Book Cover

My book, Players Making Decisions, has a cover!



Inspired by Dan King’s anticipation list, here’s a list of some things I am excited about for my very first Spiel:

  1. 7 Wonders Duel by Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala – My wife and I have been doing most of our gaming 2-players these days. This is a two player (!) civilization game (!!) by two of my favorite designers (!!!). Needless to say, it has already been preordered for local pickup, so it won’t be taking up luggage space, but it is certainly my most anticipated game of the show.
  2. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization by Vlaada Chvatil – Lately I’ve been getting into heavier games. Civilization building is my favorite of the pantheon of over-saturated board game themes (trading in the Mediterranean, Roman senate, zombies, trains, Tolkien rip offs) and while everyone always spoke highly of TtA, it was always with some “buts” as qualifiers. This new version seems to attempt to address some of these buts and I’m willing to give it a go.
  3. The Prodigal’s Club by Vladimir Suchy – Sometimes a good theme is enough to make me go all in before completely understanding the mechanics. In The Prodigal’s Club, you play English noblemen who are trying their best to destroy their own reputations, political standing and finances. Early reviews are good, so it’s a safe preorder to pair with my Through the Ages, also from Czech Games Edition.
  4. Food Chain Magnate by Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga – The heavy boardgaming hoi-polloi rave about a few obscure publishers. One such publisher is Splotter Spielen who makes somewhat ugly, expensive, long games. This is one that I probably wouldn’t pick up under normal circumstances, but it seems so perfect for my first trip to Spiel to pick up something super German-boardgamey. The art has a great retro 60s vibe. I don’t know if I will like the game or if my group will even be into it, but Splotter games do hold their value well, so it seems to be an economically safe bet.
  5. Catacombs – I’m a dexterity game fan. Flick ’em Up is getting a good deal of play and love from my shelf. Catacombs is a Dungeons and Dragons (see overused themes) dexterity game where attacking is done by flicking components around a board.  I missed out on the initial print run of Catacombs and they went and made everything look and play a whole lot better, from reviews. I should have been in on the Kickstarter for this, but I just missed it somehow. Reports are that there will be extras at the publisher’s booth at Spiel. Hopefully there will be an English copy by time I get there.
  6. Hanabi: Die Bonus-Plaettchen by Antoine Bauza – Word on the strasse is that Abacus Spiele is giving away a free (!) expansion to Hanabi! Hanabi is one of my favorite games from the last few years and something to bring it back to the table with no risk at all is a no-brainer.
  7. Brettspiel Adventskalender by Frosted Games – An advent calendar that contains exclusive mini game expansions for every day in advent. People think I am a crazy collector, but I have only a few of the games. I figure I can sell off the ones I will never use. But let’s be honest: it will be an excuse to get some of the included games. I’d buy this just for the Fields of Arle and Splendor expansions alone.
  8. Antarctica by Charles Chevallier – This was an undre-the-radar one for me, but a recent BGG preview piqued by interest. It is an area influence game that works based on rondel movement mechanics. I’m intrigued enough to give it a try.
  9. Flick ’em up: Stallion Canyon by Gaetan Beaujannot and Jean Yves Monpertuis (phew!) Flick ’em Up isn’t even in the hands of everyone who wants it and Pretzel is pumping out an expansion. It doesn’t contain a lot of material, so I am hoping for a low price tag. But it has five new scenarios and you can shoot people off horses using wooden ramps, so it’s a given that I’ll be getting it. Whether it will be at Spiel or when I get back home remains to be seen.
  10. The Bloody Inn by Nicholas Robert – The categories for this game on BGG are “Economic” and “Horror” which seems like a singular combination. In this game, you play innkeepers who murder and bury your guests when the time is right to maximize what you can steal from them and get away with it. Of course, you have to find places to store all of the bodies, so it looks like it will become farcical quickly. Sounds good.

Close: The Pursuit of Happiness by Adrian Abela and David Chircop – Worker placement is one of my favorite mechanics. Building up a person’s life is only loosely different from civilization-building. However, there will be a very limited amount of these at Essen and there hasn’t been a rules release or much information on what decisions you make in the game, which gives me pause.

