A board game designing diary: Pioneer Days

Some game designs come together easy – while others certainly do not. For every back-of-a-cigarette-packet mechanism that just goes from theory to ironing out the details, there are many, many more that are years in the making.

Rather fittingly, I guess, Pioneer Days – a game about the long, hard struggle of winning out against adversity – falls into the latter category.

Fact junkies: Add 200 years to the dates for a more accurate reading… (and much love to co-designer Matt Dunstan, who also wrote the original draft of this diary).

December 1813

We first set out, from Australia and England, on a journey quite unlike the one that would shape out fate: to design a game about dwarves brewing beer. But as with so many grand designs, our plans were dashed on the rocks and the expedition was a failure. Over complexity, and ideas that didn’t quite hang together, saw us walk away from yet another promising adventure.

But those initial dreams did bear some fruit: a crumb of an idea in which dice were rolled but, no matter whether they were 6s or 1s, you’d have an advantage of one kind or another. Here, we had individuals rolling their own three dice then using them to draft cards, each representing a worker dwarf: low rolls would get the first choices of cards, but higher rolls would use the cards they drafted more effectively. I still hold some hope for the idea, but at the time it had too many issues. Hate drafting was rife on low numbers, choices limited on high ones, and all round it was unsatisfying.

March 1814

Undeterred by our earlier failure, we set out with a new destination in mind. America! Matt had a plan: three cards per player will still be drafted with their dice (lowest first), but the cards will have a number of profession symbols (traveller, miner, farmer etc) on them.

The dice now only give a one-time bonus to the players, with the highest collection of each profession giving that player a bonus for the round; meaning the drafting was also about long-term strategy with the professions, rather than just short term tactical play.

Actions saw players move caravans across the plains; mine the hills; build in new territories; fight off hostiles, and of course feed their hardy pioneers. But something still wasn’t right. While we were now firmly on dry land and resolved to discover a new destiny, the dice mechanism still didn’t sit well with us. Low rollers were still denying others of the actions they want and the compensation for the high numbers wasn’t strong enough. Are we simply doomed to repeat our earlier failures?

May 1814

A breakthrough! Dysentery and terrible weather had laid us low, but the skies cleared and we could clearly make out the way ahead. Rather than different coloured dice for each player, the dice colours will represent disasters that may befall all our pioneers – and will be rolled from a bag each round. Players will draw one more dice than there are players, and draft one each – with the one leftover moving that disaster one step closer to befalling those brave souls. Colours represent illness (medicine required!), raids (there goes your money!), heat (your cattle will suffer) and terrain (say b-bye to your wagons – which were holding all your stuff!) – with the dreaded black dice seeing all four disasters moving ever closer.

The game has five turns, with each player taking five dice each turn, for a total of 25 actions in the game. Each can be used either for money (where high is better – and can be spent on wagons, specialist workers etc); or for an action (with better actions tied to lower numbers). And as an added twist, your final set of five collected dice will create a Yahtzee/poker style ‘hand’ which will give bonuses at the end of the round. We feel confident in our new-found mechanism – but will it just be another false dawn?

August 1814

We spent the previous few months on the trail with a more singular purpose and it finally bore fruit! The answer wasn’t poker, it was people! While we fine-tuned the mechanical side of the game we realised what it really needed was the personalities that made the original idea so compelling – the people (now pioneers) themselves.

These hardy folk have added a whole host of interesting abilities into the mix, adding more interaction between players and making the base actions far more varied and complex. But as well as adding colour, these pioneers have brought two levels of mechanical progression that have sealed the game’s structure.

The poker idea has gone. Instead, your pioneers offer a third (neutral, in terms of number rolled) option when choosing what to do with a dice: each number now has a person randomly drawn next to it each round, who you can add to your wagon train with that roll. And better still they each have a way of scoring end game points, helping you choose a particular path to follow. If you can keep them alive to the end of the trail…

January 1815

An investor! Our very own Oregon Trail seems to have ended, in fact, in Utah – via Essen, Germany. Back in October we met with a character named Seth Jaffee who represented a company called Tasty Minstrel Games: a publisher we trusted to do the right thing by us and our game, then called Frontiers. He took the game away to show it to his partners – and low and behold, we have ourselves a deal! The game we gave them back then was rough around the edges, but mechanically sound – and we’ve spend the last few months going back and forth with them smoothing the edges.

The difference between publishers is astonishing. Sometimes you can hand a game over and out it pops into the shops a year later with nary a detail changed; while with others you can be all but cut out of the development process. But if we thought we’d be able to hang out spurs up and relax this time, we were in for a shock! We’re consulting every step of the way, with not a week going by without discussions of a particular pioneer’s ability, or the relative strength of a particular action. It’s a long process, but worth every second – because each week, you know the game is getting better.

June 1815

While the trail is long and winding, and we often feel the end is in sight only to find another fork in the path, we continue to persevere. I was worried we may be taking too many rough edges away: this is the Wild West, after all.

But in hindsight I can see the wisdom behind Seth removing some of the more trouble-making townsfolk. Who knows, maybe they can return one day? Elsewhere, wagons now take damage rather than being destroyed by storms – meaning you won’t lose as many valuable resources!

