Alternate Reality CFP

Every year I like to think about what-ifs for my favorite sport: college football. Because of big money concerns, it is the only major sport where a team can essentially be eliminated from championship possibilities before playing a single game. This is not the case in college basketball or even in every other division of college football as every conference champion gets a berth in a tournament to declare a champion.

This year, the Western Michigan Broncos went 13-0 and will be unable to compete for a national championship. Would they beat an Alabama or an Ohio State? It’s pretty unlikely. But we will never know because they won’t be playing on the field. Instead they play on ESPN talking heads segments and statistical models. By that logic, we should just look at the stats of all incoming freshman and declare the winner of the 2021 National Championship right now.

The NCAA had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the current four team playoff system which started in 2014. This was an upgrade from the two-team playoff system started in 1998. Before that, the national champion was crowned by an inconsistent combination of sportswriters, mystics, and soothsayers.

Since the dawn of the College Football Playoff, writers and fans have opined that it is simply a matter of time before the playoff field expands to at least eight because the four-team field makes no sense in a system with ten conferences–five of which are considered “power” conferences in order to further stratify the playing field.

The system takes who are supposedly the four best teams and pits them against each other. However, this “best” system seems to be inconsiderate of the same rules that determine conference champions. One of these systems must be wrong because they are inconsistent.

Either:

  • Conference champions are determined incorrectly and should be determined by a panel who decides who is the best team. Or,
  • The playoff participants are determined incorrectly and should be determined solely by on-field results.

I lean toward the latter, but can see the arguments towards the need for a subjective eye. As a game designer, I’m constantly viewing systems that need fixing. Here is what I see as problems with the current system:

  • A subjective agreement on the four best teams means that on-field results are less relevant. If everyone agrees that USC is the best team, then they are in whether they have lost 0 games or 3.
  • Western Michigan can never win a national championship. Boise State, who had an unprecedented run of success (two undefeated seasons in three years) in the BCS era was never considered even after consistently beating teams like Oklahoma, Oregon, and TCU.

Here is a system I would propose if I had the power to enact it that preserves both the need for subjective human rankings but ultimately leaves results up to the players on the field. It also allows for teams outside of conferences to have opportunities to play for championships.

It is an uncomplicated system. Conference championships happen as they always have in the ten conferences. A committee (or even an algorithm) chooses the seven best conference champions and the top two teams who did not play in a conference championship. The latter two play a “play-in” game on the conference championship weekend and then the rankings are used to seed an eight team tournament.

While this does not guarantee a situation like a 2016 Western Michigan to never happen, it is certainly harder to make a case that an undefeated team is not one of the top seven conference champions than it is to make the case that they are not one of the top 4 (or 8) teams in the country.

Additionally, it gives teams that were excellent but lost due to tiebreakers a second chance while eliminating a second chance for conference title game losers who have their chance on the field to make it or break it.

Here is what that scheme would look like in 2016. Note that the seeding would only happen after the conference championship weekend. It is likely that if Toledo would have beaten Western Michigan that it would instead be C-USA champion Western Kentucky taking the next open spot.

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Pundits would endlessly argue about the play-in game participants, but in this system there is an easy out: win your conference without the bloat of many non-conference winners being able to dilute the meaning of conference championships. If the semifinals played to chalk, we would see the same New Years Eve bowls as already set.

With only five additional games, surely some bowls between 6-7 teams can be negotiated as replacements. Money that would normally go to those conferences involved in those games can be redistributed amongst the ten conferences.

Feast for Odin Starting Draws

I was procrastinating at work and reading Steph’s weekly blog about board games, when I came across her criticism of A Feast for Odin‘s starting occupation cards:

I wanted to start off by saying I really don’t think the starting cards are all that balanced, and I know that is mean of me to say but I could really feel it in this game. Ron was constantly getting material goods for free from the forests every time he visited a specific section on the board while I got a terrible 1 time bonus when I collected 4 sheep for milk and a couple wool tokens. I’m sorry but it really pissed me off. I don’t know what I am going to do about the starting cards for future plays, perhaps we will get 2 and keep 1 or just go through and remove the “lesser valued” ones.

I’ve been playing and loving A Feast for Odin quite a bit lately and I wondered if drawing two and keeping one would alleviate the problem. For instance, let’s assume that the cards can be distilled to an arbitrary power between 0 and 10. There’s a scenario where I draw a 5 and you draw a 7. Okay, that’s a slight power advantage for you. But if we do “pick two, keep one” and my second draw is a 2 and yours is a 10, then the difference in power goes from 2 (7-5) to 5 (10-5).

Being a game design teacher and all-around nerd, I decided to see if I was just cherry-picking an edge case. This upcoming analysis based on some assumptions that may not be true; specifically, that cards have an objective static value.

Anyway, I ran an Excel simulation at 1,000 repetitions based on three cases: each of two players draws one card with value 0-10, each player draws two cards with value from 0-10 and keeps the highest, and each player draws three cards with value 0-10 and keeps the highest. I then calculated an average power for each case and an average difference in power for each case. I then ran that simulation 1,000 times for one million total repetitions.

