continues or if it has hit a low point and is recovering.

Now let’s take a look at what I have called Modern Economic games. Due to the nature of the BGG search engine, this is a complicated data set to build. (I.E., it is possible to exclude multiple categories, but only one category can be included without narrowing to only games that are in all included categories). First, I have to get Economic games that are not Roll/Spin and Move. Then I have to get Economic games with “Monopoly” in the title that are also not Roll/Spin and Move (to catch the Monopoly games that are not identified as Roll/Spin and Move). This is a small number or releases, peaking at 25 in 2013. However, this is a small data set overall, so small numbers have big effects. I have to subtract the second set from the first set to get what I want. The resulting graphs of total games and percent of Study Games look like this:.

Eliminating the effects of the periodic release cycle of Monopoly smooths out the curve some, but overall the data is still a little erratic. The decline is decreased which indicates something about Monopoly that we will analyze next round.

Note: Even with the exclusion of “Monopoly” and “Roll/Spin and Move,” there are still Monopoly versions in the result set; not many, but some. These tend to be non-English language versions or “Something-opoly” games (since I am filtering for “monopoly”) that have the “Dice Rolling” mechanic checked, but not “Roll/Spin and Move” even though the description of the game includes the phrase “roll and move.” Fortunately, it is a small number of games comparatively, so we will assume we have hit the target data pretty well.

Business Games

While we are looking at Economic games, it is a good time to also look at “Business” Games. To call a game a “Business” game may be a bit arbitrary, but based on the Board Game Hour discussion, I can assume that there are a few attributes of a game that cause people to think of them as related to business. Fortunately, a couple of these are also available as categories within the BGG data. From the discussion, I am prompted to look at games that include trading and negotiation. To those I have added auction & bidding. There is also a more specific BGG category of stock holding, but the number of games is very small. Let’s first look at these categories individually within the Study Games.  Keep in mind that these are comparatively very small numbers of game releases, so any manipulation/math on the data can easily skew the results. I have jumped to the 3 year floating average to concentrate on the trends. Also complicating the data are a few games that have been released regularly in multiple versions.

These graphs show that “Modern” Trading and Negotiation games have pretty much followed the trend for all Study Games and Auction/Bidding games have grown at a faster rate. They may have a slight release cycle of about 4 years, but there isn’t strong evidence to confirm this.

 

When intersected with the Economic games attribute (games that have both Economic and Trading or Economic and Negotiation, etc.) the release trend takes on the characteristic of the dominant factor, Economic.

 

Conclusions

It appears that game producers lost interest in Economic games around 2007 and interest continues to drop. Other attributes that are typical of Business games, Trading and Negotiation, are following the major trend of games releases, but when combined with the Economic attribute, they follow the trend for all Economic games. Therefore, there is no distinction within Economic games of a more favored sub-type of Economic game.

Finally, if we look at these "Business" type mechanics used in games that are not Economic, we see that Trading is generally flat (i.e., matching pace with growth of all releases), Negotiation is showing moderate growth (with the exception of 2014), and Auction/Bidding has had strong growth over the last 10 years.

 

There are some interesting data related to Monopoly and Roll/Spin and Move games indicated in the data, so we will look at them next in what I will call “Traditional” games.

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 6: Traditional Games

Categories Focus: Traditional Games

Hobby game enthusiasts like to think that “better,” more “modern” games are replacing some of the old traditional games. As we saw with Economic games, the traditional game Monopoly has been a significant portion of the releases over the years. Is there evidence that Monopoly and other traditional games are losing their foothold in the games market? Let’s see.

At a Glance

As we looked at economic games, we noticed that there may be something interesting related to the grandfather of economic games, Monopoly. We will use Monopoly and the Roll/Spin and Move mechanic as representatives of “traditional” games.

The Data

First, let’s look at total Monopoly releases. The number of Monopoly releases peaked in 2006-2007 and has dropped significantly since.

 

 

 

When we limit the releases to those in the Study Games group, the total number of releases drops about 10%, but there isn’t a significant difference to the trend. So from here on we’ll concentrate on games within the Study Games.

 

 

Representing the Monopoly releases as a percent of the Study Games, then we get an expected decline, but even over a longer period since overall games releases have been increasing.

 

 

As we noted in the previous article, the overall number of economic games had also declined, but not as precipitously. So looking at Monopoly releases as a percent of Economic games within the Study Games, we see a very similar decline.

