Friday, July 15, 2016

Lucky Hans and the Board Game Business

Chevee Dodd’s videocast “The Daily Shed” takes a moment to talk about the business side of the board game industry. Folks are wondering: How do you break in? How do you make the cabbage?

Short Answer from Chevee: Unless you’re a select few at Hasbro or the Exploding Cats guy, you aren’t making money.

What we think of as the board game industry is actually a pretty small niche made up of dedicated fans of the board game arts.

Even the guys producing those huge over-blown miniature games in Kickstarter are doing it because they love it. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then turn around and inject that money back into making all those overblown models.

Or, if they have less business sense, they throw the money away on impossible future speculations, soon become destitute, never to be heard from again.

Let us consider one of the longest running game companies I am aware of: Hans Im Gluck. I’ve had a soft spot for the company for years, ever since I saw my first copy of Carcassonne.

The company logo is an amazing piece of graphic design.

Why is the guy riding a pig?

“Hans in Luck,” written by the Brothers Grimm, is one of the original "trading your fortune away" stories.

In the case of Hans, he starts with a big bag of gold and trades it down from horse to cow to pig and so on. Eventually he’s penniless but still happy.

If you look at the people behind the curtains of most board game companies, you find guys very similar to Hans.

People who started out with money from some other industry, and now are using that money to pursue the dreams they had while programming, managing data systems, designing aircraft, digging out ditches, or whatever else the world needed them to do.

It wasn’t the fortune that made them happy, it was the board games they got to pursue afterwards.

We all have stuff we do to pay the bills. But it’s important we also do the stuff that makes us happy, even if it's not a money-making venture. Very seldom do these two paths intersect.

Hans im Gluck found the perfect pig for the saddle they were carrying all along. We should all be so lucky.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Re-purposing Mechanics: Finding New under an Old Sun

The RPG Design Panelcast had a particularly board-game-related episode in "re-purposing" the mechanisms of previous games during the creation of your game.

When is it stealing? When is it ripping someone off? When are you creating something new from the soup of other people's previous successes.

The short answer the Panelcast offered was the old saying "There is No New Stuff." Which is ultimately true.

The huge genre-creating new game most people first think of is Dominion. And if you consider Dominion to be the first "deckbuilder" there are hundreds of copies out there doing almost the exact same thing: either changing the theme, or combining deckbuilding with other mechanisms to create various levels of differentness.

photo by Anders Nordström

The designer of Dominion, Donald X Vaccarino, has often been asked how he feels about the tide of deckbuilders that came out after Dominion. Find any interview, and you will find he is somewhat dismissive of the entire genre, seeing most as simple clones of the game he made.

Other break-out mechanisms have less familiar origins. People still argue to this day about the first "worker placement game". Early contenders are Stone Age and Pillars of the Earth. But there's good evidence the earliest worker placement is actually Bus. And who's played Bus?

photo taken by Toshiyuki Hashitani
I think if you look at the huge following for both "deckbuilding" and "worker placement" games you realize there is something special about these mechanics. They "gamify" a previously unexplored segment of a game: deckbuilding explores the actual construction of a deck of cards as the game, worker placement messes with turn order in a way previous games haven't attempted.

But both mechanisms also offer plenty of wiggle room to execute those new explorations in different ways.

I don't care how many expansions Dominion releases. There will never be an expansion approaching what Xenon Profiteer does with the addition of tableau-building and filling contracts.

I think this is the point of creative originality: when a game is so different it could not easily be incorporated back into its "parent" game.

Changes to the theme or slight changes to the basic existing mechanism are not as original. Of course, I should say right now failing this test doesn't mean a game shouldn't be made. An un-original game can be fun, rewarding and even superior to its carbon-copy forebears. But that is for another post.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Rattlebones, and the Struggle with Overpopulation

Rattlebones, designed by Stephen Glenn

Most of my plays with Rattlebones have seen less players than the max of 4. With all players fully loaded into this game, a few extra issues float to the surface.

Like any decent roll-and-move, all the pawns in Rattlebones begin on the "start" space.

Part of the problem lies in the dense, meaty nature of each of these pawns. Each of these magic monkeys is enormous compared to a traditional pawn in just about any other game. And you play with 3 of them!

A 4-player game of good ol' classic Klingon Monopoly looks ok.

A 4-player game of standee-infused Monopoly Disney Junior starts to look a little packed.

Finally, this is what 4-player Rattlebones starts out with.

In a loud, crowded table environment, Rattlebones is the kind of game you always wish you could remember what color you were playing, or whose turn it is. With the pawns moving pretty rapidly, and people often taking their turn while the previous player is still adjusting their dice, things get mixed up. I could really use the plastic dinosaur from Firefly: The Game.

The squares of the game are also poorly delineated. While the circles ARE easy to see, you aren't going to pig-pile 4 different magic monkeys on one of these circles. And ambiguity starts to arise.

