The pancakes are partially, and the eggs entirely eaten. Breakfast is coming to a break, and I have the great joy of brainstorming game mechanics with Tim Fowers. This time, we just shotgun great games, new and old, digging deep on what each mechanism brings. Bring on the last of the coffee – my brain needs a kickstart for part five.
TF: Ummm, what else? So, things are good. Just, you know, I like to spin lots of plates.
DTD: Well, what’s something in, some mechanism or something in board gaming that’s really just blown you away recently? Because we tend to get kind of jaded. When we when see the ancestry – you know you play something and go, “Oh, this is really good, but it’s derivative of this, which is derivative of that, which is derivative of this…”
TF: Yeah, well, I mean something recently that I really liked was the achievement system in Food Chain Magnate.
DTD: Oh yeah!
Food Chain Magnate, by Splotter Games, is infamous for being a difficult game, and part of this is the achievement system. In Food Chain, the first player to meet a requirement on an achievement card earns a bonus, and unless other players also meet the requirements that turn, the achievement disappears for the rest of the game.
TF: Right. And so, I… when Rob [Cramer] and Jeff [Krause] were working on Grand Carnival, I’m like “This is a good system. That’s how you make a really interesting early game.” And so, they added it. So, Grand Carnival has the same achievement system as… So that’s what you do as a designer. That’s what’s great about it. Because we really have, we have a public domain.
TF: You know, if you think about other industries, there’s so much secrecy. There’s so much cloning and secrecy and all these other problems. But like it’s so healthy in in board games. It’s like I can give credit to [Donald X.] Vaccarino, and then in Burgle Bros, I give credit to, you know, Matt Leacock.
Donald X Vaccarino, with Dominion in 2008, is generally credited for bringing deck building to hobby board games. And Matt Leacock is the designer of 2008’s Pandemic, one of the most influential cooperative games.
TF: Because it’s like, “Yes. This was inspired by your game. And I riffed off of it, and it grew into this other thing.”
DTD: And everybody’s happy with that.
TF: And everybody’s good about it. Very rarely, if someone…
DTD: Well, that’s the thing. You hear about when someone is upset or fights happen, because it’s a rare event.
TF: Yeah, for the most part, there’s very much a gentlemen’s agreement. And then, what’s funny, is watching, like Reiner Knizia.
Famously, the good doctor Knizia has repeatedly stated that he does not play other designer’s games.
DTD: Not only that he said he never played other people games. And he’s coming up with things that are … derivative. You know, how do you come up with [The Quest for] El Dorado when you’ve never played a deck builder?
2017’s The Quest for El Dorado, a Spiel des Jahres nominee, is a pretty straight forward deck builder, using cards to progress over various terrains on a map.
TF: Well, what’s funny is… But it was so late though. Because you could tell he wasn’t playing deck builders, because deck builders infected everyone’s games.
DTD: Oh, it hit everything, yeah.
TF: Because it was so interesting, because the way… Because what it does, is it does compounding choice. And it does quasi-determinism. I mean, it does a lot of things really, really well. And so, you can tell, for a long time, he didn’t know about deck building. And then you know he played a deck builder, because El Dorado came out. [laughs]. So yeah, so I mean, that’s what I tell new designers to do. It’s like, “Make sure you get, get a lot of tools in your kit.” Or it’s like a chef. You’re looking for a new peanut butter and chocolate, but you need to just learn what all these ingredients taste like. And you need to find new combinations. And the thing is, most creativity really becomes combinatorial. Once you’re at a certain level, and you have a certain level of knowledge, you’re just kind of trying this thing, you know.
DTD: Yeah, we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. And when you learn to see the ancestry, it makes it that you understand the process. But it also makes it a little less magical. It makes it a little… You get a little jaded.
It’s very rare a new game is truly original. Usually it is an evolution of something else.
TF: Sure. Well, yes, but that’s also just as you get into that rabbit hole. Because I mean if you look at concept artists, or you look at musicians or whatever. It’s like, you go to somebody that’s totally outside of your field, and you see them create something, and you don’t understand that they’re just combining these elements. But because of your lack of knowledge, it’s magic.
DTD: Yeah. Magic is… What is it? Any technology sufficiently advanced is magic.