 

 

Now, let’s take a look at the Roll/Spin and Move mechanic. Since Monopoly is a major title in this group, it will impact the overall trend. First, let’s take a look at the total games with the mechanic, then we’ll exclude Monopoly.

 

 

As we saw with Monopoly, the total releases are lower, but the trend within the Study Games is very similar, so we’ll stick with that limitation from here on.

 

 

 

As we might expect from the decline in total releases, the decline in releases as a percent of all releases, which is increasing, is an even bleaker picture for the traditional Roll/Spin and Move mechanic.

 

 

As stated earlier, Monopoly is expected to have a significant impact on this trend (representing 20-25% of Roll/Spin and Move releases), so to be certain that we aren’t just seeing the Monopoly effect, let’s look at Roll/Spin and Move without Monopoly. Note: As before, this is a difficult number to reach due to the nature of the data that can be queried. ([Roll & Move that is not Monopoly] = [Roll & Move] – [Monopoly] + [Monopoly that is not Roll & Move]).

We see a very similar, though slightly slower decline for Roll/Spin and Move excluding Monopoly; a drop from ~14.9% to ~2.6% compared to the overall drop (including Monopoly) from ~18.6% to ~2.8%.

Conclusions

It is obvious that the number of releases of traditional games (as represented by the specific game Monopoly and the Roll/Spin and Move mechanic) is in decline. I don’t want to be too quick to declare Monopoly dead, though. This year, 2015, is the 80th anniversary of Monopoly and a year in which we will certainly see a surge in Monopoly releases. Looking back to 2005-2006, which was the game’s 70th anniversary, there was a small surge in releases, so we might expect the same this year. While there is likely only one specific 80th anniversary edition release, there will likely be releases in other languages and other themes intended to capitalize on the anniversary.

A cursory look ahead at 2015 also indicated that there may be a matter of accounting impacting the extreme decline in 2014. It appears that hobby games releases are announced in advance so they appear on BGG before release. While traditional games like Monopoly are reported after release. This difference could mean that the 2014 release totals are essentially complete for hobby games, but for Monopoly, they will continue to rise over the next year or so as BGG users report those releases. With the small number of total releases, a small number of additions can have a significant effect.

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 7: Social Deduction Games

Categories Focus: Social Deduction Games

When I started this research, I was really only interested in “Social Deduction” games, but here it is, round 6 and I am only now getting to the work I set out to do. So much of this hobby turns out that way. Fans and critics alike might say, in different tone, “It seems like every new game is a social deduction game!” As a fan of social deduction games and working on a few designs myself, I am very interested in the current trend in releases of games that fit this category. Is it overrun? Is there room for just a few more great games? (Mine of course will be great).

At a Glance

As with Economic games, defining the category I call Social Deduction games is difficult and even gets trickier. The BGG data does not have a Social Deduction category outright, but affords me two main mechanics categories that are representative of Social Deduction games: Deduction and Bluffing. While there are many games that include either of these mechanics that are not Social Deduction games, Social Deduction games almost always include both.

The Data

Let’s take a look at the data for games with each of these mechanics, games with both of them (Deduction & Bluffing), and the total of games that have either of them (Deduction &/or Bluffing). The games with both are most likely the “real” Social Deduction games, so we’ll take a quick look at the top-ranked games in that list as well.

First, let’s look at the total number of games released. Both mechanics have been fairly flat for a while, but have seen substantial increase over the last three years. Naturally, the combination of the two mechanics (games with either of them) rises even more sharply. Meanwhile, the group we are most interested in, those that have both mechanics, has historically been almost non-existent, risen slowly from 2004 to 2011 and then seen a significant bump in the last 3 years.

Even with this recent increase, the annual Social Deduction games releases are still less than 2% of all games released.

Finally, let’s smooth out those trends with 3-year averages.

Since this is apparently a relatively new game category, its future popularity, though rising now, is uncertain. Let’s compare it to a couple other game categories that are ahead of Social Deduction on the popularity curve. The lead in both cases appears to be about 4 years.

 

First, particularly for all those who complain about the emergence of Social Deduction, how about comparing to Variable Player Powers? This mechanic was once unknown, but has risen greatly. The most common question regarding variable player powers in games is likely, “Why does this game not have it?” Social Deduction as a mechanic could take a similar path.

Now, how about a comparison to the trend in Economic games? We looked at them earlier in Round 5. For those that say Social Deduction is a fad and won’t last as a primary game mechanic, this possible future would fit their predictions.

