Friday, October 31, 2014

Board Games in Application

The world of board games is no stranger to all kinds of digital aids, which rose in popularity with the introduction of smartphones. Unofficial scoring helpers for games such as Agricola or 7 Wonders, a life and status tracker for Sentinels of the Multiverse or set randomizers for different deckbuilding games seem as natural as a scoring pad or a simple sheet of paper and a pencil. But is this just a novelty or a great shift in gaming?

7 Wonders Scorer by Forrest Wang

If you’ve been to Essen this year, you probably had a chance to play XCom: The Board Game from Fantasy Flight Games. Perhaps you were one of the people who bought Alchemists from Czech Games Edition. And you know that, in essence, both of these games require a digital component to play (with Alchemists introducing a token alternative to having at least one smartphone at the table).

Alchemists has recently been “ran through” by Richard Ham (known and loved by the gaming community as Rahdo). The naturally mouth-watering main part was then supplemented by Rahdo’s opinion on digital components in the runthrough finalthoughts. Suffice to say, that he his attitude was quite positive, with a few very good arguments against all the things people seemed most unhappy about when it came to fusing board games and digital applications.

Alchemists official cover by CGE
(source: BGG)

The truth is that I wholeheartedly agree with most of the points in the video. Making the argument that Alchemists would be unplayable in twenty years, which seemed to surface most often when it came to both the newest CGE outing, as well as when XCom was being discussed, is indeed not a very strong one - especially now, when finding all sorts of digital media from two decades ago seems easier than ever. The same goes for all sorts of “no smartphones” table policies. There is, however, one thing that surfaced in the general discussion – an argument mostly made by all those truly excited about including digital elements in board games.

Alchemists by CGE
Selecting another position
on an iPhone @ Spiel 2014.
(source: BGG)

On a somewhat personal note I should say, that I am not sold on the idea of mandatory application use for my board games. Although I love the social aspect of gaming, I also find the physical aspect of games very appealing. Simply put, I like touching and moving the components, and distancing the player from some of the game elements by putting them behind a touch screen is something I am not crazy about. Still, what the enthusiasts say is that this step allows for introduction of mechanisms simply too complicated or too fiddly to implement in a fully analogue game. And that resonates with me on a completely different level.

From a designer and publisher perspective it might be extremely tempting to start looking closely at the possibility of removing some of the in-game busywork and hiding it within the depths of a simple app. But there are broader implications everyone – those who make games and those who play them – should possibly consider. And it is one of the elements that makes board games what they are today, possibly even being responsible for their growing popularity in a world that seems completely submerged in its digital existence.

The Settlers of Catan cover
(source: BGG)

Since Settlers of Catan made its glorious appearance on the market, paving the way for games very unlike older American titles – complicated, heavy with rules, often convoluted or inconsistent enough to make them very niche products – tabletop gaming was about simplicity. Board game mechanisms can only be so complicated, and beyond a certain level lies a realm of games played only once a year, or only be their greatest and most devoted fans. The trick is – and has been for the last twenty years – to design systems that introduced interesting decisions or simulated complicated ideas in a simple, digestible form.

Make no mistake: introducing digital components to a tabletop game is a great opportunity, but I sincerely do not think that these elements will start taking over board gaming anytime soon for a simple reason. The more complex systems have already ruled the tabletop gaming world and (although still existing and doing well) they failed as its mainstream. Reintroducing them using mandatory apps is a novelty that is probably here to stay, but not dominate the scene. When it comes to high complexity simulations with internal systems hidden away from the players, we already have those: they are called videogames.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

First post-Essen thoughts and some more pictures

Essen 2014 was awesome! So many people we had seen in the past came by our booth again, lots of handshakes and hugs made Essen feel like a gathering of old friends, brought together by teh same passion - board games.

For the first time in the history of NSKN Games, we sold out in Essen having more than one product at our booth and the quantity was not negligible. Delivering more than 200 Kickstarter rewards while serving a lot of customers was another big challenge, but we seem to have passed the test.

It's hard to draw all the conclusions after just a few days, but the whole NSKN team has returned with a very good feeling. Next week we'll have to look more in depth into what this event represented for us and we'll come back and share the conclusions.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Essen 2014 - day 2 & day 3

This year's Spiel Essen turns out to be a truly amazing experience. We continue our story in images with photos from day 2 (Friday) and day 3 (Saturday).

Day 2 - what was supposed to be the slowest day...

Happy owners of brand new Progress: Evolution of Technology

Explaining Progress

...and playing Versailles

Happy girls

Day 3 - the "sold out" day

Hard thinking and... watching

Progress countdown on Saturday morning

Game delivered!

