Design Diary: Watermelons, Part 2

Read part 1 of my design diary for Watermelons, here.

Version 0.4

The biggest problem with The Watermelon Game was that is was too easy to count poison cards each round and determine if taking the stacks of card played in a turn was safe or not - essentially cancelling out the whole bluffing aspect of the game.

Well, The Watermelon Game became Watermelons and I decided that I need to add more variance to card draws so that while each player would be guaranteed one poison card each round, the total amount of poison cards would be indeterminate (between 4 and 6 per round).

I added a third card type called the "Poison Dose" (or "Super-Poison" in this early prototype). This poison card is worth no points, and is shuffled into the healthy melon deck. There are two in the deck and if you have one, it will allow you to spring an attack on those who have been counting cards, giving them no additional points. After the Poison Dose is found in a melon pile, it is shuffled back into the healthy deck and can come out again in future rounds.

I subsequently had to increase the card count slightly, so that poison doses were not guaranteed to come out in the third round, as this would defeat their purpose of countering card-counters.

I'm really happy with how the prototype plays at this point, so this will be the final alpha version of Watermelons. I've drawn up the print-n-play document, which will be available for free, right on this blog, shortly.

Dice on Fire Review: The Resistance

In my holy trifecta of gateway boardgames (that's games for new boardgamers, not the best boardgames), I'd probably have something like this:
  • Ticket to Ride - for a really fun and board based game
  • Smash Up - for an accessible card based game with engaging thematic elements
  • The Resistance - to show just how much fun can come out of a few cards and tokens.
In a phrase, The Resistance is one of those few games that is so profoundly good, you should find it in every collection. Let me explain…

(Image source)

The Resistance takes large groups of players (5-10per game) and secretly divides them into two camps by giving each player a role card. That player is either a member of the Resistance - a group trying to take down a evil government - or they are a traitor - working from the inside, in order to weaken the Resistance. The traitors don't want to be found out and must pretend they are loyal, and the already loyal members of the Resistance will be continually trying to prove their loyalty to said group.

The group are presented with five missions and must decide who to send on those missions. After much discussion, votes, vetoes and accusations, a small group will be formed, and each member of that mission group will cast in a card that states if they sabotaged the mission or not. If all the thrown-in cards say the mission was a success, then the Resistance group win a point. If there is a single sabotage card played by a traitor, the traitors win a point and everybody around the table scowls, trying to figure out who the evil traitor was! This is a delicious social game of deduction and betrayal.

One thing going for The Resistance is that all players are engaged all the time. Even if they are not on a particular mission, they are invested in it because, either loyal or a traitor, they are part of a team. Every decision suddenly matters a whole lot.

Secondly, The Resistance is a wholly social game. Players need to talk and debate and muse over things together. Body language and other non-verbal cues can be used to help win the game. And the wider lives of a social game are drawn into the game: "John is a terrible liar! He couldn't lie about anything without blushing!"

In one game, my friend told his partner, "Would I ever lie to you, darling?" He was lying.

In another game, two players constantly accused one another of being traitors. We deduced that either one was a terrible traitor, drawing so much suspicion, or that the other was an amazing traitor, defusing the other player with such clear logic. Turns out, the latter player was the backstabbing swine!

I really have to dig hard to complain about this game. The box even includes an expansion set of cards that grant one-off abilities - awesome! My only possible complaint is that it looks intimidating to new players. There's a bunch to explain and players often look dubious for a few minutes, but really it all comes together after the first round.

If you don't like future dystopias, there is also The Resistance: Avalon, which is the same game but set in the time of Arthurian legend and also involves a variety of other special players who have access to game defining information. It's very cool.

And then there are two more expansions for The Resistance that throw in gameplay variations and new twists and turns. Hidden Agendas turns The Resistance into the more advanced The Resistance: Avalon, while keeping the cool future dystopia theme. The expansions are particularly nice, because this cheap and cheerful game is doubt going to hit your table tons and tons of times.

Colourblind Info:

No problems with this game. Information is conveyed through text and symbol.

DIY Business Cards

As I embrace boardgame self-publishing and low cost components, I feel it's only fitting to have a totally punk business card (even if "punk business card" is an oxymoron).

