Thursday, May 28, 2015

A vegetarian and a butcher

Years ago, as a teenager, I participated in a class that would allow people only learning English to talk with actual native speakers. Each time we would discuss a specific issue based on a short text. I remember one of them specifically, as it discussed especially awkward mistakes made in all sorts of student exchange programmes. One of those mistakes was sending a vegetarian to a butcher’s family.

There is nothing wrong with being a vegetarian, and nothing wrong with being a butcher (although, I know some people might disagree with any of these statements). A problem may appear, however, if we try put these two together under one roof for at least six months. And as much as it looks like no more than a basis for a failed nineties sitcom, it does have something to do with board games. 

I’ve already talked about listening to your testers when you’re developing your game – and listening to them not only when they talk about what they think works or doesn’t work in your prototype, but also when they try to tell you that they feel uncomfortable with an idea your game might include, promote or be based on. However, there is one more thing you might want to actually do. 

A vegetarian is not out of place in most civilized western societies – and neither is a butcher. Still, by trying to make one work with the other might (just might) result in a disaster. Now, I specifically don’t want to point fingers at any particular games, but it often happens that a thing that is hardly worth a gasp in one culture, but perceived as deeply offensive in another, ends up in a family board game. To me that is a blunder you can easily avoid. 

There are many reasons somebody might feel offended, starting from the history of a given country or region, and ending with personal experiences that differ significantly, based on where you’ve been raised and where you live. And it would probably be impossible to be certain that your game will certainly not make anyone in the world uncomfortable. But some due diligence is necessary. 

To put it in simple terms: if you’re making a game about a specific region, specific people, specific historical events, just do your homework and be certain that you are not trampling the toes of someone whose ancestors or family members might have been involved. Don’t base it on just your assumptions, just spend a day making sure that you did not get anything horribly backwards, and you should be okay. 

But by all that is good an pure, spend that day.
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Come see us at the UK Games Expo!

It's the fourth time NSKN Games will take part in UK Games Expo in Birmingham, and we'd be very happy to see as many of you, as humanly possible! So, if you're attending this spectacular gaming event, we will be there between 29th and 31st of May 2015. And here's a quick rundown of all the legendary stuff we'll be bringing:

1. The first few copies of Exodus: Edge of Extinction - all fresh from the printer, still hot and waiting just for you!
2. The final prototype of Mistfall, our most recent and most sucessful Kickstarter up to date. There is still some waiting for the final game ahead, but if you want to see and touch a (near) final copy, there will be not better chance than now.
3. A prototype of Simurgh, a new game by Pierlucca Zizzi. So, if you want to see some dragon breeding goodness, and experience our new title due for Essen Spiel 2015, don't miss this chance!

Oh, and that is not all! We will have demo tables for our earlier releases, so you'll be able to build an ancient city in Praetor, guide your own civilization in Progress, Evolution of Technology, compete for the title of master builder of the legendary Versailles, or try out the base game of Exodus: Proxima Centauri, in its formidable, revised edition.

So, don't be shy. Come, join us, and see you in Birmingham!
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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the End really nigh?

Every now and again I hear somebody saying that the end times of modern boardgaming are near. There are too many games, there are too few original ideas, people will turn away from Kickstarter any day now, and the board gaming market will crash just like the video game market in 1983. Live the dream while you still can, they are saying, because soon, very soon, the boardgaming hobby will be nothing more than a post nuclear wasteland of half burned cardboard and (somehow) rusty plastic.
Atari 2600 made many childhoods memorable. It was vastly popular before 1983. Image source: Wikipedia.
I think it’s safe to say that we are living in a golden age of tabletop gaming. Never before have there been so many games in so many genres available on the market. Never before has the quality of most individual products been so high, both in terms of pure components, as well as the sheer fun factor. Never before has contacting the publisher been so fast and easy, or reaching out to the designer to ask questions or support with your money directly (via crowdfunding) so effortless.

All of the above makes more and more people involved in gaming – as “just” gamers, as reviewers, podcasters, designers and publishers. Finding a game that will tickle your fancy is a matter of time. With that many party games, strategy games, war games, card games, adventure games and abstract games, you’ll easily find the one you probably most want to play. You’ll hear what other people have to say about it, you’ll order it online or drive down to a FLGS and have it on your own table in a matter of days (or even hours). 

So, why do we still think that it will all come to an end? Why do people gaze upon this abundance and start looking for signs of the coming end? Probably exactly because of how big and robust the boardgaming market has become. Some of us instinctively assume (basically taught by the history of mankind) that something as big has to finally fall flat on its backside. And many people are already drawing parallels between the booming boardgaming industry of today and the video game industry of the eighties – just before its fall. 

Now, I’m a little too young to remember the video game crash, and I certainly lack the tools to pick apart and properly analyze the events of 1983, but I think a little bit of research and some common sense are enough to see that the situation of board games today, and video games in the eighties are only superficially similar. Sure, it seems like there are so many board games today that the market is getting saturated, even completely flooded, but the growing numbers of games sold each year contradict this idea. 

Don’t get me wrong: there are too many games published every year for a single person to play the whole yearly haul. New publishers are appearing on the market almost every day, and the number of tabletop games struggling to get our attention on Kickstarter is growing every month, but so is the number of people willing to play board games. And although crowdfunding is partly responsible for cranking out more and more games (many of which are not up to par), it makes up for this by allowing the gamer to support the creator directly – and make it worthwhile for games that would otherwise never see the light of day to find their way to gaming tables.
Dominion - the innovation nobody was expecting prior to 2008. Image Source: Boardgamegeek.
It is also commonly said that games today are less and less creative, that it is hard to create something really new and that we’ve probably reached the limit of what board games can do. We reuse and re-implement mechanisms, recombine known elements to make “new” games, we rehash the themes – but it’s all we can do, and there is nothing never-before seen that can be added to the hobby. And a lot of it is true – as much true as it had been in 2007, when people were already seeing this unbreakable stagnation, the rigor of “nothing new” setting in, before Dominion conquered many a gamer heart, and spawned a new game sub-genre that has been going strong for the past eight years. 

So, it’s probably wise to remember, that most of us cannot see an innovation from a distance, and thus predicting that it will not come based on not being able to think of something innovative is… well, it’s simply wrong. The board gaming market today is both beautiful and tough, being highly competitive and surprisingly open at the same time.

Covers of just some of the deckbuilding games published within 3 years in the new genre Dominion had created.
Yes, many games are made, but the methods of communication and critique available today allow gamers to make informed choices, and to promote quality in game publishing. And that in turn makes the publishers up their game in terms of quality – because a single person with a smartphone is now able to inform two thousand people of the shabby work you may have tried to hide behind a glitzy cover – all within a few hours. 

So, for now at least, there is not much to fear. Board games are here to stay. Good publishers are not going anywhere. And we will have a lot of great games to play for years to come.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Prototypical Influence

There are mostly two things I remember vividly from presenting the first prototype of a certain game that has since fallen into oblivion. The first was how initial reservations of people who sat down to play it would change into all out enthusiasm by the end of the third or fourth turn. The second was the question that was seemingly asked by every other person who sat down to play: “Are you really allowed to use Magic layouts for your own game?”

Three stages of prototyping for Mistfall.
During the last two weeks I talked about making a prototype of your game, starting off with advising on what not to do when preparing a prototype for a potential publisher, and then sharing my own tips (part one and part two) on giving your game idea an actual shape in the real world. Before finishing off the practical advice series, I’d like to take a small detour to discuss one more aspect of prototyping, and that is how the form of your prototype influences the way your testers will react to it - and what you are probable to get for a basic or a "good looking" prototype.

I’ve already talked about why it is not the best idea to put in too much work into the art and graphic design part of your prototype. But aside from using up time that could be better spent on perfecting the actual game, there is also the matter of how your testers will perceive your prototype – and how willing they will be to share their ideas on it with you. 

Simply put, if your prototype looks like an almost finished game, chances are that some of your testers might doubt themselves more than your design. This may lead to them refraining from voicing their complaints or ideas, just because visually the game looks like a ready to go product. Obviously, this will influence only some people, but still, if you want more sincere responses, you should probably go with a more basic looking prototype.
Here's some basic prototyping components, just for good measure.
On the other hand, building a serviceable but simple, very much “work in progress” prototype makes people more eager to actually share all their thoughts, as they receive a visual cue that what you gave them to play with can still be modified. When you're still running basic playability tests, it's generally better to have more to work with (and weigh out) than to falsely believe that your game is perfect. And some people might be easily convinced that something they would perceive as a flaw, is actually a feature, since the game looks "so completed".  

Now, if you’re still somewhat perplexed by the Magic story in the first paragraph, let me also elaborate on that. To make my life easier, I used a free editor with Magic: The Gathering layouts to create all the cards for the game. And although I would start each and every presentation with saying: “None of the components you see here, none of the artworks, no graphic design elements or symbols are final”, people would still ask me if this is really the layout I'm going with for the final game.

With that in mind, it’s probably good to remember that no matter what you say, the actual shape of your prototype will do more talking than your mouth. And for that reason, when you want actual criticism, show people a prototype that is as basic as humanly possible – and when you want some love for the game (maybe because the testing period is done), go with the almost-finished looking one. My experience tells me that it works almost every time.
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Plastic vs. Wood - Pros and cons of standardizing in board games (III)

Some time ago we started a discussion about standardizing board game components.
Originally I wanted to debate the pros and cons of plastic vs. wood, as many games offer the design space to choose between these two types of material, but then I realized that was a much to narrow topic. So, let's take a look at plastic and wood and their advantages and disadvantages and where and how do they fit best.

Custom Tokens

One of my first board games was Agricola, a classic and former BGG top ranked game. I was lucky enough to find a copy in Romania back in the day, when board games were as hard to find as gems. A few years later I saw a more recent edition of the same game. With the same rules, the new edition of Agricola triggered a completely different feeling because the token were personalized. The sheep were no longer white-ish cubes but tiny sheep, the grains were no longer yellow discs but little yellow grain-like custom wooden tokens and the cows looked like... cows! And yet the game played just as well with the old tokens.

Do you think that custom wooden pieces add value to a board game? This is the first tough question I want to ask today.

Custom tokens in Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia
source: BoardGameGeek

In my personal opinion they do, but like every good thing, it comes with an ugly hidden part. Custom tokens are more expensive than regular plain old cubes, discs and meeples. The added value is there, but it comes with a cost which is reflected in the final price of the game. Without going through the whole pricing philosophy, I can give you a simple example: Versailles, with an $55 MSRP - a game printed in 6000 copies - would have had an MSRP of $67.5 with custom wooden tokens. 

So it all comes down to this: would you rather pay a bit more for custom wooden token or settle for the lowest possible price and play with cubes and discs?

Before you answer this question, please take a look at Euphoria to see some of the best custom token in a board game. For me that game would not be the same with plain wooden tokens.

Plastic tokens

There's a whole new universe of tokens made of plastic. I personally discovered this rather late, a few years ago and at NSKN we have not taken advantage of this discovery yet.

Plastic tokens

Regular plastic tokens are significantly cheaper than wooden tokens of the same size. But the key word here is regular. I We could easily replace the wooden resource cubes in Praetor with plastic cubes of roughly the same color. The same for Versailles. But the million dollar (actually just $5K) question is: how would you feel seeing plastic resources in a game about ancient Rome or medieval France for just a few bucks less?

Anyone who has played board games by Martin Wallace will know his "trademark" plastic coins which look a little like the ones in the image above but worse. I personally do not mind them, they seems to add a certain charm and to his games, but I know many who find them "too cheap". On the other hand, the plastic gems in Ascension look and feel great and I don't know anyone complaining about them.

It is probably a matter of taste - whether one likes plastic tokens or not - but they definitely did not become mainstream yet. My bet is on the gaining ground because they are cheaper than wooden tokens, they are even more solid and they can come in almost any color.

There is only one downside: plastic tokens require molds which are expensive, so without making tens of thousands of copies of a game, custom plastic tokens are not really an option.

So, how do you feel about them? Is plastic a real competitor for wood? Would you rather stick to the "classic" cubes and discs or do you see added value in custom tokens, plastic or wooden alike?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

If you build it, they will come. Part 2: Boards, Tokens & Dice.

Last week I talked about making cards for your prototype. Continuing the topic of prototyping your game, I’d like to talk about tiles, tokens and dice – and of the importance of cannibalizing other games.
Some basic tools: box cutter, heavy duty scissors, paper glue.

1. Tiles and boards

Making tiles and boards can be as simple, or as complicated and time consuming as you want it to be. Depending on how much work you want to put into your prototype, and on the actual use of a given component, you may either use some cardboard and paper glue, or simply a thicker type of paper you can print directly on.
Mistfall Hero Charters getting ready to be glued on thick cardboard sheets.

Cutting out tiles from a large sheet may be problematic, and you will probably do well to first get a specialist knife (or a box cutter) and something to safely cut on (like a self healing mat). But you can also make your life much easier by using tiles from another game as a base. You can paste over them with your printouts, and possibly trim down to the proper size.
Prototype Praetor tiles, and prototype Mistfall tiles pasted on final Praetor tiles.

As for boards, you can use anything to make them thick – but you can also simply use thick paper for your prototype. Wargames have gone with “maps” instead of boards for years, so if you don’t have anything you could mount your prototype board on, simply don’t mount it. Just use some scotch tape to make sure that smaller pieces don’t separate during game (or print it on a large sheet), and you are good to go.
This Versailles board is here for one purpose only: it will become a prototype board for a new game.

2. Game Tokens

The simplest way to make tokens is not to make them at all. If you need money for your prototype, borrow some coin tokens from another game, or use poker chips. If you need different types of goods you will be trading with or exchanging for victory points, consider simply using wooden or plastic cubes (again, taken from another game or bough from a specialist store). I personally use different types of markers, from wooden disks and cubes, to glass beads and tiddlywinks. You might be surprised what you can find at the florist’s or at a craft store.
Prototype tokens for Praetor and Versailles made using tokens fro other games and trimmed down to size.

3. Custom dice

The easiest way to make custom dice is to find blank dice online, and then either print out and paste the custom faces – or simply use a permanent marker. The second option is not quite as good, as you will most probably be unable to reuse any dice later – unless you paste over what you wrote on them – or even tweak the dice for the current prototype.
Blank dice and some prototype dice made by pasting printouts.

If blank dice are not a viable option, you can also use regular dice to paste over. Although, I strongly recommend using big dice with unrounded corners, as it is much easier to paste on them: you simply cut out squares (instead of circles) and glue them to the die sides. Finally, if none of these options are available, or you need dice other than the standard six sided ones, you can always prepare cheat-sheets, which will translate any numbers from regular dice into specific symbol outcomes (or other numbers). Be aware though, that this option may negatively impact the comfort of playing your prototype.
If you have to use regular dice, choose ones that are least rounded on the corners.

Next time…

I will be talking about some more general tips and tricks, wrapping up my prototyping series. As always, if you have any questions (or there is something more you’d specifically want to know – or add), ask away! Till next time
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Thursday, May 7, 2015

If you build it, they will come. Part 1: Cards.

A few days ago I talked on the blog about what to and what not to do with your prototype before sending it to a publisher. This time, I’d like to take a step back and talk a little bit about how to actually make a prototype of your game – or at least give you a few useful tips on making some of the most popular components. With this in mind, let's talk about cards.

A lot of games have cards, either as an addition to the board, tokens, cubes and meeples, or as the “main attraction”. Regardless of how important and numerous cards are in your game, you really don’t want them simply printed on a piece of paper. So, unless you are using a professional printing service that focuses on cards, you need an easy way to make them at home – and here’s how you do that. 

1. Get some CCG cards.

Most of us gamers had at one point of our lives (or still have) something to do with a collectible, trading or living card game. Such an adventure usually leaves us with a boatload of old cards, ripe for being used in a prototype of our own game. And if you’ve never played a CCG, or have gotten rid of all your old cards, don’t worry, you can usually get packs of several hundred old cards off the internet for a few bucks (or your regional equivalent).

A stack of some CCG cards (Magic) and some CCG-sized Progress cards.

2. Get some sleeves 

Some people like to glue prototype printouts on cards. While the idea is not bad, it has a few downsides. One is that usually the stickers don’t take that well to shuffling. Another is that you will only be able to reuse one cards a few times, as after sticking two or three layers, it will simply become too thick to handle comfortably. By far the best way is to get card sleeves. Even the cheapest will do: you’ll just take a card and sleeve it together with the prototype printout, to create a card that is not only easy to shuffle, but also relatively resistant to some abuse.

Penny sleeves ready for prototyping.