Finally, there is always at least one person picking something off the floor at any give time. Strangely enough, my dog has yet to show interest, I can't wait for a die component to end up in his digestive tract.

I still appreciate Rattlebones for the stylish blend of determination and luck. And I love the off-beat theme of magic monkeys + mice + the creepy guy in From a Buick 8.

But a responsible game owner needs to reign in this type of overpopulation before subjecting other players to a confusing pile of wooden knees and elbows.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Tom Lehmann & Joseph Huber's Starship Merchants: Not What They Wanted

I’m not going to lie to you. I found Starship Merchants at a garage sale.

The price was $5, and the game was still in the shrink. Judging from the rest of the titles on the table, all still in the shrink, my best guess on what occurred is this: Someone tried out the Board Game Bento “loot crate” and what they received was not what they wanted.

What Did They Expect?

Judging from the forum posts, most gamers were expecting the next big space-themed “train game” from the great Tom Lehmann.

And they didn’t get it.

Instead, Starship Merchants is a focused economic game without the exploration, route building or stock manipulation of the traditional uber-heavy train titles. It was too heavy for the people who wanted a light game. And too light for the people who wanted a heavy game.

A lot of wanting and not much getting, which is sad because there’s actually something good here for people to get if they want it.

Starship Merchants is a race for profit in a nice, streamlined package. It’s super easy to setup, you just need a few people for opponents (I think it plays fine with 2), and it doesn’t take all day to play.

Snowballing that Sweet Asteroid Belt Money!

Starship Merchants has a business cycle, comprised of 4 quadrants you must travel through.

The Shipyard is where you buy new ships. The Market is where you buy upgrades for your business. The Belt is where you collect resources. And the Dock is where you deliver your goods for money.

Collecting resources. The M1 Scout has an upgrade. The M2 Tug has a pilot.
Each ship you buy allows you to collect more stuff as you pass through the Belt. And the upgrades in the Market provide simple extras like scoring better mining opportunities or making a little extra when you cash your resources in at the Dock.

As you get more money, you will probably buy more ships (I think it’s a safe bet) and use those ships to get more money. Once a player has earned 100 space dollars the last turn takes place and the players count up their cash.

Doing Your One Thing, then Passing the Turn

Becuase the business cycle is broken up into 4ths, you usually can only do one specific thing on your turn. Buy ships. Buy upgrades. Load up resources. Sell resources. It’s a simple action, you’ve got the opponents’ turns to figure out what you’re going to do, and hopefully it won’t take you very long to execute once the turn passes to you.

The inexperienced player is going to get hung up trying to do the "best move math" but if you are willing to wing it the turns really fly by.

In addition, the $100 threshold for winning comes up quick as long as people are making good investments to increase their earning potential. The time on the box reports 90 minutes, but I think you can zip through this game a lot faster than that.

Your Technology is Obsolete

While much of the game is streamlined, there are some obvious unexpected train game elements thrown in to foul the reception for this game among the casual crowd.

Reaching Mark III makes all Mark I ships obsolete
There are loans you can take out for the ships. In fact, the very first decision the beginner player has to make is whether to lease or own their first spaceship. And that beginner player is probably not going to have enough information to make an informed decision, and will have to hope for the best.

There are also multiple tiers of ship technology! Graduating to the next tier makes the lowest tier of technology obsolete. Which means throwing your oldest ships in the trash, possibly at the exact worst moment. Another sore spot if you aren’t expecting it.

Run Some Numbers with your Money-grubbing Pals

Starship Merchants sets up fast, and plays fast for its level of complexity. The choices on the board are stretched out so you don’t have to absorb too much on your very first turn.

If you’re used to the idea of infrastructure “rusting” when someone buys the next new model, you’ll love the more advanced economic aspects of Starship Merchants.

I found this game an unexpected hit with my son, and I think it’s largely due to him having an open mind. He saw this as a “business simulator” which I had to agree was the perfect description. He didn’t pause for a second over the obsolete ships.

And the collecting/delivery portions of the game are as simple as counting up the numbers on the mine tiles and collecting your money.

I did have to explain the concept of retro-futurism. If you like having pilots will bullet-shaped helmets, this game is for you.

Ignoring the Tom Lehmann pedigree, I am actually more interested now in searching out other titles from Joseph Huber. He's responsible for Rio Grande’s Burger Joint and short-and-sweet business games seem to be his specialty.

Once you get over not getting what you wanted, you might want to get Starship Merchants.

Make sure to check out the garage sales.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

T.C. Petty III's Xenon Profiteer: Learning Something New

Every once in awhile, a board gamer looks at his or her collection and wonder how it would look if it were pared down to the bare essentials.

What if you were on a deserted island? What if you were trapped in an elevator? Never mind the food or water. What games would you need?