This stamp was made using linoleum and linoleum carving knives, under the direction of my wife, over at Luck Paper Scissors.

This was my first time doing stamp making. It took about twenty-five minutes and I love the DIY feel to the finished cards.

You can find a linoleum carving tutorial here.

Quick Review: iOS Star Realms

The iOS version of Star Realms is a sound adaptation of the card game with some of the best online features I've seen in equivalent apps.

Star Realms is a deck-builder which focuses on a two-player experience and a simple card-combo system. You can think of it as like the the core version of Ascension, before it got bogged down with loads of unwieldy expansions.

The app also has a fun campaign for a greater variety of matches and AI opponents (though they are not very challenging). I've sunk a ton of time into this little game, so it comes highly recommended from me.

Expect a review of the physical game in the near future.

Design Diary: The Watermelon Game

Version 0.1

After finding a wallet with a watermelon design in Singapore's Chinatown, I began playing with the idea of producing a small game that would fit in this wallet. (You can read more about this inspiration here)

My immediate idea was the produce a tile based game and I kept on coming back to this joke about poisoned watermelons:
Every night a group of teenagers would come into the farmer's fields and eat an bunch of his watermelons. Determined to scare them off, he erected a sign reading, "Warning: One of these melons has been injected with poison."
A while later, he was inspecting his field, happy to see that no more melons had been stolen, only to see a new sign next to his own, reading, "Now there are two poisoned melons."
So it only made sense that this would be a bluffing game. I begin drafting a two-player bluffing game, where each player would know the location of one poisoned melon in a field made from melon tiles. Players would take it in turns to move melons around and then flip a tile - if the tile showed a healthy melon, that player was fine, and the next player took their move. If the melon was poisoned, that player lost the game.

I knew this was going to be bad, but I made a prototype anyway and was proven correct. It sucked. Still, I left the design in my notebook and came back to it every now and then.

Version 0.2

The next iteration of the game took the idea from Hanabi, of being able to see other players cards/tiles, but not your own.

The initial design didn't really make much sense, but involved betting on other players to survive or be poisoned. Then placing your cards/tiles face-down on the table and eating one. The idea was that the betting method would give you a clue as to which melons were safe to eat, but in practice, the best technique was to ignore all the bluffing and just pick a melon card/tile at random. Which isn't really a game. So, again, garbage.

I left the idea alone for six months or so.

Version 0.3

Now the game started to come together. While I was travelling through the Malaysian highlands for a week, I had the time to sit and mull over just what makes a bluffing game work and how I could keep it tight and simple.

I built a deck of 48 cards which represented different melons - still small enough to fit in the melon wallet that first inspired me.

(The original numbers and suits are meaningless for this game)

Each melon in the deck has a different value and is either poisoned or not poisoned. In a four player game, one player places a melon face down, declares its value (truthfully), if it is poisoned (they may lie), and dares the next player to eat it. That player must either call the first player's bluff and eat the melon (turn it face up and see if they are poisoned), or up the ante to avoid eating it, allowing a third player to decide if they want to now take two melons up the ante again. If the round gets back to the start player, they must eat the pile of melons.

Anyone can throw in the poisoned melon, and if you are poisoned, you are out of the round. Everyone is also guaranteed to have one poisoned melon in hand.

The bluffing mechanic is really nice because you are also playing with calculated risks. If you see three cards, it may just be worth eating them and risk being poisoned. And the different values on the cards, of which the initial player must be truthful, allow for some bluffing and double bluffing.

Your score is the value of the melons that you take, so the game is compact and economical too.

The biggest problem at the moment is that card-counting is very very easy for cautious players. There are only four poisoned melons per round and if you see them all (because multiple poisoned melons were dropped when upping the ante), then you know you can eat every melon remaining without risk.

I'm currently looking at ways of preventing card counting and increasing all-round risk of taking cards.

Finding Design Inspiration: Odd Packaging

This is the first in a series of articles about how I have found ideas for new boardgame designs.

Two of my game designs have been birthed from a idea about how the package them. This has affected the themes in the games, the size of the games, and kinds of components I could use.