Remember that we are giving every card a score between 0 and 10 and assuming a flat distribution. Thus, we should expect that the average power in a “draw 1, keep 1” scenario to be pretty close to 5 after a million draws. This will be our sanity check to make sure we are doing this correctly. There shouldn’t be much variation after a million repetitions.

Here are the results:

Draw 1 Draw 2 Draw 3
Avg. Power 4.998 7.149 7.973
Avg. Difference 3.641 2.636 2.095

In the rules as written, you get an average power of 5, but the difference between players is, in my opinion, significant. Going to “Draw 2, Keep 1” cuts the difference between the two players by 27.6%.

However, I think the real benefit is not the reduction in difference but the increase in average power. Taking the higher card of the two means that players will both (1) feel better due to getting something more useful (which would not happen if you just went in and removed the lesser valued cards) and (2) feel a greater attachment to the occupation they choose to keep because they chose it. This is likely related to a number of cognitive biases such as effort justification.

Additionally, this is also likely affected by relativity effects. We are likely okay to have a gap in power between us as players as long as we feel like we have something to work with. This means the situation of a 1 vs. 4 feels worse than the situation of a 7 vs. 10.

Here is a histogram of one of the 1,000 run simulations of the number of times a player ended up with each power level:

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In the Draw 2, Keep 1 system, you will see the junky numbers 1-4 just as often, but you are less likely to be stuck with a pair of them. In fact, the most likely scenario is that you end up with a card from the highest power decile.

I think I’ll try the Draw 2, Keep 1 next time we play.

2016 Essen Anticipation List

A year ago tomorrow I wrote my Essen anticipation list. The anticipation was palpable because I was actually going. Of the 10 listed last year, I bought 8 of them. Antarctica I played at the show and was not impressed by and I’ve just never gotten around to Catacombs. All eight were good purchases, although I’ve sold off my copy of The Bloody Inn. Five-ish plays of that was enough. I don’t think the bench is as deep this year, luckily for me.

Here’s my list for this year:

1 – A Feast for Odin
Uwe Rosenberg has had some off-the-mark games, but Fields of Arle and Patchwork are two of my favorites. This mixes those with a huge amount of other stuff. I’ve read the rules and still am a bit flummoxed. It will either be a glorious mess or a top-10 game, but likely nothing in between. Highly anticipated.

2 – Terraforming Mars
As I struggle to get my far-future hard science fiction game published, I look with anticipation on what Tom Vasel just called Race for the Galaxy: The Board Game. I know to take that with a grain of salt, but this looks to check a lot of my boxes of interest.

3 – Great Western Trail
There are a couple designers who are “can’t miss” for me. After Isle of Skye, Mombasa, and Broom Service (Port Royal and Oh! My Goods! were worth noting, but ultimately passable), whatever Alexander Pfister comes out with is worth seeing. A heavy game with an American West theme is a nice Venn Diagram of my interests.

4 – American Railroads, Pandemic: The Cure: Experimental Meds, 7 Wonders Duel: Pantheon, Concordia: Gallia/Corsica, Spyfall 2, Alchemists: King’s Golem
Expansions! It would be tiring for me to do an individual listing of each of these to just say the same thing over and over: “Love the base game; hope this adds more interesting variation.”

5 – Key to the City: London
Keyflower is a top-3 game in my household. Key to the City: London is intriguing because it is essentially Keyflower with one major mechanical change. Will this change work? I don’t know.

6 – Overseers
I knew nothing about this game before reading the Spiel preview list. It has beautiful art and graphic design. The rules as explained in the preview are succinct and interesting. I’m on board. It’s probably one of those games that has great curb appeal but doesn’t last. I’m willing to take the risk.

7 – The Colonists
A big, modular civilization game from a first-time designer gives me pause. However, if Lookout/Mayfair vetted it, then it’s worth investigating. The bits and pieces of previews I’ve read makes it look like there’s a good reason for the Caverna-esque mountain of materials, rather than just being huge for huge sake like a Mega Civilization. If I was actually going to Essen this year, this and A Feast for Odin would probably take up my baggage weight limitation.

8 – X Nimmt!
I love 6 Nimmt! Last year, I made sure to pick up a copy while in Germany so I wouldn’t have a lame, inferior 6 Takes! There was already a sequel of sorts called 11 Nimmt! which is one better than ten, I suppose. The personal row described in the summary of this game sounds like a great tactical change. Hopefully I can get this stateside somehow?

9 – Sola Fide: The Reformation
I haven’t played a lot of Jason Matthews’ games, but I’ve liked all I’ve tried. The theme does nothing for me, but the mechanics sound right up his alley.

10 – Peak Oil
Peak Oil will only be demoed at Essen, but anything with Heiko’s graphic design instantly gets put onto my watch list. The theme is unique and dovetails nicely with at least one of the mechanics.

Honorable Mention – Frosted Games’ Expansion-a-palooza
Last year, Frosted made everyone’s luggage weep with their expansion advent calendar. This year, they are bringing it back along with a Deutscher Speilepreis expansion pack which will include mini-expansions for Codenames, Time Stories, Mombasa, and Isle of Skye. My fervor for the latter is boiling. Someone bring it back for me!