Close: Prime Time by Elad Goldsteen- I was razor-close to backing this on Kickstarter. It looks great, but I read too many nasty reviews of the creator’s earlier Kickstarter problems. I was also a little dissuaded by how loosey-goosey it seemed the creator felt about what was going to be in the KS edition and what would be shipped later. It didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the game was done. If I see it at the show, I’ll probably pick it up because it did look pretty up my alley.

Close: Nitro Glyxerol by Luca Borsa and Andrea Mainini – One thing that I know I’ll be on the lookout for at the show is a game that has components that I will not see in any other game. Nitro Glyxerol is about shaking beakers to get cubes to land in the spot in a particular order. There’s a press your luck mechanic as you can settle for smaller chains or shake to go for longer ones. I normally shy away from real time action games, but this one looks really clever.

Why Not

There are a few other games that are getting a lot of buzz that I probably will be skipping at Essen in order to wait out reviews and/or pick them up stateside:

  • 504 by Friedman Friese – I have opinions on this despite (obviously) never having played it. First, as a game design theory person, I am deeply intrigued on how the dynamic and aesthetic systems emerge given randomized mechanics. If it does not work and is just a quirky idea, I will not be surprised. I imagine just sorting and finding the right bits will be a challenge in itself. And I find that if I play a game twenty times, then it starts to feel like a lot. If I play this 20 times, I might see each module twice. Will that even be enough to understand the game? If it does work completely, then it is going to challenge tons of entrenched philosophical notions of analog game design. I do look forward to a review of a new Euro ten years from now that says “This is just game #149”.
  • Time Stories by Manuel Rozoy – I love time travel as a theme but did not enjoy Tragedy Looper. Time Stories looks promising, but I am worried about getting a play group together and exhausting the game. I’m going to wait for some hands-on reviews here since it will be available states-side. If it is a problem, I see no reason why I won’t be able to get it in a trade in a year.
  • Ticket to Ride UK/Pennsylvania by Alan Moon – I do love me some Ticket to Ride and a Pennsylvania map hits me in the childhood region. The UK map looks heavier than a normal TtR game which gives it a hook that previous map packs seemed to have lacked. I’m interested but do not need it right away.
  • Pandemic: Legacy by Rob Daviau and Matt Leacock – When this was first announced, I was certain it would be an instabuy. The legacy concept was innovative, but was popularized on the comparatively crummy mechanics of Risk. Combining that innovation with the tension and excitement of Pandemic seems like a Peanut Butter/Chocolate marriage. Yet the longer I wait, the less excited I am. Will I have a steady group that wants to play? What happens if I exhaust the game? We always lose at Pandemic. What happens if we have a loss spiral? I’m going to take a wait and see approach with this as well.
  • Porta Nigra by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer – I’m not a big K&K fan, but this looks like a solid Euro. The theme isn’t strong but the building pieces look like an interesting touch. If it wasn’t being distributed in the US by Stronghold, I’d probably pick it up at the show, but I can wait and get it later.
  • Blood Rage by Eric Lang – The Dice Tower folks’ glowing praise of this game has me very interested. I haven’t really liked any of Eric Lang’s stuff, but I’m willing to give this a try. However, I don’t know if it is fair to categorize this as an Essen release.
  • Mysterium by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko – I am super excited for Mysterium, having played the Polish predecessor at Dice Tower Con this past summer. It’s preordered and is technically a GenCon release, so while it is probably #2 on my anticipated games list, it’s not something I’ll be looking for at Essen.


I have news!

For the last two years in scraps of time here and there I’ve been putting together material to make my own game design textbook. Here is what I can tell you so far!