A couple of years ago, before we were married, my then-girlfriend gave me a tarot-card sized wallet with an Egyptian design on it. She said, "I thought you could design some kind of Egyptian card game and keep it in here." The challenges that the wallet presented were interesting - I had a fixed theme and the components of the game couldn't be too numerous - and this set me on a track of thinking of small scale games.

Prior to being given this gift, my main game design project was The Space-Cannibal Game, which was suffering from terrible feature-bloat, to such an extent that I actually abandoned the project. It had hundreds of cards, little cardboard people, tons of tokens for food, weapons, prosthetic limbs, a modular game board, and so on. It was a mess. Suddenly, trying to work on something small was a breath of fresh air.

I threw some Egyptian card game ideas around, but none of the ideas bore fruit.

A few months later, I was walking through Singapore's Chinatown when I came across a bunch of cheap wallets that looked like slices of watermelon. They were semi-circular in shape, and about the size of my hand. I began brainstorming a game that could possibly be Kickstarted (I don't know why, but I used to have a total crush on Kickstarter) and shipped in these little wallets. A tile based game seemed to make sense and I recalled the popular, no-doubt false, story about a watermelon farmer trying to scare away melon thieves:
Every night a group of teenagers would come into the farmer's fields and eat an bunch of his watermelons. Determined to scare them off, he erected a sign reading, "Warning: One of these melons has been injected with poison."
A while later, he was inspecting his field, happy to see that no more melons had been stolen, only to see a new sign next to his own, reading, "Now there are two poisoned melons."
So I begin drafting a two-player bluffing game, where each player would know the location of one poisoned melon in a field made from melon tiles. Players would take it in turns to move melons around and then flip a tile - if the tile was a healthy melon, that player was fine, and the next player took their move. If the tile was poisoned, that player lost the game. A terrible game.

Eventually, the Egyptian card-game came back to mind and I widened its theme. It became a trick-taking microgame that I'm still working on called Eccentric Exhibits. Initially, I was making a game about cursed Egyptian artefacts and these are now in the game along with a lot of other weird museum pieces.

The watermelon tile game became a card game, with some meaningful bluffing, more players, and a scoring system - nothing like its earlier incarnation. It's stuck with a working title, while I develop the gameplay: The Watermelon Game.

But that is indeed, two games that were inspired purely by a packaging decision. The games have developed into satisfying late-prototypes and neither of them will use the original packaging ideas (probably).

I wonder if other packaging ideas could inspire other games. Even if the packaging doesn't stay around, the limitations imposed in early stages can still inspire creativity. For example:

  • A coffee cup - you wouldn't be able to use cards in this game, unless they were the half-size ones. But dice and tokens would be fine. Obviously you would have the coffee theme - perhaps coffee shops battling for dominance, competing baristas, or coffee farmers. Perhaps you could use a coffee tin and make a bigger game.
  • A mason jar - a similar and probably more practical idea. Again, I would expect to see tokens and dice. I'm not sure how this could contribute to a theme though - something hipster? I wonder if the transparent casing could play into the gameplay?
  • A DVD/VHS case - perhaps playing with a retro movie theme. You could do something with 80s action movies. The casing wouldn't limit components too much - other than the quantity of components you could use. How about tons of cards that look like movie cassettes? Or a floppy disc holder filled with cards that look like floppy discs - imagine how cool that would look on a shelf. It could be a game about floppy-disc piracy in the 1980s.
  • An egg carton - Dancing Eggs really does come in a carton and has egg shaped components, limited in number by the carton's size. Using a more conventional Congkak board come also produce some interesting results. I hear tell that the Congkak gameplay inspired, in part, Five Tribes.

"Golem" Needs Playtesters!

Golem (working title) is a two-player trick taking card game with elements of bluffing and deduction. You can have and play the alpha version provided you agree to give a little feedback!

Golem uses only 18 double-sided cards - six different suits consisting of three cards each. On the flip-side of each card are clues as to which suit the card may belong. Players will not know the value of the opponent's card until the trick is resolved, but can use the limited information on the card's reverse to deduce its possible values. Likewise, they can use this knowledge to trick their opponent into taking less valuable cards.

The file is black and white and needs only three sheets of paper. Make sure you choose the correct paper size for your region (A4 or US Letter).