Here is the list of games that fit the Social Deduction query (include both Deduction and Bluffing) that are ranked in the top 1000 or so on BGG. (I included a few more beyond 1000 since Two Room and a Boom was there looking suspicious at 1048). I am not familiar with all of these, but have played many and am familiar with most. Based on my interpretation of a Social Deduction game, I think the query hits the mark pretty well.

Games with Both Deduction and Bluffing Categories Assigned

Rank

Title

25

Battlestar Galactica (English first edition) (2008)

28

The Resistance: Avalon (English first edition)(2012)

76

The Resistance (English second edition) (2012)

86

Love Letter (2012)

121

Letters from Whitechapel (2011)

167

One Night Ultimate Werewolf (Multilingual first edition) (2014)

200

Coup (2012)

250

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (2002)

314

Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition (2008)

381

The Werewolves of Miller's Hollow (2001)

459

Shadow Hunters (2005)

618

Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War (1992)

643

Werewolf (1986)

658

Bang! (2002)

717

Revolution! (2009)

720

Room 25 (2013)

769

The Boss (2010)

838

Nuns on the Run (2010)

840

Clans (2002)

947

Samurai Sword (2012)

970

Lost Legacy: The Starship (English first edition)(2014)

1038

Divinare (2012)

1048

Two Rooms and a Boom (2013)

Conclusions

While it is possible for Social Deduction games to tank, they comprise a small percentage of all games and probably have room to grow. I think it is reasonable to expect that releases of Social Deductions games will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, but exactly how much is anyone’s guess. There is probably room for a few more great ones.

Subject: 

Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 8: Dynasties

Dynasties

When looking at the recent history of board games (say, the last 50 years), it is convenient to put the releases in terms of dynasties. Certainly, one of the oldest and well-established of these is Monopoly. As has been demonstrated in previous articles, Monopoly has dominated game releases for many years. To that list of dynasties, we can add others like Axis and Allies and Risk. Let’s consider how game dynasties are formed and then take a look at some of them in terms of new releases.

At a Glance

The data is not our friend on this investigation. There is no simple way to discover what might be a dynasty. It is more a matter of speculating on which dynasties there have been and then using the data to confirm or refute the speculation. I will posit a dynastic evolution here; knowing that it is essentially impossible to demonstrate the accuracy through the data available. All the same, I will try. If I say something inaccurate, please tell me and we can correct it.

Game dynasties were once strong and built upon the veneration of their leaders by title. (E.g., Monopoly, Axis and Allies, Risk, etc.). Although relatively new on the scene in comparison and praised as the best new thing, Catan and Carcassone established similar dynasties (though with some differences we will explore).

Then there was a period when individual hobby games exploded on the scene; the “cult of the new” and Kickstarter followers venerated many leaders instead of just a few. The risk/reward is high in this interim, feudal period where there are many new designers to discover and titles to try and universes to explore.

Are we heading into a new era of dynasties? What are the bases for those dynasties? We will explore a a couple possibilities.

The Data

On BGG, the best way to find most dynasties is through the “Family” category. The tallies for each family below include anything that matches, including promo cards, etc.

Ancient Dynasties

These dynasties were built primarily on title recognition. Although there were always new releases with trendy covers, the games inside the box were essentially the same as the releases last year and last decade. They disguised themselves in new clothes, sporting new art and different, exciting locales.

Monopoly (est. 1933, 923 titles on BGG): We’ve seen plenty of Monopoly data, so rather than repeating it here, I will just reference the original articles about Economic games and Traditional games. Let’s first take a look at some of dynasties with which Monopoly had to share the gaming universe for decades.

Risk (est. 1959, 60 titles on BGG): Traditionally holding a strong market share, Risk actually does not have a lot of separate releases compared to Monopoly. Risk has managed to keep its place without a lot of fancy dress. Consider it a stealth dynasty (e.g., Australia before the moon came into play).

Dungeons & Dragons (the RPG) (est. 1975, 116 titles on BGG): D&D started and dominated the role playing game genre for over a decade. It is a complicated beast to quantify, though, as it has been primarily a gaming system with offshoots and eventually an open license. D&D has re-invented itself in recent years as a universe for board games and will get a mention later as well.

