Becoming a Publisher, with Asger Granerud

Two weeks ago I shared a discussion I had in 2018 with Asger Granerud, designer of, amongst many other things, Shaky Manor, Flamme Rouge, Copenhagen, and 13 Days. This week, I bring you a follow-up discussion. Almost a year ago to this day, Asger and longtime colleague Daniel Skjold Pederson founded Sidekick Games, their own game company. I therefore had a chat with Asger about that particular endeavor, and thought I’d share it with you!

JV: Hey Asger! So since our first talk, you have made the jump to self-publishing! Congratulations on starting Sidekick Games! Could you talk about what made you so interested in it?

AG: It’s such a wide topic… let’s start with the financial aspect. Starting a publishing company is something Daniel and I have discussed loosely for years. Different games and different approaches over the years. 

Financially the potential upside is rather big. However, we are also moving risk onto ourselves. Personally, when new indie publishers are discussed, my biggest concern is always that they’ve underestimated how difficult it is to actually sell thousands of copies of a game. Doing so requires a lot of work, luck or investment, and sometimes I get the impression that people optimistically hope all it requires is a good game, and the rest will happen automatically… I’ve warned several friends and acquaintances in the above scenario NOT to publish themselves. 

JV: So what makes Sidekick Games different?

AG: I founded and ran Spilbræ for 3.5 years. It is a board game distributor in Scandinavia, and though I’m no longer involved, it still carries 1000+ titles, and moves big volumes every month. This means I’ve been exposed to a lot of details of publishing. Not just the practical details of logistics, manufacturing, etc. but more importantly the network that goes with it. I am on a first name basis with distributors across EU, and we’re already pushing to have Bloom Town localised into several markets. 

JV: And what made you take the plunge now? 

AG: Two things influenced that. 1) We wanted a game that was simple to produce, acknowledging the fact that we aren’t manufacturing experts. Bloom Town fits the bill. 2) We had a lead with a small chance of success, to eliminate some of our risk, by selling the North American rights exclusively to We pushed for this, and managed to find a solution all parties were happy with.

Normally the risk of self publishing is why I warn against it. None of us have a crystal ball, and though I am very proud of Bloom Town, I also realise that it’s ultimate success is largely out of our hands. However by choosing the right project, and being lucky with a lead, we managed to reduce the element of risk enough that we simply had to try. 

JV: What about the creative aspect of design? How did that translate to publishing?

AG: It has allowed us to dig deeper into the product design than we typically do. Often we do get to have some say when we sign with others, but having full control, and ultimately full responsibility, is of course a different matter entirely. 

We’ve spent months getting our company logo just right, and the details we’ve adjusted in the art have been minute. Even if we are a first time publisher, I have full faith Bloom Town can stand on a shelf and still sparkle despite being surrounded by much more experienced publishers 🙂

JV: A lot of self-published designers lament that they now don’t have time to design games, given how much of their time goes into business stuff. What’s your experience been like?

AG: Largely the same, but I hope it gets better. We’ve had to move real fast early in the process, find freelancers all over, coordinate them, and handle dozens of other details. Normally when we go to Spiel Essen we bring close to 15 games to shop around, and this year it is closer to being 5. 

We did realise it would be an issue ahead of time, so we did bring in friend and fellow game designer Danny Halstad as our project manager on Bloom Town. Without him it wouldn’t have materialised. 

JV: When did you decide you’d self-publish Bloom Town? Did you try pitching it to established publishers first?

At Essen 2018 we shopped it around to four of the top tier publishers, and a few of them still hadn’t declined when we pulled it. The kicker for going forward was the WM deal, and those initial talks started back in October 2018. 

JV: Is this a one-time occurence, or do you plan on self-publishing more games? If so, how would you decide what to self-publish and what to leave to other publishers?

We don’t have a big chrome plan rolled out. We do know we have an appetite for more, and want to see how we can move forward utilising what we’ve learned this time. Right now there is only one thing we worry about, and that is supporting Bloom Town and getting it attention in this crowded place. 

The “plan” is 0-2 games a year, and only our own designs. In practice we do not expect choosing what to pitch will be that difficult. For us to consider it for Sidekick Games, it has to be a relatively straight forward production, as we want to minimise risk and complexity. We are also mostly looking for the very mainstream games, as we want to put our energy into something that could potentially stay in print. Having said that, I can’t rule out that a vanity niche project might also have better chances at materialising from inside our own ranks. Time will tell!

JV: In our last talk you said “I do believe designers [who self-publish] have a possibility of reaching their audience directly, and when doing so you probably need to sell a 10th to make a living.” Has that math held up to real life? 

AG: There is no real life data yet, as we still haven’t sold a copy to an end user. But the back of the envelope math still holds, and some scenarios can even require less than a 10th.

The BIG difference is somewhat of a black box to me though, and that is the brand and company value we are building. Our goal isn’t to sell the company, the goal is to create a lean machine with a great team that releases 0-2 fantastic games a year, some of which manage to become evergreens. Should someone ask to buy it for a ridiculous amount of money, we’re not likely to say no, though. This value is hard to estimate as it is so diffuse, but it is also one of the major differences between self publishing and going through others. 

JV: There’s been a lot of “first level” advice on self-publishing. As an experienced professional in this industry, could you share some of the issues you were still surprised by on the publishing side?

AG: I’m not sure if I was surprised by the minute details that need to be coordinated across many people, to make such a project bloom, but if not I willfully ignored it initially. You will need a team, and unless you’re an expert on all relevant subjects, finding the right people is obviously paramount. 

JV: Can you give us a short list of those skills that you need to be successful?

AG: Project management, Logistics, Production planning, Graphic Design, Illustrations, Art direction, Sales, Marketing, Development, Rules editing, Product/industry knowledge, Maximizing Conventions. Whether you become an expert or hire one, you need all of those.

JV: Do you plan on self-publishing some of your already published games if/when the rights revert back to you?

AG: There are no plans to do so, but obviously it would be much less work!

JV: Without going into specifics, can you give us an order of magnitude of how much capital was invested (including art, graphic design, dev work, project manager) for Bloom Town? 

AG: If you include every expense we have had including manufacturing, marketing etc. we are probably closing in on $75K. However, our expectation is that would go down as we are deliberately working on keeping the project simple to manage, over cutting costs. 

None of the above includes any pay for project management, designer royalties or advances, etc. We get paid when it becomes a success 🙂 

JV: Well thanks a bunch Asger, and I wish you two all the luck in the world!

Rules are meant to be broken

Early in the design of Cartographia, we had a problem about players hoarding cards: it’s a bad strategy, but every now and then a player would try it and ruin the night for everyone else by limiting their access to specific cards, slowing the game economy, and opening their own options to such degree to cause monumental AP. All of that would turn a brisk 75 minute game into a 3 hours slog.

We tried pushing players to action, but sometimes, it was a first-time player who didn’t want to commit early, and would just let others do stuff to then copy: we had hit the limit of soft limits. We wanted to take the possibility of a player tanking the game for everyone else (either inadvertently or on purpose) completely out of the equation, and so we added a hard Hand size limit: you could never have more than 15 cards in hand. If you drew, you stopped drawing once you had those 15.

Of course, board games do not enforce the rules themselves, and so often, people would forget. “Hey, how can you have so many cards in hand?” cam up at least once a playtest. My co-designer wanted to dump the hand size limit, but I convinced him to try one last thing: an exception to the rule.

I can hear you: “but Jon, exceptions suck! They’re even HARDER to remember! Now I don’t have to remember one rule, I have to remember two, and the subtle nuances of when each of them take place!”

You’re right, they do suck! What I mean is “let one player break the rule”. The game has a tech tree, and so we diminished the hand limit to 10, and added a power in there that boosted it to 15. That changed a few things:

  1. It added a reminder during the teach: When I was teaching the game, I’d explain the hand size limit while explaining the draw phase, and then again for the techs. When others were teaching it and often forgot it during the draw phase, they’d remember it while teaching the tech: “increase your hand size” only makes sense if you have a hand size.
  2. It added a reminder during the game: Getting the 15-card tech was often an early move for less experienced players: it was an easy first level strategy. That means that throughout the first few rounds, they were thinking about their hand size. And it wasn’t too long before someone unlocked it, and then claimed “and now I can hold 15 cards!”… usually leading to everyone checking to make sure they had 10 or fewer!
  3. It adds an enforcer to the table: If I’m playing, it’s easy for me to police what others are doing: I know the game inside out, I know how much hoarding hurts it, and I know what I’m doing enough to be able to pay attention to what others are doing…. but I don’t come in the box! However, when one player has invested effort and time into being able to break that rule, you know they’ll make sure others don’t get that bonus for free. We hope they won’t be an asshole about it of course, and they’re not on the lookout, but they will spot it.
  4. It’s not related to breaking the rules per se, but to the point of increasing retention: The rule came up often and early: When you are taught a game, you have a lot of information in your brain, but you haven’t learned it yet: it’s when you actually start playing and experiencing it that those rules start to merge together into a system. If a rule doesn’t come up early, you risk having built that system in your head without it. With the lower hand size at the beginning of the game, someone hit that 10-card limit in the first three or four turns, while at 15, there were games where it never came up.

While I think cutting an oft-forgotten rule is better, sometimes it’s impossible: in these cases, I tend to use the ability to break them as a way to help enforce them.

First Level Strategies

Whether you’re just learning your first hobby board game, or you’re diving into your most recently acquired heavy Euro, you will probably need at least half a game to figure out what you should be doing on a given turn. By now, I’ve played about 1000 different games, and even if I can have a good idea of what to do in a game even after hearing a few rules, it’s always good for a game to give you a few pointers, and if an experienced gamer will appreciate them, muggles definitely will!

Yet, I get annoyed at games which take your hand, and tell you exactly what to do for the first few turns: why doesn’t the game start on turn 4 then? I want to be guided, not pushed! Of course, some games hit that balance better than others.

Why include first level strategies in a design?

In today’s world, most games are played once and judged on that play alone –personally, about 42% (356 of 841) of the games for which I’ve logged a play have not seen a second one. If it takes a full game to figure out how to do anything in it, it probably won’t get a second chance.

Not only that, it also gives you a better experience. Having an idea of what you’re doing early means you’ll feel like you are still getting stuff done, even if later you’ll realize you could have done more. It’s especially true given that the alternative is frustration. Lots and lots of frustration, and research has shown the moments you pay the most attention to when evaluating something are the beginning and the end. Frustration in the beginning is hard to come back from because it taints your view of the whole thing.

Even after repeated plays, those first-level strategies become an important tool, a way to quickly identify the least interesting possibilities. Your first level strategy becomes a measuring stick to which you can compare your second-level strategies, when you get to that level. Dominion is often criticized for how strong the Big Money strategy is, but many articles have been written proving that adding a single action can make it better: however, on a given turn, if the cards you have access to don’t help more than a money card, you end up defaulting to a money card, because your first-level strategy helped you identify it as a decent move.

Overall, it’s important to think about providing a good hint of direction for the players, so they don’t get lost in their first game, but also because it will help them in later ones.

Examples of first-level strategy

It’s hard to say how to include a first-level strategy in a game, because of course they’ll differ based on what your game is. Yet, there are some near-universal first level strategies:

  • In asymmetric games: use your special power as often as possible;
  • In games with private objectives/contracts: try to complete that objective as soon as possible;
  • In worker placement games: get that extra worker as soon as possible;
  • In deck building games: buy the most expensive card you can buy;
  • In coop games: put out the fires!
  • In games with Feed-your-people: GET THAT FOOD!
  • In games with tech trees/special abilities: get special powers early, scoring stuff later;
  • In games with end-of-round scoring: do whatever scores this round as much as possible;
  • In games with variable set-up: does this set-up advantage a specific option?
  • When you play last: do whatever others haven’t done.

Many of those are based on the assumption that every option in a game is balanced in and of itself, and therefore, anything which gives one of those options an extra oomf will get you ahead.

Why does being aware of these things matter? Two reasons: first, that is what players with gaming baggage will default to as a first level strategy: it’s an easy one to stick in if you haven’t figured out where to go from there. In a way, it’s a first-level strategy to first-level strategies. *insert Inception reference*

Also, if you go against type, it might help you understand why players go in a different way then you expect. When you try to innovate, some players might get stuck in the reasoning that they’re used to, even if it doesn’t work in a specific game. If you’re in that situation, with an innovative mechanism that players don’t seem to interact with as you want them to, this might be why.

Specific games

Five Tribes is a worker movement game. Every turn, you choose one of 30 locations, take all the meeples on it, and make a path, dropping a meeple on a location adjacent to the previous one, until you dropped the last one: on that tile, you take all the meeples of that color, do an action for the color of meeple, and for the tile you landed on, and if it’s now empty, you take control of it. On the first turn, you have about 6500 possible moves (that math might be wrong), and while that number goes down over time, it’s still a very open ended one. It doesn’t lake long before you start to figure out that some spots are better than others: a tile full of a single color is easy to empty, 5+ meeples on a spot allows you to loop, white meeples on a Sanctuary pays for itself. This allows you to go from 6500 possibilities to quickly identify the 4-5 most viable ones, which is a much easier analysis.

Alhambra is a tile laying game where you must buy tiles with money cards. If you pay with exact change, you get to play again. That’s an interesting choice for multiple reason: first, it feels great to chain two, three, four turns because you have exact change; second, it gives a lot of meaning to those small-value cards as a way to stay flexible; third, it gives you something to aim for during your first game -doing more is better, and paying exact change lets me do more! As you play the game more, you start betting on those less and less, but I think the mechanism still deserves a mention because its incentive is purely intrinsic: it feels good to play again.

Piece o’ Cake (which you may know under its newer name New York Slice) is a really interesting I-Cut-You-Choose game. ICYC games are quite difficult to do well at, because you kind of have to figure out what everybody wants to do to know which pieces they’d be interested in, and then cut it as to not give any one player a huge advantage. In Piece o’ Cake, each piece can be kept to compete for majorities, but also eaten for straight points (between 1-3, as many as there are dollops of whipped cream on them). Counting those dollops gives you an excellent first-level strategy: if there are 27 dollops, and 4 players, you’re aiming for about 7 dollops per share. From there, you can try and get clever: do you keep two pieces of the same type together, but give them a smaller share? Do you split up pieces of a type you’re strong in to keep opponents from catching up? I’ve played Piece o’ Cake close to 40 times, and I still use that measuring stick anytime I have to cut.

Endeavour has you gain tokens which increase your abilities, and they work by thresholds: if you have 0-1 bricks, you can build level 1 buildings; 2-3 is level 2, 4-6 is level 3, 7-9 is level 4, and 10+ is level 5. That threshold system is a first-level strategy in and of itself: you don’t want to finish the round just short of the next level. That affects the way you plan your turns, to make sure you don’t fall just short of the payoff, and since those thresholds are also worth points at the end of the game, it remains an important part of your strategic thinking throughout.

Think about your favorite game: what first-level strategy have you internalized about it? If you showed it to someone for the first time, and they asked for a few pointers, what would you say?

On the viability of game design as a full-time job

Today, I’m cheating a bit, and reposting a discussion I’ve had with Asger Granerud of Sidekick Games (who you probably know from Flamme Rouge and 13 Days) last year for his own blog. I’m hoping to do two posts a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, and maybe the Friday post would be with a guest?

So to start this, here’s that discussion about what is a goal, a dream for so many of us: making game design a financially viable use of our time. It’s more business/finance oriented than I want things to be, but as this week is focused on manufacturer quotes and contracts and finances, it’s honestly hard to get my head into more of a design state for the post. Hopefully this is still useful to y’all!

JV: We had a discussion last week were you said that you are a full-time designer, and that it’s “viable to make a living designing games”, which I was surprised by: I feel like it goes against the zeitgeist of “don’t expect to make money from your games”.

AG: I know several people who have earned a living wage from game design in 2018, and none of them had games published prior to 2016. However, I also know people who have worked hard, and still haven’t gotten one of their designs signed. I don’t want to come off as insinuating it is easy, nor that a quick fix exists: I just want to say that it is doable.

JV: What do you think is the difference between those two groups? Is it just luck or timing, or is it something those designers could improve on?

AG: Luck and timing is a factor. It wasn’t a given that Flamme Rouge and its sports theme would find a publisher, nor that the publisher could make it a success.

I think the advice I would emphasize would be twofold:
– First and foremost, you have to look at your games as products. You could make the best children’s game in the world, but if it costs €1000 to produce it doesn’t matter. Effectively each game you are pitching is a business case for the publisher: if they don’t think they can make a profit, they are not going to publish it.
– Second, play the numbers and embrace rejection: don’t design 2 games, design 20; don’t pitch to 5 publishers, pitch to 25. These steps will hone your design skills, your pitching skills, and will build you a network.

JV: Why do you think the perception that there’s no money to be made in games is so prevalent in the industry?

AG: I think it is because a lot of people have that experience. They design a game, sell it to a publisher, and see a little money come into their account, but rarely enough to make a significant impact in their life, and sometimes even less than they had in expenses getting there.

Most games get 3-5K units printed, and then never get a reprint. On average you are probably earning 0.80 USD per unit (that number obviously varies wildly), so that won’t cut it unless you have a massive output. If you want to work on this full time, your ambition shouldn’t be to make a game that sells 3-5K: you need at least a zero after that. I haven’t tracked it precisely from the get go, but my guess is my games have sold around 200.000 copies in total so far, with Flamme Rouge as my breakaway leader.

JV: Speaking of games as products, what do you do to ensure that your games are viable products?

AG: At the end of the day, the question is if it has a place in the market, but none of us have a crystal ball. With 13 Days we knew that we wanted a game that could scratch our Twilight Struggle itch, but in 30 min. We guessed there were many other folks out there that perhaps didn’t have as much time as they wanted either. For other games, it can be spotting a similar niche, but it could also be a component, mechanic or other hook. Regardless of your hook though, you still have to make a good game.

JV: Do you ever need to work on games that don’t excite you as much, just because they’ll sell or make good products?

AG: I’m blessed to be an omni-gamer. I have my personal preferences, but generally I just really like playing games. I wish I would actually “know” which games would sell, but I don’t, therefore I try to make games that will make people happy. Sometimes that can be achieved by nuclear war, other times it will be jumping frogs, or shaking meeples around in a box.

The process of design is a creative outlet I enjoy immensely, in and of itself. Personally I don’t need additional motivation beyond that and the goal of spreading happiness!

On your personal experience:
JV: When were you able to go full-time?

AG: I went full time on February 1st, 2018. I had been designing games since 2012, and signed my first contract in 2014. By 2018, I had about 10 boxes on the market.

JV: How much (if at all) did your experience at Games Workshop help you?

AG: Personally, I think the Warhammer Community was much more influential in forming me as a game designer than my 2 year stint at Games Workshop HQ in Nottingham. I have been designing tournament systems, restrictions, campaigns, and scenarios for at least a decade before I started designing games, and I had been consuming other people’s work in similar veins.

JV: And in terms of contacts in the industry, did either of those experiences help?

AG: So far it has not made any difference. I have tried using some of them in the past, but nothing has come of it.

JV: What does an average week look like for you as a full-time designer?

AG: I co-design all my games with Daniel Skjold Pedersen, and have been doing so since 2014. From Monday to Wednesday, we meet and work from 9 to 16 (4PM). It is a mix of design, development of existing projects, prototype production, and publisher contact. Every other Friday we have a playtest session, the Superhero Meet-up, that runs from 16-22. Our time is generally scheduled around getting something ready for next Superhero Meet-up.

On top of that, we also have on average two or so impromptu playtest nights a month when we are in need or want to shorten the cycle. These are typically with other designers in the Copenhagen community. Some work also makes sense to do without Daniel and I having to sit together, so rulebooks, graphic design and other tasks may land outside the fixed hours. Conventions are also part of this, and often we end up working 16 hour days when there.

JV: How do you and Daniel share the design responsibilities?

AG: There are differences in what we do, but more from differences in ability: I can’t draw a stickman without being ridiculed, so Daniel does that. However, I can use the adobe suite, so I do that. This is often time consuming, so Daniel ends up writing slightly more rulebooks than I do. It just happened organically, we didn’t really plan it that way, and regardless of the task, we bounce almost everything up against each other.

JV: How many games are you working on at any one time, on average? Are they at the same point in their designs?

AG: On average, we have 3-5 active designs at any one time, in very different stages. At the highest, I know we have had meetings in the past where we covered issues on 10+ designs in one sitting.

JV: How many playtesters are in your regular Superhero group, and how did you build that group?

AG: Semi regular numbers probably reach 15-20, but on any given Superhero Meetup, we will have 4-8 of those attend. To start it, we bought a bunch of snacks, drinks, beer, and pizza and invited lots of our friends and network. Then we made a few one-time open invitations in board game groups in Copenhagen, and if people showed up they got invited to return.

JV: With that testing schedule, how long does it take you to get a game from first prototype to a pitchable state?

AG: There really is no formula. It can be days or years. Children’s games tend to be based on a single strong idea, and sometimes that is all you need to pitch a game. Generally the process stretches when complexity goes up, but even so bigger games can still be sold without being fully developed. Assuming it stands out and is already solid. No need to sink hundreds of hours into developing a cowboy game, if the publisher wants a space theme. If your core design is pliable enough, developing after the sale ensures you can merge the theme and mechanics.

JV: Convention-wise, what do you prioritize?

AG: Nuremberg Toyfair and Spiel Essen are the permanent fixtures in our calendar, though they are so close in the year that we might ditch Nuremberg going forward. Our ambition is to do a US-convention a year as well. Beyond that, we do attend others, but more as gamers than as professionals, though the blessing is that even that is considered work!

On the pitching process:
JV: How do you handle relationships with publishers? The pitching process is already very stressful, I can’t imagine what it would be like if I knew my next meal depended on those contracts!

AG: First, I don’t think they are stressful at all. Pitching games is the most stress-free sales I’ve ever done, simply because you aren’t actually selling anything. At best they are going to take a prototype, then they are going to take it home and test it multiple times, with people that weren’t even present at your pitch: the game has to sell itself. Now I’m not saying there is no skill involved in a pitch, but I just feel that knowing the game has to prove itself regardless of what I do and say reduces that stress.

Second, my next meal isn’t dependant on that contract at all. If I sign a game today, I’m not going to be paid for it for 2 or 3 years. Right now I’m living off the work I did the past 5 years, not the work I’m doing tomorrow. Moreover, it is a numbers game: lots of games, more meetings, and even more pitches. But what you get most of all is refusal: I think Daniel and I pitched ~120 times total, across 26 meetings, just at Spiel Essen 2018.

JV: How do you handle pitching multiple publishers, and the delay while they have prototypes?

AG: We pitch to lots of publishers at once, and we never do sell sheets. At most, about 10 different publishers have had the same prototype of one of our designs. That being said, we try to avoid that these days, not out of concern for the publishers, but because we don’t want to make that many prototypes!

If a publisher then offers to sign a game, we tell them they will have to wait 4-6 weeks. We immediately inform all other publishers with prototypes of the deadline, and then wait. This process is fully transparent and we have not received any pushback from publishers.

JV: And have your ever had to deal with simultaneous offers?

AG: Yes, twice. We asked both companies for draft contracts, and looked through those. Though the details of the contract matter, they still cover 95% the same concerns in slightly different ways. We are not looking for a bidding war, we are much more interested in the second thing we ask them for: their vision for the product.

Also, it is much more important if they have the right partners, if they answer emails, all the intangible stuff that doesn’t go in the contract. Each game you design is a tiny lottery ticket financially: so many factors go into its final success that are completely out of your control. Therefore, I think the most important part an established designer can start focusing on is developing relationships with the best publishers. They will possibly impact the success of your game more than you will.

JV: You said you design 30 games, of which you get 10 published, 1 of which is actually getting you long term money. Could you elaborate on that process?

AG: First off, that is just a rule of thumb: Daniel and I are trying to track our work, and even when we succeed, our numbers aren’t exactly massive enough to be statistically significant, but 30-10-1 sounds right over a two-year period. I’ll try and look into it later in the year, and see if there are any trends. I also suspect our hit rate is going up.

JV: You also talked about selling directly to customers: is that something you have experienced? Is that something you plan on doing?

AG: A fully different topic, where we’re moving away from game design, towards publishing. Right this minute there aren’t any plans to do so, but if there was a project too niche to fit into traditional publishing, I would consider it. I do believe designers have a possibility of reaching their audience directly, and when doing so you probably need to sell a 10th to make a living.

The Healing Potion Effect

I’ll pre-empt your question: yes, this article is about board games. Eventually I’ll make a board game design point.

Scene: Smelly basement, five 20-year-old’s are huddled around a table covered in paper, dice, and cups of Mountain Dew.

Me: The Vampire appears behind you, coming out of one of the tunnels, and shoots rays of necrotic energy towards you two. You are surprised, and *rolls* just have time to turn around before you get hit. Falballa, you take *rolls* 28 damage, and Melran, you take *rolls* ahhhh, you lucky duck, only 4!