Golem needs playtesters! If you choose to play Golem, please leave some feedback (good or bad!) so I can continue to refine it's gameplay.

Check out these links to get a Print-n-Play copy of Golem (A4) and Golem (US Letter).

Dice on Fire Review: X-Com

"Argh, more aliens in orbit! Commander, can we budget for more attack satellites?"

"No way! We can barely afford to keep up our base defences - it doesn't help that our chief scientist over here is buying everything he sees! Get it together, Jim."

"Goddammit, Jim!"

"You want this tech or not? Make it work!"

"Another crisis, commander!"

"Deploy troops!"

"Alien ship detected in Asia!"

"Deploying interceptors to Asia… aaaand… we're out of money."

"Alien ship detected in Europe. Looks like they're on their own..."

So goes the latest in boardgame hotness, X-Com - a cooperative asymmetric game based on the videogame by the same name and a truly one-of-a-kind boardgame experience. Stressful, frustrating and joyous all at once - let's take a look.

(Image source)

Players each take one of four distinct roles - the communications/satellite defense guy, the money/fighter jet chap, the fellow in charge of assault teams, and the science nerd. Together, we must fight off an invading alien force whilst controlling levels of public panic across the globe. Should too many people freak out at flying saucers in the skies, or should the aliens destroy our base, the aliens win. Should we manage panic levels and beat the final mission, we win. It's far from easy.

My biggest problem with cooperative games (which I generally love despite this problem) is that they are prone to quarterbacking - one player taking charge and ordering other players around. Many games use things like traitor elements to get around this - so in Dead of Winter, for example, you can't be sure if the pushy player actually has your best interests at heart - but X-Com takes a wholly different approach - the app. That's right - X-Com requires you to get out your tablet device and launch an app while you play. Like those VHS games of old, X-Com directs you through game phases, times your actions and controls the enemy through this app - and it's masterful. So there are two phases in each round - a timed phase and a resolution phase. The coomunications guy takes the app during the timed phase and reads out the instructions as a timer counts down:

Take emergency funding… aliens detected over Africa… deploy interceptors… choose a crisis card… more aliens detected in North America… choose research project… assign troops to mission… alien detected in HQ

Each instruction refers to one player, it's tightly timed and there's simply no opportunity for quarterbacking. I've never seen a cooperative game force so much independent decision making.

On one occasion, while I was the commander, I wanted help with a decision. During a heated moment, I asked asked, "Do you think we can handle more panic in Europe?"

And the squad leader replied, "Do you think I know? I've got stuff to think about here!" He was busy trying to figure out which troops he could spare when his "Assign troops to mission" instruction came up.

The elements in the timed phase can come in different orders - you might be asked to assign troops to defend HQ before you know what the final alien count in HQ is. Or you'll send fighter jets to Australia only for a huge outbreak to happen on Africa. And the time is just ticking away. Talk about stressful!

After we make all of our key decisions in the panicky timed phase, we get to the resolution phase where we get to breathe for a bit, roll dice, and see how things panned out. Then we drop some info about the game state into the app and it all happens again. It's tons of fun.


But. This is undoubtedly a fantastic game and is really pushing boardgaming forward. It's a great time for a long time and is uniquely able to create an atmosphere of teamwork, a heightened level of intensity, and make everybody feel valuable. I honestly think everybody should give it a play. Four, five, or six times. But I have a big worry. I don't know how much fun X-Com will be after those six times and once you beat (or get sick of) it's higher difficulty levels. Games of X-Com can be quite similar. It is largely luck based (but not too much) and players aren't able to significantly alter strategies from game to game. Unless some wicked cool expansion comes out for it, you may find yourself growing tired and trading the game off surprisingly early.

But yeah, replayability concerns aside, this is a solid game which creates a lot of really unique, fun times. I rarely say this, but I sincerely think you've got to try this game out - just to experience it. Perhaps you can consider splitting the cost between three other friends, or something, so it hurts less when you all tire of it.

Colourblind issues

None at all. Go ahead and kill aliens.

The Space Cannibal Game and Feature Bloat

The first game design that I seriously wrestled with was called The Space Cannibal Game (working title, obviously). It was meant to be a "Take that!" card game, where players would play cards from their hands to attack other players, defend themselves, and maintain their health.

So this game was set in a spaceship, where all the food had been ejected into space. The players took the role of astronauts who were forced to attack and eat each other to survive.

The design threw up a bunch of problems and these problems were exacerbated by my desire to make a game that offered lots of variety and unique ideas.

The first problem the game faced was that players would hoard their food and just play defensive cards - I wanted players to be more interactive. To force interactivity, I started implementing a bunch of ideas to encourage players to attack one-another. I introduced game events each round that would do things like cancelling defensive cards, cause food to decay, and a variety of other unexpected things.

I then wanted a way to track how the cannibalism was affecting players physically. So I built player characters with modular parts that could be taken out as various body parts were eaten. It then made sense that this would affect your abilities, so then I threw in another aspect where you wouldn't be able to use certain cards and abilities if certain limbs were missing. Later, I became concerned about runaway leaders, so as a catch-up mechanic I added the ability to attach robotic limbs to your body if you had suffered an injury and had the resources to hand.

As each body part is attacked or eaten, you can flip it to show your skeleton.

As long as you had a head on your body, you could still take actions, but what was to stop you from just chopping off your opponent's head and knocking them straight out of the game? I created a madness-meter which would track your sanity and would decrease if you performed inhumane actions. If it reached zero, you were out of the game yourself - and lopping off someone's head sent your madness immediately to zero. So rather than fix the root of the problem, I applied a patch to the problem.

But then, I didn't want player elimination - because it sucks to be that eliminated player. So I created two more decks of cards. One was for players who had gone mad - they couldn't win the game, but they could somewhat affect the outcome. Another was for players who had been killed, who could then float around the ship as ghosts and drive other people mad.

The dead-player deck, floating around causing madness.

After another brief playtest, the win condition was called into question. It was just to be the last player surviving, but players didn't like that. So I threw in the idea that you were flying towards rescue and that whoever was alive when rescue came would be joint winners. So among the game event deck, I created a timeline element which could be sped up and slowed down - all the while players are still fighting for odd limbs. When a certain amount of in-game time had passed, the game would end.

Later, trying to take advantage of the game event deck, I started throwing in other resources that each event could effect -- oxygen levels, damage to the ship, etc etc. If your ship became too damaged, for example, you would never reach rescue and everyone would lose. This was a huge change, and the game became semi-cooperative, where you would be working together to maintain the ship and then killing each other for food.

And then there were player classes. Pilots, doctors, engineers, and so on. And then there was going to be a modular spaceship board, which, thankfully, didn't get made because playtests were already saying that something had gone horribly wrong.

By this point the game involved almost 150 heavy-card tokens, 200 playing cards, and tons of rules. To fix problems, I had added an event deck, madness meters, two decks to counter player elimination, additional resources, a cooperative element, and modular character cut-outs, with more rules and a modular board on the way.

Another prototype, this time with player classes. This is the doctor/medic.

The Space Cannibal Game had the dreaded feature bloat.

Feature bloat is when the creator of a game (or any creative endeavour really) is distracted from which elements are important to the core of a game. More and more features get added to the product, which distracts from the core elements. It could be that the designer is:
  1. excited by lots of ideas and possibilities without seeing their implications on gameplay
  2. aspiring to create something epic in scale, while not having the resources or expertise
  3. applying patches to problems rather than fixing the root of the problems
In my case, I was doing all three of these things.

The problem with feature bloat is manifold. Obviously, it confuses your players, who are constantly struggling with rules. Particularly when you apply new features as patches to problems, you will find players attempting to do something first before they spot that patch-rule. The case of Space Cannibals, every player would say, "Aha - I chop off your head with this surgical saw!" before being informed that they would go mad and be effectively out of the game. It's frustrating to have a rule turn on you like that.

When a game starts to become bloated with superflous mechanics and rules - when too many playtesters are confused or frustrated and your game ceases to be fun - it's time to reign your game in and realise what was meant to be fundamental in your game.

