GDC Notes – Donner Party Adventures

I found a notebook from when I attended the Game Design Workshop at GDC in 2008 and came across the write-up of a group game we had to design. I can’t remember what the prompt was at all, but it must have been something great for us to come up with this. I recall only being given about thirty minutes to develop this and that everyone in our groups (of 6-8 people) had to be able to play, so all things considered the playtest of it turned out really well.

Donner Party Adventure

Players: 6+

All players start with ten life points. When a player has zero life points they are dead and eliminated.

Each round two players must go on a “hunting party”. Each player votes one of the players (possibly him/herself) to go on the hunting party.

If two players (and only two) have multiple votes those two go on the hunting party. In any case where there aren’t exactly two members receiving multiple votes, all players starve and lose 1 life point.

On the hunting party, the two participants play a game of “paper-rock-scissors”. The loser loses three life points. The winner gains three points, but must give at least two of those points to players not in
the hunting party. The loser, if he is still has life points, gains a “recover” card and cannot be voted on in the next round. This card remains with that player until another player gains it.

Materials: 36 Player Cards (for voting, 6 cards with each of the six players names on them), 60 Life Tokens

Unfortunately, I didn’t write down what happens when you get to three players as that is obviously going to either end the game or require some rules change. There was something that happened, but I cannot remember. During our playtests, it reminded me of Mafia when folks would gang up on each other to send people out on the hunting parties and then they could earn others trust by bringing them back the food. It was a pretty good (and cutthroat) game.

Train and Importance

Brenda Brathwaite came to our IGDA chapter’s meeting yesterday and talked about the process behind building her game Train. Here’s a WSJ article about the game if you are unfamiliar. It was a great talk, wonderfully performed, and it really energized me about design again – not through high falutin’ look-at-this-art-I-made-aren’t-I-important? but through the pure attention to detail and meaning that is almost always lost when making a game for anyone other than yourself.

One of my fellow IGDAers (who will remain anonymous because I didn’t ask permission to blog about it) said that we [designers] are all on the hook now, that we can’t use our medium as an excuse to make meaningless works. But in retrospect, I disagree. Brenda’s game is important, but it isn’t the first game to sacrifice fun for message. There were player-made D&D modules that did this. Even in the digital age, we have games like September 12th. That doesn’t make Train any less important. Train is just another brilliant salvo in the battle to legitimize our medium.

She didn’t change the role of a designer – she just reminded us what is possible.

If you have the opportunity to see her talk, I would recommend taking the time to go.

iPhone Game Review Agglomeration Pt. 2

Continued from Part One.

Bookworm by Popcap

Bookworm is no Peggle. In fact, Bookworm really isn’t that original. You search a board full of letters for a group that is connected and forms a word. Shorter words increase the chance of fire blocks. If a fire block reaches the bottom of the screen, game over. I’d played it on the PC and it was all right, but not that interesting (especially compared to the Bookworm Adventures variant they later released.) But what grabbed me was actually their unique take on achievements. Instead of the standard “Score 1000 points” style of achievements, when you completed a word from a hidden list, the list would be unlocked and checked off (say I played the word “beige”, the colors list would be unlocked). I found that trying to complete these lists was much more fun than the actual game itself.

Chocolatier by Playfirst

It’s worth disclosing that I’m a Chocolatier fanboy. I thought Chocolatier 2: Secret Ingredients was one of the best casual games of all time. So when I heard they were porting the franchise to the iPhone, that was an insta-buy at any price. This port contains pretty much all of the features of the original.

While the good news is that the factory minigame is much more intuitive using touch controls, the bad news is that the interface that works well on a big PC monitor doesn’t work on a tiny cell phone screen especially when you have fat fingers like YT. As it stands it ends up feeling unpolished and cheap. While it is still Chocolatier, it isn’t the best introduction to the series.

ESPN Cameraman / ESPN Zoom by EpicTilt

Free games that are worth the time to download? I can count them on one hand. This is one of them. For some unknown reason (copyright? Did Langdell sue them?) the name has been changed to ESPN Zoom, yet I downloaded it as ESPN Cameraman. This is essentially a repackaging of the MegaTouch game that requires you to touch five differences between two photos before a timer runs out. It is made more challenging my the resolution of the pictures, but overall it is a painless, fun time-waster.

Mafia Wars by Zynga

An embarrassing portion of the traffic to my site comes from people searching for my posts on Mafia Wars. I was thoroughly enthralled in it for a while and during that time I downloaded the mobile app. Now you would think that a company that is focused on playing games on the quick from anywhere would be hip enough to know that folks who pay for imaginary doo-dads for their avatarless characters would not want to start from scratch with a new version. Not the case. The iPhone version doesn’t connect to your profile on either Facebook or MySpace. You start from Level 1. Your friends aren’t there at all. Instead you can connect via number like the failed Wii Friend Code system. What good is that?