  • Pearson, the largest book publisher in the world, will be publishing it through its PeachPit imprint.
  • It should be out by the end of the year.
  • It doesn’t have a title yet! Titles are hard.
  • It is a platform agnostic game design textbook that looks at many commonalities between the design process and features of both digital and analog games.
  • One of the areas that I think this book covers better than almost anything else out of the market is player psychology. If games are about meaningful decisions, then how do we examine and design decisions? We can look at them through the lens of the rational player (game theory) or through the lens of the human player (behavioral economics/psychology).
  • I dedicated a LOT of time in the last few months finishing the draft. You may have seen a flow of all the other game design textbooks I could find clogging up my Goodreads this year as I tried to make sure I wasn’t making anything that already existed in some better form.
  • Currently, we are editing chapter by chapter and I’ve got a lot of tendrils out on the web trying to get permission to use all sorts of screenshots and photographs of various games. I thought the draft was hard work, but the editing phase is laborious.
  • As someone who is normally completely self-deprecating, I have to say I am really proud of this thing. It isn’t just another “this is what I think about Game Design” kind of book as is so prevalent. There is a little bit of that, but it is loaded with references so you don’t have to take my word for it.
  • You will be very tired of hearing me talk about this over the next five months.

Review: Fields of Arle


Uwe Rosenberg is a particularly prolific German game designer that likes to make games that have to do with agriculture. You may have heard of his most popular one, Agricola. Some take to Agricola‘s harsh world of eking out survival, scraping together enough for a thatched roof extension to your pitiful cottage. Others think it to be overly dry and boring. To each their own: games are for everyone.

However, I’ve always been been a fan of Rosenberg’s ability to give a player a large possibility space and yet always somehow make the player feel that each of those potential options in the possibility space are simultaneously viable and sub-optimal. It makes for tense dynamics if you allow yourself in that magic circle.

One issue some have with Rosenberg’s farming games is that they are gigantic. Caverna is roughly the size and weight of a microwave oven and costs more yet suffers from a criticism that the game plays roughly the same every time.

It is with recent Caverna plays in mind that I started to eye Rosenberg’s newest Fields of ArleFields is 1-2 players only, which works out great for me as I generally can only get these games to the table with my wife. Like Caverna and other similar games, Fields has very little randomness of consequence. Yet somehow, I find the play to be much more varied than that of Caverna and more fair and open to experimentation than Agricola.

The criticism that these games are entirely deterministic and solvable is both true and useless. There are a sequence of moves that can produce the maximum possible score. For a solitaire game, one could label all of the moves, post them on BoardGameGeek, and essentially render any of the decision-making meaningless. While this appears to have happened for Caverna, the decision space is so vast and well-balanced in Fields that this does not seem to happen.

I believe that the mechanism in which Fields shines is the ability to upgrade tools. For a number of action spaces, a corresponding tool exists where the benefit for the space depends on the tool. For example, at the Woodcutter you will get 1 Wood per Axe tool that you have trained. By going to the Master action space (and with other game effects), that tool can be upgraded from 2 to 5. Thus, players can specialize in different actions. Wherein Agricola, the Family Growth space is equally good and desirable for everyone, that may not be the case depending on the strategy here. Instead of drafting best spaces (as is the mechanic in most worker placements), the strategy seems to be to determine the best combination of improvements and exploiting those improvements, knowing you have a limited combination of each. Additionally, Fields improves on the aesthetic of progress hinted upon by the adventuring mechanic in Caverna. Improving your tools feels like progress and by the end of the game you feel like your improved actions are great deals. Where Rosenberg’s best game (Le Havre) shines in comparison to all his others is the feeling of possibility and abundance. These elements are present to a significant degree in Fields.

In most instances, this plays out as a puzzle with a variable solution. If you are looking for a malleable and interesting optimization challenge, Fields delivers in a way different than all other Rosenberg games. I found my initial plays deeply satisfying. There are some thematic oddities present within the delivery mechanism, but besides that, I have little to criticize about this charming game.

Dominion Card Picker Updated

Still play Dominion? I’ve updated the card randomizer app thing I made back in 2010 to (1) work again, and (2) integrate cards from the two most recent sets. Enjoy!

Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

[Note: I received an advance reader edition of this book]

In the vernacular of professional wrestling, there is the concept of the “cheap pop”. A cheap pop is when the face or “good guy” character gets an easy reaction from the crowd for not doing all that much. Often, this is done by name-dropping the city where they are currently performing. When the wrestler says something like “Nothing is going to make me happier than beating you up here in the great city of Philadelphia!” the Philadelphia crowd goes nuts. The fans get their ego stroked a bit because an object of their esteem is saying something nice about their city and by extension, something nice about them, which makes them feel good. It is a “pop” in that it is a favorable crowd reaction, but it is “cheap” in that the performer didn’t really have to do anything to earn it.

Cheap pops come in many forms. Many wrestlers are known to have catch phrases that the crowd can say along with the performer which makes them feel like a part of the show: “If you smell what the Rock is cooking”, “Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you?” “That’s the bottom line because Stone Cold `said so”. The performer doesn’t have to do anything creative to get the reaction, it is just something that serves as a means to bring the crowd into the experience without doing something difficult and dangerous like actually performing or telling a story.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a follow-up to his 2011 nostalgia-laced Willy Wonka meets It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World-esque mystery adventure Ready Player One. Ready Player One had flaws but it was largely enjoyable based on the pacing and unraveling mystery of the story.

In Armada, Cline name drops The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game early to give a wink and a nod to the audience that he knows he is just largely rehashing old ground, but he’s in on the joke and so are you now as well. Armada plods along largely content with fulfilling the promise on the book jacket. The first act sticks around for far too long. If Lightman would just read the damn book jacket, he could be clued in on the plot before the midpoint of the book. If you are looking for a story with subtext and mystery, as was at least mildly present in Ready Player One, you will be disappointed. There is one major twist that happens three-quarters of the way through the book, but it is heavily foreshadowed and so the reader just kind of shrugs and continues with the TitanFall fan-fiction.

Unfortunately, it seems Cline puts more work into connecting with the reader via cheap pops than he does by connecting with the reader through engaging plot or characters that have to overcome any kind of adversity or internal conflict.

Armada is laden with cheap pops. I refuse to count, but I would estimate that there is at least one pop-culture reference per page. Some are subtle; others not so much. There is nothing wrong with references and nostalgia if it furthers some other goal in the story, but in Armada (and to a lesser extent Ready Player One), it serves only as an attempt for the author to build a character or scene without any real character- or world-building.

I know plenty of folks who speak in the nerd lingo, but no one drops constant references to external things in such a forced way like the characters in this book. While reading, I was reminded of this Hawaii Five-O scene with horribly obvious product placement. However, Cline isn’t getting paid by his reference antecedents in the book. He just does it to prove nerd gravitas. That’s with the best intentions applied, of course. With the worst intentions, he provides this non-stop pop culture nonsense to distract from a vacuous, already done-before story with evenly spaced dopamine drip drip drips from things the readers remember and love. “Oh hey, He’s listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures album? I loved that!”

It may seem pedantic to rail on the use of pop culture references, but to me it devalues what makes the references powerful in the first place. Leeroy Jenkins was a funny web video from the mid-2000s. I can still go back, watch it, and laugh. But a reference to Leeroy Jenkins provides nothing new except a reminder that something else was fun and good. Unless the thing making the reference has something new to add, then it just becomes like a recursive Xerox copy, getting more and more faded with each iteration. After a while, you are left with “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” that is so overused that the marrow has long been sucked dry from the bone and you never want to see or hear about it ever again. By the way, there’s an All Your Base reference on Page 89.

At the end of the day, Armada is inoffensive but largely a waste of time, much like a good deal of the pop culture it lovingly cuddles up to.

Seeds is out!

I made a print-and-play game along with a digital prototype. You can download the files and play the game here. Or you can help me by giving it eyeballs and reviews on BoardGameGeek.

Review: Darkest Dungeon

In many role-playing games (although I much prefer the genre title “dungeon crawlers” due to no actual role-playing happening in most of these games), the player chooses a number of characters to join his or her party. Then he or she goes out and levels these chosen characters up to level awesome and everyone who stayed home remains level noob. Every once in a while a contrived story event or a desire to switch things up will cause the player to dip into the reserves (oh no, you can’t use Aeris anymore), but often you just get the characters you start with, whether that was a good initial choice or not.

