Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A story in pictures - releasing Praetor in Eastern Europe

There are certain strings attached when you produce a board game in many languages. One of the nicest strings is releasing the game and putting a smile on people's faces. This is petty much what we've done for the past two weeks.

On May 17th Praetor was officially released in Romania with 6 events organized by Lex Games. I was honored to be part of one event, at the CBG store in Bucharest...

Thinking their way to victory

... and having fun.

Sometimes checking the rule book is not such a bad idea

...and in the end you win the lottery and get your free, signed copy.

Meanwhile, Praetor is also officially released in Poland. Granna, our Polish language partner organized everything and Agnieszka was thereon behalf of NSKN Games to present the game and give the necessary explanations and... interviews.

Praetor - from hexes to squares

and from a gamer's game to a family game

Fun and strategy at any age.

The road to fame... talking about board games for the Polish national radio.

And that's not all... Sometimes it's good to mix business and pleasure, so I could not help showing our future Kickstarter, Progress: Evolution of Technology to a group of friends and have just a bit more feedback. On a completely different topic, this is yet another one of my games which I can (almost) never win.

A group of gamers and amazing friends playing Progress: Evolution of Technology.

"I've just discovered Medicine!"

And, to nobody's surprise, the only girl in our group
developed the most advanced civilization and won. 

Stick around, in just a few days we'll tell you all about our adventure at the first Romanian dedicated board gaming convention.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

The Ever Expanding

This week I'm taking a short break from the Cardboard Olympus to talk about something else: expansions. Let’s face it, there is a list of games that are simply not as fun without one or two additional boxes. Arkham Horror needs The Dunwich Horror to get off the ground. Core Worlds is leaps and bounds better if we add the Galactic Orders to the basic box. Dominion is great, but only with Intrigue, Seaside, Prosperity, Alchemy, Cornucopia, Dark Ages and Alchemy your essential deckbuilding experience will truly be complete.

Box cover of Dominion
(source: wikipedia/Dominion_(card_game)) 
Box cover of Arkham Horror
(source: wikipedia/Arkham_Horror)
Okay, I will admit that Dominion is actually a lot of fun with just one of its basic boxes, and I should probably disclose that I had played its primary set so many times that I needed to replace the completely worn treasure cards before I actually got bored with the game. That, however, does not change the fact that the game needed only a few months to see its first big expansion, as if trying to quickly cash in on the craze that it had started.

We all probably know that there are two ways of looking at game expansions. Either we are happy that they exist to make your favourite game bigger, better and more replayable, or we just think of them as ways for the publishers to crack the safe that is your gaming budget (sometimes including money for food, rent and clothes, especially if you're an avid fan of competitive CCGs). In a way, you would be right to believe that it’s a bit of both.

It is true that publishers make money off expansions. It is true that if all of the expansion material was included in the basic box (for the same price), it would probably be better for the person purchasing the game. It is also true, that this could work only in a perfect world, because the reality of designing and publishing games simply makes it impossible.

In my neck of the woods I heard a lot of complaints that Stronghold Games was holding out on them right after Core Worlds hit the store shelves. Admittedly, the publisher made itself an easy mark by printing the base set cards already with the symbols needed for and used only by the game’s first expansion (but, in truth, Race for the Galaxy did a pretty similar thing back in the day and not many people seemed to mind). Some said at that point that elements of the game were purposely removed to be sold separately later, for the sheer and disgusting goal of making more profit.

Box cover of Core Worlds
(source: Boardgamegeek)

Well, it all might be true. It’s entirely possible that Andrew Parks had every single element of what we got in the Galactic Orders box completely functional and running before even submitting the prototype to the publisher. I for one think he did not. And here is why.

Box cover of Core Worlds: Galactic Orders
(source: Boardgamegeek)
The process of designing a moderately complicated game usually leaves you with some bits and bobs that were originally a part of the design but just did not fit in with its final structure. Sometimes it’s because they would just make the game too complicated or convoluted, and sometimes they get trimmed in the process of developing a game, because they add nothing but an extra layer of “fiddliness” without much of a payoff.