Axis and Allies (est. 1984, 40 titles on BGG):  Axis and Allies has maintained its dynasty similarly to Monopoly by providing the same game mechanics with different maps and bits. Although it didn’t appear until the modern era, Axis and Allies may be the last of the old guard. (Although I still have my first edition of Axis and Allies, bought new in 1984, I have never played it due to the lack of fellow fans. I played a friend’s copy, bought my own and never had the chance again. Pardon my ignorance.)

Middle Ages

In the middle ages, new games were coming onto the scene and establishing dynasties. They signify the transition from the ancient to the modern, by still trading on their name recognition, but actually often putting something mechanically different in the box. You know you’re onto a possible dynasty when every title includes a “:” and you hit on most of the following: “The Card Game,” “The Dice Game,” “Junior,” and at least one location name.

Magic: The Gathering (est. 1993, is it even possible to track): What is there to say? BGG is not helpful in collecting data on Magic releases, but it is obvious that this game has captured the hearts and minds of many a gamer, youth in particular. Magic stays young by continually re-inventing itself without completely breaking its former self.

Catan (est. 1995, 130 titles on BGG): Catan and Carcassone start to tread on the modern era with their continuous stream of expansions and take-offs that expand the universe they originally established. However, Catan in particular relies on the old method of looking sharp by putting the same old body in new clothes (Star Trek: Catan).

Carcassonne (est. 2000, 76 titles on BGG): Carcassonne gets closer to the modern age by staying in power through expansion rather than new clothes.

The Modern Age

Now let’s take a look at some of our newly ordained leaders and ones that might be on the verge of a dynasty. I can think of two main bases for dynasties in the modern era; Name Designers and Known “Universes.”

Name Designers

Since the dawn of “designer” games several designers have made names for themselves and have been prolific producers. These dynasties may rely on a particular title, but often do not. They are built on the gravitas of the designer’s name above all else. There are many designers meeting this metric, but here are a few with their dynastic stats. There are many up-and-comers as well. Predicting who will reign on for a long time is a game unto itself. Who on this list do you think has established their dynasty and who do you think still needs to prove themselves? Based on the data for the historical dynasties I have mentioned I’ll set a somewhat arbitrary metric for a designer dynasty.

  • Duration: 15 years (established 2000 or earlier)
  • Breadth: 40 titles or more
  • Strength: 5 titles in the top 1000

Most of the following designers have established dynasties well beyond my threshold.

Established Designer Dynasties

Designer

Established

Titles

Top 1000’s

Highest Ranked

Wolfgang Kramer

1974

199

22

22: El Grande

Alan R. Moon

1977

104

13

59: Ticket to Ride: Europe

Richard Borg

1987

98

10

42: Commands & Colors: Ancients

Reiner Knizia

1990

437

37

32: Tigris & Euphrates

Uwe Rosenberg

1992

104

14

4: Caverna: The Cave Farmers

Friedemann Friese

1992

76

11

10: Power Grid

Rudiger Dorn

1992

44

10

50: Goa

Martin Wallace

1993

87

24

15: Brass

Richard Garfield

1993

57

8

7: Android: Netrunner

Christian T. Petersen

1997

105

12

30: Twilight Imperium (Third Edition)

Vlaada Chvatil

1997

41

9

3: Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization

Eric M. Lang

2000

237

12

56: Chaos in the Old World

 

Not to be ignored, though, are the many designers who are very close to my threshold; most just needing a few more years in game design, a few who have been around awhile, but are only recently establishing growth, some expanding their reach very quickly. Additionally, some of these designers are also establishing dynasties as publishers.

Emerging Designer Dynasties

Designer

Established

Titles

Top 1000’s

Highest Ranked

Richard Breese

1989

22

5

31: Keyflower

Matt Leacock

1995

17

5

44: Pandemic

Bruno Cathala

2002

83

14

82: Five Tribes

Ignacy Trzewiczek

2002

76

6

13: Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on a Cursed Island

Kevin Wilson

2003

56

11

35: Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition)

Peter Lee

2004

21

8

28: Lords of Waterdeep

Stefan Feld

2005

35

16

11: Castles of Burgundy

Ted Alspach

2005

60

4

45: Suburbia

Mac Gerdts

2005

14

8

65: Concordia

Corey Konieczka

2006

56

15

20: Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game

Chad Jensen

2006

13

5

23: Dominant Species

Antoine Bauza

2007

61

7

17: 7 Wonders

Donald X. Vaccarino

2008

43

4

19: Dominion: Intrigue

Xavier Georges

2008

11

5

46: Troyes

Colby Dauch

2009

41

6

53: Summoner Wars: Master Set

Known “Universes” and “Systems”