Maybe? – Solarius Mission
This was way up on my list previously. La Granja is very good, but Spielworxx seems a bit disinterested in pushing this one. They said there would be only one print run and that the dice would have to be stickered. Which is odd. I’ll risk it going out of print to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

Maybe? – Bios: Genesis
I know Eklund’s games have a specific fanbase and I am a newb, but a game of this scope from an experienced designer is worth checking ot.

Maybe? – Sagrada
It is pretty and comes well-recommended, but I am always very cautious with dice games.

Maybe? – Lorenzo il Magnifico
Going wholly on designer pedigree here. Otherwise it looks like the sea of other Euros about the renaissance. Then again, so did The Voyages of Marco Polo.

Origins and Dice Tower Con 2016

So I’ve been a busy bee. Two gaming conventions in a little more than a month!

I went to Origins Game Fest in Columbus, Ohio for the first time in June with my wife. It was not a long-planned thing, but I had an offer from a publisher to come up and look at one of my prototypes, so I jumped at the opportunity. I’m going to be curt about that; just keep your fingers crossed for me.

The show itself was good. I’ve been to GenCon twice and it reminded me of a smaller GenCon. We spent much of the time in the exhibitor hall getting demos (because they were free there, but cost money anywhere else) and searching nearby for food. Columbus has great food. I’m a big fan of Polish food and there were a number of choice spots near the convention center. Columbus also has a free bus service that took us from the convention center to within two blocks of our AirBnB. So while the con itself was just okay, the atmosphere was pleasant enough to make up for it.

The highlight of the con from the play perspective perhaps was meeting YouTuber Lance “UndeadViking” Myxter and having him demo Yokohama. He’s a stand-up guy. I’m not generally very approachable and he must have said “hi” to me like six times after we played as we passed randomly throughout the con. I was already planning on backing this beautiful Euro game, but the demo put me well over the edge. It’s busy-looking, but ultimately fairly straightforward after a few turns. Think of a more spatially-oriented Le Havre. The density of decisions in this game is intense. There is still a little bit of time left to back this on Kickstarter, so go do it.

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But enough about Origins. The best con of the year is annually in Orlando: Dice Tower Con! My wife and I were lucky enough to get tickets in the nine minute window between them going on sale and selling out. Why is it my favorite con?

  • It is an inexpensive ticket and everything con-related is included. You never have to buy event tickets. Not only does this make it cheaper, which is important, but the lack of a ticket economy like at Origins and GenCon means games feel like casual pickup endeavors, not economic transactions with all the worries about what you are allowed and not allowed to do. Save that part of your brain for the game itself.
  • The Dice Tower crew is super-visible which gives the con a kind of secret club feel, even as it has grown 400% in the past five years. All of the events feel personal. I go to the charity auction every year and while this year was the first year I won anything, we always have a blast. Certain things have become (sometimes hilarious traditions): Robert Burke buying and returning his own games, Rob Oren being a superstar painting donation machine, people sharing in raising money to help each other in need. It’s great. I worry about it becoming larger, but you can’t fight demand.
  • The gaming library is large and the gaming space ample, which we use to do a kind of rapid-fire rental of all the games we’ve been interested in but missed in the past year. More details on the results of that below.
  • There are plenty of opportunities to buy stuff: Cool Stuff Ding and Dent sales, the aforementioned Chairty Auction, the Flea Market, etc. but it doesn’t feel like commerce is the focus.
  • Obviously, this one is only relevant for some of us, but it is local enough to drive for us. We can funnel what would be airfare and hotel money into gaaaaames.

So let’s talk about what we got to try. I’ll give some short mini-reviews below. Most of the pictures are from my lovely wife’s Instagram account.

Codenames: Pictures is the sequel (?) to odds-on Spiel des Jahres favorite Codenames. Anyone who knows that game will find little trouble here. There are two teams and each team is trying to get their teammates to choose the correct cards on the table using the fewest number of one-word clues. Instead of the single words in the original, this version has weird illustrations on the cards. I don’t feel like it adds much to the formula. An odd usability quirk is that some folks may have trouble parsing twenty-five pictures that are upside-down. This isn’t a problem in the original because the words are printed in both directions. I think I still prefer the original, but both are great.

Imhotep is the next Spiel des Jahres nominee. It is literally a cube-pusher as you ship cubes to various locations and each location scores in a different way. We played with the “A” sides of the locations (which I suppose is the lighter family version) because that is how it was set up for us. I enjoyed it as the decisions of when to ship boats that other people are counting on is meaty enough to hold some interest. However, when we were done, I checked out the “B” sides of the locations and those seemed like they added another layer of decision-making. I never got to try the B-sides, but when this gets back into distribution and I can pick it up cheaply, I probably will. It is a simple game to teach. The only part non-gamers might hang up on is the scoring, but otherwise it seems like a great gateway game.

We tried out World’s Fair 1893 as the designer diary on BoardGameGeek had me put it on the to-try list. It is a gorgeous set collection game with an area control aspect. We played it with two players which was probably not ideal. While it was pretty and worked well, it wasn’t that memorable.