This Eurogamer article about the designer of Ticket to Ride, Alan R Moon, pretty much sums up my position on feature bloat:
"My rule for designing a game is that anything I can take out of the game, I take out, as long as it doesn't undermine the base part," states Moon. "When I worked at Avalon Hill on gamers' wargames, I learned a lot about making complex rules and coating a game with a lot of 'chrome', to dress up the game. For me as a designer I really want to do the opposite with my designs. I want to take everything out that's possible, and have a really elegant design."

The rest of Moon's rules for design are fairly simple. The player, he insists, should be limited to two or three simple choices per turn, and learn fairly quickly if decisions made were the right ones. Moon has no time for what he calls 'game salad', where the player can juggle myriad ways to claim victory. Instead, the same limited decisions should also continue to impact the rest of the game. [...] Play should be quick too, and systems taken back to their most refined form.

"Within those rules Ticket to Ride is stripped back as far as I think is possible," says Moon. "I don't think there's anything left in there that you could take out without effecting the game's most base level."

source: Eurogamer

Moon, here, is talking about a certain kind of game, and not all games need that level of simplicity all the time, but if too many things are going wrong, then cut out the excess and fix or refine your core mechanic.

The Space Cannibal Game was abandoned ages ago, as a boring and unwieldy prototype. I do like the theme - the grotesque body-horror has some potential, I believe - and I'll probably resurrect that when I find some better mechanics that are more fitting towards it.

Dice on Fire Review: Galaxy Trucker

This game is pretty much like lego in space while rolling dice. You'll make a ship out of little components, you'll get blasted by pirates and hit by meteorites and watch your hard work crumble before your eyes. Maybe you'll make a couple of dollars profit. And then you get to do the lego thing again.

Read that again if you need to: Galaxy Trucker is great fun. You need more details? Ok…

Dice on Fire Review: Hitman Holiday (formerly Deadly Vacation)

Hitman Holiday (formally Deadly Vacation) is the first game to come out of Medieval Lords and designer, Dominic Michael Huang. It should be cropping up on Kickstarter any time now, but I got my hands on an advanced copy. Let's take a look!

(Now called Hitman Holiday)

Dice on Fire Review: Ticket to Ride

Here's a game of simplicity itself. On your turn, you can either pick up some cards, lay cards to build a railway line, or take some secret objective cards. That's it! And from those small actions, an excellent, faced paced, enthralling game emerges.

It's no wonder Ticket to Ride is one of the best-selling boardgames in the world today.

Here are my brief observations...

Dice on Fire Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse

Well this has got to be my favourite theme: superheroes! After decades of fighting supervillains in my imagination I finally get to live out some dreams... through, uhh, some cards. Whatever, I don't care - I'm still excited! Let's check out Sentinels of the Multiverse!

Dice on Fire Review: Atlantis

Atlantis is sinking! And instead of working together to assure the survival of our people, let's be assholes about it! Racing to the mainland, trying to sabotage one another and gloating as our countrymen drown! Atlantis is a racing game which had my whole game-group yelling and smiling throughout.

Dice on Fire Review: Hanabi

A quick review of a quick game: Hanabi. A firework-shooting, risk-taking, often frustrating (in a good way!) cooperative card game.

Dice on Fire Review: Munchkin

Here’s a game that’s so popular, it hardly needs a review (but I'll still give it a quick one!). Simultaneously loved and hated in the boardgame community, yet immensely popular. Just how does Munchkin manage to reach such heights of success?

Quick disclaimer: I'm not going to look at the business model behind Munchkin. Instead, I'll be looking at the game from a design aspect and seeing how that has influenced the game's popularity.

Dice on Fire Review: Divinaire

The overwhelming atmosphere of Divinare is total silence. Much like poker, Divinare proceeds with players trying to deduce the state of the game, reading signals from their opponents and trying to bluff their way to victory. And though it's pervaded by silent thought, Divinare is a divine game of deception, deduction and drama, where players try to prove themselves the best at predicting the future and become the Master Divinare.

Dice on Fire Review: Russian Railroads

Sometimes I'm such a judgmental asshole. When a friend running a recent meet-up arrived with only a choice of two games, La Havre and Russian Railroads, my heart sank. La Havre, in my opinion, is so incredibly dull, I'd rather just play tiddlywinks with the tiles. Russian Railroads just looks like another train-themed Eurogame. Lay some tracks and deliver some goods or some other crap. My interest-o-meter sat at a steady zero.