Inevitably a list is created. There must be a worker placement game. There must be a rondel game. There must be a bidding game. There must be a deck building game. Diplomacy! Party Game! The one where everyone makes things out of clay, and you try to guess what they made!

Imagine if you successfully acquired all the “basic” games to make a well rounded collection. No matter what you’re in the mood for, you have the game to play. A little something of everything, no matter the tastes of your fellow players.

Once you’ve bought your hoard, once you've collected this well-curated steaming pile of essentials, what should you do next?

The answer, of course, is to buy T.C. Petty III’s un-popular anti-deckbuilder, Xenon Profiteer.

The Theme of the Game
Xenon Profiteer is a game all about distilling the element Xenon. It's not a sci-fi game. It’s not a fantasy game. There are no orcs or spaceships.
Pipelines packed with elemental power
Only money, scientists in lab coats, and pipes full of stuff.

You will learn so much about the contemporary uses of Xenon you’ll be ready for the daily double on Xenon Jeopardy. You will know all the Xenon facts. And the rulebook carries within it a humorous take on modern science, complete with its own set of warnings.

Do not admit fault!

But you will not find a ready audience. There’s not a “Xenon Fans” meetup you can rope into this like you might if the theme had superheroes or cthulhus or the cast of Firefly.

And this is no ordinary deckbuilder, either. If your deckbuilding instincts are already fully honed from Dominion or Thunderstone or whatever, it means nothing. This is a game of a different color.

It might be more helpful to see Xenon Profiteer as a tableau-building engine. Imagine Dominion and Race for the Galaxy smooshed together into one game. How would such a thing even breathe? Yet it does, and what it breathes is good!

2 Xenon cards, trapped in a prison of krypton and oxygen
The Play of the Game
The most basic action of the game is acquiring an AIR packet. This gives you 1 precious Xenon card, along with some other dirty elements you can’t do anything with: nitrogen, oxygen and Superman-hating krypton.

The other basic action of the game is distilling. In this action you take a single type of element (all the krypton for instance) out of your hand and back to the supply.

Woven into these 2 basic actions is an entirely different game of engine building. In the middle of the board are more cards, both Upgrades and Contracts.

Upgrades on the top, Contracts on the bottom

Contracts are there to give you points and win the game.

Upgrades hopefully help you do the previous 2 basic actions faster and better.

You buy upgrades with money.  For a little money, you put the upgrade in your deck. For more money, you add the upgrade to your tableau where it works all the time. Remember buddy, only garbage goes in your deck. Don’t cheap out here, build that tableau!

If at any point you finally have the Xenon in your hand all to itself, you can pull out the Xenon and put it into storage for fulfilling contracts. Contracts give you “Xenon points,” which is how you decide the winner.

And winning is how you win stuff.

Race to End the Game
There is no turn marker in Xenon Profiteer. After 8 or 10 turns, guess what! You are still playing Xenon Profiteer.

The game only ends when someone completes 5 contracts, or adds 5 upgrades to their tableau.

The game will move very quickly for experienced players. But for beginners, it will be slow.

Imagine a race to a finish line, where you may not know exactly where the finish line is. And all the racers each have one foot stuck in a old tin bucket.

That is your first game of Xenon Profiteer.

Fulfilling the NEXT Ion Drive Contract requires 5 Xenon cards, but awards an astounding 9 Xenon points

Extra Bells and Whistles
Another thing you will not begin to understand until several plays are done are all the extra bells and whistles welded into the simple game play I’ve described.

Buying cards is complicated by an opposing player’s ability to preemptively claim cards using bidding tokens.

And then there’s Overtime! The entire flow of the game can be replaced with a completely different game flow called Overtime. The usual flow is taking AIR, distilling and buying/bidding. Overtime means distilling twice and bidding twice without buying.

Should you play your turn in regular time, or Overtime? It’s a decision you will have to make.

The Fun is in the Learning
Xenon Profiteer is not a game that you will immediately love.

But If you are a seasoned player of every other game in existence, there is something fresh to learn in Xenon Profiteer. And that’s a very rare thing to say when 10,000 new kickstarter games are rolling off the assembly line every day. All with slight modifications on an existing theme or set of mechanics.

There is no getting around it: you will need to open up the rulebook and drag your friends through it a couple times. And you’re going to have to get them interested in Xenon!

2 different hurdles, and you’ll have to throw yourselves over both simultaneously.

But the end is worth it. There is a old, web-filled part of my brain that actually had to wake up to understand this game.

Because today’s games try to avoid new interactions on the scale of Xenon Profiteer at all costs. They don’t want you to have hurdles. People don’t buy games when they have to jump over hurdles.

But once you have every “essential” game in your stupid collection, I say it’s time to jump some hurdles. And the first hurdle you should jump over is Xenon Profiteer.