Next, I had to set up for my flea market meeting (which was an absolute cluster to no one’s fault; I have no idea how this is going to be run with 2x the folks) so we grabbed a copy of last year’s Kennerspiel winner Broom Service while we waited. I’d passed on it before because it didn’t look like it would do anything for me, but after playing the designer’s Mombasa, Isle of Skye and Port Royal this year, I had to check this out. While we played this 2-player and it likely would be more successful with the full player compliment, it was very enjoyable. The main mechanic is a role selection not too dissimilar from Glass Road. However, in this, you must guess if any other player has selected one of the roles you have selected. If you guess incorrectly, you may get a weak effect or not effect at all. It’s a nice system and you get to say ludicrous things like “NO! I am the brave weather fairy!” This probably won’t crack into my top 50, but I don’t know if I’d turn down a game.

Another gorgeous game that I’d heard good things about was Tasty Minstrel’s Gold West. I love the prospecting theme and the components are very nice. In it, you use a mancala system to collect goods and use those goods to prospect out more resources to try to gain area majorities and contiguous spaces. There’s a point salad aspect to it and it is very short. Gloriana seemed to really like it, but I ended up feeling it was kind of bland. The resource mancala was great, but everything else felt pretty low-stakes. Perhaps I just need to try it some more to tease out its depth.

After numerous times checking the library, I finally walked by when a copy of Grand Austria Hotel was peeking out at me. This is one that I was interested in checking out at Essen but never had the time for. With Mayday’s online price-fixing, it is an expensive game, so I wanted to be sure I liked it before blindly buying it. Grand Austria Hotel is a dice-drafting game where the actions drafted become stronger the more their associated dice number is rolled. You have to juggle serving guests, preparing rooms, pleasing the emperor (for some reason),  and ordering things in a way that gain you bonuses. There’s a fiddlyness to it and I’m growing less interested in Klemens Franz’s artwork (not his fault, he’s just everywhere with the same style), but the theme and the mechanics work so well that it left me intrigued. I certainly want to play it more.

Next we tried Quadropolis. Days of Wonder haven’t steered me wrong in their last few releases. I had recently purchased Small City and quite enjoy it. I was worried that this would be a too light version of that. While it is certainly lighter, it is also quite a different beast. The scoring is not very straightforward, but it is still a tight interesting puzzle, good for when you don’t feel like setting up something massive like Small City.

After Quadropolis, we had really crossed off everything in our within-the-last-year list. So next, I pulled out a worker placement from a couple years back with a boring sounding name: Russian Railroads. Why hadn’t anyone told me about this before?! It has a number of your standard worker placement tropes, but the interesting bit is that it isn’t just exchanging goods for victory points. The railroad you build isn’t really spatially organized like in every other train game. It is more of a track in the “points track” sense than it is in the “railroad track” sense. You are constantly unlocking new abilities and it feels very tight and interesting every turn without the artificial constraints of feeding or paying money every turn like in so many other similar games (the emperor track in Grand Austria Hotel above suffers from this similar mechanic where something feels put in just to have a clock to worry about). With what I’ve read about the German Railroads expansion, I will certainly be picking this up. I let the theme scare me off for too long!

The wife and I are into Onitama so we figured we would try out another spatial abstract duel game. She didn’t gel with this one so easily. In Tash-Kalar, you attempt to make shapes with your pawn tokens in order to create effects on the board. Additionally, unlike other duel games, your goal is not to obliterate the other player, but instead to meet random goal cards dealt out at the start. It’s a bit odd and there was a bit too much hidden information for my tastes. There were a lot of game modes in the rules, so perhaps we would need to find one that works better for us.

Sometime on Twitter this year, someone mentioned Via Appia, a Queen-published game from a couple years back that slipped through the cracks. It has a very unique component that made me write this one down for my curious list. I didn’t even have it on my “Try at Dice Tower Con” list, but I saw it peeking out at the library and remembered I wanted to try it.

In Via Appia, you play as builders who are building a road from Rome. In order to do so, you have to get the stone from a quarry, make the stone into tiles, and place the tiles. All of this is pretty standard Euro stuff, except for the way that you make the tiles. You take stones you have mined from the quarry and place them on a platform, pushing other stones down the platform and hopefully off a ledge, much like the “coin pusher” games you can find at Dave and Busters. Stones that fall off the edge are converted into tiles which can be placed on the road for points.

I love pushing as a mechanism. It is in a lot of my game designs. I love the mechanic here. Unfortunately, the game that surrounds it just isn’t that interesting. The rules have ambiguities and are generally atrocious. I think something better can be done with this mechanism and its components.

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A coworker of mine invited me and the wife to their annual game of Dune. That is, the rework of Dune into Rex reskinned back into Dune. This is not normally my type of game, but it seemed like a good one to try in the con format and the print-and-play reskin looked great. I was the Bene Gesserit and hence had to predict who I thought would win the game and when. I blindly picked the Guild to win on the final turn. After eight bloody turns over three hours, I was poised to win. The board was bloodied, but our Bene Gesserit-Harkonnen-Guild triple alliance was doing just fine. We just had to make sure the filthy Fremen didn’t rise up and seize their two sietches on the last turn, but how could they with all of our forces? The answer is: with a combination of appropriately timed cards and an advantageous turn order causing the battles to end up bloodying everyone but the Fremen. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but man what a game! I wouldn’t want to play it too often, but as a special occasion, it was really neat.