Vince (who plays Melran): I’m dead.

All: What do you mean you’re dead? You never told anyone you were so low on hit points!

Vince: Well I knew the Cleric was out of healing spell, what else could I do?

*A boss fight later*

Other player: Wow, and there still are some guards upstairs. I need some healing…

Vince: Melran has a healing potion on him, you can take it, he won’t need it where he is.


Vince: What? I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to use it!

Me: But it was 4 points of damage that killed you… You were at 3 and thought you’d be okay?

Vince: I was at 2 actually.

Wow, what a setup. It will probably be longer than the rest of the post will be.

So, what is the Healing Potion Effect? The Healing Potion Effect is what happens when you give players limited uses of an ability that is of situational value, and they then decide to hoard them.

“But I can only use it once, what if it would have been better later?” is a crappy place to be in in a game. Whether it’s healing potions in D&D, an Event card in Pandemic, the “Discard and Redraw” token in Ginkgopolis, or a +1 in Ganz Schön Clever, we’re always worried there might be a better time for it in just a bit, and if we use it now we’ll feel like such idiots when that opportunity arrives, so we prefer inaction. But inaction is boring. You want players to do cool stuff, not to hold on to them until it’s too late!

First, what causes that paralysis? Why do we feel that way in Pandemic, Ginkgopolis and Ganz, but not about our Rerolls in Castles of Burgundy, or our Wood in Agricola? It’s rarity. You know that you will only have one token in Gink, and 5 Event cards in Pandemic, and at most 6 +1’s in GSC. In Burgundy, if I run out of rerolls, I can go get another one easily, and so I can spend them willy nilly. Rare is special, it adds that element of excitement when it happens, but it also means I want to avoid wasting it.

Therefore, how do you push players towards using those one-time powers? Let’s see a few ideas:

  • Put a limit on what you can carry: In Pandemic, you can’t have more than 7 cards in hand. If you hold an event card, you’ll need to discard Cities. Also, event cards can be played after you draw, which means the question is no longer “is this the best possible time to use it?”, but “is holding on to this card worth wasting a City card?”.
  • Define exactly how good it can be: In Five Tribes, if you play with the Artisans expansion, once during the game, instead of placing a Camel, you can place a Tent, which gives you one point for every Red tile surrounding it. At the beginning of the game, looking at the setup, you know exactly how much a Tent can be worth: again, it switches the question from the more abstract “is this the best possible time to use it?” to a more concrete calculation: “I could get 7 there, this is 5: is it worth missing out on 5 to maybe get 7?” In Pandemic, you can’t put a number on how useful skipping an Infection turn is, but you do with this one.
  • Make it get worse over time: In Sagrada, the first player to use a tool will pay a single gem, and others will pay two. You have very limited gems in Sagrada, but you still are pushed to use them early. You might very well wait until you don’t have a choice, but there is this slight incentive which you could get
  • Don’t make it so timing-dependent: After I wrote about making players feel clever a week ago, maybe this seems out of character. However, maybe you can make players feel clever by triggering the bonus, even if the bonus is always good: in Spyrium, for example, you get a bonus (either 5$ or a worker) when you reach 8 points. 5$ is always good, and you want the worker as early as possible (going back to Make it get worse over time), but when you can only get to 7, figuring out how to reach that threshold is enough of a puzzle: you don’t need to also optimize the payoff.
  • Don’t incentivize hoarding them: If an unused cool-thing-to-do is worth points at the end for not using them, you’re adding an extra barrier before using them. I did this with the power tokens in Off the Record, and quickly realized no one was using them: the question wasn’t only “can I get more out of it next turn?”, and it wasn’t even “is this move worth more than 3 points?” Instead many players just thought “I’ll keep them for the points and strategize about other stuff”
  • Make having used them better: I don’t think I’ve seen this done, but imagine this: You start the game with a mega power card. Once used, you flip it over and it becomes a passive bonus, or it increases your maximum hand size or hit points or the amount of dice you roll. Maybe I read about a game that did that? Have you ever seen that in a game?

All in all, the important part about the Healing Potion Effect, like many other things in game design, is that sometimes, you have to push players towards having fun: otherwise, they can forget that’s the point.

Tracks, tokens & score pads

I like score pads. I like that round at the end of a game where people tell me their scores, and we pay attention to who’s getting more points in each category, to the wild differences in some strategies. Then, we announce the winner and take a moment to look at the pad, which sort of tells a story about the game, about who used what strategy. Scoring pads are also a great reminder to new players of what is worth points at the end of the game.

I even made a Twitter poll to see who else liked Scoring Pads like I did:

Not that many people…

To me, there’s a time to use each of these:

  • Scoring tracks are for when most of the points come during the game, because it’s easy to move your marker during the game, and they make it very clear where everyone is situated compared to one another;
  • Tokens are for when a game either does not have a board, or when scores should remain hidden, and they give you a cool tactile aspect;
  • Pads are for when most of the scoring comes at the end of the game;
  • Memory is just a crappy method.

One game which defies these expectations is Between Two Cities. No points are scored during the game, yet there is no scoring pad; there isn’t a board, yet there aren’t point tokens. Instead, the game comes with a separate scoring track (which, by the way, is a great one to use with your prototypes), double sided with a snaking and a non-snaking side.

Picture from BGG user Sadistiko

I therefore reached out to the publisher, world-renowned awesome guy Jamey Stegmaier, and we had a really interesting discussion about this topic which he’s allowed me to share with you folks. I’ve sprinkled a few comments here and there. Enjoy!

JV: One of the things I think is not discussed enough is the impact of component choices on game design. You’ve been very forward about selling not only a game, but an experience, whether it’s the table presence of Scythe or Tapestry, or the tactile aspect of the dice tower in Wingspan. One thing I’m intrigued about is the choice to go with a score track rather than a score pad for one of my favorite games, Between Two Cities. Was it pitched to you with a track, or did you decide to go that route in development? Can you talk about that process and why you made that choice?

JS: It’s been a while, so I honestly don’t remember if the track was my suggestion or something that Ben and Matthew proposed. I do remember, however, discussions about how we could create a collective experience at the end of the game instead of the more private score pad experience. We found that using the track felt like a race at the end, which was fun, so we stuck with it.

I do agree: one thing that can happen with score pads is that one person catches all the numbers, then adds stuff up while others talk about their weekend, and then shares the result: by then, nobody cares. I don’t think it’s universal: I usually have people caring about the numbers they call out, going “How can you score 48 for your frogs, I only got 18 and I had almost as many as you did!”, or patiently waiting until they can drop their “yes, 8 magicians times 12 runes is 96 points” and everyone’s jaw dropping.

But there also have been times where no one really cares. If I had to guess, it’s either because they already knew the end result (or at least that they weren’t in the running), or because the accountant did it all privately. Or maybe some people just don’t like it, and that’s okay too.

JV: Between Two Cities’ central conceit, the “Score your lowest city”, means that there’s this extra step between scoring the cities, and then determining the winner. Is that part of why you pushed for the track?

JS: I think the visual of the track helps to identify your scoring city, but that mechanism wasn’t a primary motivator for creating the track.

I also want to mention one of my favorite aspects of the track, which is that it’s double sided with snaking scoring on one side and non-snaking scoring on the other. One of my friends and playtesters greatly prefers score tracks where it’s really easy to jump up in increments of 10, hence why we offered that option.

JV: Since you offered both, how many people would you estimate preferred the snaking vs non-snaking track?

JS: I’m guessing more people prefer the non-snaking track.

I personally have a strong opinion about snaking vs non-snaking. I think snaking tracks too often lead to errors while counting, where you go back instead of forward, or up a row to do +10 but actually get +20. I definitely side with the non-snaking.

JV: Between Two Cities has a player aid with the 6 building types and how they score, which suggests scoring them in that order. Why did you go with that order? Did you playtest other options?

JS: As far as I can recall, I think Ben and Matthew selected that order because of how playtesters perceived the value of the different buildings. Mathematically they’re almost perfectly balanced, but player perception is different. Playtesters perceived houses to be more valuable than shops, so shops were the first tile tiebreaker (and houses are the last).

C’mon, we all know Houses are stronger Jamey!

JV: For Between Two Cities’ younger-yet-bigger brother, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, you decided to go with a score pad instead of a track. Why is that?

JS: The scoring of Between Two Castles is much more involved than Between Two Cities. Instead of scoring groups of tiles one at a time, you’re scoring each individual tile. Scoring would have taken a LONG time in Castles if it was done collectively.

JV: Overall, Stonemaier games have used multiple components to track scores: coins/tokens (Scythe, Euphoria), tracks (Tapestry, Viticulture, Between Two Cities, Charterstone), score pads (Between Two Castles, Wingspan). What feature of a game makes it a better fit for each of those?

JS: As you can tell, I generally stay away from score pads, but sometimes—particularly in games where there is no board or scoring resource like the coins in Scythe—it’s simply a good backup to use. I think tokens are nice because they obfuscate the winner—that’s good in games with direct player interaction. A track on the board is nice it’s really important to see scores at any given time or when scores can grow quite high. For Tapestry for example, I knew it was going to be a high-scoring game with scoring throughout the game, so I don’t think I considered anything other than a track.

The amount of points is interesting and something I hadn’t considered. In games with scores in triple digits, you need a LOT of tokens of different denominations to keep track of it all, and it gets into change making, and that’s all quite annoying.

While I had one of the great designers of our era with me, I veered the discussion in a bit of a wider topic:

JV: Did you go through a similar process with the resource tracks in Tapestry, vs using bits/tokens?

JS: On the tracks, I thought the resources would feel more macro—a broad look at your civilization, opposed to games where you’re collecting individual resources by harvesting, cutting down trees, etc.

JV: Oh, I hadn’t considered that at all! I wasn’t a fan of the tracks –I like to be able to plan out my turns by physically grouping the resources I’ll need to pay–, but it does give that macro feeling!

JS: Ah, that’s an interesting point about planning for your next turn. It’s a good thing for designers to consider! You should probably mention that in your article.