If you factor in time, which rarely is an infinite resource when you’re getting around to publishing a game, it is also entirely possible to be forced to remove this or that from the design, because (while being a good idea) it just doesn’t want to work exactly the way it should, and nobody – neither the designer, nor the developer – knows how to make it behave. That is, until the game goes to the printers and serendipity finally decides to return the long overdue call.

In the end, it all boils down to a notion similar to those seen in any form of creative art (and yes, I believe designing games is art) that is prone to being “expanded”: a single book can only be so long, a single canvas can only be so big and a single photo can only fit so many objects before all becomes too small or too blurry to actually make out, making the whole endeavour defeat its purpose.

So, in conclusion: yes, some expansions may be a money grabs (and we’ve witnessed how blatant these practices may become with some video game DLC), but most certainly not all of them are. And the good ones certainly serve one very important purpose: they make what we love last longer. And that is an idea I do not think anyone would find extremely difficult to get behind.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cardboard Olympus, Part III: The Demiurge Effect

Last time I discussed two games from the Boardgamegeek’s top ten: Puerto Rico and Agricola, currently occupying the third and fourth position of the BGG ranking, obviously leaving two games out. Now is the time to take a closer look at one of them – and to factor game designers into the equation.

BoardGameGeek logo
Number of copies sold does not a cardboard Olympian make, lest the mere mortals be ruled by Monopoly, Activity and Axis and Allies. If one defines themselves as (more or less) a hobby gamer, one has to focus on what is called a designer board game, which simply means a game more complicated than said Monopoly and displaying the name of its creator (or creators) on the box.

No, we are bathing in the glory of games that require more thought than just making a binary decision after rolling a die and we assess and rate games based on the joy brought to us by making actual decisions, having varied choices or at least nice components (unless, that is, we are fans of Talisman, in which case only the last one stands).

Olympian Names

Deciding whether we like a game or not is simple when the box is already in our possession: we play the game (once or multiple times) and make up our mind. The trick, however, is to properly assess a game before we make a purchase – and here the designer rears their (not always ugly) head. Obviously, some gamers follow companies, with their interest piqued by news of upcoming releases from Ystari or Fantasy Flight Games, but if a publisher wants their audience to sit up and take notes, they need a good (and by “good” we mean: “well known”) designer behind their latest project.

As a consequence, today’s BGG ranking is influenced by big names of designers that were able to crack the top ten some years ago and use that impetus to introduce a second title to the cardboard Olympus. Apart from Uwe Rosenberg, only two other designers managed to pull off this impressive trick: once the top ten housed two games by Donald X. Vaccarino (although it was really just one game sold in two boxes - which might actually be an even grander feat), and now it has room for two games of Vlaada Chvatil.

Olympian Games

Through The Ages - player board in  mid game

Vlaada Chvatil is truly incredible: no two games of his are quite alike. This legendary character has designed heavy Eurogames, party games, an abstract strategy, two completely different adventure games and… Through The Ages, which was his ticket to the mountaintop and a game that, in a way, created a category it solely inhabits.

The box cover of Through The Ages
source: BoardGameGeek/through-the-ages-a-story-of-civilization

If we compare Through the Ages to Agricola and Puerto Rico, we will quickly notice one meaningful deviation. Unlike those two titles, TTA is not easily accessible. The game has lots of rules to take in, a single game takes long enough to miss the graduation of your first kid (if you play with four) and the mechanisms that govern the game are way more abstract than anything Puerto Rico or Agricola throws at us. And yet, as multiple editions and language version prove, Through the Ages remains one of the most well loved and highly acclaimed games – so well loved in fact, that it lately managed to overtake Agricola and Puerto Rico. Where did this sudden comeback come from?

Actually, it came from the USA.

The box cover of Mage Knight
source: BoardGameGeek/mage-knight-board-game
When it came to cracking the top ten, Mage Knight had it all. Firstly, it had a powerhouse publisher. Secondly, it had a brand some people are truly crazy about. Lastly, it had a well known designer. Now, to be more specific: the name Chvatil was there to draw in us Europeans, while the Mage Knight brand was to draw in Americans.  And drew it did, reminding us all how ingenious a designer Vlaada Chvatil is - and pushing us to either play the copy of Through the Ages we already have on our shelf, or to try it out for the first time, forming an opinion and… rating it highly on Boardgamegeek. Mage Knight might have become TTA greatest friend, being responsible for it reaching the one but highest position in the ranking.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Demiurge Effect actually works.
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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cardboard Olympus, Part II: The Old Gods

In the introduction to the series I discussed the simple nuts and bolts of rating and ranking a game on Boardgamegeek. Alas, understanding those basic mechanisms is but a first step beyond the threshold, for the real mysteries of reaching the Olympian heights are yet to be discovered. So let us see how the oldest of the games still prevailing in the top ten managed to climb that mountain and remain there since their first ascendance.

Garden Paths of Olympus

The box cover of Keyflower
source: Boardgamegeek/keyflower
Making a game both reviewers and gamers will love is merely a solid foundation, upon which a publisher needs to build the whole structure of the game’s success. If it wasn't so, games like Keyflower or Roads and Boats, which are admittedly excellent design achievements, would actually stand a chance in a fight for supremacy against, say, Agricola. And since the BGG ranking clearly indicates something else, there must be other reasons for the latter game being so much better (ranking-wise) than the two former.

The box cover of Roads & boats
source: Boardgamegeek/roads-boats
It is no secret that we are and have been living for some time in a world where spin is king and (in some areas at least) publicity, proper marketing and advertising sells a product much better than any of its perceived quality. However, believing that in Agricola’s case advertising was the sole key to success would also be a mistake.

Agricola sold in over 50 thousand copies within just the first year of its publication. This number is impressive to say the least, but being able to reach it is not only a matter of making a game that will have a potential to sell like hotcakes, but also of being able to actually deliver in bulk. A small company will have a hard time investing in printings and securing constant flow of copies, whereas a bigger, more established publisher will effortlessly use existing channels to both market and deliver their games. This means that only those who secure a wide distribution of their product may count on a decent number of BGG users to rate their games and break the top one hundred, top fifty or the coveted top ten.

The Mortal Enemies

Agricola has always been a strong contender, for a long time having to bow to only one game which would prove its ranking superiority – and that game was Puerto Rico. As I am writing these words Agricola occupies the third position in the BGG ranking, still behind two other games (which I will discuss in some detail next time) with Puerto Rico hot on its heels.
The box cover of Agricola
source: Wikipedia/Agricola_(boardgame)
Puerto Rico has been in the top ten list for over a decade. This should not come as a surprise to anyone: the simplicity of its rules (that were quite innovative in 2002) mixed with strategic depth provided a bedrock for the game’s early success and the strong publisher did the rest. The impetus of a five year head start Puerto Rico had had over Agricola, makes the epic battle rage on (and it is entirely possible that the moment you read this article, the positions of the games in the ranking will be, again, reversed).

The box cover of Puerto Rico
source: Wikipedia/Puerto_Rico_(game)
What both these games have in common, however, only proves the rules laid out above, while adding another one to the mix. Both Agricola and Puerto Rico would (apart from conquering new markets) rekindle the passion of their fans either with a steady flow of expansions (in the case of Agricola) or with component improvement and a lavish special edition (in the case of Puerto Rico, which was expanded only once but was given a few minor makeovers). This however, falls under the general rule of publishing powerhouses, for only companies able to expand and support their games on a regular basis may hope to keep their products in one of the exceptionally high positions of the BGG ranking.

But, a splendid game and a strong publisher are not all that matters... as I will try to show next time.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

NSKN Games @ 3 years

Arthur Ashe said that "success is a journey, not a destination; the doing is often more important than the outcome" and this very quote describes very well the 3-year history of NSKN Games.