These often overlap with the designer dynasties, but not necessarily. The universe is often IP that is held by a publisher and several designers may design games in its space. Nostalgia seems to be a driving factor in the popularity of some of these universes. Here are a few established and emerging universal dynasties:

Universe

Established

Titles

Titles

> 2000

Top 1000’s

Highest Ranked

DC Universe****

1940

98

50

2

580: DC Comics Deck-Building Game

Marvel Universe*

1959

140

101

5

102: Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game

Star Trek *

1967

368

240

3

205: Star Trek: Fleet Captains

Dungeons & Dragons **

1975

116

91

8

28: Lords of Waterdeep

Star Wars *

1977

209

148

6

20: Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game

Werewolf/Mafia***

1986/2001

106

105

7

29: The Resistance: Avalon

Commands & Colors

2000

63

63

7

42: Commands & Colors: Ancients

Ticket to Ride

2004

59

59

4

59: Ticket to Ride: Europe

Arkham Horror

2005

34

34

4

24: Eldritch Horror

* There are a few in here that, by age, might fit a different era, but their popularity is on the rise.

** I included D&D in this age because it is only recently becoming a force in board games.

*** Werewolf/Mafia was originally published in 1986, but spent many years as essentially a fan-based game. The concept started getting used in published games more frequently after 2001.

****Although the DC universe probably doesn’t meet the standard set by the other dynasties here, it is listed for comparison to Marvel.

Note: Title counts might include fan expansions, which I left out of most statistics, but left in here as these indicate a strong following.

The Feudal Lords of Kickstarter

Much is said and written about the positives and negatives of Kickstarter. I won’t get into that foray, but will just provide some statistics supporting the idea that we are currently in an age of game publishing when individual games can make an impact over the traditional dynasties like no other time. Additionally, small publishers leveraging Kickstarter are able to compete with large publishers.

Kickstarter

 

Established

Titles

Top 1000’s

Highest Ranked

Kickstarter*

2009

2636

77

29: The Resistance: Avalon

Some noteworthy facts about the Kickstarter titles listed on BGG that impact the interpretation of this data:

  • Many titles were previously published and were reprinted (and usually upgraded) through Kickstarter.
  • About 140 of the titles counted (~5%) have not been published at this time.
  • I don’t understand all the reasons for associating a title to the Kickstarter family.

Caveats aside, though, Kickstarter is a force in publishing. It may not qualify as a dynasty due to its demographics, but it could be the democracy that destroys dynasties. Or it could collapse under its own weight in a few years.

The Sage Who Spanned the Ages

Based on my approach, when I first developed the data for this article and wrote it, I missed arguably one of a very few most important designers of the 20th century. Rather than add him into the rest of the designers, it makes better sense to give him his own category because his dynasty spanned the ages from the Ancients through the Middle Ages and even with a few entries into the Modern Age, though he passed away in 2002.

The designer who spanned the ages was Sid Sackson. His impact on the industry far exceeds the BGG statistics about his published games, but those are shown here.  Although Acquire holds a respectable rank of 124 on BGG, the likelihood that a 50 year old game making the top 1000 is remote and speaks volumes about this dynasty.

Sid Sackson

 

Established

Titles

Top 1000’s

Highest Ranked

Sid Sackson

1951

125

4

140: Acquire (1964)

486: Can’t Stop (1980)

600: I’m the Boss (1994)

729: Sleuth (1971)

Mr. Sackson started in the industry and designed many of his games in an age when designers were not mentioned in the rules, much less the box, yet he broke out and became one of the most recognized and revered names in game design.

Conclusions

The ability to capitalize on a known brand is an enticement to label everything new under one of those known brands. Many games could be branded and marketed as completely new or with borrowed title, art, and all from a known winner. We see it in all of media and entertainment, it only makes sense for games to follow the masses.

How long do you think the current dynasties will continue to reign? What do you think are the next dynasties? Or do you think that the feudal age will continue for the foreseeable future?

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Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 9: Self-Publishing

Self-Publishing: The Kickstarter Effect

This article looks briefly at self-publishing and the effect that Kickstarter has had on it. This is not a focus on Kickstarter itself, but there is more about it in Round 9: Dynasties.