Guess I will! Especially in games where you get LOADS of resources in one go, and then have to then plan your use of them in the near future –like Terra Mystica, Underwater Cities, or Tapestry–, I much prefer being able to move them around to make sure I don’t budget the same stone in two places. That being said, this is a great example of Adjective theme.

JV: Did you go through a similar design process with other components in your games? Wearing both the designer and publisher hat, how early in a design do you consider the component types you’ll use?

JS: In terms of components in general, I think about them from the earliest stages of design, as I strongly believe in the power of a component hook (and components that make it easier to play and remember how to play a game). I don’t think that necessarily carries over into the scoring mechanism—that’s often one of those components that the game evolves into (I haven’t ever designed around the scoring mechanism itself).

JV: This was very helpful. Thanks for agreeing to this!

Wasn’t that fun? Subsurface Games’ first guest feature!

Lessons from: With a Smile and a Gun

When I started working on this blog, I thought I’d alternate between Lessons from current designs and more theoretical, academic-ish stuff. However, I’ve tended a lot more towards the academic style: it’s sort of what I default to when I sit down to write. It also means it’s mostly been enormous articles. So today, I’m doing a more anecdotal one, and hopefully it will be much shorter. Hey! No laughing!

So quick overview: With a Smile and a Gun is a 2-player dice drafting game of area control. It is set in the Prohibition Era and puts the heads of two rival crime syndicates head-to-head to control it. It’s named after a famous line by Al Capone: “you can get far in life with a smile, but you can get a heck of a lot farther with a smile and a gun”. I think it sounds awesome. It’s the third game I’ve started working on, and I’ve learned a LOT of stuff along the way.

Lesson 1: Make the game’s core solid before playing with special abilities. If special abilities are ways for players to break the rules, it makes sense for you to design them after the rules are set. With WS&G, I knew I wanted a layer of variability and for the players to have special abilities which varied from game to game, so I added it from the get go. In the end, the core of the game worked, and hasn’t changed much since, but I only knew that when I ran 3 back-to-back playtests without the ability, after 10-15 playtests with them. Even now, with this game I know like the back of my hand, any change to the core mechanism means a few tests without the abilities.

Lesson 2: Decisions are good, but they take time. For the longest time, winning a district gave you a choice between two scoring tiles (which were different set collection things), and second place took the leftover one. It seemed like an interesting choice to make, but it also meant the scoring phase took as long as the action phase, but wasn’t half as interesting. I therefore changed it to be MOSTLY straight up point values, and a few of the set collection tokens. Most of the time, you’re taking the highest value, but once or twice a game, you’ll have a tougher decision. Once or twice a game is fun, tense moments, but thirty times a game isn’t.

Lesson 3: Value of a majority for 2-player games. When I made the switch to point values, they were worth 5-10, and most of the special tokens were majorities players were competing for. At first, I calculated that if there were 5 tokens available, you needed 3 to get the majority (ish, there are ways to get rid of some), and so set the value at 21: it’s average if you need 3 tokens to snag it up (7 points each), but if you can take it in two, it’s incredible. In practice though, what happened was that every single token of that type became worth 21 points: whether you controlled the majority and needed to block your opponent from catching up, or the other way around, you were fighting for that 21 point swing. On the last round, if you were tied 2-2 and the last token showed up, it was worth more than twice as much as any other token. Therefore, I gave them values of 8-10-12, more in line with the other tokens, but a bit stronger because they weren’t sure things.

Lesson 4: Piles of 10. When I made the switch to point value tokens, I went with values from 5-10, and majorities worth 8, 10, and 12. I liked that it gave me 6 different amounts for straight points, which led to a lot of variety. But at the end of the game, scoring often took a lot of time, because players couldn’t do the go-to scoring method: piles of 10. Not enough smaller values meant needless math. I switched it to values between 2-6, which really didn’t change much gameplay-wise, but now calculating scores at the end of the game takes a fraction of what it did.

Lesson 5: The impact of presentation. With those majorities, one thing that came up is that if your opponent gets ahead, there’s no point in you catching up. Therefore, eventually I added a second place value so you at least wanted to get one (or block your opponent from having it): instead of 10 points, it was 20 for first, 10 for second. It meant throughout the game, the competition was tough: either you were fighting for first place, or fighting to gain one of those tokens to get second place. And since those majorities are played on, at most, 6 tokens, it was always tight. However, players didn’t really like the “consolation prize” aspect of the second place. It never felt nice to get.

Since I loved the mechanism, I just re-branded it. Instead of 20 for first, 10 for second, I added Monopolies: majorities are worth double if your opponent doesn’t have one. Mechanically, it’s still the same thing: it’s a 10 point boost for first, and a 20 point boost if you’re alone in it. And that part, players LOVED. Someone even called it innovative –which of course I didn’t correct, finally somebody recognizing my genius! All of which came from this little bit of presenting those same bits from a different angle.

Of course, I learned many other things while working on this game, but these felt like the more universal. Hopefully I can remember to make this sort of thing in the future, and make the “Lessons learned” a series of sort! Hopefully you found something in there that can help you!