As fun as some of them were, some ‘take that’ elements are just a little too crass for this style of euro game: especially when the key focus should really be on the disaster track. You should be worrying if bandits will take your gold if you let a disaster happen, rather than another player sniping it from you. If I’ve learned one thing from all the game design blogs I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listen to, it’s this: find where the game is. For us it is on the disaster board, and the tension that it brings – that shouldn’t be upstaged.

December 1816

The end of the trail cannot be far away now! Many months of further small iterations have seen us create themed decks of townsfolk, while working on individual player board abilities. The game is now called Pioneer Days, and artist Sergi Marcet has been brought on board to bring the game to life. He’s done an amazing job, even bringing some of our family members and play-testers to life on some of the townsfolk cards. You may even recognise a few of our fellow Cambridge, UK-based designers.

The different decks of townsfolk really help make each game feel different, as you can mix and match; some add a bit of randomness, others interactivity etc. The varied player board characters encourage different types of play style. You get two to choose from at the start of the game, but each also has a standard pioneer on the back (always a solid choice), so you can still opt for a balanced game if that’s what floats your boat.

October 2017

A limited supply of copies arrived at Essen Speil via aeroplane. Opening the first copy to find a beautiful game – but no dice – was a little terrifying! Especially as we opening the next, and the next to find the same thing… But a few phone calls later and we knew (prayed) they’d arrive the next day. They did – and the limited copies soon sold out, leaving us waiting on the rest to arrive by boat – perhaps even in time for Christmas?

***********

But once again, in a fitting nod to those hardy pioneers of old, transportation of the game across the seas hit rough waters. But despite what clearly must have been a succession of black-dice-level disasters, we never lost hope – and in Spring of 2018 Pioneer Days finally completed its troubled journey to the USA. We hope you like it!

Con report: UK Games Expo 2017

At last week’s UK Games Expo I managed to break my own PB for different hats worn and sleep deprivation, adding ‘PR demo guy for a publisher’ to my usual list of designer (on booth), designer (publisher meetings), designer (play-testing), journalist and punter. It was an exhausting four days, but thoroughly enjoyable all the same.

My PR stint involved showing the next three games from LudiCreations to a variety of games journalists: Iunu, Diesel Demolition Derby and Alexandria. I’m lucky enough to now have one of my co-designs with Matt Dunstan signed with Ludi now, so I’ll no longer be reviewing its games – but I wanted to give a bit of a preview of them here.

Elsewhere I got to help out a bit with demoing Armageddon to a steady flow of punters, grab a few new games to review and show some of my own new titles to some great publishers – as well as catching up with lots of old friends I only seem to see in Birmingham, Eastbourne and Germany nowadays!

Ludi’s latest creations

I was demoing three games for LudiCreations: one currently on Kickstarter, and two more on the way in the next month or so.

I had the pleasure of sharing the games with the fine people at The Game Pit Podcast, Polyhedron Collider, Creaking Shelves, Broken Meeple and Devon Dice. Hopefully you’ll be able to check them out for more opinionated articles.

Iunu is on Kickstarter until June 30, for as little as $10. It’s a simple yet clever 2-4 player card game with elements of drafting, set collection, building majorities and engine building. It has a delicious tipping point midway though and, despite looking very simple, packs some genuine decisions into a short playing time (sub-one hour). It demoed well with everyone I played with – and you can try it yourself on Tabletopia.

Diesel Demolition Derby is a simple ‘robot smash’ drafting game from Matt Dunstan. Rounds are super fast, with many cards having effects that hit your opponents’ robots as you all try to get the most strength in machines into your tableau – but the bigger the robot, the bigger the target and the little ones, played well, will often give you those satisfying David and Goliath moments. There are a bunch of arena cards that make every round different, it plays 2-6 and lasts about 30 minutes. One for fans of filler games, drafting, simple combat, micro games, and trying to read your opponents’ plans.

Alexandria is an asymmetric, action point allowance and hand management game, played out on a modular board representing the great Library of Alexandria (2-4 players, 1-2 hours). Each character has a unique card deck and they all play very differently; as you’re trying to save particular items from the fire, you can bet one of your opponents is trying to smash them to gain their own advantage! The board shrinks each round, adding to the tension, while a bunch of reaction cards keep everyone on their toes. It tells a strong story, and will appeal to euro fans who like a bit of interaction in their games and anyone who enjoys putting together card combos.

The now, the soon and the maybes

It was great to see Queen Games at Expo, with two tables demoing Armageddon. They didn’t have loads of copies with them but they sold what they had, and the tables were full all weekend. It was fun watching groups sit down to learn the game but instead of playing a couple of turns, stay for the whole game.

It was also great to catch up with Seth Jaffee, of Tasty Minstrel Games. He has been developing Matt Dunstan and my next release, Pioneer Days, which should be out later in 2017. It’s a dice-driven euro game which I think does a good job of bringing out the Oregon Trail theme; and I’m super pumped at how the finished version is turning out.

Armageddon co-designer David Thompson and me also showed our most recent two prototypes to several publishers. It’s hard to believe how far the Expo has come in just a few years, in terms of the staff from top publishers in attendance: they genuinely see it as a key event on the calendar. The likes of AEG, Pegasus, Queen, Mage Company and Mayfair all had senior staffers on hand, to name but a few. We didn’t sign any deals, but had some positive meetings.

Reviews incoming

I was deliberately subdued on the review front for two reasons: one, I’ve still got games to review from Essen so didn’t want to add to the pile too much; and two, there really wasn’t that much ‘new’ stuff on show that interested me. There were lots of mini-heavy offerings, some pretty rustic looking affairs and a bunch of hopeful Kickstarters: not really my bag!

I did grab Design Town from Pegasus; Kingdomino and Baobab (Tumble Tree) from Coiledspring/Blue Orange, and The Cousin’s War from Surprised Stare. Design Town, or Flip City, is an interesting deck-builder; Tumble Tree a great little dexterity game; Kingdomino a light domino game recently announced as one of this year’s Spiel de Jares nominees; and The Cousin’s War is a light and fast two-player card driven war game. Hopefully I’ll get them all reviewed before Essen…

As for being a punter, I realised on Sunday morning that I’d played 15 games at the con to that point – only one of which was published! That was classic Knizia bidding game Medici, that I’d never played. I managed an inglorious last place but did enjoy the challenge – thanks to Rogue from GCT Studios for teaching.

Pros and con cons

At the end of the weekend, thoughts inevitably turned to next year. This time I stayed at the Hilton Metropole for the first time, which was brilliant in terms of being able to sneak off and desocialise when all the crowds and noise got a bit much. And it was also a godsend on two occasions when I needed to demo games, but we couldn’t find a free table anywhere, so used my frankly ridiculous sized room.

But despite a comfy bed and fantastic breakfast, the hotel was pretty awful. Staff were often rude and/or incompetent (especially at the bar), my room was never properly cleaned and the price of everything – from the room to drinks and food – was ridiculous for the poor level of service provided. I get better cleaners/bar staff in London fleapits. I expect I’ll try and get into one of the other large hotels nearby, if I can afford it…

As for UK Games Expo itself, I continue to be amazed at how it copes with exponential growth every year with such little fuss and drama. As ever the Expo volunteers were helpful and smiling throughout the weekend, in stark contrast to those of the Hilton. But while the areas of the NEC used were well organised, the Hilton gaming space was at breaking point the whole weekend; a problem they’ll have to seriously address – and get ahead of – for next year. But i’m confident the organisers can, yet again, rise to the task.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Geoff Engelstein

Game designer, developer and podcaster Geoff Engelstein is an MIT graduate from Queens, New York.

His design credits to date include the popular Space Cadets and Space Cadets: Dice Duel, The Fog of War, Survive: Space Attack! and The Ares Project.

Many will also know him as the co-host of top board game design podcast Ludology, as well as for the insightful ‘GameTek’ segments he provides for The Dice Tower podcast.

This is the eighth 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?
Game design definitely doesn’t pay the bills. I have a company that does contract engineering design and manufacturing for a variety of industries. Companies and individuals come to us with product ideas, and we turn it into something real. I’ve got a team of engineers, covering electronics, software, and mechanical design. I’ve got a background in physics and electrical engineering myself, although I do a little bit of everything.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
I’m a huge fanboy of Vlaada Chvatil, going back to his earliest designs (Graenaland and Prophecy). His designs are so diverse, innovative, and seemingly effortless. My favorite would have to be Through the Ages.

3. What drew you to game design?
I’ve always loved to create, but within the context of making something functional. There are tremendous parallels between engineering and game design – concerns about achieving goals within constraints, etc – so it really fills the same need for me.

The immediate thing that made me try my hand at designing was a game that, although good, didn’t do what I wanted. So I decided to make it myself.

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?
Neither. I start with an experience in mind. I guess that’s closer to theme than mechanics, but it’s more about emotion and storytelling than those two terms cover.

For example, I would never sit down to design a zombie game. That doesn’t help it all. You need to bring in the emotion. A zombie game about being trapped in a mall, with the zombies pounding down the door? A zombie game where you play a world power trying to stop zombies from spreading across the globe? Those are experiences, and it’s where I like to start.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
That very beginning and the very end are the best parts – that first rush of ideas, and seeing the game on store shelves. Everything in between is tough – endless iteration, trying to convince playtesters to give it another shot, and more. Of course there are great moments during that in between period when a great solution snaps into place, but in general it’s hard work.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
I’ve tried to design a really simple microgame for years, without success. No matter where I start it always ends up being a hundred cards and tons of tokens.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
Spend as little time as possible on your prototypes. Scribbling on index cards is a great place to start. I keep a stack of different colored index cards on my desk just or that purpose. You’re going to throw a lot of stuff away, so make it as psychologically easy as possible.

Then once things are a little more mature, if you’ve got a fair number of cards, learn how to use a card merge system to make it easy to make changes. I use Adobe InDesign and Excel, but there are many great solutions out there.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
I got Zev from Z-Man to look at my first ever design. I knew it wasn’t done, but thought it was pretty close, and that Zev would see the obvious genius of the design.

The playtest went completely off the rails, and the ending was absolutely horrible. And it was obvious there wasn’t any genius. I was horribly embarrassed, and actually shelved the game, where it sits to this today. Fortunately Zev was open-minded and ended up publishing my next design, The Ares Project.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
This is a tough one. Probably the mechanism I am most proud of in one of our designs is the ‘core breach’ mechanic in Space Cadets, which was designed by my son Brian. We needed a more exciting way for the players to lose, rather than just accumulating enough damage.

So we tried to figure out a way to have the game end with a bang – winning or losing. If the ship takes too much damage it doesn’t blow up right away. The next turn, while you’re doing everything else to run your ship, you also need to fix the core breach. You have 30 seconds to do it all, and the core breaches get harder each time they re-occur. It puts the players’ fate back into their own hands, and adds incredible drama.

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love civ building games, like Through the Ages, Clash of Cultures, and the like.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I’m not sure on this one. I think it’s a pretty good place. However, I would love to see more diverse backgrounds of designers, in terms of gender, nationality, and ethnicity. It’s better than it used to be, but we still have a ways to go.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
My great-grandfather Samuel Engelstein started the Great Coney Island Fire of 1911, which was the beginning of the end for the amusement parks out there.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Mike Fitzgerald

Designer Mike Fitzgerald’s first game, Wyvern, was published in 1994; a trading card game that got him the opportunity to work freelance with Wizards of the Coast (where he also designed the Nitro and X-Men trading card games).

He branched into regular card games in 1996 with Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper – the first game in a series that still sells worldwide.

In 2013 he became a full time designer, finding success with titles including Baseball Highlights 2045 and Diamonds. His next design, Dragon Island, comes out at GenCon 2017 through R&R Games.

For the past two years he has also been the co-host on top board game design podcast Ludology, but sadly stood down from the show after episode 150.

This is the seventh 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?
Game design does pay the bills for me. But previously I had a 44-year radio career, including 30 years in New York radio as a radio personality. I guess that is also somewhat creative.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
My favourite designer is Carl Chudyk for designing Mottainai, which is my favourite game of all time. I most admire Richard Garfield and have had a chance to learn a lot from him.

3. What drew you to game design?
When I played Magic: The Gathering when it first came out I became fascinated by how the game was designed, so I designed my first game (Wyvern) at that time.

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?
Theme usually comes first for me, but not always. I like designing mechanics with a theme in mind that I can make the players feel like they are doing through the mechanics.

I design games that I will like to play. If they seem to work, I then think about many different kinds of players and see how many of them I could interest in the game.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
For me. The worst aspect is writing rules. Very difficult and I struggle with that. The best is watching play testers ‘get’ your game and you realise the design could be published.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
I have stayed away from designs that will be hard to design, until recently when I decided to do the Mystery Rummy Legacy game. That has been the hardest game I have ever designed, but is now being looked at by a publisher.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
Concentrate on making it easy to play, but do not overdo it on components. I believe in keeping some things open for the publisher to see what could be done.

Many disagree with me on this, as they think it is better to make it look like it could go right onto a store shelf. But the reason I don’t do that is I do not know how!

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
When I was pitching Baseball Highlights 2045 companies would love the game and want to play it again and again but said they could not publish it because it was two players and based on sports, which won’t sell…

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
When Baseball Highlights was published and turned out to be a very good seller, which is still growing in popularity!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
My favourite mechanism is multi-use and multipurpose cards, with Mottainai being, in my opinion, the best game ever designed.

I love medium weight games that are fun and have some depth, such as Istanbul and Key to the City London. And then I also like most deck-building games, such as Clank, Trains and my own Baseball Highlights 2045.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I think it is fine – and getting better all the time!

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I love classical music, with Brahms’ Symphony No.1 being my favourite.

Why you should visit UK Games Expo, June 2-4 2017

Now in its 12th year, the UK Games Expo (UKGE) is Britain’s largest annual board game event. Held in Birmingham each year, as the hobby itself has grown exponentially in recent years the Expo has grown with it – moving from a hotel-based event to one that now sprawls over several halls of the NEC Arena.

But what does UKGE offer visitors – from new gamers just getting into the hobby through to experienced old cynics; not to mention those on the fringes of the hobby, or those trying to make an impact as a player in the industry: from game to graphic design?

UK Games Expo for new gamers and families

One of my favourite aspects of the Expo is how much it has embraced its role in encouraging new players into the hobby.

Throughout the halls you’ll find enthusiastic and friendly staff ready to point you in the right direction – and they’ll be pointing you towards curated play areas such as the Family Zone. Here you’ll find a huge library of games along with an enthusiastic band of volunteers happy to teach them to you. And of course, if you find one that’s a hit with the family, they’ll be on hand to buy too.

There will also be ‘huge’ versions of some of the hobby’s favourite titles for you to get to grips with, alongside all the staples of kids entertainment (yes, you’ll probably end up with your face painted – sorry). And it also now a big event on the cosplay circuit, so expect to see people wandering around as characters from your favourite sci-fi, fantasy and superhero films, TV shows and comics (yes, there will be Daleks).

And in another show of support to the industry as a whole, you’ll be able to play the games up for (and winning) the Imagination Gaming Family and Education Awards. There’s even a children’s roleplaying games section in the zone (for kids aged seven to 12-years-old).

UKGE for the seasoned player

Many of my gamer friends are pretty cynical about Expo, having been in the ‘olden days’ when it was largely just an open gaming get-together in a rather expensive hotel in the midlands. And while bits of that are still true, to a point, it has a hell of a lot more to offer now.

The shopping area was impressive last year, including a massive bring-and-buy area alongside both big name publishers and lots of smaller, aspiring UK startup design teams. But this year the list of exhibitors is a who’s-who of game publishing: you can’t argue with a list including Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight, Days of Wonder, Asmodee, Mayfair/Lookout, Pegasus, Queen, Czech Games Edition, Z-Man and Portal. UK Games Expo is genuinely on the worldwide list of events now – time to wake up, chaps!

Alongside shopping and open play, you’ll find a host of tournaments to take part in (you’ll need to sign up pre-event though). This year includes official European Championships in games including Netrunner, Game of Thrones LCG, Star Wars Armada, Star Wars Destiny and Star Wars: The Card Game LCG; the Catan Regional Championship and the Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Agricola UK National Championships – plus loads more. It’s a huge mixture – from the official Pokemon Regional Championships to more than 15 events being run by The British Historical Games Society.

As a budding game industry player

With the kind of quality of publishers mentioned above, it should already be a no-brainer to attend if you’re wanting to get into the industry; there is no better date in the UK gaming calendar to meet some of the key players in the gaming professions.

If you’re a budding game designer, they’ve stepped things up again this year. Playtest UK has has its Playtest Zone at the Expo for years, where you can bring your prototype and have it tested by members of the public, and maybe even some fellow designers (I’ve spent a little bit of time volunteering here in the past and I can promise you, it is almost consistently packed out with both players and designers).

But in addition they’ll be holding a ‘pitch to publishers’ game design speed-dating event, which already has the likes of Mayfair and WizKids signed up to check out the prototypes of up-and-coming designers (but you’ll need to sign up before April 29). Trust me – even if no one is interested in publishing a game, you’ll get some absolutely invaluable feedback at this kind of event.

As a fan of geek culture

While this is a three-day event focused on board, card and roleplaying games there is so much going on: anyone interested in geek culture in general can easily make a packed day out of it, if not more.

Alongside the cosplay already mentioned, you’ll find stalls selling all kinds of fun stuff – from T-shirts and cuddly toys to comics and accessories. But you can also meet authors (including Jonathan Green and Richard Denning) and guests (including the Shut Up and Sit Down and Dice Tower teams), blow your budget at the charity auction, watch the Captain Scarlett tribute show, or check out one of the many seminars on everything from making, selling and marketing games, or writing like a pro, to getting involved in a live podcast.

Single day tickets cost £13/8 (cheaper price for 11-15-year olds), with children 10 and under getting free admission. There are also family tickets (two adults and two children) starting from £35 for a single day. Many of the events will need extra tickets, but things such as the shopping areas, family zone etc are included in the price.

Visit the official UK Games Expo site for all the excruciating details you may need, including all the boring stuff like parking and opening hours. See you there!

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Rob Daviau

Rob Daviau is an award-winning game designer and developer, as well as co-host of the excellent podcast The Game Design Round Table.

In the business since 1998, he has designed and published more than 70 titles across genres, from children’s to family to hobby games.

While at Hasbro he worked on titles including Heroscape, Risk Legacy, Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit and Betrayal at House on the Hill; and since leaving the company Seafall and Pandemic: Legacy.

This is the sixth 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’m a full-time games designer and have been for 18 years. The first 14 were with Hasbro so the bills were paid no matter how well my games did. It’s been a bit trickier since I’ve been on my own. Outside of games, I cook and parent and travel. Mostly I just unwind from a day of creativity.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
I enjoy Gary Gygax, Dave Lebling, JJ Abrams, Chris Claremont and a host of others who shaped my childhood. I don’t get into which designers I enjoy these days because I’ll inevitably leave out someone I shouldn’t and then run into them.

3. What drew you to game design?
I was very much into D&D as a kid and always had a love for rpgs. The board game design job was an unexpected side track when I answered an ad for Hasbro in 1998. It was a near adjacency and I am delighted that it happened.

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?
Theme and experience first. Mechanics are then a challenge.

I don’t enjoy – nor am I particularly good at – mechanics in a vacuum. It’s all very dry and formless unless I know what I want the them and experience to be.

Also, I don’t design games for the same person but I do design each game for a particular player. The player in my head for Pandemic Legacy is different than Seafall is different than Stop Thief.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
Starting a new game is exciting. Having that first prototype, something you’ve created from nothing. Then it isn’t as fun when it doesn’t work. And then it works. And then it doesn’t. And back and forth between the agony and the ecstasy until it’s done.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
Anything abstract or minimally themed. Once I get stuck I don’t really know how to get unstuck.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
Please don’t make it look good until late in the process. Pen and paper are your best friends. Of course, sometimes it’s fun to make it look pretty as a way of doing something on the game but you don’t have any good ideas.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
One publisher turned to their staff after the game and asked them to rate the game from 1 to 10 after playing a demo. It was super awkward as I was sitting there and they felt stuck.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Reading the first review of Risk Legacy while on my honeymoon in Hawaii.

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
Anything that tells a good story.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
A really good, easy solution to learning how to play the game other than reading the rules.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I can do a fair variety of voices and accents.

Post release comedown: dealing with bad press

Statler and waldorfSo you’ve made something – a song, a poem, a short story, a board game, whatever. You’ve spent blood, sweat and tears (OK, time and effort) making it the best you could and you’re proud of it. So much so, you put it out there for others to look at.

Then someone, somewhere, agreed – they thought it was good enough to publish. Maybe on their website, in a magazine or anthology, through their publishing company. That thing you made in your bedroom, that your friends and now this company like, will be exposed to the world. Which will be AWESOME… right up until the world gets its hands on it.

A few home truths. Some…

  1. People are mean: It’s true. Trust me, I’m one of them. I was a music reviewer for years and had some truly hilarious emails/letters from friends/relatives of bands I thought were awful – doing everything from threatening me, to questioning everything from my brain power to my birth right. I know, I was part of the problem – but at least it helps me brush it off today now the shoe is on the other foot.
  2. People are invisible: In my defence, while I was sometimes critical of albums, gigs etc, I always did it with my real name and so with a right to reply. Now it is easier than ever to criticise anonymously and, so, with no fear of reprisals. This lack of responsibility can inevitably lead to all kinds of unfounded and false statements that, however ridiculous, can still lead to lasting opinions from others.
  3. People are hasty: The advent of the internet – and even more so social media – has given the world a way to spout drivel at an unprecedented rate and to an ever-growing audience. It has practically no checks and balances, often has no takey-backsies, and it’s FREE. You can post things on the bus on the way home from the pub and not even remember the next day – or ever – that you’ve done it.
  4. People are stupid: They don’t do any research. They make moronic comparisons. They claim rumours, guesses and opinions as ‘facts’. They quote a single source as gospel truth without looking into it further (if they did they’d probably find it was posted by a mean, invisible, hasty or other stupid person). And often they haven’t fully (or sometimes even partially) read, listened, played whatever they’re criticising.
  5. People don’t start every critical sentence with ‘in my opinion’: Although that’s probably what they mean a lot of the time. Well, at least some of the time. Probably.

So what are you going to do about it?

Nothing. For several reasons.

  1. It won’t help: In the words of Shakespeare, haters gonna hate – and trollers gonna troll. You have no idea why they said what they said, and if it’s really dumb – or just plain wrong – why do you think the truth will out? Unless something is written in a very well-reasoned way, it’s probably best to leave it be – and even then, you may want to hold off, largely because…
  2. The cavalry is probably on its way: The fact there are several people on the internet will, inevitably, work in your favour – because every bad penny has a flip side to the coin. They may equally bad, mean, stupid, hasty and uncritical but more importantly than any of that they can be forgiven because they’re ON YOUR SIDE. If you let someone else fight your battles for you, you get to keep your dignity – and your sanity – intact.
  3. Because even if you the cavalry doesn’t arrive, getting involved will very rarely make you feel better: Most likely, one of two things will happen. One, you’ll feed the troll and start a childish spat you’re probably not going to ‘win’. Or two, your reply will be met with silence and you’ll never, ever know if the original poster even read it. Think about how much that might eat you up. And while you’re thinking about that, imagine what the percentage is of cases that end in the original poster replying, “Wow, you’re totally right! I didn’t see it like that. Thanks for correcting me”.

Sure it’s hard. But think back to the opening points – the people posting those comments are probably mean, stupid, unresearched and lazy when it comes to sentence construction. There’s no need to fuel a fire and hey, be pragmatic – they didn’t like it. No biggy. You always knew there would be people who didn’t (although of course you’d hope they’d keep their mouths shut). Nothing is for everyone – and at least it’s out there, right? You’ve made your mark on the world and you should revel in that.

But what if they had a point…

The best thing about anything creative is that there’s always a lesson to be learnt, always a way to improve and always another mountain to climb. If they were right, learn from it and move on. Because that next creative project is going to be even better – which means the cavalry charge against the stoopids will be even more vociferous and unstoppable…

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Bruno Cathala

Bruno Cathala is a celebrated French board game designer with almost 15 years experience and well over 50 games behind him. He now works in the hobby full-time, both on his own projects and with corporate clients.

Highlights of his design career include Five Tribes, Shadows Over Camelot (with Serge Laget), Mr Jack (with Ludovic Maublanc), Cyclades (with Ludovic Maublanc) and 7 Wonders Duel (with Antoine Bauza).

This is the fifth 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’m lucky enough to get all my income from games. Royalties form games you know, but I’m also creating specific games for private customers; for example for advertising reasons. For the creative unpaid part, I’m a (bad) musician so, I also like to write (bad) songs for myself.

When I was 20 I dreamt of becoming a comic strip writer/artist. Today I do it in a very modest way: each month I try to write a small story in three images for Plato, a French magazine dedicated to games.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
For me it would be Richard Garfield and Claude Leroy.

I have to say thank you to Richard, because Magic: The Gathering really changed my comprehension of game design. It opened my eyes. I still love MTG and think it’s one of the few games which had a major influence on all modern games.

Claude Leroy is the designer of Gyges, an abstract two-player game. I love abstract two-player games (I could also speak about the incredible work of Kris Burm with the GIPF project). But Gyges is THE game. Incredibly clever, simple to learn, but so deep. It’s a pity that this game is not more popular.

3. What drew you to game design?
I discovered there was a life after Monopoly when I was 20 because of a French magazine dedicated to board games. I bought my first one and was so impressed that I decided that, one day, I would create my own game – but I had absolutely no ideas at this time. So, during the years I just fed myself with games, games, games; all kinds of games. Then, when I was 36, I suddenly decided now was the time for me to make this game – and I began to work on my first prototype, Lawless, which was published in 2003.

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?
You forget one other thing – components! Because components can also initiate something special. But story, mechanisms, components are only tools you use to create a specific game experience between players. And it’s that game experience I try to create which excites me.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect is that you are completely free to do what you want! You are the king of your world, without any limit. The worst is that you have to find a publisher! And that you need as much energy for that. And it can be a long road, strewn with a lot of disappointment.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
Games for young children (my head seems to be too complicated) and party games (it’s not common for me to have a starting idea in this category).

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
Spend as little time as possible creating the first prototype, because you will definitely trash it and build something new just after the first playtesting session.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
I was pitching Mow to a publisher I really wanted to work with and I knew this very simple card game would fit in his line.

I began my speech, but he stopped me in the middle of my first sentence saying, “Definitively not for me – too mathematical”.

But there was nothing complicated in that game; it was just that at that time I was known for more brainy games; he couldn’t see me as someone able to create a simple game. I was so upset, and disappointed, but luckily I found another publisher (Hurrican) and, at this time, Mow has sold more than 100,000 copies.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Probably the creation of Five Tribes. All the ideas came at the same time, like if it was an emergency, and the game was built in two days. It took me much more time to fine tune it, but the creation was so easy and fast!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
Two-player games! For example, I have fallen in love with Santorini – it’s just… perfect! The game is easy to learn but deep, while also having very high production values. And it also has ways to balance the chances of winning between players who are not at the same level of experience.

I also have fun playing some addictive games such as Hearthstone and Star Realms. And I’m a big, big fan of Flamme Rouge, which was released at the last Essen (October 2016).

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
More women! To be honest I can see that there are now more and more women at game conventions, but we also need more women as game designers.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I’m a fan of… mushrooms! I really enjoy spending time walking in my mountain woods to find them – and then cooking and eating them!

Nuremberg Toy Fair versus Essen: Spielwarenmesse for game designers

I’ve wanted to go to the Nuremberg Toy Fair since I started down the game design rabbit hole and finally made it happen this year – so thought I’d pass on a few thoughts on my experiences in case any other fledgling designers were considering making the trip.

For the uninitiated, the fair (official snappy title: Spielwarenmesse) is massive: almost 3,000 exhibitors showing a million products to almost 75,000 trade visitors.

While the board game halls are just about two of the 20 or so on offer, the list of publishers in attendance is impressive: alongside all the key German players (Kosmos, Huch, Haba, Pegasus, Queen, Alea, Amigo, Schmidt etc) you’ll find many of the world’s finest on hand – from Asmodee and Granna to Blackrock and Mayfair, and many more in between.

Below I’m going to compare my Nuremberg experience, in as much as I can, to going to Essen – as both a game designer and a game fan/blogger. The two are very different experiences and both have their advantages (or perhaps disadvantages, depending on your point of view!).

Nuremberg versus Essen

1. The great unwashed: One of the great joys of Nuremberg is that it isn’t open to the general public. This means that, in terms of crowding, it is far more relaxed – especially because the board gaming areas aren’t the most heavily trafficked (that’s reserved for Lego and the like).

This also translates to the public transport to and from the show (the price of which is handily included in your show ticket), which is far less packed, while it’s easy to find short food queues once you find some of the more hidden away cafe areas (no, I’m not telling!).

2. The atmosphere inside: After the lower numbers in the halls, the next thing you notice in comparison to Essen is the subsequent volume level. This is a huge boon in terms of trying to have meetings as you don’t have to shout over the crowd the whole time; and the lack of crowding gamers means it’s easier to get from one meeting to the next – not to mention almost all the publishers you’ll need to see being in two adjacent halls.

3. Relaxed meetings: As stands aren’t all hands to the pumps, it means games developers can concentrate purely on taking meetings. And better still, they don’t need to fill said stands with tonnes of games to sell – meaning the stands are much more geared towards meeting spaces with tables and chairs. Having seen games pitched at Essen anywhere from a window ledge to the floor, it’s a welcome change!

Also, as the show lasts a full week, there are usually plenty of time slots to be had (mileage may vary here though). This means you can go for less time, but still squeeze a lot in – we managed to take a dozen meetings in two days, while still having time to eat and wander around the halls a bit – and it never felt as if we were having to rush a pitch.

4. More time for your games: Better still is the logistics of the European game release year. Most hobby publishers will release a lot more games at Essen than at Nuremberg – and the gap from Nuremberg to Essen is longer, meaning that publishers are feeling the pressure is off a little at this time of year (February/March).

This means they have more time to play prototypes – and yours will be fresh in their minds if you show here, rather than Essen. You can also improve on ideas between the two, or work towards ideas they may have hinted at back in October. And publishers will generally be more patient as you bumble through!

5. Outside the fair: Comparing the cities culturally is a total mismatch: Nuremberg has a fantastic medieval castle and district, a great train museum, art of all kinds and German history museum – as well as a bustling shopping centre and some decent restaurants and bars. Essen has something of the latter. However Nuremberg has an accommodation market well used to Spielwarenmesse being in town, so staying during the show is eye-wateringly expensive. That said, as there are way less publishers than at Essen – who have more time slots – you can stay for a shorter break.

So which is better: Nuremberg Spielwarenmesse or Essen Spieltage?

I don’t think it’s possible to say one is better than the other, as every visiting designer will be different. But what I can say for sure is that the two complement each other beautifully: I’ll try to continue to do both, but think Essen will remain the priority.

I fell for Nuremberg as a city and would love to head back for a touristy visit (when it’s less expensive!). I had some great publisher meetings, met some great people and – money permitting – will return next year (perhaps commuting from a nearby city).

But, despite any perceived slights, for my money you just can’t beat Essen. Every publisher worth their onions is there, a thousand new games are released, its organised chaos and something always goes wrong – but it’s the most exciting and exhilarating gaming weekend of the year.

It’s like the difference between a folk festival and a rock festival. One is better organised, has better toilets, you’ll be able to see, things will run on time, and you’ll come away from it with most things you took with you. But the other – once you submit to its rakish charms – will give you the memories you’ll treasure for a lifetime.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Brett J Gilbert

Brett J Gilbert is both a board game designer and board game consultant, who has consulted for international clients such as Lego and Twitter.

His first published board game, Divinare, was recommended by the 2013 Spiel des Jahres award jury. Elysium, published in 2015 by Space Cowboys, was nominated for the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres.

This is the fourth 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?
Although academically a mathematician and scientist, I have otherwise worked in publishing and design (at least when I had a proper job) so creation and creativity has always a big part of what I’ve done. [Which , before anyone says any different, is not to say that I believe that science isn’t essentially a creative endeavour but I assume you mean ‘creative’ in the ‘make pretty things’ sense, not the ‘critical thinking’ one.]

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
My terrible secret is that I am not much of a “gamer” and certainly no fanboi of any particular designer’s work. The big beasts of the industry will therefore have to achieve their success without either my patronage or my adoration. [I think they’ll cope.]

But one has to genuinely admire the consistency, determination and, let’s face it, sheer quantity of work done by the likes of Knizia, Rosenberg, Feld, Vaccarino, Bauza and Cathala (to name a few obvious examples). Hats off to them!

3. What drew you to game design?
This is probably a serious and deep question, to which a serious and deep answer would reach far into the psyche and uncover all sorts of private motivations. Why does the painter paint? Why does the long-distance runner long-distance run? Let us not dwell upon such unspeakable things.

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?
[Hold up! Isn’t this the Designer’s Dozen? This question appears to be (at least) two!] But to address the first, I am often inspired by the physical or the visual; two aspects that are neither strictly thematic nor mechanical. And I’d say there’s a problem approaching a new design with specific labels already in place. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Theme and mechanics are answers, not questions. They are the where and the how; they are not the why. As for who [see what I did there to link to the second question?] that’s easy: for me. I genuinely don’t know how a designer could design anything worthwhile for anyone else.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best moments are the ones of discovery; of realising that within an idea, hiding in plain sight, is more than you thought there was. This is, after all, something you made, so looking again and finding something else is kind of miraculous. Of course, you only have to flip this scenario to understand the worst moments: the moments of revelation, no less profound, when you discover that there was nothing there in the first place.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Which is to say: no game design is easy. Doing it properly is always going to hard.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
“Make do and mend” would seem sound advice. Don’t be prissy about prototypes, and certainly don’t spend any real money.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
One of the memorably terrible meetings Matt Dunstan and I endured was with the employee of a very well-known publisher who, it turned out, didn’t have a clue who we were. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant; I mean we had met with this individual before, they had been reviewing one of our games at length and the meeting had been booked to discuss it – and he still didn’t know who we were. After leading us through the Essen crowds for five minutes to find a quiet spot in the business lounge he began to unpack a prototype on the table in front of us. Matt and I exchanged puzzled looks. This was not our prototype (ours was back on the stand on the other side of the Hall). Awkward.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Hopefully the best is yet to come, but attending the 2015 Spiel des Jahres ceremony in Berlin after Elysium was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres ain’t bad, is it?

Matt and I had a whole heap of fun, met lots of lovely people, ate a few lovely meals and were generally very well looked after. Elysium didn’t win, but to date only 18 games have ever even been nominated for the Kennerspiel; Elysium is a permanent part of that history.

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I have come recently to the realisation that I never want to play games that are – or think they are – smarter than I am. Suffice it to say this elegantly rules out a vast swathe of the modern board game catalogue. What’s left? Although I don’t play it nearly as often as I used to, I have always loved Carcassonne as a two-player game. Examples of newer games that I have enjoyed are Codenames, which deserves every bit of its effortless soar-away success, and Deep Sea Adventure, a game which carries its fiendish cleverness very lightly indeed.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
This is another serious question, so I must resist the impulse to be flippant. But I think it’s looking pretty good, isn’t it? Thriving, inclusive and growing its reach. Speaking entirely selfishly, I’d love to see more UK-based publishers and an ever-greater awareness on the UK High Street of modern games in all their many colours. But I’m not sure there’s a problem to be solved here, and even if there were you can’t impose popularity or mandate what form popularity will take. It has to come – and I think it is! – from the ground up, from people rediscovering games and gaming as a rewarding, social and essential pastime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I feel a connection to Question 3 – or at least to its ungiven answer. Some creators don’t shut up about themselves, but isn’t it more sincere to let what you make speak for you? Isn’t that why you are driven to make it? Artists, photographers, playwrights, game designers… makers of all kinds stand out of view. If I wanted you to notice me, I’d wear a bow tie.