At a Glance

Kickstarter has provided a platform for lone game designers to publish their work. Let’s take a look at the history of self-publishing and Print & Play games and see if we can detect any impact from Kickstarter.

Unfortunately, BGG uses the Family classification to identify Kickstarter games and as mentioned earlier, the Family classification is not available for searching in the advanced search. It is available in the regular search, but that does not allow me the flexibility to limit the search by my other criteria. Another complication results from the fact that many Kickstarter published games are new editions of existing games, so the BGG record of the game shows a publication year for the original.

The Data

Let’s take a look at the total releases of Self-Published, Print and Play (Self-Pub PnP)games and then as a percent of total games released.

This is a very striking graph and possibly illustrates several trends; and possibly at least one that has little to do with Self-Pub PnP games. Three important dates come to mind when looking at these trends: (One at the beginning of the timeline and two near the end).

  1. January 2000: BoardGameGeek launches
  2. April 28, 2009: Launch of Kickstarter
  3. June 26, 2010: Alien Frontiers Funded

Let’s first look at the early years on the curve. It appears that there were almost no Self-Pup PnP games released until about 2005 when they started taking off, but let’s look at some facts that may impact that interpretation. The ability to self-publish and the viability of PnP has existed since the mid-80s, so certainly games were being printed at home. An example of what has been possible, although not included in this chart, Cheapass Games started a very successful business based on small-business printing capabilities in 1996. So this apparently slow start is almost certainly related to reporting. Since BGG did not exist until 2000, these games were not getting reported until BGG gained in popularity and essentially no one is going back in history to report them now.

The significant rise from 2006 to 2010 is probably a combination of increased reporting (mostly at the front end) and increased production (mostly at the back end.

Now, what about the peak at 2010 and the decline since? I would acknowledge this trend as real (BGG reporting has been solid since 2010) and attribute it to the arrival of Kickstarter on the scene. Many games that would have been Self-Pub PnP have hit Kickstarter instead.

Conclusions

It is obvious that Kickstarter has had a tremendous impact on the Self-Pub PnP market; essentially transferring most of those efforts into Kickstarter published games.

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Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 10: Themes

Categories Focus: Themes

We have already looked at a few genres; those related to economic games and social deduction games. Let’s take a look at a few others that are thematic based and may be interesting. One that I know many gamers would love to see is “Zombie games,” but there are many other themes that gamers feel have been either over-used or under appreciated. We’ll take a look at a broad list of themes in this round.

At a Glance

A glance is all we are really going to take in this round. I’ll provide the basic chart showing releases of games of a particular theme as a percent of Study Games for each theme and leave the interpretation to you. Remembe, Study Games are all titles in the BGG database excluding: Children's Games, Mature/Adult Games, Fan Expansions, Books, and the Roll/Spin and Move Mechanic.

The Data

 

 

Conclusions

Hopefully, this data is helpful to you and gives insight into a theme that interests you. In all cases, consider this data to be a starting space for your discovery on a particular topic.

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Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Round 11: Mechanics

Categories Focus: Mechanics

We have already looked at the Roll/Spin and Move mechanic extensively in the Traditional Games round and Deduction and Bluffing in the Social Deduction games round, but what other mechanics are rising or declining in interest from publishers?

At a Glance

A glance is all we are really going to take in this round. I’ll provide the basic chart showing releases of games of a particular mechanic as a percent of Study Games for each mechanic and leave the interpretation to you. There are probably other mechanics of interest, but I searched the ones most interesting to me. Some are not as useful as you would hope, e.g. Card Drafting means drawing cards in any way. Others appear to have been added to the categories fairly recently and older games have not been updated with them; particularly Player Elimination (which would have been interesting to me) and Take That. I’ve kept these in, but tread lightly around these. (At least that is the best reason I can find for their wonkiness). If there is one you particularly want to know, just comment and ask. Remembe, Study Games are all titles in the BGG database excluding: Children's Games, Mature/Adult Games, Fan Expansions, Books, and the Roll/Spin and Move Mechanic.

The Data

Conclusions

Hopefully, this data is helpful to you and gives insight into a mechanic that interests you. In all cases, consider this data to be a starting space for your discovery on a particular topic.