"Well, the lesser of two evils," I told myself and sat down to give Russian Railroads a try.

Damn though. I was kinda wrong. It's kinda really quite good!

Dice on Fire Review: Otontin

Otontin: Warriors of the Lost Empire is the latest offering from Singaporean publisher, Red Tin Bot Games, which promises an intriguing mix of of push your luck mechanics, diplomacy and ancient Aztec warfare for up to eight players. This week I got to try out Otontin and see for myself if it lives up to its broad ambitions.

Writing Boardgame Instruction Manuals, Part 2: Language

In this article I'm going to look at some of the actual words and phrases we use in our instruction manuals and how this language conveys or obscures information. As I said in my previous article, the quality of communication in a rule-book can make or break a first play. If instructions aren't clear, they can ruin a first play, leaving players bemused and grasping for structure. Well written instructions, on the other hand, can make a first play an awesome and fresh experience of discovery.

Following are some of the most common issues that present themselves in rule-books and how to make sure you don't fall into these pits when writing your own instructions.

Writing Boardgame Instruction Manuals, Part 1: Content

Clear instructions can make or break your game. No matter how fun and clever your game is, if players can't figure out how to play it, then they're gonna have trouble enjoying it.

Bear in mind that the first play of a game is often the most important play, and that a poor set of rules can turn that experience into a dull and confusing mess, rather than the exciting discovery that it should be. This means that your instructions need to be awesome.

Over two special posts, I'm going to look at how we can make our boardgame rule-books as clear and concise as possible. This first post will look at some issues regarding the content of your rule-book and the second post will look at the language we use.

Dice on Fire Review: Tontine

Tontine was featured on Kickstarter earlier last year, and is now available on The Game Crafter. A budget entry which tries to emulate the ruthless, dishonest card play you would imagine in the old west. Lets see how it plays out!

"Not all Dice-Rolls are Equal": Using Dice in Boardgame Design

Recently I attended an event for play testing game prototypes. One game was about managing resources where players pretended to be inmates in a prison - an excellent idea - but the game as it stood had one large flaw (which is fine of course, because it was simply a prototype). Two dice were rolled to indicate which of the 11 prison cells would be searched by guards each day. This dice rolling was meant to simulate random searches, but it hadn't occurred to the designer (and several of the players) that rolling two dice does not give you a strictly random number between 2 and 12 - instead, numbers in the middle of the scale are much more likely to be rolled.

Today, I'm going to briefly look at how dice probabilities effect game design and game play and how we can work with these probabilities.

Dice on Fire Review: Incan Gold

Who hasn't dreamed of being an explorer of ancient tombs and dangerous ruins? Raised on Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, the being an explorer was an old childhood fantasy of mine. So will Incan Gold match the excitement of those fantasies? Will it get the adrenaline pumping in the face of terrible ancient dangers and the promise of priceless treasures? Let's take a look!

Dice on Fire Review: Terror in Meeple City (formerly Rampage)

Smashing things up is great. When you're angry and frustrated, there's nothing quite as satisfying as smashing something. And here's a game to scratch that smashing-shit-up itch, without you actually having to throw your TV out a window or punch your brother. Rampage is a glorious, cathartic, smashing-shit-up-a-thon, with the added bonus of meeples and rules and stuff!

Note: Rampage is now called Terror in Meeple City, but this review was written before this change
A few turns in, after my kaiju attacked a local apartment complex.

An Interview with Robert Burke, designer of "The Offensive Band Name Generator"

This week, I managed to get some time with Robert Burke, the designer of the creative party game, The Offensive Band Name Generator, which is currently being funded on Kickstarter. He was able to give me some insight into his creative process and just how he is able to keep a party game feeling fresh and fun each time you pull it out with your friends...

RobinHello! First up, could you tell me a little about yourself and introduce your latest game, The Offensive Band Name Generator?

Robert: I'm a relatively new game designer who has three published games and one expansion to date (CartoonaGnomes: The Great Sweeping of AmmowanBattle For Souls, and a Cartoona Expansion). Cartoona is a family game, Gnomes is sort of an RPG that parents can run for their kids, and Battle For Souls is a heavier strategy card and dice game.