That's what we call original

Around 11;00 AM

One of the last copies of Progress delivered at Spiel

4 copies left

and just a few minutes later...

With Progress sold out, we still invite you to visit our booth. We have a few copies of Praetor and a few of Versailles for Sunday.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Essen 2014 - setup and day 1

Being in Essen for Spiel is always an amazing experience, but this year's first day has exceeded our expectations by far. Since another big day is ahead of us in several hours, we'll let the pictures do the talking...

Day -2: leaving home

Leaving friends at home...

Day -1: setting up the booth

No less than 10 pallets of games made it to our booth in Essen

The setup day was looooong

... and it included climbing a giant ladder

Day 0: the day before the official opening

Delivering Kickstarter copies of Progress

The game have slowly found their places on shelves... and everywhere else

Game previews at the BoardGameGeek booth

Day 1: Spiel '14 Essen has finally starter... full speed ahead

Playing tables

The stock of Progress is running low from the morning hours... should we have brought more games?


Progress: Evolution of Technology

And Versailles again

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Our Essen Hotness

From a publisher’s perspective, a convention or a trade show is exciting, but also somewhat stressful. It’s both about preparing everything in advance, as well as performing at peak efficiency for an extended period of time, to make sure that our games and – more importantly – the people who visit us, get all the enthusiasm and the positivity they deserve. And with Spiel 2014 starting in merely a blink of an eye, we can’t but get more and more excited with what awaits us in Essen.

Spiel is a celebration of games and gaming, and as passionate gamers we would lie if we said that only Progress or Versailles excites us. There is a fair amount of gaming goodness we will be more than happy to get our hands on, not just to see “what the competition has to offer”, but to simply have fun with when the dust finally settles.

Image source: 
It seems that the game that equivocally excites all of us is Hyperborea by Andrea Chiarvesio and Pierluca Zizzi. It’s no secret we always had a soft spot for civilization and empire building games, so this one made us all interested from the first day it became a visible blip on our gaming radars. With good looking area control action and an immensely interesting pool building mechanism, Hyperborea looks like a game that will put a pretty cool twist on the “dudes on the map” genre, while showing off some clever Eurogame moves, asymmetrical player powers and some truly awesome art. Simply put: we cannot wait to see it in action.

And speaking about civilization building games: we will definitely be checking out Historia and Omega Centauri. The former seems to be sporting some really innovative approach towards civilization gaming in general, while the latter looks a little more straight up – but as a solid 4X game in space has a pretty good chance of making the creators of Exodus: Proxima Centauri quite excited about placing it on their Essen loot pile.

Image source: 
There is also a lot of excitement about The Battle of Five Armies, as some of the NSKN folks are great fans of War of the Ring, while others (myself included) are fatally drawn to everything having anything to do with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. And with some reviews already up, as well as having the exact same set of designers (Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello) as the legendary WotR, the culminating battle of The Hobbit in a board game format really looks like something we might want to have on our shelves.

Image source: 
No Spiel would be complete without a new game by Uwe Rosenberg, and, more recently, without an offering from Stefan Feld and Antoine Bauza. And although we are slightly disappointed that Fields of Arle is a two player game only, we will definitely want to check it out, as well as take a good look at both Aquasphere and La Isla. And personally, I really can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Samurai Spirit.

Image source: 
To tell the truth, the list could really go on. We want to try out Nations: The DiceGame, visit the Z-Man booth to see how Battle at Kemble’s Cascade makes an early video game go completely analogue, get a fix (in form of a new board) of the fabulous Concordia or witness with our very own eyes, how Phil Eklund and Philipp Klarmann managed to make a negotiation game for not only three or two players players, but also for one (some of us even want to visit actual Greeenland but that is a completely different story). We will delve in the Essen gaming hotness, but…

At the end of the day, we will be most excited to see everyone who deems our humble abodes welcoming enough to visit us, stay awhile and play our games or just say hello. We will be – and in fact we already are – most excited to see our old friends and make some new ones. Because, believe it or not, gaming is much more about the people than the games. So, as much as we are happy to be presenting, selling, playing, demoing and experiencing games, we will also be happy to share this experience with others. 

And, in a way, that is what our personal Essen Hotness is all about.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Designer Diary - Praetor (part II)

To read the first part of this designed diary please follow this link.

Praetor 1.1

Decreasing the number of tiles was an obvious choice. The game play was sound, but simply too long. Making less tiles of one kind (e.g. Gold Mines which would provide currency for players) did not decrease the number of choices, it simply made the game easier to grasp. The first “hair cut” left Praetor with less than 60 city tiles.

To avoid any scalability problems from the very beginning, I created a core set of about 25 city tiles which were used for the 2-player games and with each extra player several more tiles would be added. With each extra player there were more workers and more resources in the game and thus the play time would not increase significantly since more workers plus more resources meant faster building.

The one test I was the most afraid of was the first 6-player game. I knew that in theory the game should scale nicely, but I also knew that sometimes there’s a big difference between theory and practice. To increase the difficulty of the challenge even further, I chose a group of very casual gamers, people who would usually settle for game as complex as Monopoly. To my surprise, the game only took two hours and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Version 1.1 had passed its most difficult exam and the game was deemed ready for mass testing.

Nürnberg 2013 and the long months of testing

I had big doubts whether to present the prototype of Praetor to W Eric Martin of BoardGameGeek at the Nürnberg Toy Fair or not. I knew that showing a rough version with no graphic design could trigger negative opinions, but the team decided to go for it and see it would spark any interest. And it did!

Praetor 1.1 hex tile

It suddenly became a lot easier to find groups of testers and it also created the right expectations. People were playing an illustration-free game and they were giving feedback only to the game mechanisms which is exactly what I needed.

After I became convinced that the flow of the game is right, I added the last piece of the puzzle, the mechanism of tile placement. Every corner of each city tile was painted in one of four colors. When a player would build a new tile (district), he would also have to choose its place in the city. The more corners matched the neighboring tiles, the more extra points that player would get. It was another level of strategy and it also made the modular board look nicer, at least in my mind since there was not even a hint of illustration on the city tiles.

We took Praetor to a few small conventions and to the UK Games Expo in May 2013 and slowly drafted what looked like the final version. The last major decision was to limit the maximum number of player to 5. I won’t get into many details, it had a lot to do with the tradition in the industry, many games of this genre being limited to 4 or 5 players and a bit to do with adding diversity and limiting the chaos with a large number of players.

The last significant change in the game play was dropping the concept of initiative. At first, each tile would provide an amount of a resource called “initiative” which determined the order of play. This allowed the most developed player to play first in a subsequent turn, hence no catching-up mechanism. With the initiative out of the way, every turn the order of play was based on the number of favor points, from the lowest to the highest. I knew that it was a common thing in board games, but at that moment I felt like I discovered the wheel because the last shadow of concern related to the imbalance of the game disappeared.

Summer, public display and the first days of winter

We announced that we’d present Praetor in Spiel ’13 Essen quite long before we had any final graphics prepared. After extensive feedback, I was finally convinced to give up the hexes and use squares. The game play did not change, the tile placement mechanism became simpler and the work of the illustrator and graphic designer significantly easier. I had to accept that I was in love with my own concept and that I had to give up and embrace the fact that when many people tell you that you’re wrong it’s probably true.

One day last autumn I was chatting with a good friend on Skype and with a very casual voice he told me that he has heard of another game fresh on Kickstarter which employed “the same idea with worker which get experience”. I turned first red, than white, thinking that the last year of my life was in vain. How could this happen? Is the project dead? I don’t stress easily, but I must admit that I don’t remember much of those next ten minutes. I looked for the rules, browsed through, had a cold glass of water and ultimately calmed down. It was a different game (and I apologize for not even remembering the name, all I can recall is that it did well with its crowd-funding) and in my mind there could not be any sign of confusion. I finally replied with arrogance “great minds think alike” but I must confess that I had cold sweats just thinking that I took too long to design a game that I can be proud of and someone else beat me to it.

Illustration for Praetor City Tiles

Well, we made the deadline for Essen with all the illustration for the city tiles ready. On top of that, we increased the size of each city tile from 2.5 x 2.5 in to 3.2 x 3.2 in so the illustrations are more visible. Even as a prototype Praetor got a lot of attention and we had many offers from people willing to purchase our only prototype. I was convinced we were on the right track, so I spent the late autumn and the first days of winter working on the final rules and making sure that we’d have the final graphic design to complement the beautiful illustrations.

 Ready, Set, Go!

Praetor punchboards during the manufacturing process
In April 2014 we were able to touch the final product. With yet another graphic design update made by a professional designer, we released Praetor in seven languages and over 7500 copies, making it the largest title from NSKN Games to date.

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Designer Diary - Praetor (part I)

I must start by confessing that I am an avid euro-gamer and that worker placement games rank very high in my preferences. It has been my dream as a board game designer to make such a game myself, one that will stand out between the many good games of this genre.
Praetor is a strategy game evolving around the worker placement mechanism, set in the Roman Britannia. Even though it is not the most complex game I have ever designed (that honor is still held by Exodus: Proxima Centauri), Praetor is the game I have been working on the longest and the game that got most of my attention over the past 18 months.

Ever since I started playing modern board games and fell in love with “euros”, I felt that one thing was constantly lacking, the fact that no matter how much I used a worker he would never gain any experience. It was always the same worker, no better and no worse than at the very beginning of the game. I thought to myself that this is one idea worth considering and if I would ever design such a game it would overcome this lack of realism in worker placement games.

Ancient history

I started working on Praetor in August 2012 with this single idea in mind, to create a mechanism in which the workers would slowly gain experience. My first worker was represented by a fairly large wooden disc and his experience by additional wooden cubes. Don’t get scared just yet, seeing the ridiculous amount of parts a player would have to manage with just a pair of workers, I soon realized that there’s a reason for which in most games workers are wooden meeples or cubes or discs or, at best, plastic miniatures. I was not very proud of this initial idea so I chose to stay quiet and “forget” to share this even with the members of NSKN Games.

The first concept of experience (image source:

Shortly after dust had settled over Essen 2012 and the euphoria of such a great event, I realized that dice are the most elegant implementation for the experience of workers. My initial idea was to simulate real life and look for a non-linear evolution of the experience in time, but I did not want to push my luck and people mathematical skills above an acceptable limit. So, I went with the dice and I started building the whole game around them.

By December I had already figured out most of the concepts of the game. Since it all started with an abstract idea - workers gaining experience - I went along the same path and built the game around abstract concepts. The workers would help generate up to 5 – 7 resources which would be used to build “stuff”. Now, “stuff” was way too abstract and I went with the idea of buildings. In just a few days I had a list of 60 buildings which would all be tied together, allowing the exchange of resources for points, give special abilities and allow players’ workers to gain experience. The mathematical model quickly became very complex and difficult to follow. The first time I presented the concept to the outside world I lost people about half way through the explanations. Abstract games tend to have simple rules and my project was far from that.

The search for the theme

When it came to finding a theme, all I knew at first was that I would not name my game after some famous medieval city or country and the workers would not be farmers. It’s not that I don’t enjoy farming in Agricola, but there are simply too many games with in this limited universe. Since I love history and for a worker placement game a historical theme is a plus, I started a process of researching relevant moments in our past when people built something… relevant. Starting in the ancient times, I went through the world history and the first thing that I stumble upon and liked was the Chinese wall. 

Great Wall of China (image source:

Sadly, my knowledge of that specific part of the world was limited so I had to admit defeat and look for something new. Just a few hours later I rediscovered the Roman Empire with its impressive coliseums, aqueducts, amphitheaters and legions and it felt like a revelation – that was the theme I was looking for.

Hadrian's wall (image source: Wikipedia)

The process of “dressing up” abstract concepts into Roman constructions was very intense and I will not bore you by describing every step of the way. What I can tell you is that I had to discard more than half of the mechanisms I had built and to add a few more to make everything fit together like a giant puzzle. And speaking of puzzles, that was also the moment when I discovered that “the game” would also be a tile-laying game.

I called it “the game” because back then it was still missing its title. My first impulse was to name it Caesar, but that would create huge confusion and mix-up with computer games with a similar name and theme. Plus, it would not fit the theme. I knew that players would strive to become the “big boss of a Roman city” and that position was either a Magister or a Praetor. I chose between the two and, from that moment on, my project became Praetor.

Praetor 1.0

Because of my background of computer programming, I have the habit of numbering every single version. Praetor 1.0 was the first prototype and probably the biggest breakthrough because every relevant abstract concept found its way into this themed board game prototype.

The core concept of Praetor did not change ever since, even though I put it through “fire and axe” in multiple sessions of play-testing over more than one year. Every player starts with three workers which he uses to build new districts into the city or to activate already built districts and thus gain various benefits, usually resources and favor points. Players can recruit new workers while the old ones gain more experience and retire, being a burden rather than an advantage. At the end of each turn, player will pay wages for their active workers and pension to the retired ones – a system which resembles the modern world but was first defined as a similar concept by the Romans.

Praetor 1.0 player board

What I must admit is that Praetor 1.0 was quite heavy, significantly more than I realized in my solo tests. The very first 2-player game took longer than one hour and the first 4-player game… well, I won’t really say because I don’t want to scare you off just yet.

Hexes from the first prototype

Praetor 1.0 was meant for 2-6 players and had almost 85 hexagonal tiles. Each tile had a cost to build, an instant reward made of a number of points and some initiative and an activation area. The activation area contained a benefit which was sometimes dependent on the experience of the worker and a cost that would be paid by the player activating the tile to the player owning the tile. With the exception of the initiative, every other concept can be found today in the box.

That's all for today, stay tuned tomorrow for part II!

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