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Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014 Final Round: Conclusions

Conclusions

I am very pleased that this research confirmed some general speculations about the hobby game industry while it tempered others. Here are a few final conclusions, as always with the caveat that this research is based on the data available in the BGG database. There is much that can be discovered in the analysis and I extended to many areas in which I was not specifically interested now, but I wanted to leverage the process while I was practiced at it.. So the following conclusions are not all that can be drawn from the data, but just a few that interested me. Read the specific articles to better understand each category and the data challenges associated with it. You can review all of the figures that were included in the articles in the Hobby Game Trends 2000-2014: Figures gallery. It is worth repeating here that some of the data sets are so small that they are prone to large swings when calculating changes.

Social Deduction Games

When I set out to mine the BGG database I was primarily interested in answering 2 questions:

  1. Is there a social deduction game boom? It seems like every other new game is a social deduction game, but maybe that is due to the games that catch my interest right now are ones that meet that criteria.
  2. Is there room for more? I have a few game designs in progress for which social deduction is the primary mechanic. Am I entering the market at the wrong time?

Yes, though social deduction games are rising in popularity, they are a very small segment of all games released. My next analysis related to social deduction games is to look at what makes one and to compare several popular games in the genre based on criteria that I am developing. As usual, this is not to review the games, but to identify how they use the social deduction mechanic and how they differ. Watch for this series of articles coming soon in the Game Design Notebook under Game Genres.

As I started researching the data, though, I started asking other questions and other avenues were opened due to other discussions that I took part in. I made a few conclusions along the way and left a lot to your own discovery, but here are a few noteworthy conclusions from the series.

Annual Games Releases

Yes, there is an increase in new games releases every year and there has been for the last 15 years. The last 7 or so years have seen an acceleration in that increase, though, unlike the anecdotal evidence that it is growing exponentially, the acceleration (the increased rate of increase) has been mild (about 0.5% per year).

Why is there a disconnect between what we see and what the data supports? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. The number of releases for a traditional game and for hobby games are not equal, so as traditional games get replaced by hobby games, the actual number of new games increases.
    1. 40 new releases of Monopoly look like 1 new release (if that).
    2. 40 new hobby games with different titles look like 40 new releases (and are).
  2. People interested in the hobby game industry are not even looking at traditional games. They are not “released at Essen” or “released at GenCon.” They just show up on the shelf at Target.
  3. The prevalence of dynasties has fallen off (at least temporarily), so most new releases are new games, not just repackaging of the same game. (See Expansions).

Expansions and Dynasties

Yes, the number of expansions released is growing each year and the percentage of new releases that are expansions is also growing. I have collected the conclusions about expansions and dynasties into one category because I think some of the current and future dynasties are built on expansions.

Instead of re-theming and light changes to Monopoly to make Monopoly: The Lord of the Rings Collector’s Edition, we will see more dynasties built on expansions and take-offs like Catan (which has over 130 titles listed on BGG! – yes, several are promos, but not that many) and one that is emerging now, Pandemic. It may have been off to a slow start as a dynasty, but it is in full break-out mode now.

You might even include these titles in this dynasty, depending on how you are defining it:

Is there any doubt that there will be at least one new release in 2016?

Economic Games

Yes, gamers are tiring of “traders in the Mediterranean” games. Economic games had a steady increase from the beginning of the study data (2000) until about 2011. Since then new releases have been declining steadily.

Yes, particularly interesting is that some mechanics typical of economic games continue to rise, but not in economic games; Trading, Negotiation, and especially Auction/Bidding are all popular in new releases. Presumably these mechanics are being used in non-economic, non-traditional ways.

Traditional Games

Yes, the decline in releases of traditional games is obvious and striking. Although, this data does not represent the number of units sold, it is obvious that game publishers are putting their stock in hobby games. We can all do a victory lap. The next time you get pulled over by a cop late at night and say, “I’m just driving home from playing board games with friends.” The cop might say, “Board games? You mean like Pandemic?”

Since I did not include children’s games in this study, it would be interesting to know if there is a similar movement in this category. Certainly with great publishers like HABA (on BGG) and Blue Orange Games (on BGG) growing internationally, there is hope for the future of the gaming universe.

But Wait, There’s More…

Note: At the time I am writing this, I am not adding other chapters, but if I do further research along the same lines, I will add it into the notebook. I certainly plan to look at the 2015 data for some of the categories already researched to see if it meets my predictions. So you can expect me to add at least one more chapter in early 2016.

If there is any category or topic that you are interested in knowing more about, please comment and I will see if it is something I can add to this research. If you have any questions about how I collected this data or drew my conclusions, please comment. It is highly likely that you have questions or ideas that can help extend this information.

Subject: