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What’s Your Hook?

I read an article online a while back that the “upcoming” fifth Indiana Jones movie still has no MacGuffin. At first I thought, “What in the world is a MacGuffin?” Then I realized that I knew what it was but hadn’t heard that term before. From Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.

This got me thinking about an analog in board games. While it’s not exactly the same in terms of purpose I think the closest analog in board games is the hook.

In my article, “How to (Speed) Pitch Your Game,” I characterized the hook in a few different ways. The hook refers to the thing that’s different than any other game.

  • Are you utilizing components in a new way?
  • Are you using a new mechanic?
  • Are you modifying an old mechanic in a new way?
  • Is your theme so amazing?

The hook should be a driving factor of your game. It should be the thing that’s constantly manipulating player’s decisions. It should exist to create moments of tension and reward. Like a MacGuffin, the hook is something that may not be the main plot, but it’s always there steering the narrative along.

When I designed Scoville I didn’t think there was a hook. Then I actually played it. The hook of Scoville is the great interaction within the field and the way cross-breeding opportunities open up throughout the game, and get blocked by other players. The important thing about this is that the hook wasn’t something that was apparent until I actually playtested the game.

So I’ve been trying to keep this hook concept in my mind while designing other games. My current game, Ziggurat, has a visual hook in that the ziggurat actually gets built as a 3D building during the game. But I don’t think that’s a big enough hook. While it looks appealing it’s too superficial. The game needs a bigger hook.

In my article, “My Board Game Design Philosophy,” I mentioned five things that I keep in mind while designing. These included that the game is quick to teach/learn, has few “exception” rules, a limited decision tree, a natural buildup or progression, and that players should be rewarded. I think I need (want) to add a “Hook” to that philosophy.

Playing Hookie

I checked out some of the popular games to see what their hooks were. Here are a few that I came up with:

Agricola/Caverna: The hook is how worker placement is utilized and optimized during the game. In each of these the difficult decisions are when there are several options that seem appealing but you know you won’t likely get both of them. Other players may choose one you wanted. So when it is your turn you have to try and make the best choice with your worker. (Plus Questing, i.e., upgrading your workers, is really awesome in Caverna).

Puerto Rico: The hook is not simply due to role selection, but that the selector gets a benefit. This is similar to the role selection in Race for the Galaxy.

Power Grid: The hook here is that you are racing toward creating the network and it offers a first-come-first-served mechanic of controlling the cities. When a player chooses to build more cities it is both good (More money) and bad (Worse turn order). That’s what gives Power Grid it’s hook.

Tzolk’in: The obvious hook here is the gear system for controlling the game as a time-based worker placement game.

Dominion: As the “father of deckbuilders” the hook is pretty obvious. At the time it was released the idea of deck building was novel and new. The hook is that players diverge in their capabilities each game depending on what they purchase.

Ora et Labora/Glass Road: Yes, more Rosenberg on this list. The hooks here are the resource board wheels that show what resources are available.

Alchemists: The hook is that you can use the digital app to help you mix potions. It makes for fun moments in the game where you aren’t always certain what result you will obtain.

You may disagree with these hooks, but you can’t argue that these help set the game apart from others.

What’s your Hook?

Are you designing games? Have you considered what makes your game special? I urge you to keep a focus on the hook of your game. Keep it in mind when designing. Keep it in mind when playtesting. See what your playtesters think makes the game special. Does that feedback match your hook?

The thing that brought this all up was that I changed a major mechanic of Ziggurat. When I was working on the design I realized that this change would have a dramatic positive effect on the interaction of the game. I wasn’t expecting that. Changing the mechanic basically added a hook to Ziggurat in that now players have the chance to essentially steal opportunities from other players. I can’t wait to get it to the table.

Scoville Protospiel Recap

I had the privilege of attending my first Protospiel this past weekend in Milwaukee. Protospiel is a convention for game designers to bring prototypes and get feedback from other designers. So I took my game Scoville along and got some awesome feedback! I think that I’ll focus this recap on my game rather than provide opinions of the games I played that are unpublished. That would not be fair to the designers even if I really enjoyed their games since all the games I played are still in progress. So rather than posting a drawn out chronological recap of the weekend I will just post the drawn out highlights for the play tests of Scoville.

I was fortunate to have Scoville played five times and was pleased to play 8 other games by other designers. Protospiel is an awesome thing for a designer to attend!

Here’s a little background about my Protospiel expectations and goals…

Protospiel: First Contact

Coming to Protospiel I had two goals: 1) validate whether or not Scoville is any good and 2) connect with people who know what they’re talking about. A secondary goal was to leave a copy of the game with Grant Rodiek for inclusion in the Prototype Penpal Program. That was something I could always do later on, but I thought it could be cool to send a copy off with him.

I also had some expectations about the feedback I might receive. I knew that I wanted to adjust the auction phase of the game. So I to see the same feedback about it that I had seen from my prior play tests. I was also a little uncertain about the quality of my prototype (that thought was quickly vanquished!). Thanks to everyone for the kind words about the quality of my prototype. I’ll post an article sometime about how I make prototypes.

So if I received validation and made some connections then I would have considered this weekend a success.  Let’s see how it went.

Scoville Play Test #1

This game is hot!Getting to the convention at 8:15am on Saturday allowed me to get my game set up right away since few people were there. I got four people to give it a go and they seemed to really enjoy it. I won’t explain the game much here since I’ll be writing a post all about the game itself. Here are the suggestions that I received after the game:

  • Beware of color blindness (Cool apps: Color Blind Vision (Android: FREE) and Colorblind Vision (iOS: $2.99)).
  • Stage II orders seem to provide too many points.
  • If everyone bids zero in the auction, flop the player order.
  • Put endgame trigger scenario onto the guidesheet.
  • Tiebreaker should go to the player with the most coins.
  • The game was described as a “Euro with luck but no dice.”
  • There should be no randomly chosen player order at the start of the game.
  • During fulfillment there should be the option to pay for becoming the first player.

That’s a lot of great feedback. The game uses 10 differently colored cubes so I have been aware of the color blindness issue. There are several solutions for this. The biggest takeaway from play test #1 was that I received the auction feedback I was expecting. My plan would be to test a new auction mechanic on Sunday.

One player, who happened to be the winner by a lot, wanted to try a strategy that I am aware of but have not yet seen attempted.  Since peppers can be sold for coins based on how many of that color are planted in the fields there is a strategy that you can plant a pepper of a certain color in each round and harvest that same color each round without doing anything else. I have done the math in my head and I do not believe that this would be a winning strategy (at least I hoped not because that would make the game broken). More on this below.

Scoville Play Test #2

After working on Protospiel goal #2 of making connections and meeting some awesome people, they were willing to give Scoville a try. During this second play test there was more bidding and jostling of player order. I think that was the reason that the auction was not mentioned in the post-game discussion. This play also resulted in much closer scores than the first play. Here are the suggestions I received:

  • Peppers should be worth something at the end (that are currently worth nothing in the endgame: Use Them or Lose Them!)
  • The artwork on the fields should somehow better illustrate where the player pawns can be placed.
  • The game was described as a “medium to heavy Euro.”

So I received quite a bit less feedback from play #2. But the fact that I still didn’t receive any feedback about how anything seemed broken meant that perhaps Protospiel goal #1 (validation) was starting to become apparent.

Scoville Play Test #3

Later Saturday night a prominent figure in the board game reviewing business was able to play Scoville. So with three other players I got play test #3 going. In terms of rounds this was the shortest game I have seen. The game lasted 6 rounds. The players again seemed to enjoy the game and nothing seemed broken to them. They did mention the auction as the weak point of the game, so I received good feedback about that that I could implement on Sunday. Here’s the suggestions:

  • Possible Trademark issue with the names of peppers used on the recipe tiles.
  • Turn order needs adjusting. Option 1: Flop the order. Option 2: Purchase your spot.
  • Perhaps just get rid of the reverse order for the harvest action.
  • Brown peppers seem too valuable.

I want to point out that the brown peppers are somewhat of an enigma in the game. They don’t breed with anything except the best peppers. They take up space on the map. But they are used quite a bit in the recipes. I had not received feedback that browns were too valuable before this. The normal feedback on the brown peppers is that they seem pointless. So this was interesting feedback from a fresh perspective.

I was also pleased, in a bittersweet way, to hear the same feedback on the auction mechanic. I now knew that I could incorporate a revised auction mechanic on Sunday and expect good things.

I was intrigued by the suggestion to remove the reverse player order for the harvest. My first thought was “absolutely not.” What that would lead to is either huge bids during the auction or rounds of the game where one player can make a huge jump in points. I’ll have to examine this further.

Scoville Play Test #4

Sunday morning I was able to play Scoville for the first time during the weekend. I had not played in the previous play tests. And this time it was just a two player game. I have tried to design the game such that it scales well from 2 to 6 players. There are no AI players necessary and the game feels nearly exactly the same with 6 players as it does with 2.

Since it was now Sunday I was going to implement the new auction mechanic: Bid for Player Order. Now during the auction phase players would be bidding for turn order. Whoever bids the most gets to choose their spot in the turn order. The next highest bidder gets to choose the next spot, and so on. This way, if a player wanted to become the first harvester they could bid high and then choose the last spot, which would allow them to harvest first.

The new auction in the two player game seemed to work, but I suppose that this new auction mechanic would work even better with more players. What the new auction mechanic provided was a way to earn the first harvester spot. That is critical to strategy in the game.

Here are the suggestions I received:

  • Are points balanced on the Order tiles?
  • Change the artwork on the Cross-Breeding table for the cross-breeds that result in two peppers.

The points on the Order tiles may be slightly unbalanced, but not to the point of brokenness. These can be easily revised, which I may do depending on analysis of the scoring for the first 25 play tests. The artwork suggestion is an excellent one that I will definitely change.

Scoville Play Test #5

The attempt to break the game. He ended up red-faced!

The attempt to break the game. He ended up red-faced!

The final play of Scoville included the big winner from play #1. He wanted to test the coin building theory and see if it could potentially provide a winning strategy. I welcomed him to try it but made sure that the other players were initially unaware of his proposed gameplay. It was a great final play and I was happy to see that the new auction mechanic really worked well with four players. Here are the suggestions:

  • Don’t call it “harvesting, call it “breed-vesting.”
  • Check out the game Santiago since there is a similar “fields” mechanic (uh oh… worried about this!)
  • The different parts of the game were described by one player as Resources (Auction), Tactics (Orders), and Strategy (Recipes).

The first thing to discuss was the auction.  Of note is that this game had the highest average bidding per round of all 5 play tests during the weekend. I think this is due to players now having two things to bid for (first player spot or last player spot) rather than for just moving up in player order. The thing of note was the compliment someone gave to the auction saying that the auction was a good mechanic for the game. This brought the game full circle over the weekend. Previously the auction was described as the weak point of the game. Now it was “good.” I’ll take that!

The other thing that was validated from this final play test was that the game was not broken in that attempting to get coins by planting and harvesting the same color did not result in a winning strategy. The player was going full steam ahead from the get-go with that strategy and came in last place (though could have finished in third place). I was pleased that the game wasn’t close to being won by that strategy. Overall it was a great play test.

Overall Scoville Analysis

Perhaps the best part of the analysis is that people really seemed to enjoy the game. While my goal was to validate whether or not it was any good, I came away from Protospiel very humbled by all the kind words people had for the game. Let’s dig in a little bit and check out the scoring breakdown:

Protospiel Score Breakdown

Some further analysis revealed that the number of coins bid during the game varied quite a bit. In terms of coins bid per round the numbers were 2, 6.14, 7.66, 1.38 (2-player), and 7.85 per game. The highest average was the 4-player game with the new auction, though this wasn’t unexpected.

Overall it was apparent that people had fun when playing the game. That’s the most important thing to me as a designer. There are some things that I would like to continue to develop leading up to Gen Con that I mentioned to the players. But I want to avoid the situation where I am needlessly adding complexity. That would steal from the simple elegance of the mechanics currently in the game.

Thank you to all 16 players who play tested my game. I really appreciate the feedback. It was an awesome weekend! And special thanks to Grant Rodiek for humbly accepting a copy for the Prototype Penpal Program. I know that I can expect some awesome, honest feedback!

Lessons Learned From Rejection

The beautiful backside of the cards.

The beautiful backside of the cards.

I’ve been designing games for about three years now.  While that may seem a long time to some, it in no way qualifies me to pretend that I know what I’m doing.  For the most part I come up with an idea and try to make the game fun.  All the other stuff, like approaching publishing companies, determining if you need a patent (you don’t!), and even prototyping, I have learned secondhand by people who have gone through it.  If you are a game designer I highly recommend you start following game people on Twitter and listening to what they have to say about everything!

Last August I attended GenCon for the first time.  I brought a copy of my game, “Dam It!”, along in hopes of showing it to a publisher.  Dam It is a light card game where players compete to complete their dam before anyone else.  I’ll write more about the game in a later post. I had the chance to meet some great people at GenCon and I arranged a meeting with a certain publisher.  I was fortunate to have three friends on the trip who graciously played Dam It one more time before I  would have the meeting.  Here’s my first lesson learned:

1. If your friends don’t love it, don’t bother.

That night when my friends played my game again they pointed out a few things that they thought would make it better.  The interaction was too limited.  Late-game options became fewer.  And it had a sort of runaway leader problem.  So I brainstormed that night and came up with a way to make the game better.  But that meant that I could not approach the publisher since I would not have felt right pitching a game that I knew was incomplete.  Here’s the lesson: If your friends aren’t enjoying it, and if they are recommending major changes, don’t waste a publisher’s time!

So I met with the publisher the next day and told him that the game wasn’t ready for discussion.  But I got their business card and made plans to contact them when I had implemented the changes.

And that’s just what I did.  I added two new cards to the game that both focused on interaction and eliminating a runaway leader.  The cards worked as I had hoped.  When I play-tested with my friends again they all seemed to agree that the game had improved.  So I ordered a copy from The Game Crafter and got it ready to send out.  I contacted the publisher to see if they would accept a submission and after an affirmative response I sent my little baby out into the world.  But here’s the next lesson:

2. Don’t make emotional deadlines.

I must have been hopped up on the GenCon buzz because I had set a goal to send out a copy of my game before the end of October.  Why is that bad?  Because by setting that goal it had less to do with game development and more to do with my desires of getting published.  This goal was an emotional goal.  While I met the goal, I didn’t feel like I was sending out the best possible product, even though it was much better than it had been at GenCon.  Here’s the lesson: Don’t make emotional goals that aren’t based on game development.

So it was a little bittersweet when I sent the game off.  While on one hand I was happy that I felt like I was becoming a real game designer I was also a little disappointed because I knew that the threat of rejection was real.

It’s an interesting period of life when you’ve submitted a project to a company that could potentially publish it.  There were days when I woke up and wondered if they were going to play it.  I had received an email in early November stating that the company received the game and would be play-testing over Thanksgiving.  So of course all day on Thanksgiving I was thinking my game was being played.  It actually made for a long day.  And then the waiting began, which leads to my next lesson learned:

3. Must… Be… Patient…

Once you submit a game to a publisher you are committing yourself to a life of patience.  Think of it this way…

  1. Publishers receive a lot of games.
  2. Publishers have to play all those games (hopefully more than once).
  3. Publishers also actually produce real games, which might require a bit of their time.

So don’t think that once they get your game they’ll open it up, read the rules, and play it right away.  If I were a publisher receiving submissions I would likely have a submission queue.  So when you submit a game it would go to the end of the queue.  You can also look at it this way: how often do you play games? and how often are those games someone’s unpublished prototype?  I imagine publishers are in the business because they like to play games.  I also imagine that playing only unpublished prototypes could get very old.  That means some of their time is also spent playing good, published games.  Here’s the lesson: When you submit a game, just forget about it for a while.  Contact the publisher on a quarterly basis. And if you haven’t heard after a year, cordially request your game back.

And when you do hear back, try and listen to what the publisher is actually saying.  That leads me to lesson #4:

4. All Feedback is Good Feedback

Publishers know what they’re talking about.  Odds are if you are an unpublished designer, you probably do not know what you’re talking about.  So listen to what they have to say.  Of course, if what they are saying is, “We love your game and want to publish it,” then congratulations to you!  But if they have rejected your game, make sure you understand why.  Some reasons could include:

  1. Your game may not fit their company flavor (Like sending a zombie game to Haba, for example… bad idea)
  2. Your game may not fit their budget currently, but they may want to retain the rights to the game for a while.
  3. Your game may not be developed far enough.  They may like the idea, but it needs work that they are not willing to put into it.
  4. Your game may be broken.

Those are obviously just a few of the reasons why a publisher may reject your game.  Here’s the lesson: Don’t get frustrated by a rejection, learn from it! Also – They are not rejecting YOU.  They are rejecting your game.  Don’t take it personally.

What I learned from my rejection is that the game isn’t broken.  It is too random.  The feedback I received suggested that I not abandon the project, but rather to continue working on it and fixing its failings.  So while my game was rejected, I actually learned a lot during the process.  I now have a more well defined path forward with Dam It!  And I’m better prepared for the next rejection. So to the publisher who rejected the game, Thank You!

 

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