Also, when you want to make critical corrections, you can just toss the old printout and replace it with a new one. Finally, if you’re working on a game with different decks and you need different backs, you may think about slightly more expansive sleeves with opaque, coloured backs. These will allow you to distinguish between different card types easily, and as an added bonus, they will also make you cards slightly stiffer and more durable than penny sleeves.

Different colour sleeves for different decks in your prototype.
3. Get some good scissors or a guillotine paper cutter 

This is as simple as can be: if you’re planning on doing a lot of cutting, getting good (preferably long) scissors will make your job a lot easier. Adding a guillotine to your prototype workbench might also be a good idea, although if you’re not planning to assemble cards by the hundreds, long scissors will probably suffice.

My own scissors of choice: long and longer.

4. Use helpful software 

The internet is full of helpful software that is either free, and that allows you to quickly build and print CCG cards. A quick internet search will undoubtedly point you in the right direction. You can also quite as easily use your word processor to build a suitable table, that (after filling it with texts and symbols) can then be printed out and cut into separate cards. 

Rough prototype cards created using MS Word, CCG cards, a laser printer and a pair of scissors.

Different designers have various methods of making their prototypes. What I’ve shown you here is only what I consider most effective – and best fitting my work style. Still, some designers prefer to use business cards they write on by hand, or a professional card printing service (which is a great idea, but I’d advise it only when you know you won’t be making many changes to your cards), and what works for me may not exactly work for you.

Final Mistfall prototype - professional graphic design and printing, plus CCG cards and penny sleeves.

Next time I’ll talk a about tiles, tokens and the importance of cannibalizing other games. See you then!
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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The thing with prototypes

I’ve recently heard that with specialist software and high quality printing services so widely available, there is no reason (and no excuse) for a prototype to look much worse than a finished game, and that designers should really make their prototypes look great to improve their chances of being published. Ladies and gentlemen, that is bad advice.

Image Source: BoardGameGeek

During the last few months at NSKN Games I’ve had some prototypes pass through my gaming table. Some of them looked really impressive, with “near final” artwork and graphic design. Some of them looked merely serviceable, with simple clipart or symbols representing different game elements. And we’ve both accepted and rejected games regardless of how lavishly or how simply their prototypes were produced. 

Now, I cannot speak for all publishers in the world, as maybe some of them will have a different approach to prototypes, but I’m still relatively certain that the following list of things you really don’t need to do (and a few things you most certainly do need to do) is one that will work with a lot of publishers. So, here we go: 

Do not overproduce your prototype. We will not be more impressed if you go with fancy stuff instead of simple stuff. We will honestly be looking at how your game plays, not at how your game presents itself on the table (in its prototype incarnation). Believe me when I say we’ve seen a lot of games, and we will be looking at mechanisms and ideas, not at shiny things. 

However, do make sure that your prototype is serviceable, easy to read and complete. Even the most lavishly produced copy will fail to engage us, if simply playing it seems the biggest challenge. So, make sure that we know which element is which, and that we can read what’s on them without a problem.

A simple but effective prototype.

Do not commission artwork or graphic design, unless you really know what you’re doing. If you don’t, you may end up with an expense that will never be covered, as the materials prepared may turn out to be unusable for the publisher you’ve chosen. And if you designed a Eurogame, it may also happen that it might be rethemed, which usually automatically means that none of what you’ve prepared will be in any way useful. 

However, do use the internet to help you with making your prototype more accessible. You can find caches of simple artworks and/or symbols, which you can download and use for your game. Some clean and simple icons or illustrations might make the experience of playing your game easier and more enjoyable for us. So, by all means, make your game look good, but don’t overdo it. 

Do not waste your time on unnecessary “improvements”. Unless you are an artist or a graphic designer, your job is to design a game – and nothing more. Spending months on making it look better will be a time wasted if you skimp on polishing the gameplay. Seriously, when it comes to production quality, we’ll have it covered. You just worry about making the game itself really cool. 

However, do make sure that what you send us is, well, neat. Some wear and tear is acceptable (it only goes to show that you’ve actually played your game), but be sure that none of the elements look like something we’d be afraid to touch without tweezers or latex gloves. Also, if some of them have more annotations than original content, you might want to redo them as well. 

The above tips cover the basics, and if you follow them, you should be fine. And if you would like to know how to actually make a prototype (as in: what materials to use and how to make your life easier), just reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter.

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