The next morning we had to find something to fit between our somewhat late arrival, lunch, and the upcoming PitchCar World Championship. Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Something Something fit the bill, although I think Family Tree Magnate would be a appropriate title as well. In this, you collect cards that you use to marry off members of your family in order to increase the family’s wealth or prestige. Even with the tiny cards, it takes up a lot more table space than we budgeted for. I didn’t feel much tension in the game as there was a lot to do and each decision didn’t seem to build much on the previous. There’s a good deal of luck-of-the-draw in having the cards come out at the right time. It was fine, but nothing I really need to seek out and play again. Plus I don’t think the wife appreciated that you could have children die in childbirth.

I thought I took a picture of Legacy but I didn’t! Woops!

We participated in the 1st annual PitchCar World Championship last year and had a blast, so we decided to again this year. Unfortunately, we were a few spots too deep into the waiting list and was forced to spectate. There are a couple PitchCar sharks out there! I think I was something like 11th of 20 last year and probably would have been worse this year.

This event highlighted a concern for me of the con overall as it grows. Because the con doubled in size last year, Tom split this event into a kids race and an adults race. However, what is he going to do when the attendance doubles again next year? He stays busy the entire con; I doubt he wants to run two more tournaments. It’s a double-edged sword: you either limit participation which makes people feel left out or you are forced to scale with attendance when you may not have the resources.

Glo has a great picture of the PitchCar tournament, but it’s on her phone and she’s at work, so I’ll replace this text here if I remember.

I saw that Passport was doing a contest where you could win a deluxe version of Tokaido if you demoed it at their booth. Tokaido was a game that I always admired for its art from a distance but never played, so I thought I’d give it a try. Honestly, I was a bit surprised at how little I liked it. The only non-obvious decision making in the game is how many spaces to travel in a turn. Usually, though, you want to travel as few spaces as possible to limit the other players from having free bonus turns. So everyone just leapfrogs each other and the game plays out in a very scripted way. Maybe the expansions help, but I was very underwhelmed. I didn’t win the deluxe version, which is probably for the best. I didn’t take a picture either.

Another contest we were interested in was that Stronghold Games was doing a photo scavenger hunt. My wife is a photographer and loves photo scavenger hunts. One of the few times in my life where I have ever won a contest was a photo scavenger hunt in Brooklyn with the wife where her eye and effort won us a first generation iPad when they were the new, hot thing. Anyway, one of the elements of the photo scavenger hunt was to take a picture of someone playing My Village. Since we didn’t see anyone playing it at the time, we checked it out from the library.

I was not a fan of the original Village, having played it at a previous Dice Tower Con, so Village: The Dice Game wasn’t exactly on my radar. However, I think the title really does a disservice to the game as it plays vastly different than the original. My Village is a dice-drafting game where you attempt to build the resources that will give you the best town. Much like in the original Village, time is a resource and spending it can cause your villagers to die. In fact, you need to have your villagers die as doing so is one of the ways to receive points. Black dice that you draft may have the right combination of pips that you need, but also advance your time. It’s an interesting system.

My Village has a clever points-banking system. For many actions, you get victory points. However, those victory points aren’t yours until you bank them by taking them into your City Hall. If you leave too many points in the Story Tree, a rat plague caused by too many deaths can destroy your un-banked points. We didn’t finish the game because I had to get to the second virtual flea market meetup, but it went from completely off-my-radar to something I’d consider.

When we went to Essen, I hemmed and hawed on The Gallerist. Vital Lacerda was there signing copies and the game is undeniably beautiful. However, it is also physically heavy and we were very conscious about our luggage space, so I put it off. On a trip past the Eagle-Gryphon booth, I saw that their demo copy was open, so I asked the representative to show us the game. He gave us the run-through and we are off. I have never played a Lacerda game (I have a shrink-wrapped copy of Kanban I just received from the flea market), so I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. After a few turns, the iconography was becoming familiar and the excellent player aids helped a ton. However, there were many corner cases that we were unsure of and the person manning the booth was very distracted. He eventually left and his replacement didn’t really know the game at all. We ended up quitting early because he couldn’t find the answer to one of our questions in the rules. I’m still interested in the game (someone yanked it from Tom Vasel’s table at the flea market as I was reaching for it), but the demo experience was sub par. I can wait. Plenty of other heavy games still unplayed on my shelf. Probably none as visually appealing though. Also: if you are not calling the white, brown, and pink meeples vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, then I don’t know what to do with you.

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As we waited for the raffle results at the end of the con, we sat down at the Celestia demo table to play a few rounds. Some others joined us and I taught the game. This is one we picked up at Essen with the special figurines and personalized art on the inside of the box. I’m stoked that a company has brought it to America as it is certainly the second best press-your-luck filler game out there (next to Can’t Stop). In it, you take turns helming a ship as it travels from cloud city to cloud city. At each possible stop players decide if they want to get off. If they do, then they take the resources which scale up in value the farther you go.If they don’t and the captain does not have the required resources to reach the next city, then the ship crashes and everyone on it receives no points. I saw tons of folks with copies, which is great! Fantastic game for all weight preferences.

So, that’s it. I wish we had played more with other folks instead of using most of the con as our own personal 2-player Netflix of games, but that will have to wait until next year. That’s my resolution for next year. There are a lot of Orlando gamers. Where do you all play?

 

 

Custom Poker Chips for Strategy Gaming

This has come up in a number of threads on BoardGameGeek, so I wanted to make a post to show off my awesome custom-made poker chips that I use for Euro/Strategy gaming.

I had a functional generic “dice-style” resin poker chip set that most guys get in their twenties for some occasion or another. Playing with those was certainly an improvement on using cardboard chits or (God forbid) paper money, but it had some drawbacks:

  • I would often have to remind people of the denominations. While 1s and 5s were easy to remember, were the greens 20 or 25? Was 10 black or blue? Thus, I was drawn to sets with printed denominations.
  • There are many games where the standard poker denominations do not make sense. 7 Wonders, for instance, denominated its money in 1s, 3s, (and 6s in Duel). Most strategy games do not need to account for a large amount of money, so small denominations would be helpful. Thus, I was drawn to sets with more small denominations. However, most casino poker chip sets are denominated $1/$5/$10/$25/$100. Staying with casino denominations meant that only the 1s and 5s would see much play. Then there were those pesky dollar signs.

I did a lot of trawling on PokerChipForum.com and ChipTalk.net where people put a lot more thought and energy into this than I was initially prepared for. (For instance, here’s an online toy you can play with).

To sum up my studies, I was left with two possibilities. The first would be to find a particular brand of poker chip (clay? China clay? Composite?) that met my needs and then design, print, and apply a custom sticker to each chip. This seems to be a route many are comfortable going. Look at this thread for some great results. The second is to find a place that would take custom artwork and print it directly to the chip. There are a lot of sketchy-looking services that will custom print poker chips that look like they are for novelty use. If I was going to pay real money for this, they needed to be quality.

Luckily, I was pointed to the Game On Chip Company who does small sets for individuals along with large sets for casinos. They make a consumer-level 39mm ceramic chip that met all of my needs and allowed both full-face and edge printing. So I fired up illustrator and here’s what I made:

chips

Next, I had to decide how many of each to order. I did a quick (ish) study by looking at the denominations and amounts of currency in fifty popular games and/or games I would often play. I know the 18xx genre is popular with many, but I’ve never played one (although I’d like to at some point!) and it was the only genre where a denomination above 50 was even remotely reasonable.

Rather than cut and paste all the numbers in my spreadsheet, here were some of the findings:

  • 1s are by far the most prominent denomination.
  • A few, but not many games use a 2 denomination. Isle of Skye, Viticulture, Concordia, Last Will, and CO2 are some examples. Many more use 3s, which was surprising.
  • Few games got high enough in currency to need 50s, but those that did supplied more of them than they did other denominations.
  • Using all of the currency in Acquire would require 2,416 units of money so whatever I printed had to have at least that.
  • The median amount of each denomination where it was included was (35, 12, 15.5, 15, 9.5, 9.5, 18.5) respectively for (1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50).

In the end, because of the minimum denomination orders with Game On, I decided to get 100 each of the 1s and 5s and 50 each of the rest. However, I plan on only keeping half the chips out at a given time as I had a nice oak 200 chip holder and that many chips would be sufficient in most cases. If playing something with a lot of money, I could swap in, say, an extra row of 50s for the row of 2s or something along those lines. Also, if chips got damaged, I’d have plenty of spares.

Without further ado:

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I had a minor issue when my printing came back with a bit of a blue tint. This was most prominent on the 1s and 5s. When I talked to my representative at Game On, she said that was in the file I sent. I looked at mine and the CMYK was at white, but on her end it was this washed-out blue. The blue is still on the laurels on the 50s, but I’m willing to accept that. The Game On folks took my 1s and 5s as a return and reprinted them free of charge, which I appreciated. This meant I couldn’t use them at a big gaming party I had, but it was a small concession for an otherwise great product.

If I had to do it again, I’d probably add bolder and thicker numbers and art to the edge prints and I would probably go completely black for the background of the inlay as it looks a little washed-out in person.

It took a lot of work, but I’ve very happy when I get to use these. They make a satisfying clack sound, they stack evenly and well, and they are one-of-a-kind.

Edit: Peter Bhat Harkins asked me on Twitter how I chose the colors and symbols. I couldn’t really respond in 140 characters, so I’m adding it here.

The colors were mostly straightforward. The standard colors are White is $1, Red is $5, Blue is $10, Green is $25, and Black is $100. I just nudged these to the values I was using them for. I realize that I am slighly blasphemous in that regard because often light blue is used for 50s, but I wasn’t planning on making 100s and wanted to use black. In some instances, pink is used for $2.50 chips, so I used it for my 3. Pink is also my wife’s favorite color, so that was an easy choice. The 2 was the only one remaining. An article somewhere insinuated that $2 chips are supposed to be yellow, although I saw some lime green $2 chips. Yellow was more contrasting to my other colors and as an original Pittsburgher black and gold has some appeal to me, so I chose a yellowish-gold for my 2.

The symbols were much more fun. I wanted something that touched back to each number and related somehow to games for each chip. Here’s what I went with along with my own convoluted inspiration/reasoning:

  • 1 – Meeple. The meeple is probably the most Euro-gamey symbol there is. Since the 1 would be handled the most, the meeple had to go on the 1. Plus it generally represents the use of 1 action or resource.
  • 2 – Coins. Coins are used in tons of games, of course. To tie it back to the 2, I hid the Fibonacci sequence in there. The three instances have 1, 1, and 3. Include the large number 2 in there and you have 1, 1, 2, 3.
  • 3 – Cards. Cards are also used in tons of games. I just put a hand of three cards here. Nothing super-inspirational here, sorry.
  • 5 – Star. Stars have five points. Some games we really like use stars, such as King of Tokyo, Viticulture Tuscany, and Euphoria.
  • 10 – Scrabble “Z” Piece. This was probably the hardest one for me to find a symbol for. Since my first name is Zack and my last name is already on the chip, hiding a Z somewhere seemed like a good idea. My BGG username is zhiwiller. The Z is worth 10 points in English Scrabble.
  • 20 – d20. As my gaming tastes have shifted (matured?) over the years, I play less and less games with dice. However, nothing comes to mind with games and the number 20 as easily as the iconic Dungeons and Dragons device, the d20.
  • 50 – Laurel. Nothing is particularly fifty-like about the laurel, but it is often the symbol used for victory points. Since this would be my largest denomination, I figured it should have the grandest, most desirable symbol.

Read in 2015

This was a great year in terms of me reading new and interesting things. It was certainly my most productive year on record owing largely to me trying to soak up all of the contemporary (and some not so) game design books to see if I was treading any new ground. (Did you know I wrote a book? A boooook?)

But in fiction, I found more great stories than I knew what to do with. The Traitor Baru Cormorant and The Library at Mount Char are on my top five of all time already. Other highlights were Lucky Wander Boy (a love story to video games much more authentic and resonant than the vastly overrated Ready Player One), the Jean le Flambeur trilogy, and certainly Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. Oh! And City of Stairs. What a good year!

Link to Goodreads.

2015: 53 titles, 17,477 pages, 47.88 Pages/Day
2014: 27 titles, 10,248 pages, 28.07 pages/Day
2013: 27 titles, 9,368 pages, 25.66 Pages/Day
2012: 45 Titles, 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
2011: 30 Titles,  10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
2010: 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
2009: 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
2008:  31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day

Booooook

The biggest media event of December is here!

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I’ve been bombarding social media but forgetting about my poor old blog as I slave away in the education mines.

Players Making Decisions is out! You can buy it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, right from the Publisher, or anywhere else fine game design books are sold. In January, I plan on poking various media outlets for coverage, but I figure that is a useless task this close to Christmas.

It is slowly trickling into real people’s hands, and if you own two of those lucky hands, I have a favor to ask. Would you please leave kind reviews at Goodreads and Amazon? Those two sites drive a lot of impressions.

Features:

  • Beautiful matte cover.
  • No The Force Awakens spoilers. However, the book does contain a game theoretic discussion of what Lando Calrisssian should have expected in The Empire Strikes Back.
  • Lots of images and diagrams to help distract from the author’s reliance on words.

But seriously, here’s a list of contents. If any of this sounds interesting, I’d be thrilled if you picked up a copy:

Part 1: Getting Started

1. What Is a Game Designer?

Responsibilities of a Game Designer
Attributes of a Game Designer
Make Things
Cultivate Your Gardens
On Ontology and Dogma
Formalism
Summary

2. Problem Statements

Defining the Problem
Low-Hanging Fruit
Functional Fixedness
Brainstorming
Summary

3. Development Structures

Production Methodologies
Waterfall
Iterative Processes
Climbing the Pyramid
Scope
Summary

4. Starting Practices

Analog Games
Theme and Mechanics
Next Steps
Designing for Others
Opening Questions
Summary

Part 2: Prototypes and Playtesting

5. Paper Prototyping Development Techniques

Software and Materials
Art
Cards
InDesign Data Merge
Summary

6. Playtesting

Playtesting Goals
Playtesting Benefits
Listening to Feedback
Fear of Critique
Confirmation Bias
Finding Playtesters
Iterating
Summary

7. Playtesting Methods

The Testing Environment
Keep Playtesters Talking
A/B Testing
Self-Playtesting
Summary

8. Prototypes and Intellectual Property

Part 3: Meaningful Decisions

9. Flow and the Fundamental Game Design Directive

Game Flow
Interest Curves
Learning Curves
Individual Differences
Summary

10. Decision-Making

Player Agency
Anatomy of a Choice
Less-Interesting Decision-Making
Blind Decisions
Obvious Decisions
Meaningless/Misleading Decisions
Handcuffing Decisions
More-Interesting Decision-Making
Trade-offs
Risk/Reward
Expected Value
Summary

