Board game Top 10: The best board game podcasts

Taking a look back at my original gaming podcasts post, I was surprised at just how much has changed. I considered updating that post again, but decided it would simply be too much work: so instead, here’s a new Top 10.

I realise I have a tendency to turn Top 10s into top fifteens, or twenties (or sometimes more…), but this time I’ve managed to keep it to a solid 10. However, to make sure I continue to break from tradition, this isn’t in order from favourite down: rather, it is a spread of podcasts I think – between them – should appeal to a large range of gamers.

As an ignorant Englishman that only speaks his native tongue, these are all in English. I also find them all well produced and at least reasonably well edited, and none of them are advert heavy. I’ve marked the ones I consider could cause offence (but none are that bad). And as always, I’m sure you’ll have your own recommendations: I’ll list a few obvious exceptions at the end, and there are more I no longer listen to on the links above, but please suggest others I may have missed.

My Top 10 gaming podcasts

General gaming

  • The Dice Tower
    Probably the most popular board game podcast, The Dice Tower now heads its own mini empire of podcasts and video content. Its level of output is second to none, with only the Board Game Geek website beating it in terms of new release coverage. This weekly podcast itself has four hosts on rotation, two male and two female, and each hour-long episode starts with talking about what they’ve recently played before moving onto a topic. Topics are often top 10 lists, but can include everything from live shows from cons to listener questions and topic discussions. Unfortunately one of the four presenters is a good few levels lower than the others in terms of quality, so I find myself skipping some episodes, but its definitely a great place to start your exploration.
  • The Game Pit
    The UK’s leading gaming podcast and part of the Dice Tower Network, The Game Pit hosts Sean and Ronan give a refreshingly British spin to the world of board games. While a little more random in terms of release schedule, with more than 100 episodes under their belts they’re clearly here to stay. The long shows (usually two-plus hours) are purely topic driven, with regular features including Treasure Hunt (listing upcoming games and saying if they think they’ll be traps or treasures); Picking Over the Bones (lots of mini reviews of games) and Battle Reports (convention talk, often from during the con itself). Their family level banter (the guys are cousins) make it stand out, while regular guest spots from everyone from their kids/spouses to gaming friends (including me…) keep things fresh.
  • Cube Love
    Who hasn’t thought about just sitting down with your best mate and shooting the breeze while recording it and putting it out as a podcast? (Just me then?) But you get the feeling that’s what co-hosts Mark and Nathan decided – and I’m glad they did. The show can be random and rambling, and the quality is hit and miss, but overall I love the honesty and the banter – and they’re clearly very experienced gamers. It’s also irregular at best, with roughly one per month landing (if you’re lucky), but it does tend to weight in at two hours per podcast. Episodes are always split into sections, but these are hugely varied – from con reports or long reviews to discussions on anything from a designer to a mechanism to a gamer quirk – or one of them picking on the other about something. (Warning: A little sweary)
  • Board Games to Go
    The original, and for me still the best board game podcast. Hosted by Mark Johnson, it has been going since 2005 and is regularly quoted by many (including The Dice Tower) as being the inspiration behind starting their own shows. The majority of episodes used to be Mark on his own, but more often than not he now has guests helping him out (again, including me…). Mark’s tastes lean more towards family games, but euros do get some coverage. Episodes tend to come in under the hour and are thoughtful conversations or thoughts on topics including award speculation and convention play reports, ranging through to one-off topics on all kinds of things gaming related. For me, it’s the ‘up all night’ quiet time podcast in a see of louder, brasher offerings – and is all the better for it.
  • Mile High Game Guys
    This is another show you can describe as ‘just some friends having a laugh’ – and be warned: it can be quite a while before they remember they’re a gaming podcast and stop talking about sport, or some other random topics. But the banter is fun to listen to and they’re clearly knowledgeable about gaming in general. You can expect two shows each week, with a random/what we’ve been playing show followed later in the week by a more in-depth review or topic. Shows run long (usually two hours-ish) and if I have one criticism the three co-hosts can often repeat each other’s points. But generally it’s an interesting listen from three guys who have differing tastes in games, covering everything from light to heavier board and card games. (Warning: A little sweary)