On the good side, the interface is much more slick and attractive on the phone than it is on the four gajillion visitor per day Facebook site. How about that?

The Price is Right by Ludia

I grew up watching The Price is Right. I’m sure some psychologist could dig deep into me and find that my obsession with games has some root in the television show. I tried the dreadful DS version of this that recently came out and assumed that the iPhone version was just as bad. When the price dropped to 99 cents, I figured it was worth the gamble.

The game relies heavily on video clips from the actual show and whiz-bang graphics. As such, there are long loading times for almost every way to play and the phone chugs when having to do simple tasks like dragging and dropping Plinko chips. Despite only having a subset of the pricing games, the games that do exist are fairly faithful to the originals. Some of the choices are odd. Why have Hole in One and make an awful putting mechanic when you could have something as easy to implement and popular as the Clock Game or my personal favorite, Pathfinder?

Regardless, I keep coming back to it even as it sucks my battery dry. My lack of memory lets me continue to forget the price of the paper towels that I KNOW was in a pricing game yesterday.

Inside Trader by Jeff McFadden

Besides Doom, I think Drug Wars has been the game on every platform created since the beginning of time. The premise is extremely simple. Create some random goods, have them fluctuate in price randomly, attempt to buy low and sell high. While it was dumb in Drug Wars, it is stupider in Inside Trader. Take the mature and Apple-censor-tickling drug theme and replace it with a stock theme. Take that to the bank.

Here’s the dominant strategy: look for the variable with the wildest swings. Buy when it swings low because it was always come back. In the real world, this just doesn’t happen. Sometimes when prices crash, they stay crashed. Look at GM stock. In the game, the only way to buy low and stay low is to simply run out of time. Unfortunately, the game simply doesn’t have enough depth to be interesting.

Civilization Revolution: Lite by Firaxis/2k Games

Maybe it runs swell on a 3GS, but on my 3G the interface lags horribly and the game chugs along. I can’t give a real review (or enjoy the game at all) if I have to try three times to drag my army because it is still trying to decide to scroll the map. Thumbs down. I even tried FreeMemory to see if it could help the problem, but to no avail.

TheGameCrafter.Com Review

My friend Mark and I are each working on prototypes of card games we are designing. I had previously gotten a quote from the nearby university’s printing services that my ~150 card game printed in color double-sided and cut would cost approximately $150. Needless to say, that was way too rich for my blood, so when Mark linked me to a site called, I was pretty excited. The estimator guessed at a cost of around $20 to print and ship the whole she-bang. That’s much better.

So I used their site and uploaded my already complete files. The FTP side is a little wonky as the cards are not displayed in alphabetic order, but in some unsortable mess. That’s a problem when I have 100 different card designs, but eventually I got everything into the service. The site was otherwise very user-friendly.

A few days after I ordered I got this message:
Subject: your game is broken
Order #17 went out the door today, but unfortunately it’s broken. Content
is being cut off on it. It looks like the game will still be playable,
but it won’t look right. I just thought I should give you a heads up
so you can get it fixed sooner rather than later.

Please read the following announcement and watch the video. Then a
adjust your cards accordingly.


I was pissed. While I had a “safe zone” on my cards, it was nowhere near the amount of safe zone they had wanted. I had created my images the actual size I wanted them to be and moved the content inward in case of error, but they had wanted a larger image with the “bleed” larger than the intended card size. This was entirely my fault for not digging through their templates thoroughly. But I was also pissed that the company had seen that my design was broken, yet printed and shipped it anyway.

In the end, my prototype is playable thanks to the buffer space I created, but some of the images are clipped off. This is okay for now as it was meant only to be a second-stage prototype. However, the printer seems to be in an earthquake zone as some of the cards are cut too far left and some too far right.

There is a significant amount of “ghosting”. I’m not sure what it is actually called in the printing world, but the outline of my letters and numbers don’t line up with the shape of my numbers causing a lot of cards to look “out of focus”. I couldn’t capture that with these images because I was using my crummy cellphone camera.

In the end, served its purpose. I wanted a site where I could print up my game well enough that I didn’t have to deal with hundreds of sleeved Magic: The Gathering cards with notecards slipped in front to represent my designs. To that, the end result is respectable and well worth the price. If you go in thinking that the quality will be similar to the quality of commercial games, you will be sorely disappointed. Manage your expectations thoroughly. Vanity presses in book publishing are not known for having comparable quality to the commercial publishers, so I don’t know why I expected that here. Chinese labor? Regardless, on my next card/board prototype I will likely use them again.

Also keep in mind that (as you can see from the email above) I was Order #17. I’m sure as the company operates, they will adapt their processes to make the final product better and better. Oh, and when they say your game will come in a box with your cover design on it, this is what they mean: