Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Tony Boydell

Tony Boydell is a board game designer and developer, and part of the publishing team at Surprised Stare Games. He is best known for designing the hugely popular worker placement game Snowdonia, alongside the likes Guilds of London and Ivor the Engine.

This is the third in a series of Q&As with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.

1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
I am a Business Analyst who emerged, butterfly-like from a Unix/RDBMS administrator pupa and tend to work on small, but successful, Governmental IT projectzzzzzzzzz. Other than boring mortgage-feeding office work, I used to draw cartoons and cartoon strips a lot – which is now subsumed in to the game design process – and wrote short stories for my children when they were young…which most of them aren’t any more.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
It’s no secret that I am mostly in love with Carl Chudyk for the twin gifts of Glory to Rome and Innovation which, for me, epitomise big ideas and ambition in efficient, lean packages; they’re just combo-bonkers and I love him for it.

I have to admit that Alexander Pfister has leapt right in to the Top 2 thanks to one of the most prodigious 18 month periods in gaming EVER (am I right?): two Kennerspiel des Jahres, a shelf-load of fat IGA and DSP trophies and – with Great Western Trail – surely even more to come? He, and co-KdJ hogger Andreas Pelikan, are also two of the nicest people you could ever wish to have lunch with – it makes you SICK, doesn’t it? I should also name-drop Ignacy Trzewiczek because he is brilliant, hilarious and unashamedly self-confident.

3. What drew you to game design?
I’d always scribbled notes on school books and did a lot of RPG-ing in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until I was lured in to Magic: The Gathering (1997) by some workmates on an IT project (!) that I met Alan Paull (City of Sorcery, Siege, Confucius) at a pub in Cheltenham. In between drafting and trading Unlimited cards, we talked about old favourites like Axis & Allies and Samurai Swords and Diplomacy; knowing that Alan had ‘designed stuff’ got me to thinking about turning my cartoon strip ‘The Black Overcoat’ (a spy) into a board game and within about six months I’d also knocked up a design about clearing the world of pollution (eventually re-engineered as Ivor the Engine) and the bare bones of what would become Coppertwaddle. That was quite a fecund couple of years for someone who sort-of-drifted in to the hobby!

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
It’s been mostly mechanisms but, very early on, a theme is essential to keep momentum going (for me, at least); I’ll get a little stuck unless I can, for example, make sense of ‘draft cards from a central line’ (Fzzzt! has robots rolling off a conveyor belt) or the ‘draw X cards and assign each one to a specific purpose’ (Lux Aeterna, my 2001: A Space Odyssey solo game, forces you to pick how bad two out of three actions will be each round).

I’m currently noodling about with a set of miscellaneously-shaped pieces (the same set for each player) and have come up with a “tech tree” to link them; however, it’s flopping about like a landed sea bass at the moment because I haven’t attached a theme to bring it properly to life. Pure theme can sometimes kick the process off; for example, the Ivor the Engine stories suggested that it should be ‘pick up and deliver’ and Snowdonia would obviously need to be ‘worker placement’, but these are rare successes amid a shed full of many, MANY more failed ‘theme first’ prototypes!

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
Generally, I love all the aspects of the design process. I have noticed a significant reduction in actual local playtesting time, though; while I was working in London (2005-2012), I got a LOT of different types of player involved with Snowdonia and Guilds, for example, because we were gaming three nights a week; now I’m reduced to just the one (Friday) night and can intrude on ‘real games’ only occasionally – that slows the whole process down.

Building prototypes can also be a bit irksome; I like multi-function cards and the mental turmoil they generate. I also like lots of them and I want them to look fantastic for playtesting; preparing these can be a Sisyphean endeavour! It’s my own fault, I know: Guilds of London had 120 such cards, Lux Aeterna has 100 or so (as does my air race prototype): that’s a lot of cutting, sleeving, calluses and blisters!

Perhaps the worst aspect is when a design is obviously going nowhere and has to be ‘shelved’; they’re never permanently written-off, though, as something is always salvageable BUT going from that excited enthusiasm of the first rush to the tummy-aching disappointment of a dead-end is a blow.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
All of them are of equal hardness; whether a filler or something meatier, they have their own challenges and constraints.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
This is an oddly-contradictory one: “If you have lots of cards with effects and icons, make sure you have plain text explanations to assist the testers” – this worked a treat for Snowdonia and is an essential part of the final product. Believe it or not, Guilds of London cards all had brief ‘this is what I do’ help text right up to final layout design. Generally, though, I’d say don’t introduce a design to playtesters unless it looks pretty damned good – otherwise you’ll spend the first hour listening to moans about ‘lack of clarity’ and suggestions on how to lay everything out better rather than playing the actual bloody game!

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
It was a mixed experience: I was playing my home-made & painted prototype of Totemo (a three-dimensional stacking game using the artist’s colour wheel as a central mechanic) in the Hotel Ibis in Essen (2008); it was the night before Day 1 (Thursday) and a random punter popped over and asked if he could join in. We played and he was VERY enthusiastic at the end – so much so that he immediately called his friend who worked for a big German games publisher! Gushing with praise, he booked me a meeting for the following morning (the first meeting of the show for that company)!

I delivered a positive demo and left my only copy with them for follow-on evaluation: three months later it came back with a short letter that said “It’s not for us because we don’t see a unique selling point.” – that was it! No further hints or tips? No ‘things we DID like’? From such high hopes to bland dismissal; a few years later Qwirkle won Spiel des Jahres… I can’t help thinking MY blocky, colourful game could’ve gotten there first!

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
At the risk of sending readers away to another website, it’s Ivor the Engine by a country mile (see the Designer Diary on BoardGameGeek!). Getting Snowdonia co-published with my favourite game publisher, Lookout Games, is a VERY close second but how can one compete with a childhood dream?

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love worker placement games (Agricola, Le Havre, Pillars of the Earth, Snowdonia, Lords of Waterdeep) and I love games with multi-function cards (Glory to Rome, Royal Goods et al). Auctions also tickle my fancy, if done right, which is why Princes of Florence is so beloved – mind you, that’s ALSO the dynamic of the group that plays it the most (me, Boffo, Smudge, Jobbers and A.N.Other).

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I don’t know, to be honest. I love what the UK Games Expo is doing – with the help of organisations like Imagination Gaming – to promote more family involvement: the more people we can bring in to the hobby, the more it will grow and the better it will be for everyone. The UK has forgotten how great board games are: Trivial Pursuit and a million franchised Monopoly editions in the 1980s have erased the memory of the rich selection that was there before. It’s a crime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
One of my favourite albums of all-time is “Guilty” by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Seth Jaffee

Seth Jaffee is a game designer and Head of Development at TMG. He has design credits on such games as Terra Prime, Eminent Domain (plus expansions), and Isle of Trains, with more on the way, and has had his hands in most of the TMG big box titles.

This is the second in a series of Q&As with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.

1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
I went to school for, and have a career in, structural engineering. I’m fortunate right now in that I’m only doing engineering part time, and I’m starting to make some money in the game industry as a designer and as a developer for TMG.

Before I got into game design, I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering, and I found the deck building there to be fairly creative. But that has given way to game design, and I don’t do much else creative anymore… though one might say I’m an armchair graphic designer on occasion 🙂

Outside of game design and engineering, I spend my time playing games, and also playing Ultimate.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
At times I’ve probably found different designers to be my favourite, and I admire different designers for different things. Antoine Bauza is consistently able to crank out quality games, and he’s a great, down to earth guy. I admire how humble he is when by all accounts he’s one of the superstars of our hobby.

Reiner Knizia is the most prolific designer I can think of, and while all of the hundreds of titles he’s done can’t be to my taste, he’s done a number of very good games (such as Amun-Re, Tigris & Euphrates, Lord of the Rings, Ra, etc). I admire his professionalism, his range of styles, and the meticulous, mathematical balance of his games.

Stefan Feld is also prolific, and also hit-and-miss, but has done a number of my favourite games (Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Oracle of Delphi). I admire his creativity in finding and using a central mechanism to drive a game, and the way the different elements of his games often inter-relate or rely on each other so deeply. I’m sure there are others too.

3. What drew you to game design?
When my friends all moved away or quit playing Magic, it left a hole in my life that was once filled with building decks. Looking for some other creative outlet to fill that hole, I stumbled across the Board Game Designers Forum (

I found that designing a game was a lot like making a deck for Magic… instead of putting certain cards together in an effort to make the deck perform a certain way, I started putting mechanisms together in an effort to make a game perform a certain way. To me this was analogous, and it filled that hole immediately — I’ve been hooked ever since.

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
I used to think there were Theme-first designers and Mechanics-first designers, but nowadays I think that’s all crap.

Sometimes you start a design with a theme in mind, and other times you start with a particular mechanism, but even in the latter case, you pretty quickly have to find a theme to inform the rest of your design. So unless you’re specifically out to design an abstract game, then even Mechanics-first designers are also pretty much Theme-first designers.

I generally design with myself in mind. I try to make games that I, and people like me, would enjoy. I figure there are a bunch of people like me out there, that like the same stuff, and in the age of the internet it shouldn’t be too hard to find them!

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect of game design is watching your creation come to life. In this case I mean watching players play your game and enjoy it. I love it when mechanisms and rules come together the way they’re supposed to and the game starts to really click and feel right.

The two worst aspects are…

  • Prototyping: There are certain humps that you need to get over in order to get a game to the table. Sometimes they’re physical – I’ve had a game stalled because I lacked the ability or know-how to really make a board for it. Other times they’re more mental humps, like trying to put together 100 tiles with info on them, without a good handle on what exactly the info should be…
  • Rules writing: Writing down how to play the game for a prototype isn’t so bad, but trying to write and edit final rules for a game can be very taxing and difficult.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
In general, the hardest type of game to design for me is one for which I’m not really the target audience. I never know when it’s done, or if it’s good. This is something I’d like to improve at.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
First of all, it’s great to get a prototype together as early as possible so you can try the game. I usually advise designers to be mindful of how the final game will look, and to think about layout and graphic design a little bit when making prototype cards and bits. This will not only make the game easier to play in prototype form, but will also help when it comes time to pitch to publishers in the future, if you go that route.

On that note, I highly recommend google image search, clip art, or using any free icons or images you can. The better the visuals you can use in the prototype, the easier it will be to get players to play the game, and the easier it will be for those players to concentrate on playing the game rather than trying to figure out the components.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
My first published game was Terra Prime, which was done by TMG. Before TMG existed though, I pitched the game to Jay Tummelson at a convention. I loved the games he published, and I really thought Terra Prime would fit well in his line. After my pitch, Jay just sort of shrugged and said “Eh, doesn’t excite me.”

I was prepared for a rejection, but somehow that hit me pretty hard. “It doesn’t excite me”? Not at all? Not even a little bit? Nothing?

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
My best moment as a game designer came at BGGcon 2010. My card game Eminent Domain was up on Kickstarter at the time, and this was back before Kickstarter was really a thing in the industry. We had offered Print and Play files for EmDo, and while many people had downloaded them, I was sceptical that many would print and cut 172 cards and try the game.

When I walked into the hotel on Wednesday afternoon, the day before BGGcon officially started, the first thing I saw was a room with 4 tables all paying PnP copies of Eminent Domain, and loving it!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love euro style games; especially ones that highlight efficiency. I also seem to have an affinity for Role Selection, though I am also a fan of Pickup/Deliver and Worker Placement as mechanisms. Some of my favourites include Puerto Rico, Railroad Tycoon, Goa, Brass, Shipyard, Lords of Waterdeep, Glory to Rome, In the Year of the Dragon…

I also like the idea of games that are built on a central mechanism that is itself a game, like Zooloretto is built on Coloretto. I’ve worked on one or two of those myself.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I hope this isn’t a politically incorrect answer, but maybe a little less complaining and less entitlement. I try to follow board games on a lot of different media, but it’s all on the internet, and no matter where you go on the internet there are whiners, complainers, and people who seem to demand a lot from other people when they may not have any reason to do so.

I feel like the landscape would only be improved if people just immersed themselves in the things they liked and ignored the things they didn’t. It seems like a win-win to me.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
At the ripe young age of 40 I got a full hip replacement. I suspect I had a thing called a slipped epiphysis, and all the cartilage in my hip had ground away. It got worse and worse until I was basically limping with every painful step. So I upgraded my insurance, made an appointment, and went in for surgery. I was worried that I’d never be able to run again (or play frisbee), but as it happens, my hip is pretty much 100%! I don’t recommend hip replacements in general, but if you really need one, it’s not all that bad… even if I probably will have to replace it 15 or 20 years down the road.

Also, despite never wanting to own a dog (in fact, I’ve always wanted to NOT own a dog), I recently got a dog. As dogs go, I think I got pretty lucky… Bella is very well behaved and doesn’t bark (thank goodness). But yeah… now I’m a dog owner.

A massive thanks to Seth for supplying such great and detailed answers. To find out more about future releases from TMG, visit the Tasty Minstel Games website.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Matthew Dunstan

This is the first in what will (hopefully) be a series of Q&A interviews with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.

matthew-dunstanMatthew Dunstan is the designer of Relic Runners, co-designer of Elysium and Costa Rica (both with Brett Gilbert), and co-designer of Empire Engine (with me) – with several more games slated for 2017 and beyond.

He’s an Australian from a small rural town now living in Cambridge, England, where he recently completed a PhD in Materials Chemistry and continues to work in the field.

But while game design isn’t a full-time job, he already has a Kennerspiel des Jahres nomination under his belt for Elysium.

1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
For my day job, I work as a research scientist within the Chemistry department at the University of Cambridge. I am very lucky to have an understanding boss who lets me take time out for various game design related travel, so it works quite well. Outside of game design, I don’t really have any other creative pursuits – I did play both piano and saxophone earlier in my life but not so much anymore. I am getting into escape room design, but I suppose this isn’t much of a leap from regular tabletop game design!

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
Wow, tough question! My favourite designers include Stefan Feld (favourites include Macao, Castles of Burgundy and Die Speicherstadt – I haven’t gotten to play to rethemed Jorvik yet), Antoine Bauza (7 Wonders, 7 Wonders: Duel), and Uwe Rosenberg (mainly for his 2 player games Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, and Patchwork). But I will also include Andreas Steading and Thomas Lehmann, simply for designing Hansa Teutonica and Race for the Galaxy respectively; two of my favourite games.

Race for the Galaxy boxAs for designers I most admire, this list might be even longer! But I’ll try: Uwe Rosenberg for his incredible ability to design games with so many moving pieces and his rigorous testing procedure; Vlaada Chvatil for being able to design standout games in so many different categories, from Codenames to Through the Ages; Friedmann Freese for being a true game design scientist; Rob Daviau for starting a powerful new trend in gaming through the legacy concept, and for being able to actually finish 3 (!) legacy games – that is an incredible feat; Bruno Cathala for his incredible rate and quality of output, as well as being an amazing collaborator with so many different people – an ability I value very highly; and finally Brett J. Gilbert, a long time collaborator, for his innate ability to seek out elegance in game designs.

3. What drew you to game design?
I don’t exactly remember, but I think I started out by seeing game design as a new challenge I could undertake. I enjoyed playing games, and I thought I could understand how they could work, and so I just started making games. Maybe there is something in me that likes taking hobbies and exploring a side behind them – for example I played many sports when I was younger, and chose to go quite far in becoming an umpire in tennis and hockey (I have officiated at both the Australian Open and on the same hockey ground that hosted the Sydney Olympic Games, for example) – perhaps I like being in control in these things, and where can you have more control in games than designing them?

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
relic-runnersFor the earlier part of my design career, I definitely was a mechanic first kind of person – for example Relic Runners started as essentially an abstract game centred around an interesting network mechanic.

As the years go on I think I am designing more and more with a certain experience or audience in mind – is this meant to be a short family card game, or a thematic family game a la Colt Express, for example. I will always need a strong mechanical identity at the heart of my games, but I am more and more considering the entire experience at the beginning of my process. I think this is really important as publishers are much more concerned with the overall experience a game creates for its players than any particular mechanism that might be present in the game.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect of game design is that very first test when a new idea finally starts to work, and you see the glimmer of what the game is actually going to become for the first time. Its a relief in some ways because now you know that what you’ve been working on for sometimes months or years is going to get there, its going to be finished. A very close second is collaborating. I really like bouncing ideas off another person when it comes to working on games, and I love how efficient it can be moving forward when you have two different heads working on the same problem. The worst aspect are the very early tests that fail, especially with ideas that you had high hopes for, and they don’t even fail in an interesting or insightful way. Failure is fine, and sometimes can lead you towards to best direction for the game, but sometimes all a test will tell you is that the current idea doesn’t work and you should go back to the drawing board. That can be exhausting sometimes.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
I think medium to heavy euro-style games with many interconnected pieces are the hardest games for me to design. I can think back to a lot of attempts that I have made, and often they work, but they just aren’t that fun. I haven’t come up with a good way yet of realising how to get to the fun in these types of games, despite enjoying playing them very much! Probably the other type of game is a children’s or very light family game. I just don’t have a good sense of how much ‘game’ you need for it to be enjoyable for these audiences, and as a consequence I usually put far too much into these designs making them unsuitable for the target market. Oh, and legacy games. They’re stupidly hard to do.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?

My best tip would be to never use the computer for your first prototype – simply get some pen and paper and write and/or draw it directly. I think this helps you to do a few very important things. Firstly, you are forced to be minimal in your first design attempt – it is too difficult to write out by hand 100 or so cards with different text, and so you usually will stick to the minimum amount that you need for the first test.

This will save you a lot of time, as normally you will be throwing out a good proportion of what is in that first prototype, and at least you haven’t wasted time making 100 different cards that immediately need to be scrapped. You’ll also not have wasted time working on art or layout either. Additionally, I think it removes a barrier between you and getting that game to the table for the first time. If I’m working on my computer I think there is some resistance to actually going to the trouble of printing and cutting out the cards and other components – if I just get straight into making the cards directly I can have that first prototype ready very quickly. Basically, remove anything you can that will delay you getting the first prototype to the table – that is where you will learn the most about the game, not on your computer or in your head.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
My worst pitching moment was when I had a meeting with a publisher whom I hadn’t met with before – they were late (which is fine), but this was due to a mix-up in our schedules (also fine). I offered to reschedule, but the publisher (who was not in a particularly good mood) wanted to do the meeting then and there. I pitched one game quickly, and they were interested, but somewhat aggressively wanted 6 months exclusivity to evaluate the prototype. I decided to not leave the prototype with them, and left the meeting feeling the most down I have ever been in a meeting in this industry. It might not have been a particularly bad meeting, but I think its more in comparison to the many many wonderful meetings I’ve had with editors and publishers, some of whom I would count as friends now. To be honest, the majority of my pitching experiences have been very positive, and I think one or two meetings like this are inevitable – and understandable given the pressure publishers are under during conventions!

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Elysium boxMy best game design moment would be a tie – one was going to the Spiel des Jahres ceremony in Berlin when Brett and I were nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres for Elysium – it was just such a spectacle, with the press and ceremony, and it was a lot of fun meeting everyone involved in this process.

The second moment would be at Essen in 2013 when Relic Runners was released – it was my first game, and there it is, splashed all across the Days of Wonder booth, with 5-6 tables playing the game. It was incredibly satisfying and rewarding, and I was so lucky to work with such an amazing publisher for my first game!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
Probably my favourite style of game that I enjoy playing are special power card games – games like Race for the Galaxy, Elysium (yes, I enjoy playing my own games!), Abyss, Imperial Settlers, Macao, Dominion, and of course Magic: The Gathering. I just love the myriad possibilities for how cards can combine with others to form emergent systems and strategies, and every game is different. The other style I really enjoy are euro-style game with a spatial element that aren’t war or majority-style games (well, at least where this isn’t the sole focus). Examples of these that I really enjoy include Hansa Teutonica (which has the finest mechanism for euro-style player interaction that I have every seen or played), Five Tribes, Endeavour and Blue Moon City. Again, they offer so much variation with just small ways in which the board is arranged, and allow for a very satisfying feeling as you work out how best to manipulate the changing geography.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I think the main thing is to be vigilant and continually improving how welcoming and inclusive the tabletop hobby is – from standing up for any members that are the subject of sexism, racism or other similar treatment, to ensuring that these under-represented groups increase their presence in the design and illustration of games (both working in the industry, and being featured in the games themselves). I would love for the game designing community to continue to welcome people from all different backgrounds – I have found it to be a very warm and welcoming community, and I hope that as many people as possible can experience that.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
bucks-fizzI am a massive, massive fan of Eurovision (I am listening to some of the old songs now), and hold a massive party every year to watch it (which started even back when I was living in Australia).

One day I would love to start a Ludovision competition on BGG, where each country can enter one game each year, and then we can vote on who we want to be the winner – although I don’t know if there are enough Eurovision fans to support such an idea!

A massive thanks to Matt for supplying such great and detailed answers. To find out more about his current and upcoming games, keep an eye on Board Game Geek.

Essen Spiel 2016: The build-up begins

Essen 2016 logoWith Essen Spiel 2016 just 10 weeks away, the anticipation is starting to build for the world’s most important annual tabletop game event.

While those in the US will want to get GenCon out of the way this month before getting too excited, those of us of a more euro persuasion – both in terms of location and gaming tastes – are already looking towards October.

And once again it’s looking like being a landmark year. For the first time there will be more than 1,000 exhibitors at the event. And no, that’s not a typo – 1,000 exhibitors. And over the four days they’re expecting 160,000 people through the turnstiles (which includes the likes of me four times, as you’re counted each day you enter).

This will be the fifth year I’ll be going, this time for six nights, but it always feels fresh and new. This is partly due to staying in a new hotel every year, so fingers crossed for this year’s choice – InterCityHotel Essen. I’ve previously stayed in two good ‘gamer’ hotels, a budget nightmare and a pretty fancy non-gamery place – all of which have given me some stories to tell. Let’s hope they’re the right kind this time…

I’ve written a few blog posts before that anyone heading to Essen may find useful. Here’s a couple of my Essen guides from last year that should still be useful:

Wearing three hats (again) – or maybe four…

Having a press pass is great because you don’t have to queue to get in – but unlike an exhibitor pass (which I’ve managed to get before thanks to AEG) it doesn’t get you in early. That has proven invaluable in the past in terms of getting in for demos early, so I will have to be more focused (read: sneaky) this year in terms of getting organised.

There’s still a chance I may be able to get one of said passes, as one of my co-designs might make it to the show – but the publisher admitted it was a “very ambitious” target to make it with the time we have left. Having seen some of the early artwork I think it’s going to look amazing, so I’m desperate to see it there – but won’t be holding my breath.

Essen balconyAt the other end of the game design spectrum, it’s getting to crunch time in terms of getting prototypes ready for showing to publishers – and then arranging the meetings. I can’t believe its only 10 weeks away! Ye gods… Two older games will definitely be there, while two more have the potential to be in good enough shape to show. But for that to happen we’re really going to have to get our houses in order.

If I’m honest it has been a slack year for me in terms of design; I just haven’t felt motivated, which hasn’t been helped by the slow progress of other games that are already with publishers. I need to shake that off – and hopefully the thrill ride that is Essen will help me get over this malaise.

Then of course there’s the fun of trying to grab the games I want most from publishers without having to buy them! With almost 100 game reviews to my name now, and having kept all my reviewing promises from last year, I’m hoping this will be a little easier in 2016. But to be honest I enjoy the challenge of bartering, so bring it on publishers!

And finally, of course, I’ll be there as a punter; as a gamer (and as a drinker). It’s the world’s best board game shop for one week a year and it was open for eight days rather than four I’d still be heading in every day. I may not love the smell of gamers in the morning, but I do love the games themselves a possibly unhealthy amount.

The preparation begins…

So all my trains are booked and the hotel is confirmed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of preparing for Essen.

Now it’s time to start reading the press on all the new releases that will be coming out at this year’s show. It’ll probably be close to 1,000 new games this year, so narrowing that down to about 20 I want to check out is going to be the usual mammoth task. And yes, I LOVE IT! Bring on the Geek lists 😀

But before then I’ve got about 10 other games sitting on the shelf I need to review. And there are those prototypes to work on. And those publisher meetings to organise. Can it really only be 10 weeks to go…?

Board game design: Five reasons to co-design

Statler and waldorfGame design can be seen as a solitary endeavour, but it’s no surprise the current top three ranked board games on Board Game Geek were co-designs.

I’ve worked on six co-designs so far, three of which have been picked up by publishers – so what are the key advantages of jumping into bed with a partner in game design crime?

1) Motivation

Much like any creative process, it can be hard to find your design mojo on a regular basis – especially during the inevitable boring bits. It’s even harder when you’re not being paid and in an industry where financial successes are few and far between.

With a co-designer you’ll always have that little voice in your mind reminding you it’s not just you you’re letting down if you don’t pull your finger out – or a slightly louder voice in your inbox asking where the promised Excel spreadsheet update is!

2) Do what you’re good at…

Unless you’re some kind of freak of game design nature, you’re going to have your strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re the queen of theme or the master of maths, but you’re unlikely to be all things to all games.

Finding a co-designer that compliments your skill set is an obvious reaction if you want to make games at the peak of your potential. Maybe you’ve got a great basic mechanism but can’t get the right scoring balance; or you have a working abstract concept that needs a more exciting framework to sit in. It’s likely two heads will be better than one.

3) … but pool your resources

Working with a co-designer is also a great way to learn. Those things you’re no good at? It may simply be a lack of experience, the need for a guiding hand, or some flaws in your processes. Don’t just pass off the jobs you’re not great at – learn from your partner.

The same goes for further game industry knowledge. From social media to testing groups, getting together with a co-designer means the possible opportunity of tapping twice as many Facebook and Twitter accounts, twice as many potential play-testers and twice as many industry contacts.

4) Quality control

Speaking of play-testers, twice the number of designers means twice the number of people with opinions of the game that you can’t ignore. Being blind to problems with your designs that really need to change can be a massive problem: so who better to fight the other corner than a co-designer?

When you’re together you can discuss your direct experience with each test, but equally invaluable are the times you’re apart – when you can double your test group and get twice as many ideas tried and opinions received. And it’s two brains getting your heads around tester comments that may not be immediately obvious – and two sides arguing is more likely to come to the best outcome, even if some pride is a little hurt along the way.

5) Sharing the worst bits

And finally, no one ever claimed game design was glamorous. We seem to spend as much of our time cutting games out as we do playing them – no fun if you’re designing games with hundreds of cards, or that you keep having to re-sticker. Grabbing two pairs of scissors while having a chat and beer certainly makes the task easier!

And this extends across the board (no pun intended). For example, you have no idea how much smoother publisher meetings go if one of you can chat while the other sets up; or if you can bring several designs to one meeting to help save both you and the publishers valuable calendar time – not to mention that shot in the arm of confidence a bit of moral support can give you, as well as feedback afterwards on pitching technique.

Co-designing games won’t be for everyone, but if you have some ideas that are on-hold because you’re stuck with them, why not cast around for someone to bounce ideas off of and potentially come on board to help you get the game really moving forward again? But for now I best be off – I’ve got some prototyping to be getting on with before I get told off by a particularly demanding co-designer…

Board game design: Finding immersion beyond duration

immersionImmersion is a goal for many a game designer, but more importantly many a player – and hence a topic of many a board game debate. But I think a few points around immersion are often overlooked – with others held in too high regard.

Listen to any conversation on immersion and two things will soon surface: very long games and licensed games. But are these really creating immersion?

Licensed games probably have a stronger argument for creating immersion – but it is very often the license itself that is creating the immersion, not the game. Films – especially sci-fi and fantasy ones – are brilliant at creating immersion so it stands to reason games that take you back to scenes involving those characters will do the same, even if the game itself is crappy.

Long games, I would argue, are rarely immersive at all. People talk of lengthy games of Civ, Mage Knight, Eclipse and Arkham Horror as being immersive but I don’t see it. Having a story to tell afterwards does not mean you were immersed: it means you spent a day of your life doing it so want to talk about it afterwards. These games have time in which to create a story – but that isn’t the same as being immersed.

Did you lose yourself in the world? Did you feel empathy with your character? Did you feel genuine emotion about situations that arose? Probably not. It’s the same with Arabian Nights – a game I very much enjoy but don’t feel is particularly immersive. It’s fun, and creates stories, but again – how is that immersion?

For real immersion you’re safe to turn to role-playing games – which again have a long tradition of lengthy fantasy campaigns. Players have traditionally developed a particular character and world over time, which is clearly going to help with immersion.

But in more recent times some popular RPGs have broken this mould – the classic example being Fiasco. Here players take on the lives of small town people living Coen Brothers film style lives in any setting you like – the kicker being that you cut to the chase and that one session can very much stand completely alone from another.

Firefly SummerIn board games, an interesting example is Netrunner. A shortish card game set in a cyberpunk world, it has no film license, epic duration or fancy components to help it along. So how does it manage to feel immersive to so many of its players?

I think what both Fiasco and Netrunner do so well is set a scene you can immediately immerse yourself in – and then give you the tools in which to complete the job. Fiasco knows you need a set up, so it gives you it – then leaves most of the crap like dice and character sheets to one side and lets you use the important thing: your imagination.

Netrunner gives you a scenario and then hands you the building blocks to recreate what’s actually happening: the cards are great at acting as building blocks for your computer systems as you try and outfox your opponent. The bluff and counter-bluff fit the theme, as does the ebb and flow of creating and breaking down firewalls and code. It just fits – while one-on-one games always have a better chance of creating tension.

Playing Firefly, Mage Knight or Civ isn’t immersive, it’s mechanical – as is flicking through the book in Arabian Knights while people twiddle their thumbs. And don’t get me wrong – I think all but Firefly in that list are great games. They’re just not really immersive (I’m sure some will claim immersion here still, but I’m talking about the majority of players).

So for me, to create a really immersive board game, you need to set up a simple yet tense scenario and then add mechanics that in many ways mirror the actions you would actually be doing in that scenario. Not easy – but as Netrunner shows, far from impossible. And not requiring of a four-hour play time or a film license to help things along.

Board game design: Three ideas inspired by heist movies

I tend to have ideas for game mechanisms most days – and of course most of them are terrible. Others hang around long enough without being dismissed for me to want to write them down, while still fewer make it from my phone’s note-taker app into my ideas document at home.

These few borderline cases kind of shared a heist theme, so I thought I’d write about them here just in case anyone else can make something useful out of them. Maybe I’ll get round to them, maybe I won’t – or maybe they’re terrible after all. They’re far from fully formed too, but maybe they’ll inspire someone.

batman jokerA co-op with evolving roles

The first idea came to me when watching the Batman movie where The Joker is getting all the people involved in the heist to kill each other off once their particular job is complete – but could equally be applied to any fast moving and dangerous situation. The game would be a co-op (although wouldn’t need to be, I guess) in which every character starts with a roll – in this example it could be the muscle, the safe cracker, explosives expert etc.

As the game goes on, players will need to decide when to change to their other roll – perhaps the getaway car driver, the van driver carrying the lot, the guy causing a road block/distraction, or tampering with traffic lights. Once you switch roll your old character is still in play, but becomes a hindrance – slowing down play and getting in the way.You’ll get a better final score if you get everyone home, but can you succeed while dragging along this dead weight…


In my mind this is a very simple mechanism requiring two players that would be used in a role-playing type scenario – say in our co-op heist game above. Both roll the same amount of dice of different colours, lets say three – red, blue and green – but one of them roles them behind a screen. The person playing the safe-cracker has to match their dice, by colour and number, to those rolled behind the screen.

The safe-cracker would’ve been able to spend skill points on raising their skill at the start of the game – with each point letting the second player give them a clue (say, ‘blue higher’). The safe-cracker can opt to change any dice as much as they likes, then asks if they have the right number for each dice. The player with the dice behind the screen will say ‘higher’, ‘lower’ or ‘cracked it’ for each dice – and then the safe-cracker goes again. Each failed attempt will use up time units.

Lie detector

This feels more like a party/werewolf-style game idea, where one (or maybe two) of the players are questioning suspects and trying to get to the truth. The potential felons all have a few parts of the story, which could potentially save their skin – but of course one of them did it (and knows it).

The questioners will have a limited time scale to grill the suspects for information, and will then have to decide who to charge – you could even have people in different rooms. The suspects can give up as much info they like, or lie as much as they like, to try and work out who did it or just frame someone at random. Maybe one of the questioners could have a preferred victim to throw to the wolves – or a prisoner could be under cover…

Report: My first UK Games Expo

UK Games ExpoLast week I attended my first UK Games Expo in Birmingham. Having been spoilt by Essen over the years I’d never considered this a ‘must see’ convention, as it’s a 10th of the size, but this year I made the time to make it happen.

And – spoiler alert – I’m thoroughly glad I did. I had a fantastic time throughout, didn’t get to do half what I should have, but came home with a host of new games, new friends and great memories.

First, the boring (but significant) stuff: The organisers estimated they had 7,000 unique attendees (up 20 per cent on 2014) over the three days, with a total footfall attendance of 14,000 (up 40 per cent, but it was a day longer than last year) – impressive numbers by any standards. And the event is growing too, with 1,000 tables setup in the NEC Hilton for the weekend – that’s a lot of gaming!

As a holidaymaker

UKGE through the ages

First look at the new edition of Through the Ages, still in prototype form (so all this can still change)

However good the Expo itself was, you can’t get away from the fact it’s in one of the blandest, most soulless locations in the UK.

The NEC complex is a built-for-purpose money-grabbing warehouse-come-car park and the hotel I ended up in – The Crowne Plaza – was more of the same. Comfy but sterile, unfriendly and overpriced (£14 for breakfast you say? What if I just want cereal…?).

The Expo itself was held at the NEC Hilton which, while in the same price bracket, does at least have some personality. But what was truly remarkable was how open they were to the event. Throughout the weekend every available table, windowsill and corner had a game being played in it – often accompanied by greasy slabs of cardboard bought from the (really rather good) food trucks outside the hotel. But the staff were polite and patient in the face of what must have felt like some kind of natural disaster aftermath.

As a publisher

UKGE the dwarves

First look at the English version of ‘The Dwarves’ from publisher Pegasus

With my blogger’s hat on I spoke to representatives from a lot of publishers and retailers over the weekend, from main sponsors Mayfair to one-man-bands with a 10-ft table and one game to sell – and in all honesty I didn’t hear a single dissenting voice.

Of course there were minor quibbles – press events ending just as the main doors opened; the doors opening 30 minutes earlier than expected on one day; some rather unfortunate placements between inappropriate stands etc. But these were always brought up in the context of having a great show overall.

And this year’s publisher list was notably impressive. While many didn’t have their key staff on show, or large stands, you can’t argue with a line up that includes Fantasy Flight, Days of Wonder, Mayfair, Asmodee, Pegasus, Czech Games Edition and Queen Games – alongside the likes of Esdevium and Coiled Spring.

As a gamer

UKGE the game

Playing Spiel des Jahres nominee The Game

The Expo had set aside tonnes of open gaming space as well as nine board game tournaments, including the official UK championships for Catan, Carcassonne and Mage Wars (plus CCG Yu-Gi-Oh).

While at times near capacity, and tricky to find a large table at times, overall the system worked well.

The Thirsty Meeples game cafe ran the games library and all agreed it was a vast improvement on previous years – although at peak times the selection grew pretty thin. Oddly an insider told me Thirsty Meeples had wanted to bring more games but had been limited to 500, so hopefully next year’s selection will be even better.

People in general were friendly, making for a nice atmosphere. I shared a lot of silly conversations with those gaming on adjacent tables, and chats with people wondering what game I was playing. But it was hot and noisy and I wouldn’t want to play a long thinky game there. Highlights for me included Welcome to the Dungeon, Smash Up, The Game, Hawaii and Red7. I even managed to hold my tongue when a couple of ladies next to us were saying how ‘brilliant’ the Firefly board game was…

As an explorer

UKGE terror bull

Terror Bull Games’ Tom and Andrew preaching the Hen Commandments

I’m afraid this is where my coverage takes a nosedive, as I spent precisely zero time getting out of my comfort zone. I’m going to make a solemn promise that next year I’ll do at least a few sessions of miniatures, war games or role playing games.

Despite my adsence there was a lot of it going on and I heard some fun stories while chilling in the bar, overhearing other tables’ conversations. I know the Cardboard Console podcast guys got their feet wet in the RPG pool a few times, so listen out for their exploits in future episodes.

There were some great cosplay outfits on show too – shame on me for not getting any pics, but I’m sure there will be loads at the Expo site (linked above).

My favourite was definitely a Jawa – mostly because they had a speaker with all the cute sound effects that take me back to being seven years old. Wootini ftw! And there were some impressive remote control Daleks – that voice is still pretty menacing…

As a tester

UKGE art

Some great board game graphic design and art from Vicki Dalton

The Playtest UK area was a definite highlight for me, being filled to capacity pretty much all day Saturday and Sunday with about 15 unpublished games running at a time. I got a few hours of testing in on Saturday afternoon, then helped out as a volunteer for the last few hours of the day.

What I didn’t expect was to have people turning up saying they’d actually sought us out and wanted to ‘help’ – alongside people who would test one game, then come back to us a little while later and ask to test a different one. Rather than trying to reach out to passing traffic to try and get them involved, we were more often telling people they’d have to wait a few minutes for a slot to appear.

It’s hard to know if people realised that many of those testing games there over the weekend were published designers – the UK Expo award winner for Strategic Card and Dice Games this year was Elysium, whose designers spent almost the whole weekend helping organise r testing their games in the area.

Raise a glass to the volunteers – and the organisers

UKGE cycling party

Spanish game Cycling Party, brought to the UK by Games Quest

Overall I think it’s impossible to see the 2015 UK Games Expo as anything other than a huge success. There are of course lots of areas for improvement (I’ll certainly be emailing the organisers with my thoughts as a journalist who has visited many such events but has never felt so unsupported) but overall – win.

I think what I found most impressive was either the amazing attitude of everyone involved – especially all the volunteers, who need a massive pat on the back – but also how all this was achieved with ever-changing goal posts.

Every year the Expo has grown a significant amount, reflecting both the word-of-mouth goodwill for the event and the growth in popularity of the hobby games industry.

To be able to both improve and expand on the top line numbers while responding to the mistakes of previous years – while keeping both traders and punters appeased in the middle of it all – is a real achievement.