TF: Yeah. But, mechanics that I’ve been really excited about…? I mean, yeah, the Roll and Writes.
DTD: Oh, they have blown up.
Roll and Write games have become very popular of late, games which do bookkeeping by writing on some form of paper. Everything from Yahtzee to Dungeons and Dragons could be classified as a Roll and Write.
TF: Yeah, I mean, I think the turning point was actually the Castles of Burgundy the Dice Game.
DTD: And see, that’s my favorite Burgundy game.
TF: Because for me, I’m just like, “This is super clean.”
DTD: Yeah. Now, the Dice Game or the Card Game?
TF: The dice game. Yeah, yeah, I played it a couple years ago at SHUX, and I’m like, “This is just clean. I mean, we’re all running off the same one, so we’re doing the…” What is it? Take it Easy? What is the game where you all get the same cards?
SHUX is the official convention for the Shut Up and Sit Down podcast, held in Vancouver. In these, the plague years, it was replaced with an online version called AwSHUX.
Take it Easy (1983) was designed by Peter Burley and does in fact use a shared deck of hexagonal cards, each one called out Bingo-style.
DTD: Yeah, uhh…
TF: It’s the first game that like, everyone has the same input. And then you’re all trying.
DTD: Oh man, no, I know exactly… I feel like the title is almost exactly Take It Easy, but just like a slight… So now it’s just blown out of my head.
Nope. It was Take it Easy, which was a Spiel des Jahres recommended title in 1994. Although Burley Games made variations on the theme – Take it Higher (2009), Take it to the Limit (2006). A similar mechanism was made popular again in Karuba (2015), which was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres.
TF: But again, like I haven’t that I haven’t played… Oh, also like Gloomhaven. So, Gloomhaven helped influence Paperback Adventures. So, we had deckbuilding. We had all these pieces. But then we realized that we wanted it to… What’s genius about Gloomhaven, is you don’t have to make the enemies that hard or interesting. They’re like, “Here’s how much damage I’m doing.” It’s similar to the intent system in Slay the Spire.
TF: I’m just going to do this much damage, and knowing that’s the bar, right? And the fact that my own deck is spinning down is the tension.
Isaac Childres‘ award winning Gloomhaven uses a hand of cards for actions and combat. Each turn you play 2 cards, and bad things happen when you run out of cards.
Someone should interview that guy…
TF: And so, what it allowed us to do, is make the card that activates, make it stronger. Because you’re only going to get one shot with that card, you know. And it has to be strong, because you’re not going to activate any other cards in that hand. You know, based on how you played it. And your deck is going to burn down, so you have this clock. And like, you have to make it happen, and it puts this tension on the game. And that was all a very late add to the game. I mean, in the terms of maybe the six months we spent on it, it was in the last two months, they were like… It was two things at the same time. Fixed deck size, so whenever you add a card you have to remove a card, unless it’s a boss. And then you get to grow your deck a little bit.
Gloomhaven also uses a fixed hand size – one card in, one card out when you level up.
DTD: Which makes the “grow the deck” all that more special, makes the boss battle really important.
TF: And so, and I think that it can help you kind of craft something when you have like, “OK, I’ve only got these ten cards. I have to think about what abilities do I want? And then what letters are going to work together?” You have to think on both axes.
DTD: Yeah, wow.
Remember, all of this is about Paperback Adventures, which is at its heart a word game. Which, I believe, Tim is about to comment upon.
TF: And maybe it could have existed not as a as a word game, but the splay, what it allowed us to do is that often, you know… OK, I’m gonna play this card for this effect, and this card… And you’re playing a whole hand of these effects, and all of a sudden, the bookkeeping blows up. But now we’re just like, “OK, you have this choice or this choice. So this card is going to activate, or this card is going to activate. Or, if you can rearrange the word to get the right letter in the right position…” That’s why I’ve kept it to shorter words, because very often you try to like push it – “OK I can put an S at the end, and it will do what I want it to do.” And so, it’s a little… You need that flexibility. But it really helped the bookkeeping, because traditionally you can do actions in Dominion, or a mana system, or whatever, where you get to play a certain number of cards. And this way the other cards are supporting, but you’re only getting one and it just… It made the turns. So those are some things that we’ve been excited about. But in other games, it’s like, I don’t… I don’t know. What about you? What have been things… Is there something I should check out?
In Paperback Adventures, whenever the player wants to spell a word with their cards, they will splay the selected cards either left or right, with the letters showing making up the completed word.
DTD: Oh, I don’t know about that. I mean Hadrian’s Wall set a whole new level for a Roll and Write that is really heavy, but it’s basically a legitimization of having a whole bunch of tracks and fiddlyness. And it makes it work, it’s a great game I love it.
Bobby Hill has created a great game there involving Romans and Roman accessories.
TF: I need to try it.
DTD: But there’s been a number of games over the years that I get really excited about, that may not even be my favorite game. I’m just excited they exist.
TF: Oh yeah.
DTD: So like, when 504 came out, it was just really cool that that could happen.
Friedemann Friese‘s award winning 504 is basically a board game sandbox, a kit that can create… Well, 504 unique games.
TF: Yeah, or Captain Sonar.
Captain Sonar is a real time submarine warfare game involving 2 teams of 4 players. Fantastic fun!
DTD: Or Captain Sonar. You get the right group in there, that game is… It just gets a life of its own. It’s really cool. Or The Mind. The mind was one of the…
TF: I don’t hear much about it anymore. Do you think it was a fad?
DTD: I think people still play it. I think it’s easy to get into, and I think it’s popular. It probably still sells. And there’s been a couple games after it that have tried to use that same… Mechanism, if you want to call it. But the mind was one of these games that really felt unique to me. I can’t picture where it came from.
The Mind, by Wolfgang Warsch, I feel is a truly unique card game, where players lay down numbered cards any time they want. The cards have to go down in numeric order, and there is no communication allowed. You just wait for the right time, and play your next card when it feels right.
Dixit, a game of hinting at illustrated cards with other illustrated cards, came out in 2008, and won the 2010 Spiel des Jahres. Mysterium, which combined elements of Dixit with Clue, came out in 2015. Codenames, a team game of clue giving, blew the genre wide open in 2015, winning the Spiel des Jahres.
DTD: Well, Mysterium was super influential in the whole idea of… Well, I guess it was just, it was a variation off of Dixit, where you have a big team trying to give hints, but they can’t be too good, and it can’t be too bad.
DTD: And then you add in other elements, like there’s a traitor in the big team, who’s trying to divert the group.
TF: And I guess some of that comes from Apples to Apples a little bit. But Dixit, it seems like it was doing stuff visually. And then and then Codenames – I was a little jealous, because I had the top word game on BGG, and then right when I finally passed up Scrabble, or whatever, Codenames came along! And I’m like, that was the one thing I was proud of. But in Codenames it’s fantastic. But now there’s Decrypto, and there’s all these different flavors.
Apples to Apples (1999) was one of the first “judge the best” card games, later inspiring Cards against Humanity and others.
DTD: Oh, tons of variations on that. With traitors, without traitors, with groups, without. Just One. And they’re still popular. Someone told me when Codenames came out, everybody wanted to make a party game. And when Dominion came out, everybody wanted to make a deck builder.
TF: Yeah, but that’s traditional. It’s like, both as a designer you’re inspired by it, but it’s also just the fast-follow nature of the market. It’s like, “Is this the thing? I want to have… I want to stake out some portion of the market.”
DTD: Well, there’s also that nature, that when something brand new comes out like that, there has to be a first. And by nature, it has to be relatively simple. You know, the first deck builder has to just be a deck builder. And that opens the door for more complex usage of that mechanism. So right now…
TF: Yeah, the lattice work problem. And we run into it.
DTD: Deck building as a side mechanism.
TF: Well, because sometimes we’ll make a game that has too many entirely new ideas. Because it’s like, “Here’s a new system, and then we build these other systems to support that system” And then, like it, totally bounces off of people because they’re like, “Wait what?”
DTD: We’re not used to that.
Some of us have soft and squishy brains that can only incorporate a few new ideas at a time.
TF: Yeah, so there is a budget when it comes to, like… It’s like people that try to make first person shooters with new controls. It’s like, you don’t change FPS controls.
DTD: People want to use this.
TF: Yeah, well. It’s like, if you have a control, you use the Halo controls. Halo was the first game to establish FPS on a dual stick. But yeah, it’s a cost. So sometimes we’ve been in that thing where we cancel it, or we change the game.
DTD: You get constrained by it.
TF: And I’m just like, “The budget for this is too high.” I mean, Sabotage is kind of up there, for doing new things. It’s actually not that complicated of a game, it’s just it’s doing enough new things.
DTD: A lot of new ideas. And it’s fascinating to go back to these instrumental games, and just read the rules. Like, read Dominion rules on how you do a deck builder.
You can really tell in the original Dominion, that it was trying to explain not just a game, but a whole new concept.
TF: When they’re trying to describe this new thing. Any game that was real time – Because Wok Star, trying to write real time rules… “OK, OK, while that’s happening…”
DTD: I’ve read those rules recently.
TF: Yeah, while that’s happening, you’ve got to remember this other thing that’s also going on.
DTD: And you need to put a reminder every couple paragraphs: “Remember, everything is happening at once. No turns.” Because we come in just with all of these preconceptions of how the game is going to work. You know, I’m going to roll dice, and they’re going to be probably my movement. I’m going to have cards, and I’m only going to play them on my turn. And I’m going to…
TF: Oh, Hanabi was another one that really like was great at flipping the script.
In Hanabi, you keep your cards/tiles flipped backwards. So, you can see everyone’s cards except your own.
DTD: Oh, and I definitely have a soft spot for bizarre card games. So, Bohnanza where you couldn’t reorder the cards.
TF: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DTD: That was, that’s still one of my top games.
TF: Yeah, and that’s just like a push your luck: do I trade in, do I plow out my field yet?
DTD: Oh no, you never plow out the field till you have to! [laughs]
TF: [laughs] Gotta push your luck.
DTD: I’m surprised, because that Bohnanza engine, the keeping the card order and having to plan out. It’s a programming element, really.
TF: First in, first out.
In Bohnanza, you must play the first card in your hand every turn. You are not allowed to reorder the cards. And at the end of the turn, you put new cards at the back of your hand. Love it.
DTD: Yeah, I’m surprised that doesn’t show up more. It seems like a relatively uncopied mechanism. There’s a couple exceptions out there, but it’s still really weird, when someone says “Don’t reorder your cards.”
TF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is, this is very much what I think about in design, is this like, is there… Like, I’ve been trying to get a cube tower into a game for a couple years. I have several different takes on it.
DTD: Sure, they’re getting popular again.
TF: Well, yeah, there was one… There have been a couple. But I mean for a while they claimed they had a patent, and they didn’t. Queen [Games] said that. And they also tried to get people to use their cube tower. What’s interesting about Cube Tower is the quasi-determinism. Because when you have a deck, it’s like, you know you’re going to get the card eventually. When you have a dice, it’s like, you may never roll a 6. And a cube tower is like, “Well, this is probably what’s going to come out.”
There’s a discussion of Queen Games and the cube tower on BGG.
DTD: But you don’t really know.
TF: Yeah, but it’s weighted in certain ways. So, I liked that about it. The other one that does it is the deck in Gloomhaven.
DTD: Oh, yeah.
TF: The fact that you go through the deck until you hit the high or the low, the double or the zero. And then you reshuffle.
DTD: There’s a forced card to reshuffle, yeah.
TF: And so, it’s likely you’re going to see everything…
DTD: But you might not.
TF: But you might not. And so, I think that is the magic spot if you can get to it. Because the determinism in in a deck builder, it’s like, “Yes, you might get it later.” But there’s inevitability to it that I kind of don’t like. I even made one hybrid game, where it was meant to be a social deduction game, where you… Everyone would pass around a single thing, and move from room to room, and try to like, you know… The idea was the device was being passed around while people were talking. It didn’t really work. But one thing that I had in there, is that there may be no traitor. Because there’s a couple of “you’re a person on the boat, but there’s some other people on the boat that are just computer controlled, and they might be the traitor”. And so, having the possibility of no trader…
TF: I guess BSG [Battle Star Galactica] kind of did that as well.
DTD: Unfathomable. [laughs]
Come on back next time for the conclusion to my breakfast with Tim Fowers. In our final bites, Tim and I talk about the buisiness of games, with some insights of getting his first game published. Plus, customer support!