Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

WBC: Designers' forum

One of the great things about a convention like the World Boardgaming Championships is having the opportunity to interact with fellow designers.  The open gaming room at WBC was practically an informal design laboratory of demonstrations and playtesting.

TC Petty III's Viva Java
Image courtesy of
Dice Hate Me Games
My friend Keith F. and I had only the briefest chat with one of my favorite designers, T.C. Petty III, whom I met at WBC last year when he was demonstrating the semi-cooperative Viva Java, a game that has already seen its successful Kickstarter campaign and has a Dice Hate Me release expected this month.  T.C. is working on a couple of ideas that sound characteristically original and off-beat.  It will be fun to see what creations find their way to production out of his unique perspective on game design.

Heartland Hauling
Cherilyn and Chris Kirkman of
Dice Hate Me Games
Don't let the cute smiles fool you.
Chris (DiceHateMe) and Cherilyn (Monkey238) Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games were present with a prototype of The Great Heartland Hauling Co., their latest Kickstarter venture by designer Jason Kotarski.  I got a chance to try it out along with Game Whisperer Richard Bliss and Mike (whose last name escapes me).  Perhaps the most entertaining rule of Heartland Hauling is the start player determination rule.  The player goes first who has the best beard or the longest hair.  If there is a dispute on the beard/hair ruling, the issue is resolved by arm-wrestling.  Mike and Chris resorted to the brute-strength challenge, to the delight of Richard, Cherilyn, and me.

Chris and Mike determine turn order while Richard and I,
ineligible beardless competitors, look on
Photo by Cherilyn Kirkman
Heartland Hauling is a clever, easy-to-learn pick-up-and-deliver game that finishes in half an hour but has a depth of strategy that I certainly did not master in the first play-through.  At first it seems straightforward - move your truck to a location, play a card to pick up a commodity, move to another location, play another card to drop off a commodity and gain points.  But wait - I can't just stay here and pick up more stuff?  Oh, no, I got to keep on truckin'.  So dropping off one product and picking up another in the same location is not allowed - which immediately complicates the maximum-profit problem.  Further convoluting the strategy of the game is that only one player can occupy any one location at any time - so blocking (if only for one turn) becomes part of the tactics of the game.  Oh, how devilishly clever.  How fiendish!  Oh, how you frustrate me, Heartland Hauling, with your oh-so-simple rules yet wickedly finessed strategy...

East India Company
Later that evening, Keith and I started a two-player playtest of my work-in-progress "East India Company."  I modified a couple of rules based on the last playtest the preceding Wednesday at Game Parlor Chantilly with Frank H. and Brian G.  I added the ability to insure ships against piracy, which mitigated the risk of losing a ship altogether (and a reflection of the actual practice of Lloyd's of London at the time).  I also increased the speed of full-rig ships to motivate their construction.  Both modifications seemed to improve the game noticeably.

Chris and Cherilyn joined Keith and me along with UnPub mastermind John Moller of CarTrunk Entertainment and his girlfriend Katherine (whose last name escapes me) for the first-ever five-player playtest of EIC.  This was also the first playtest in which I was not a player.  I almost didn't bring EIC to WBC because the prototype is so rudimentary, but Chris coaxed me into opening the box (okay, without much arm-twisting).

Fortunately, even with five players, the game moved along nicely.  The first turn or two were a little uninteresting, as all five players took almost the same actions.  But strategic variety emerged before long, and it was great to see the players (especially John) agonize over the decisions.  Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was when Chris took out a loan after having sworn up and down that he hated to take loans.  Poor Katherine was beset by pirates twice and lost both her ships in the process.  Insurance notwithstanding, she was reduced to declaring dividends every turn until the end of the game - clearly a deficit in the rules that I needed to fix.  John ended up as the winner, which I think came as a surprise to him.  As I recall, he and Cherilyn tied for dividend points, but he had the greater cash reserve to achieve the win.

Making spices more available
Public domain image
The comments after the game reinforced something my family had told me in some of the earlier playtests - that the spice commodity needed to come out more easily than it does under the current rules.  I still want spice to be rare, but one change I decided to make for the next session is that the spice tile will have spice production on both sides, and I will drop the whole concept of China buying timber and building ships.  I know of no evidence that Europeans engaged in ship construction in the Orient; it was an innovation I added to the game for the sake of interest.  I now think it is an unnecessary complication that has never been invoked in any playtest.  In the spirit of Lewis Pulsipher and Antoine St.-Exupery, it is something I can take away from the game in order to improve it.

I think I can accelerate and add variety to the early game by giving players the option to start with a larger ship and less money.  I will probably give players the choice of having ten Indies and a small brig or six Indies and a medium galleon.  That should make the early game more interesting (although I'll be watching to see whether the galleon is so enticing that there is little motivation to take the money and the brig).  Finally, Katharine's fate convinced me that pirates are still too devastating, so I shall change the piracy rule so that they strip a ship of cargo but leave the ship itself intact.  At least in that case, a player can still conduct commerce, even if the proceeds of trade are lost.

All in all, I am tremendously pleased with the progress I have made with EIC in just five playtests.  My next step (besides the rules update) is to make an improved prototype.  I'd like to have something nicer in place for Congress of Gamers and perhaps for a mini-UnPub if it should come to Washington again, or even Chantilly.

(c) Nevermore Games - used by permission
Mars Needs Mechanics
Another designer I am always pleased to see is Benjamin Rosset, whom I first met at PrezCon when he was demonstrating his survival game "Stranded."  This year at WBC he was showing off his Steampunk supply-and-demand game Mars Needs Mechanics, planned for production by Nevermore Games.  I subsequently found out that he had earlier demonstrated this game at UnPub in a previous form as "The Market."  He has re-themed the game to a gaslight-style mechanism-market experience.  I really appreciated the subtle workings of price fluctuations in this game of timing and market manipulation.  I'd love to play it again, and I look forward to seeing this clever design in publication.
One of the most thoughtful and innovative designers I know is Josh Tempkin, whose strikingly original War Time was picked up by Valley Games at WBC last year.  I love trading ruminations on design principles with Josh.  During our conversation last week, he surprised me with a proposal to collaborate on an idea that he had been kicking around, so I'm now looking forward to following up with him in the fall and seeing what we can come up with.

All these interactions with designers are what really make the convention experience more than just game-playing.  I love meeting the people behind the games and sharing their company, if only for a few brief days out of the year.


  1. To Clarify, Cherilyn lost because of failure to repay a loan. I had inexplicably tied her and figured she was going to find a way to repay the loan. I think she had me on money, except...without the loan repayment it decreased her below me. It was definitely a surprise to me.

    I'm interested to play this again. So, yes, there will be an Unpub over your way, even if it's just a front to give me another shot at EIC!

  2. That sounds great, John, and maybe EIC will have a "prettier face" by then!

  3. Oh, I almost forgot about another up-and-coming designer at WBC - Evan Hitchings, my semifinal opponent in the Wooden Ships and Iron Men tournament. Evan and his colleague Kenneth Oum have come up with a noir-themed card game called "The Big Shuffle." Face-up "scene" cards govern the who, where, and how of a "hit" (if I remember right), and each player has a secret persona with a goal of having the right combination of scene cards come up. Various actions and equipment allow players to modify the scene. The game has a bit of a Looney Labs Fluxx/Chrononauts feel, but there is a great deal of originality in the method and the madness here. I look forward to seeing more of this game in the future.

  4. Chris and Cherilyn sent me a prototype of The Great Heartland Hauling Co., and I was really impressed with it this week at game night as well. It's such a simple design that plays in just about 30 minutes, but like you said, just that little wrinkle of having to orchestrate your deliveries and pick-ups, and to work around the locations of your opponents, is really cool.

    And speaking of prototypes, I'd LOVE to see East India Company sometime...

  5. Sounds like EIC is really coming along nicely.
    Hats off!

  6. Thanks, yes, it really is. I really hope to get a publisher identified in the next three months.