Friday feelings: Twilight Imperium – different edition, same mistakes

I recently watched the Twilight Imperium (TI4) documentary (Space Lions) with a mixture of wonder, sadness and frustration. It was nice to see the Shup Up & Sit Down guys turn their clear talent for content creation away from their opinions (shonky at best) to ‘real’ tele. Bravo, chaps – seriously professional job. But boy, did it lift the lid on what (many people presumed) happens over at Fantasy Flight Games.

Having played TI3 a few times I was interested to see what would change in this new edition. But as I watched the game’s history play out, right back to first edition prototypes, I lost all hope. And looking at comparison videos of the new edition, those fears were confirmed. History is, once again, repeating itself.

I believe TI4 is more streamlined, a little shorter, a bit more accessible etc. But two tragic things struck me as a I watched. Firstly, how insular this firm really is. And second, how that seems to be stunting the game; and the company’s ability to fix mistakes it is making again and again.

Twilight Imperium: Testing with the wrong people?

In Space Lions the developers state, proudly, they have a dedicated fan base ready and willing to test new editions of the game. Which seems a strange brag, as one of the first things I was told as a designer (and still pass on now) was this. Asking your friends’ opinions about a prototype won’t get the answers you need. They like you and they’re not experts. What you need is people who will be critical, preferably from a wide range of design perspectives.

So, what we end up with in Twilight Imperium, over and again, are Groundhog Day style bad moves. And I’m not talking about ‘theme’. I love the fact each race has a backstory and the universe has rich and detailed lore. I’m talking game play and design – and really basic stuff. White text on black cards. Tiny fonts. Lack of useful iconography. Terrible overuse of language, both on cards and in the rules. There are so many more.

But they have that core audience that thinks ‘experience’ first. They happily make house rules to fix the game’s problems. They don’t mind playing a game for 10 hours, where they in fact only did a few things that influenced the actual winning of the game. And when presented with a new version, they don’t notice the basic flaws (that put the rest of us off) because they’ve gotten used to them in previous editions.

The best of all board game design problems

But ultimately, why would Fantasy Flight care? Its other properties make many of the same mistakes: Arkham Horror, Fallout, Discover etc. But they all sell in their thousands. It’s doing enough right to keep its core audience happy, and that core audience is larger than many. So, I expect we’re doomed to see more of this going forward. Or are we?

It was refreshing to see Fantasy Flight release an incredibly streamlined product last year with KeyForge. Here it went outside its usual design/dev pool to Richard Garfield: a man who knows his onions when it comes to simplifying the game experience without losing depth of play. Easy rules, great use of iconography – everything made sense. I’m surprised he wasn’t laughed out of the building!

Here’s hoping Fantasy Flight Games will recognise this chink in its armour and exercise a bit more basic design savvy on its bigger properties moving forward. It wouldn’t lose anything from what it has now, so what’s not to like? I love the occasional game of Eldritch, or Fallout, or Mansions of Madness. But I could, and would love, to love them so much more.

1906 San Francisco: Board game review

1906 San Francisco is a light-ish one-hour euro game for two to four players. While listed for ages 12+, young gamers of 10 (and maybe lower) should be able to grasp it.

You get a lot of game in a small package. In the 18x11x4cm box (think paperback book) you get: three small boards, 24 cardboard tokens, 32 wooden buildings, 98 cards and a glass year marker. The quality is perfectly reasonable, the iconography easy to follow and the artwork average. And while the cardboard tokens could’ve been a bit bigger, everything is perfectly usable.

In terms of theme, you each play a developer helping rebuild San Francisco after a devastating earthquake and fire. But in truth there is nothing tying the game to that historical event – you could up-sticks the game into any other city. Or space ship. Or Middle Earth, etc etc. Yes ladies and gents, this is another largely theme-free euro.

Teaching 1906 San Francisco

While 1906 San Francisco is a simple game to play, you do need to front-end the rules explanation. But for experienced gamers this should only take 10 minutes or so.