Heavier gaming

  • Heavy Cardboard
    Host Edward, and previous co-hosts Tony and Amanda, have been building an amazing heavy gamer community since the podcast began in 2014. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster, with the hosts always wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but the real focus has always been on heavy, heavy games. If you want to learn about games in the 3+ on the BGG weight scale, this is the place for you. Shows usually cover games on their radar, followed by an in-depth review of a game – but you’ll also find con reports and interviews with notable designers of heavier games. They also do their own heavy game award each year, arrange meet-ups at cons and even have a world map of heavy gamers. This is a proper community (‘The Herd’) and all the better for it.
  • So Very Wrong About Games
    There’s been a gap in the market for a new podcast concentrating on heavier games, and co-hosts Mike and Mark are doing a great job of filling it in. When I say heavy, I don’t mean heavy – for that, see the above entry. But these guys concentrate on games for those who have come through family and gateway games and are looking for the next step up in complexity. The hour-long bi-weekly episodes always include a ‘what we’ve played recently section (of all game weights) followed by a long-ish review and a topic. The reviews tend to lean towards sci-fi/fantasy games with lots of theme but also slightly meatier mechanics, such as Gaia Project or Mage Knight. But the approach is conversational and the guys come across as likeable and knowledgeable.

Comedy panel show gaming…

  • This Game is Broken
    Billed as ‘the comedy board game panel show’, this podcast does exactly what it says on the tin. Every fortnight, four panellists in two teams (and their host) tackle a series of daft challenges and questions based around board games: expect a great mix of genuine gamer knowledge and stupidity, from guessing the retail price of games to ad-libbing escaping from a game, Jumanji style: there’s even the occasional kazoo. Regular panellists include The Brothers Murph, while occasional guests (including Tony Boydell and Christina Aimerito) keep things fresh. No, not every skit is hilarious – but they hit way more often than missing and it’s great to have a board gaming podcast that’s breaking the familiar mould.

Game design podcasts

  • Ludology
    The original and best podcast about board game design, Ludology has been co-presented by Geoff Engelstein since 2011. I still miss original co-host Ryan Sturm, who was a great foil to Geoff for the first 100 episodes; and card game design legend Mike Fitzgerald who stepped in until episode 150. Since then, current co-host Gil Hova and Geoff seem to have moved more away from the science into their own design experiences which feels detrimental to the show’s original concept – but I guess it’s natural, as both now have plenty of games published (although nothing of note. If I hear “When I was designing The Networks blah blah blah” one more time…). That aside, it’s still the best place to genuinely get your game design brain thinking in new and interesting directions.
  • The Game Design Round Table
    A close rival to Ludology’s crown, the only real thing holding the Round Table back from being my favourite design podcast is its mix of computer and tabletop design. This can be fascinating, and many of the lessons learned can be applied to both camps in interesting ways; but it does mean some episodes feel totally irrelevant to me. That said, the great ones really do make you think. Regular co-host Dirk Knemeyer used to have the Gil Hova problem (see Ludology above) but has since become a fantastic pilot of the show; while regular co-hosts David Heron (Star Trek Timelines), Harrison Pink (Blizzard) and Rob Daviau (Hasbro, ‘Legacy’ games) lend some genuine design heft to proceedings.

Big podcast names that didn’t make the list

Rahdo Talks Through is the podcast from hugely popular Rahdo Runs Through presenter, erm, Rahdo. If you like Rahdo then you’ll like this. Personally, I don’t tend to agree with his opinions on games and tend to find he is overly popular about most titles: if you want to reduce the games you might want to find out about in a sea of mediocrity, this is not the podcast for you! That said, he’s clearly a nice guy and if you want a couple of hours of positivity every few weeks it could be for you.

The Secret Cabal Podcast is possibly the second most popular podcast behind The Dice Tower: I can’t stand it. It’s well produced but the depth of knowledge is frighteningly thin and they clearly don’t play each game very often. In truth, I’ve probably just listed the reasons why it’s so popular: a lack of depth in plays and being new-ish to the hobby means you’re going to find a massive audience right now, in a rapidly expanding hobby driven by the ‘cult of the new’ – especially in the US where they’re from.

The D6 Generation used to be on my list, and is still hugely popular, but there was just too much in episode that I didn’t care about. There’s a lot on here about miniatures gaming (such as Warhammer 40k) and RPGs, as well as non-tabletop gaming topics such as film and computer games – and the podcasts tend to go very long (often pushing towards three hours). There just wasn’t room in my listening schedule – but if your gaming tends to cover the whole spectrum, this could well be one for you.

A board game designing diary: Witless Wizards

I’ve always enjoyed the ‘I split, you choose’ board game mechanism: one player divides a group of items into smaller sets, but the other players then get to choose one of these sets first.

Its a fabulous and underused concept most famously employed in classic San Marco and more simply in New York Slice (formerly Piece ‘o Cake) – with games such as Coloretto, Isle of Sky, Castles of Man King Ludwig and Biblios using a take on the system in their mechanics.

Of these, I found Biblios most fascinating. One player takes as many cards as there are players (plus one) and allocates one to each player. They give one card to each player and one is put on an auction pile for later – but what makes the decision delicious is that you only see one card at a time, so have to allocate them as they come out – adding a big ‘push your luck’ element to the game (another mechanism I really like).

But while I enjoyed my first few plays of Biblios, this is only about half the game – and I didn’t find the other half very compelling. This drafting is followed by an auction phase which just doesn’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great and well respected game, but the overall package just wasn’t for me. So, as you do when you’re a budding game designer, I set out to try and make something that was.

The first draft (ho ho)

I made the first (absolutely beautiful) cards for the game in December 2013, with the intention of making a very small two-player micro game (hey – they were cool at the time!).

The basic mechanical ideas for the game were already in place and haven’t changed since: player 1 draws a card and either assigns it to themselves or their opponent. The next card will go to the other player – but on either pick the player could spend energy (generated by some cards at the end of each round) to draw one extra card, giving them more of a choice.

After drafting, the drafter would attack their opponent: wounds vs defence, plus a (1-3) dice roll. This would go back and forth, until one player had lost all of their 25 health – and the game was over. A simple use of the excellent Biblios mechanism in a smaller, faster, nastier and sillier little battle game.

For first testing I created a 14-card deck: it was to be a 16-card game for Brett Gilbert’s Good Little Games website, with the other two cards being scoring/health card. There were eight weapons and six armours. Each player could have one of each, and could never refuse a card drafted – any new card discarded the old one. Weapon strength ranged from 2-8, armour 1-6, to ensure players would always be going downhill health-wise – although energy could also be spent to heal at the end of your turn.

I dubbed the game War!Drobe (a title which, pretty unbelievably, would be taken by another game in the following years). The theme was simple: two wizards powering an automaton each, which they were manipulating through time and space into odd fighting machines. Half the cards were medieval, the other half sci-fi.

The first hurdles

Having damage and defence on every card was quickly dropped, as it was a pain to add up each time while offering nothing of real worth to the game. At the same time, two card slots and just 14 cards made for very little replayability – and every time I played, I was thinking of (and being given by opponents) great ideas for new cards.

I made the decision to go to three slots: one weapon, one armour, and one ‘enhancement’ – an idea I’d toyed with as an extra list of things you could do on your turn with energy, but which had proved unwieldy in practice. As cards though, it really helped to add loads of cool special powers.

I also abandoned the idea of this being a pure micro game: there were way too many fun ideas to play with, and ideas for extra sets of cards. But what about a micro game that came in two-set decks? The first could be Medieval and Sci-Fi, but you could also buy Ninjas and Buckaneers, or Crusaders and Magicians.

I moved to eight-card decks, each of which had three weapons, three armours and two enhancements – and each of which had mechanisms I tried to fit to theme (magicians gained and used more energy, sci-fi items did big damage, crusaders healed well etc).

Testing testing testing…

Other mechanical issues included game duration, deck size and card balance. Health dropped to 20 (or a 12-point short game) to stop it overstaying its welcome, while I settled on a three-deck (so 24-card) standard game, or two-deck tactical game where you’d have a much better idea of what was coming.

I also moved away from any thoughts of a micro game as the general gaming population quickly fell out of love with the format (as sales of Empire Engine will sadly testify!). This freed me up to add ‘concentration cubes’ (to replace an energy track), a custom dice for damage and player sheets to keep your cards on.

Card balance was an interesting one. In theory it didn’t matter at all, as it was a shared deck of cards. But many small issues developed in terms of decks clashing with each other in annoying ways. Some deck combinations would lead to way too many concentration cubes, or too few; some would see very slow damage, others ridiculously fast wins. It took a lot of combo plays to ensure they all fell into an acceptable (but still very random and fun) range of results over any given game.

The final big change to the system was to do with healing. It was slowing the game down a little to much and adding an extra decision point to every round that felt unnecessary in many situations. I solved this by making healing a last-gasp desperate act you could only call upon if you had five health or less left at the end of your turn. Having this as a late game decision added a bit of an extra arc to the game too.

The publisher problem

I took the game to Essen in 2015 to show it to publishers. While several found the concept intriguing and enjoyed their play, it soon became clear that the bigger publishers really weren’t looking for a two-player game – while its look wasn’t going to help win anyone over.

The look was perfectly playable, but it didn’t help convey the playful feel of the game. This hadn’t been an issue with other games I’d demoed as they were more ‘euro’, so especially the German publishers were used to seeing that kind of prototype. This time, though, I needed to up my game.

First, I went away and made rules for first a three and then a four-player variant. It was surprisingly easy to up the number of players – a good lesson for anyone who gets stuck in a rut of their idea of their game. Taking on other ideas while occasionally taking a big step back from your game can be hugely useful.

I thought about better ways to present the game, and came up with the idea of locking the cards together to make a picture of the automaton. I didn’t make the whole game into cards in this way, instead doing some example cards to show a publisher how it might look finished.

I hoped this would fire the imagination, without me having to spend an awful lot of time and energy, or money, creating a bunch of art that would probably never be used. I settled on making it of the actual wizard instead, simplifying the theme a little too.

I found some artwork online which luckily depicted a wizard, a ninja and a viking in exactly the same style – three of the themes I’d chosen for card decks. I feel they got the idea across image-wise, without me having to do too much extra. A talented graphic design friend at work (thanks Simos!) helped me with the layout and I was ready for round two of facing publishers, this time at UK Games Expo in 2016. (Sorry, I would have linked to these great images, but I can’t re-find them on Google :/).

War!Drobe finds a home – as Witless Wizards

Unfortunately UKGE wasn’t the best place to meet publishers. While many good companies had stands there, their decision makers were very rarely in attendance (with so notable exceptions). However, a really productive meeting with LudiCreations saw head honcho Iraklis suggest I contact his friends at Drawlabs.

We met up at Essen 2016 and the deal was done. After a frustrating 2017 (for both of us) when progress stalled due to reasons beyond our control, Drawlabs really got into top gear this year. Asterman Studio were brought on to do the art and have done a magnificent job.

Drawlabs also made some changes to the rules, simplifying a few things but largely keeping the original game intact. They also changed the theme slightly, for the better I think, while we worked together to add a lot of humour to the card titles. A close to finished version of the game was demoed at UK Games Expo 2018 and it hit Kickstarter a couple of weeks later: a five-year process that was so worth the wait.

And so the Kickstarter campaign begins…

If you’d like to back the game to help it become a reality, or just find out more, head over to the Witless Wizards Kickstarter campaign before June 28. Pledges start from just £14 for the game, which you’ll get later in the year.

You’ll find loads more artwork there, as well as a link to a rough copy of the rulebook – plus a link to a playable version of the game on Tabletopia. I’m finding the Kickstarter process incredibly stressful, at a time of my life when I’m incredibly stressed anyway, but it is at least a weirdly welcome distraction. But if it sees my first solo design become a reality, it will have been worth it.

So that’s that: how a design concept introduced by the excellent Steve Finn was adapted from a serious hand management auction game into a humorous take-that fighting fantasy game. Any questions, please ask away in the comments below.

My first solo design, Witless Wizards – now live on Kickstarter!

I’ve been designing games for a few years now, which has been a great experience, especially as all the games I’ve had published to date have been collaborations with friends. But this time, I’d really appreciate your help!

The other thing my previous games had in common is the publishers haven’t used Kickstarter to help fund the projects. For those who don’t know, Kickstarter is a crowd-funding platform where the public get to be part of the production process by paying for a copy in advance, backing the success of the game up front as individual investors.

You can guess the rest: yes, my first ‘all me’ designed game (terrifying enough) is also now my first crowdfunded game on Kickstarter. Gulp. And you can back it now!

The game is called Witless Wizards. It’s a light, humorous family card game for two to four players that only takes 10-20 minutes to play. It’s a battle game, where each of you plays a wizard trying to defeat the others in a competition. And it’s only about £20.

You draw cards and play them either on yourself or your opponents: the twist is, if you put the first card on yourself an opponent will get the next one (or vice versa) – but you won’t know what that will be until after you decide. There’s more strategy than that, but hopefully you get the rough idea. And there are multiple card sets used as the wizards travel through time to get an advantage – from sci-fi to crusaders to ninjas to pirates…

Anyway, I’d be pumped if any of you backed the Kickstarter and helped the game become a reality. Even if you don’t want, or can’t afford, to back it – I’d also be pumped if you could share the link. Anything like that will also be a big help. And if you have any questions at all that aren’t answered on the Witless Wizards Kickstarter page, please ask away. Cheers!

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…