11. Randomness

Completely Random Games
Completely Skill-Based Games
Fairness and Mitigating Randomness
Summary

12. Goals

How Players Determine Game Goals
Criteria for Goals
Solving Goal Problems
Summary

Part 4: Describing Game Elements

13. Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA)

What Are Games About?
MDA
Example: Realm of the Mad God
Example: Monopoly
Example: Habitat
More Dynamics
Turtling
Kingmaking
Button Mashing
Grinding
Press-Your-Luck
Summary

14. Milieu

What Is Milieu?
Polish
Player Types
Motivation
Milieu as Design Focus
Summary

15. Rules and Verbs

Rules
Qualities of Rules
Types of Rules
Verbs
Summary

16. Balance

Symmetry
Self-Balancing Mechanisms
Progression and Numeric Relationships
Balance Heuristics
Summary

17. Feedback Loops

Positive Feedback Loops
Negative Feedback Loops
Feedback Loops in Action
Fixing Problems
Summary

18. Puzzle Design

What Is a Puzzle?
Possibility Space
Breadcrumbs
Features of Ineffective Puzzles
Incomplete Critical Information/Missed Assumptions
Lack of Ability to Experiment
Brute Force
Triviality Surrounded by Complexity
Lack of Possibility Space
Arbitrariness
Types of Puzzles
Deduction Puzzles
Truth Puzzles
Deception Puzzles
Paradoxes
Other Puzzle Types
Critical Path Puzzles
Strategy Puzzles
Algebraic Puzzles
Physical Manipulation Puzzles
Summary

Part 5: Game Theory and Rational Decision-Making

19. Equilibria in Normal Form Games

The Prisoner’s Dilemma
Solving Games Using Strict Dominance
Using (and Abusing) Dominance
Zero-Sum Games
Stag Hunt and Coordination
Determining Nash Equilibria in a Larger Matrix
Mixed Strategies
Stag Hunt Redux
Summary

20. Sequential and Iterated Games

Game Trees
Promises and Commitment Problems
Iterated Games
Experimenting with Strategies
Successful Strategies
Summary

21. Problems with Game Theory

Rational Actors
The Dollar Auction
The “Guess Two-Thirds” Game
Second-Price Auctions
Summary

22. Marginal Decision Analysis

Marginal Nuggets
Balance on Margins
Summary

Part 6: Human Behavior in Games

23. Behaviorism and Schedules of Reinforcement

Operant Conditioning
Schedules of Reinforcement
Anticipation and Uncertainty
Ethical and Practical Concerns
Summary

24. Learning and Constructivism

Historic Approaches
Novices and Experts
Cognitive Load
Expertise Reversal Effect
Split-Attention Effect
Tutorials and Learning Design
Summary

25. Motivation

Two Types of Motivation
What’s the Problem with Rewards?
Self-Determination Theory and Challenges
Competition and Motivation
Personality
Other Motivation Effects
Summary

26. Human Decision-Making

Mental Shortcuts
Attribution Errors
Misunderstanding Randomness
Anchoring and Adjustment
Understanding Value in Uncertain Situations
Loss
Framing Decisions
Summary

27. Attention and Memory

Attention
Memory
Helping with Memory Limitations
Perception
Summary

Part 7: Game Design Tools

28. Documentation and Written Communication

The Game Design Document
The GDD Creation Process
Step One: Determine Purpose/Desired Scope/Connected Systems
Step Two: Research
Step Three: Idea Generation
Step Four: Murder Your Darlings
Step Five: Fully Detail the Best Answer
Step Six: Edit and Find Edge Cases
References
Documentation for Tabletop Games
States and Flowcharts
Summary

29. Probability

Probability Is Counting
Joint Probability
Conditional Probability
Adding Die Rolls
Example: The H/T Game
Being Careful
Problem #1: The Boy-Girl Problem
Problem #2: The Weirder Boy-Girl Problem
Problem #3: Isner-Mahut at Wimbledon
Summary

30. Spreadsheets for Simulation

Why Use Spreadsheets?
Basics
Formulas
Formula Operator
Basic Math
SUM, PRODUCT
MAX, MIN
AVERAGE, MEDIAN, MODE
RANK, PERCENTRANK, PERCENTILE
ROUND, TRUNC
RAND, RANDBETWEEN
CONCATENATE
VLOOKUP, HLOOKUP
IF
COUNTIF, SUMIF
OR, AND
Common Formula Errors
Anchors
Goal Seek and Solver in Excel
One-Way Data Tables
Summary

31. Monte Carlo Simulation

Answering Design Questions
Hot Hand
Monty Hall
Once Around the Board
Martingale Betting
Summary

32. Presenting Ideas

The Thesis
Text on Slides
Data-Ink
Do Not Waste Time
Documentation
Acquiring Images
Example: State of Mobile Games 2014
Risk
Risk Analysis
Pitch Questions
Summary

Part 8: The Game Design Business

33. Profit, Loss, and Metrics

Profit and Loss
Metrics
Virality
Cash Flow
Summary

34. Sustainable Lifestyles

Life in AAA Digital Game Development
Life as an Independent Developer of Digital Games
Life in Tabletop Game Development
Market Luck
Summary

Conclusion