Players will see seven action areas – six cards and the starting area (on the year marker board). After getting income from the start area, the player furthest to the right in the area (who subsequently got least money) moves onto a spot on the first action card and does an action. Each other player then does the same, moving onto the same action card but into a different space on it (also taking an action).

Usually a player will do the action in the space they move to, but you can pay money to do a different action on the card. This is expensive, and money is often tight, but it is worth it sometimes. The worst actions tend to be nearer the right of each card, because progression continues the same way. Whomever is in the right-most spot on this card, once everyone has had a turn, will move first onto the next action card.

Actions in 1906 San Francisco are straightforward. Collect houses; collect cards relating to building plots; then build houses on the plots by spending the cards. Additionally you can collect money, clear rubble/complete urban developments (for bonus points), or take extra scoring cards.

To build quickly, you need a single building card matching the colour/number of a plot. Alternatively, you can use two cards (one with the right number and one the right colour). When using two, if they have matching urban development symbols (each building cards has two of four symbols) you get a bonus. Some plots still have rubble on them, which costs money to clear. But doing so again gives bonuses, while potentially helping with scoring cards.

The game ends either after six ‘years’ (so about 40 actions per player) or when someone builds their eighth building. You get some points for bonuses mentioned above, plus leftover money, but the majority come from scoring cards. Each player starts with a secret card only they will score, while three cards sit face up from the start of the game that everyone will score. And you can pick up more throughout, either face-up (so your opponents know what you’re going for) or blind (lucky dip, but they stay secret). Most points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’ve spoken before on how I don’t think variety equates to variability. But 1906 San Francisco is a great example of how you you can add a little replayability simply by reorganising a few cards (in this case the action cards). It doesn’t make games hugely different, but adds enough to take plays into double figures without breaking sweat. But the real trick was squeezing so much euro game into such a small box. It hogs lot of table space, but for travelling its the perfect way to pack a meaty game into a small amount of luggage.
  • The thinker: While this is a solid euro game, there isn’t much on show for fans of heavier games. Luck of the draw can sink you easily, both in scoring and building plot cards. And while you can concentrate slightly on different ways to score, you’ll all be doing pretty much the same thing. Being able to draw random scorecards is fine for this level/length of game, as it is in say Ticket to Ride. But it can make a bit of a mockery of what happens elsewhere if you flip some lucky combos. However, it beats most small box games hands down and I’d be happy to play it again.
  • The trasher: While 1906 San Francisco is very much a puzzley euro game, I did enjoy it. While you don’t directly mess with each other, the fact you’re competing on scorecards helps. Also, you can look to see what your opponents need and mess with their plans by taking spaces they need. Sure, they will usually still be able to do it – but they’ll have to pay. While some of the components are annoyingly fiddly, you can just about see what everyone has around the table. And it’s a fair price to pay for the small box size.
  • The dabbler: I was a bit worried as the rules were being described for this one – they seemed to go on and on… But once we started playing, I was surprised at how straightforward the game was. While its neither pretty or thematic, the theme does make sense in terms of how the game flows. And you only have to play a single year (six actions) to understand how the game works. While each round is essentially the same, it does have a bit of an arc. More scorecards makes you think about scoring differently, while the decreasing range of plots makes finding the right building plots more difficult.

Key observations

1906 San Francisco is a little fragile (no historical pun intended). Getting a great run of luck can occasionally lead down a path of obvious decisions and easy victory points. Is this a design flaw? I see it more as the product of lighter euro/gateway games that is pretty much a feature of the genre, not a flaw.

But more work could’ve been done balancing these scoring cards. Some are simple to score 8-10 points from, where others you’ll struggle to reach 4-5. But in most games each player will have enough cards that the weak and strong should balance out.