We know where we came from... but where do we go?

We started in 2011 not really knowing what we're getting ourselves into and not knowing how difficult is the transition from gaming to designing and publishing. The journey used to be the means to reach a destination - making a living out of publishing board games - and now the journey has become a life style. The purpose has not changed, but the defining paradigm of why and how is no longer the same.

Playing and designing games are not all that different, but publishing is. In 2013 I have questioned my decision to do both many times, because there are many turning points in the career of a designer/publisher when one conflicts with the other.

People say that time flies when you're having fun and I must admit that it's absolutely true. The past three years have flown by and I must take a moment and look back at what we have accomplished.

I won't go through the whole history of NSKN Games again, but if you're curious you can still read about our previous anniversaries:
...but there are a few things worth mentioning about our third year of being in business. 

The summer of 2013

One year ago NSKN Games was preparing the revised edition of Exodus: Proxima Centauri. That was our only release for 2013 and, even though we had another 3 prototypes ready and play-tested, things seemed to move a little too slowly. I wasn't sure if it's something we're doing or this is just the way things go, but one thing was for sure, publishing looked like a tough business with many pitfalls and a tremendous amount of work for uncertain results.

I know it sounds grim and discouraging, but figuring out how to dig your way out of the hole when you find yourself stuck is not an easy task. The publishing business was going well, it was simply too slow to make a decent living out of it. Rushing games to the market wasn't a solution, we never wanted to cut corners for an easy living. So, we decided to go one more time full speed ahead and bring our unfinished work to Essen, getting a lot of feedback from all kinds of gamers to figure out if we were going in the right direction or not. All the effort, money and creativity went (besides Exodus) into preparing the game we would publish in 2014 and 2015.

Spiel Essen and the autumn of 2013

The key moment into our finding a direction for NSKN Games and effectively working towards a goal - to stay in the board games industry and make a living out of it - came in Essen. The amount of interest and feedback we received was overwhelming and it helped us focus our efforts in the right direction.

NSKN Games @ Spiel '13 Essen

Besides selling out Exodus: Proxima Centauri soon after Essen, we have had a lot of good feedback for Praetor, Perfect Storm and our other prototypes. The light at the end of the tunnel was not a speeding train, but a guide towards what we were supposed to do next. For the rest of the autumn we finalized Praetor and closed the deals for the 7 editions in various languages adding up to a total of 7500 copies - almost as many as our previous board games combined. I must admit that having my name on a dedicated Romanian edition of a game made me feel especially proud. 

We have also "upgraded" the way we work. Having direction and focus saves a lot of time and effort. Even though we cannot say that NSKN is a large team, we've been growing steadily. With adding people we have also gained expertise and enthusiasm and thus we were able to cover more than one project at a time.

The winter of 2013/2014

By December 2013 all the graphics for Praetor were ready and we started submitting the final files for production. With a print run as large as we had, preparing for production was no easy task. We had several meetings to check the color proofs, the die cuts for the punchboards, the size and shape for the box tray and this just the tip of the iceberg.

Due to our new workflow philosophy, we had time to develop more games for 2014 and 2015. We continued developing and play-testing Progress: Evolution of Technology which will soon become our first ever Kickstarter project and we made created the framework for the long-awaited expansion of Exodus: Proxima Centauri.

Springtime 2014

With Praetor out of production in April, our first weeks of spring were dedicated to avoid a logistics nightmare. Shipping more than 7000 game boxes to 12 different countries was no easy task but we can proudly say that the the preorders were sent out 3 weeks before the promised deadline and every copy of the game is either with our partners or en route to them.

These days we are preparing for the upcoming gaming conventions (TIG Con in Romania and UK Games Expo) and in our "spare time" we're looking after the final details of our upcoming Kickstarter for Progress: Evolution of Technology.


Designing and publishing board games is the most interesting life experience I could have ever imagined, very fulfilling and just as hard. As long as we can keep in mind that it's all about the journey, I think the future of NSKN Games looks brighter than ever.

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