Bring on 2016

UKGE my games

My personal haul for the weekend – reviews of them all on the way!

And next year will be even bigger. While I’m not keen on the warehouse that is the NEC I can see the wisdom of moving the retail arm of the Expo into its wide open spaces – but equally note the importance of keeping its heart in the Hilton.

This is going to be a tricky balance to pull off but I think it should work: the trade areas will close as usual at 5pm and gaming in the hotel will go on until you want to go to bed – its just that you’ll have a five-minute walk between the two venues.

I’ve already put the 2016 Expo in my calendar (June 3-5 if you’re interested) – see you there!

Get into board games: Five reasons to go to the UK Games Expo, May 29-31

UK Games ExpoWith just a week to go until the UK Games Expo in Birmingham I thought I’d give it a quick plug. It is the UK’s biggest convention dedicated purely to hobby gaming and it’s getting bigger each year, in line with the hobby itself.

The three-day event at Hilton Birmingham Metropole (at the NEC) runs 2-7pm on Friday, 9.30am-5pm Saturday and 9.30am-4pm Sunday. And it won’t break the bank, with day tickets just over £10 and a day family ticket at £30.

This will be my first year attending the Expo as I’m usually away during school half term. But I’m really looking forward to it, as its an event a lot of my friends put in the calendar before all others at the start of their year’s planning. If you’ve got nothing planned for this particular end of half term, and are within reach of Birmingham NEC, what have you got to lose! So what’s it all about?

1. Get back into gaming in ‘The Family Zone’

One of the largest open gaming areas at the show is the Family Zone. There will be a massive range of family games to try your hand at, as well as areas to get your creative hat on too (they’ll be everything from story telling to designing). Run by Imagination Gaming, its the perfect area for those rediscovering the hobby, as Imagination staff will be on hand to help you choose the right game for your group – whether all adult or with your kids too. Allegedly they’ll have 150 games to choose from too, so you shouldn’t get bored! And if you find games you like, you’ll be able to pick many of them up at the store too.

2. Putting games to the test

Hundreds of new board and card games are released each year – which all have to be rigorously tested. It’s a tough process for designers but it can be a lot of fun too – and you can be part of it. Playtest UK will be at the event all weekend, with budding and published designers looking for members of the public to try out and give feedback on their latest designs. Who knows – you may get a chance to change a rule in the next Ticket to Ride or Magic: The Gathering! Or if you feel you want to get involved, there will be chances to put your own design skills to the test with the board game redesign competition.

3. Get your geek on: dress to impress

young or old, many people like to get costumed up for a bit of a party – and parties don’t come much bigger than this. The UK Games Expo is also a celebration of all things geeky, so if you want to dress up as an elf or a super hero knock yourself out – you’ll be in good company (you can bet there will be plenty of daleks, stormtroopers and the like to mingle and your selfies with too). Cosplay is another growing hobby, with people spending an incredible amount of time getting their costumes as accurate as possible (some of them are amazing) – and it’s a great way to liven up the even with a bit of extra colour.

4. Open gaming – board games, competitions and RPGs

Open gaming is one of the highlights of any board gaming convention, and the UK Games Expo is no exception. At various places and points during the event there will be room for up to and over 1,000 people to sit down and play games – with hundreds available to borrow from the in-house games library (run this year by the fabulous Thirsty Meeples cafe from Oxford). But you can also sign up to join in with a host of role-playing games; or sign up to be in a tournament if you really want to get your game face on.

5. Let’s get serious: A gaming education

There will also be more than 20 seminars running over the weekend, ranging in topic from how to publish your own game right through to a sci-fi quiz. Some big names in gaming will be attendance for Q&As, including Eric Lang (Chaos in the Old World, Dice Masters, Game of Thrones card game) and Monica Valentinelli (Firefly RPG), while you’ll be able to get tips on everything from fiction writing to running successful competitions and events. Personally I’m looking forward to news on the 2016 expansion into the NEC itself!

I’m arriving Thursday evening and will be there pretty much throughout the weekend. You can see a pic of me on the ‘about’ page here: if you read this blog at all, do come up and say hello! It’s going to be a great weekend of gaming, but more importantly socialising. See you in the halls – or in the bar!

Introducing… The Disagreeable Designers

Statler and waldorfAs much fun as playing and designing board and card games is, we all need a break sometimes. Which is of course when we argue about board and card games.

And why have an argument in private when you can have it publicly and messily on the internet for all to see – and let others join in with it themselves?

We’ve got an oddly large group of board game design enthusiasts in Cambridge and it’s fair to say we come from very different schools of thought. Six of us (from four different countries, no less) have gotten together to spout off about a different board game topic each week – under the guise of The Disagreeable Gamers. Why not come say hello (or tell us how WRONG we are)?

The first post went live this week. It’s not a very argumentative topic, as it happens: asking us which game do we wish we’d designed, and why? I think it was a question more designed to give readers an idea of what we’re like rather than to fuel a big debate in itself, but answers still managed to range from snakes and Ladders to Arctic Scavengers…

The regulars will be Andrew Sheerin (War on Terror, Crunch, The Hen Commandments), Brett J Gilbert (Divinare, Elysium, Karnickel), me, David Thompson, Matthew Dunstan (Elysium, Relic Runners, Empire Engine) and Trevor Benjamin. While currently unpublished, both David and Trevor have games signed with publishers which we all hope to see on the shelves in the next year or so.

While we can always find something to argue about, we are of course open to ideas for topics – please post any ideas in the ‘comments’ section of the début post. Along with why we’re so wrong, of course (especially David). Or if you want to call me a terrible, money-grabbing capitalist for choosing Magic: The Gathering, you can do that right here instead!