Keeping track of scorecards – your own, the public ones and those of your opponents – can become a problem. In a four-player game you could easily be looking at 20+ scorecards between you. Parsing that much detail is daunting, even when the iconography is pretty good, which can lead to AP. But even with a slow player or two, this shouldn’t really overstay its welcome. And most players won’t play this game seriously enough for this kind of play to develop.

Colours can be an issue though. Blue and green are pretty similar at the best of times and, often represented by thin lines here, they can cause a problem even for those with great sight in good light. It’s a shame too, as they got the player colours right (blue, orange, black and white). On the plus side, the number of problematic components is limited so should be easy to point out once then remember.

1906 San Francisco: Conclusion

So, should I overlook these points for a game that costs around £20 and will fit in a large coat pocket? For me, the answer is yes. If the game were in a bigger box, it may have blended in with other euro games and failed to make an impact. So while it may not stand out on theme, or mechanisms, size this time is everything.

It’s annoying more work wasn’t done on balancing the scorecards, while a simple graphic change could’ve solved the colour issues. So yes, the game could’ve done with more polish. But it joins a select group of titles that are genuinely small box and of euro complexity. It will definitely be staying in my collection and – in that small niche – comes highly recommended.

Find many more of my game reviews here.

* I’d like to thank Looping Games for providing a copy of 1906 San Francisco for review.

Friday feelings: Computers, AI and board game design

I’m a bit of a Luddite. While I embrace the internet I have no real interest in the zeros and ones in the background – or the scary world of ‘big brother’ AIs.

While I understand computers have huge potential in gaming, I have little interest in exploring these avenues myself. So, will I be left behind? Or worse, has it already happened?

My last published game, Witless Wizards, has a great Tabletopia page done by Drawlabs. While my friend and co-designer David Thompson always creates versions of his prototypes on Tabletop Simulator. These are clearly brilliant for both prototyping pre-publication and publicising post-publication. I’m happy to play on them. But you won’t find me delving into the back-end of them myself.

AI and board game design

Where these platforms really come into their own is big data. I know, for example, CGE ran some serious algorithms to balance factions in its asymmetric abstract game Tash-Kalar. What better way to supplement more emotional human testing than via machine?

You can also see AI and board game design going hand-in-hand simply storing data on matches played. I’m sure Feuerland Spiel used the data from thousands of online plays of Terra Mystica to help them balance factions in expansions and in Gaia Project, for example. While data from the online implementation of CGE’s Through the Ages clearly influenced changes in second edition, A New Story of Civilisation.

I’m not alone…

In a recent survey, (which I spoke about recently on the topic of Kickstarter) 33% of ‘product professionals’ listed their biggest fear as new technology stifling creativity. Look at Tash-Kalar, for example. While I enjoyed the game for a while it was just too dry to fall in love with. Too precise. Might the game have been more popular if those rough edges hadn’t been smoothed away?

Also in the survey, ‘AI and predictive tech’ was listed as the second most desirable technological advancement for those same retail product professionals (40%). We’re clearly a divided market, with as many creatives fearing AI as wanting to embrace it. But I take solace in the fact it was beaten into second place by 3D printing (46%).

What are your thoughts on AI and board game design? I’d be fascinated to hear from those working on digital platforms, where many analogue games now appear in digital form. And where digital games that could’ve been analogue are constantly updated and amended, presumably via big data feedback.

AireCon 5, 2019: Five Top 5s

And so ends another great AireCon (my second) To celebrate, I thought I’d do a 5×5 of top 5s as, you know, it was AireCon 5. Stupid idea? Sure. But here we go regardless.

AireCon 5 Highlights

  1. Space! Despite being attended by 2,000 people the biggest board gaming convention in the north of England never felt crowded. They opened a massive new area this year on the Saturday and while it did get busy up there at peak times, it never felt cramped.
  2. Friendliness: I’m sure the space helps and I’m also sure there were mini panics going off all over the place, the staff of Harrogate Convention Centre and the AireCon volunteers were always helpful with a smile. Great job guys!
  3. The mix: It had a great layout, with retailers surrounded by gaming areas and a few niches to hide in if you wanted them. There was a nice number of events, as well as an RPG area and family gaming; even a conservatory area for those who like daylight.
  4. Harrogate: Talking of Harrogate, I was again pleasantly surprised by just how nice it is. I wandered around the town and sampled a few more bars and restaurants this time – and found great beer and good food. Ans a special shout out to Major Tom’s Social.
  5. Beer: Talking of Major Tom’s Social, they did a great job of supplying some fantastic beers to the con. It’s great to be able to support a small local firm and drink some great craft beer in the process. I’d give the beer a shout out, if I could remember its name…

AireCon 5 ‘new to me’ games

  1. A Feast for Odin: A typical Rosenberg big box game, this time mixing his latest obsession (tetronimoes) with his last one (long worker placement games). It works, and I had a nice time, but it just felt like Caverna with more faff. I’ll stick with Caverna, ta.
  2. Tiny Towns: Brand new from AEG, this is another clever little puzzle game. Make patterns on a 4×4 grid to build buildings, taking it in turns to choose a cube colour everyone must place. Intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. Good stuff.
  3. Hokkaido: A clever, puzzley card drafting game where you overlay cards (each containing six terrain squares) to create a landscape via which you score points. If it sounds like Honshu, it’s because it’s in the same line – just harder.
  4. Dice Forge: A solid family game, where you upgrade the faces of your two dice to get better and better faces, special abilities and victory points. Unfortunately they ran out of ideas there, but it’s a well-produced and fun enough gimmick and to last a few plays.
  5. Raccoon Tycoon: An unremarkable rejig of auction/stock market mechanisms with some of the worst artwork and themeing I’ve seen for a long time. A fun enough game, but it also ran too long and got a bit samey late on.

AireCon 5 old favourites

  1. Gnomopolis: A really clever tableau building game that plays fast. Beautifully balances the desire to get points with a need to house the gnomes you need to get them – while three competing ways to end the game keep you on your toes.
  2. Basari: Das Kartenspiel: The card version of this classic simultaneous action selection game, which loses nothing from the bigger box original. Will you rush ahead, collect gems or simply grab points? But more importantly, what will those other buggers do…
  3. Deus: Played this weekend with the Egypt expansion, this is one of my most criminally underplayed games. The card comboing is great on its own, but the map placement and varying end game conditions take it to the next level.
  4. Archaeology: The Card Game: One of the first game I reviewed and still one of my favourite fillers. There are a few delicious push-your-luck elements to this simple set collection game, as well a lot of luck and a smidge of take that.
  5. Ulm: I think the shine is coming off this a little, but I still enjoy my plays – for now. You can’t escape the fact the game is a little too fragile, which should be fine in a sub-hour light euro – but the more I play, the less patient I get with that.

AireCon 5 (very) slight niggles

  1. Bring & buy: This was well organised but let down by some real scum bags. People had put in broken games, or others with pieces missing, without fessing up on the outside of the box. While other things simply got stolen.
  2. Food: While there was some nice nosh on offer, there were very few options and you had to stand in the (often FREEZING) cold to get it. Sure, town isn’t far away – but gamers come to game, dagnabbit! Worse, it wasn’t even better than last year.
  3. Light! The nicest time I had gaming was on Saturday afternoon in the room that was, sadly, only open on Saturday. It was well it – with real sunshine – and had comfortable chairs. Speaking of which…
  4. Chairs: The main gaming area had truly uncomfortable chairs, which also didn’t bend at an angle conducive to sitting up at a table. this was only about half the seating area, but the other chairs were so much more comfortable. Those first next year please!
  5. Kick-out time: While I get staff and volunteers need to go home, it’s a shame it shuts so early (10-ish). Maybe next year the organisers could put some effort into securing some space in some local gamer-friendly bars or hotels?

AireCon 5 personal goals for AireCon 6

  1. Get involved in an event
  2. Make a GoPlayListen T-shirt to wear
  3. Bring some of my games for the library
  4. Be brave and play with more randoms
  5. Have a beer-free day…

Thanks to The Game Pit/LoB Crew, The Greek contingent (from LudiCreations and Drawlabs), old friends Matt Dunstan, Keef & Clare (and Ray) – plus lots of other lovely journos, publishers and randoms – for teaching, beating, drinking and generally putting up with me all weekend!

Friday feelings: Why Kickstarter game publishing works

Traditional publishers (and many others in gaming) have a fundamental misunderstanding of Kickstarter. They see an upstart publishing platform. Operating as a cheap advertising website, it takes cash upfront while bypassing the distribution/retail chain. And all this without showing a proven product. But while these things are true there’s a larger truth behind it success.

Big companies across major industries struggle to come to terms with modern consumers. They’re no longer passive. They expect to communicate with a brand, rather than be dictated to by it: brands decide trends less and less. Consumers want transparency, collaboration and continuous dialogue. And this is what Kickstarter is nailing, both directly and indirectly.

The state of technology in retail

MakerSights recently released its 2019 State of Technology in Retail Report. It’s well worth a full read, but I’ve included its highlights infographic below. What really struck me while reading was how much of what modern consumers want is provided by Kickstarter. And how much of it traditional publishers are taking for granted.

Some headline stats from consumers:

  • 75% value being asked for feedback
  • 66% want more ways to interact with brands they love
  • 75% say being part of the creation process would increase likelihood of a purchase and of brand loyalty
  • 75% use tech to interact with brands they love where possible
  • 94% think tech has a positive impact on brand relationships
  • 17% said the “ability to have say in how/what product is made was the most interesting/exciting current innovation in retail

Reading this, it’s no surprise Kickstarter is capturing the gaming public’s imagination.

What can be copied from Kickstarter

What makes the report fascinating, though, is it also surveyed what it describes as ‘product professionals’; in a gaming sense, those working in publishing, distribution, retail etc. For me, the two key results from those producing the products were:

  • 43% thought their ‘toughest challenge’ was understanding what consumers want
  • 41% thought retaining customers was their ‘most critical’ challenge

This rings so true from my experience with traditional publishers, variously as a designer, journalist and consumer: largely, they’re living in the dark ages. It’s as it was with the music and film industries failing to adapt to MP3s, or the newspaper industry coming too late to the internet. They moan about upstart ideas rather than learning from them, sticking to their guns until it’s too late.

The land of the luddite

I can’t tell you how often I’ve tried to link a publisher to a review on Twitter, only to find they don’t have an account – or a Facebook page, or an English language web page. Or how often emails have gone unanswered – whether press enquiries, rule enquiries or even missing part requests.

These aren’t options for those running a Kickstarter – unless they want to crash and burn. A good Kickstarter publisher lives and dies on its social presence and its ability to quickly respond to enquiries. These publishers are being forced to answer all the questions discussed above, purely because the platform dictates it. Kickstarter is proving the perfect bridge between old-style publishing and the modern consumer.

Copy the best bits of Kickstarter

While Kickstarter is forcing its publishers to bridge the consumer relations gap, the big plus for traditional publishers is their industry experience. Generally they’re better at finding, developing and publishing games. And they’re better at those important checks and balances that make great experiences.

Too many Kickstarters lack accountability and fail to meet expectations. Because there is such a low barrier to entry, it breeds amateurs and is rife with poor end results. It isn’t trusted, yet. Which gives traditional publishers a chance. Don’t get me wrong: great publishers develop from Kickstarter. But they have those important traits a great publisher needs continue to make great games – eventually driving enough capital to move away from the bosom of Kickstarter into the wider world.

Along with their designers, traditional publishers need to get tech savvy. You don’t need to use Kickstarter to get a social media presence; or to engage with your consumers. You don’t need it to drive conversations with the people you should care most about – those promoting and buying your games. You just need to put some money into what is now the most important part of the business: genuine public relations.

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