What attracted me to Darkest Dungeon was that it eschewed a few of the standard tropes of indie procedural dungeon crawlers. One of the unique mechanics is that characters get stressed out when having to deal with monsters, when injuries to party members happen, even when walking around in darkness. If a character gets too stressed out, he or she develops some sort of mental or personality defect.

After each dungeon trip, instead of zipping to an inn to heal up and repeat, characters need time to process what they’ve been though. Characters do this in different ways: some pray, some self-flagellate, some turn to booze or gambling. But these methods of mental healing take time and so the player must dip into reserves for the next trip. This is a great example of a mechanic supporting a unique dynamic. Many games have had switching out characters or permanent injuries before, but few have made it a part of the core game loop to keep the character choice interesting.

Sometimes these personality effects are mild. I have seen characters that are paranoid and will refuse to be healed by other party members, characters that are kleptomaniacs and will take treasure for themselves instead of the party, and characters that will only go to brothels to heal when going back to town, leaving that option unavailable for other characters. While the characters are randomly generated and every character of a given class looks alike, these quirks and foibles end up being meaningful. I have a healer that I just don’t take out unless he is the only option because his stress levels build too quickly in the environment I’m exploring.

There are other attractive differences. Combat is based on one-dimensional positioning. Your party lines up in single-file 4 deep and enemies can line-up single-file 4 deep. Some attacks only work if you are in positions 1 or 2. Rarer attacks hit the back characters, so that’s a smart place to keep weaker characters. However some attacks affect the order of your characters, pushing your warrior to the back line or your priest to the front. Then you must decide whether it is worth it to spend turns rearranging or make due with what you have.

Since one of the main mechanics is the party’s torchlight levels, most of the game is played in washed-out shadows. The palette of burnt orange and browns gets tiring. The narrator should be annoying when he repeats lines, but the delivery and the awareness of game situation make it less irritating.

The UI is a bit confusing in a number of places. The map window should know to focus in the direction of unexplored rooms, but for some reason you have to use your right mouse button and drag to manually move the map around. There’s no way to navigate to new hallways from existing rooms without using the map widget, despite being able to exit through doors in the hallways. Some menus have two options and the coloring makes it unclear which is the selected and which is the unselected option. The game shows you a lot of data, but doesn’t prepare the player to receive it as information. It’s clearly a game that was developed by a small group who understood it and tested with a small early access group that watched it grow because some of the mechanics are entirely inscrutable without referring to a wiki.

For example, I had played for three hours before knowing that I could heal traits in the sanitarium. Obviously, the text in the UI told me I could. However, when I dragged a character in, I received a list of traits in yellow text. When in the dungeon though, yellow traits are positive and red traits are negative. I did not realize that my negative traits were mixed in and could be selected by clicking on them as they looked like static text referring to positive traits. There are many small usability nightmares haunting this game.

As you earn money, you unlock abilities of the town to heal and upgrade your poor adventurers. This is a straightforward gameplay hook. However, a few hours in, I felt that I had seen everything there was to see. The power of your group scales very slowly. Items earned tend to be balanced such that they all involve tradeoffs, increasing one stat while decreasing another. This is fine in a multiplayer setting, but I do not feel much more powerful at level 4 than I did at level 1.

Dungeons can end up being exercises in long backtracking sequences as there is no way to jump to completed areas, especially in large branching dungeons where the goal is to explore 90% of the dungeon’s rooms.

In retrospect, I seem to be complaining quite a bit, however I quite enjoyed Darkest Dungeon for about six hours of total gameplay. If you really enjoy the dungeon crawling genre, you will likely get a lot more playtime out of it. It takes some big risks in a number of places. In some aspects, it whiffs embarrassingly. In others, it knocks it out of the park. I think the attention to character choice dynamics is particularly admirable. It is a game worth playing.

© 2015 Zack Hiwiller

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