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.


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.


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.


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 and 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:


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:

IMG_3277 IMG_3278IMG_3280

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


The biggest media event of December is here!


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.


  • 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

2. Problem Statements

Defining the Problem
Low-Hanging Fruit
Functional Fixedness

3. Development Structures

Production Methodologies
Iterative Processes
Climbing the Pyramid

4. Starting Practices

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

Part 2: Prototypes and Playtesting

5. Paper Prototyping Development Techniques

Software and Materials
InDesign Data Merge

6. Playtesting

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

7. Playtesting Methods

The Testing Environment
Keep Playtesters Talking
A/B Testing

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

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
Expected Value

11. Randomness

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

12. Goals

How Players Determine Game Goals
Criteria for Goals
Solving Goal Problems

Part 4: Describing Game Elements

13. Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA)

What Are Games About?
Example: Realm of the Mad God
Example: Monopoly
Example: Habitat
More Dynamics
Button Mashing

14. Milieu

What Is Milieu?
Player Types
Milieu as Design Focus

15. Rules and Verbs

Qualities of Rules
Types of Rules

16. Balance

Self-Balancing Mechanisms
Progression and Numeric Relationships
Balance Heuristics

17. Feedback Loops

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

18. Puzzle Design

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

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

20. Sequential and Iterated Games

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

21. Problems with Game Theory

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

22. Marginal Decision Analysis

Marginal Nuggets
Balance on Margins

Part 6: Human Behavior in Games

23. Behaviorism and Schedules of Reinforcement

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

24. Learning and Constructivism

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

25. Motivation

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

26. Human Decision-Making

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

27. Attention and Memory

Helping with Memory Limitations

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
Documentation for Tabletop Games
States and Flowcharts

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

30. Spreadsheets for Simulation

Why Use Spreadsheets?
Formula Operator
Basic Math
Common Formula Errors
Goal Seek and Solver in Excel
One-Way Data Tables

31. Monte Carlo Simulation

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

32. Presenting Ideas

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

Part 8: The Game Design Business

33. Profit, Loss, and Metrics

Profit and Loss
Cash Flow

34. Sustainable Lifestyles

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


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.

© 2016 Zack Hiwiller

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