I don't plan my designs to fit a particular market, or design style. I design my games around an idea. So when have an idea I'm passionate about I start the process of building a game around the theme. My latest game, The Offensive Band Name Generator, came from my love of music and the proclivity I've had with other musically inclined friends to invent strange names for bands. I did not set out to create a party game, but this idea lent itself to be one.

Dice on Fire Review: iOS Ascension Downloadable Content (2014)

Ascension on the iPhone/iPad is one of my absolute favourite mobile games. You can check out a review of the base game here and see for yourself why you should own it.

Once you've busted out the base game a bunch of times, you'll no doubt hanker for some more variety and wider strategic options, this is where the overpriced, but fairly heavy DLC (down-loadable content) comes in to play. There are currently three DLC options, which are all based off real life expansion packs for the cardboard version of Ascention.

Dice on Fire Review: Noah

I feel like a lot of my reviews have been too negative as of late (bleergh, Caylus: Magna Carta), so I want to look at a sweet little game I played last year. In the deluge of crap lately, tiny, simple and unassuming Noah stays afloat.

Noah, mid-game. (Image source)

The Basics

In Noah, players take on the role of, I guess, multiple Noahs, trying to place animals into a total of five arcs. Nutty I know. In turns, players place an animal from their hand in one of the arcs and designates which arcs the next player may choose to put an animal into. Each animal has a gender, dictating where it can be placed, and a weight. Once an arc reaches a set weight, it sails off, to be replaced with another arc. When five arcs have sailed away, the round is over and players receive penalty points for the amount of animals left in their hand. After a three rounds, the player with the lowest score wins!

Dice on Fire Review: Milestones

Ever wanted to build a bunch of stuff in the old-time European countryside? Well you're in luck - there's about a million boardgames that let you do just that! Milestones is one, and today I'm going to see if there's anything that sets it apart from the crowd.

Image source

Eurogames vs Ameritrash

This article is part three in a series of articles aiming to demystify the world of boardgames. The previous two articles are "Collectible Card Games (CCGs) and Living Card Games (LCGs)" and "Deck-Builders".

"Eurogame" and "Ameritrash" are words used to describe genre in the world of boardgames. They are quite controversial descriptors with a lot of overlap, but as you involve yourself in the boardgame community, you will hear them a lot, so it's worth knowing the differences between the two. Most of my comments are generalisations, like any discussion of genre often is, but they should help clarify things.

Sumeria. An excellent game which fits firmly into the Eurogame category.

Dice on Fire Review: Caylus Magna Carta

Now, here's a game I would normally avoid like bird-flu - lots of cards with no words, little coloured cubes and an old-timey European feel. Yes, Caylus: Magna Carta oozes Eurogame (a silly way to define a game these days, but it gets the message across). Magna Carta is a card game remake of the boardgame, Caylus. I'm here to kick ass and place little coloured cubes.

Caylus: Magna Carta (Image source:

Dice on Fire Review: Awesome Level 3000

In case you hadn't noticed from my previous review, I freaking love Smash Up. I freaking love it! In a nutshell, it's silly but smart, quick, unique and engaging. It's one of my favourite games of last year (second to Netrunner, perhaps). I wouldn't normally review an expansion pack alone, but it's Smash Up, so I'm making an exception. Designed as both a standalone, two-player game, and as an expansion for Smash Up, today I'm looking at the self-aggrandising Awesome Level 9000.

Awesome Level 9000 follows the same rules as Smash Up, so head over to that review if you want a run-down if how it plays. I'm going to look at the new additions and addressing how this expansion would play as a standalone two-player game.

The manipulative Mutant Plants!

Dice on Fire Review: Lost Legacy

As a big fan of the super-simple, devious-deduction game, Love Letter (review here), I had high hopes for its most recent successor, Lost Legacy (not to be confused with the indie CCG of the same name). All the way from Japan, to one of my boardgaming-buddy's game room - I finally got to try my luck at Lost Legacy.

Image credit: TricTrac

Boardgames for Two Players

The easiest gaming session to organise is one with two players - a spouse or partner on a weekend morning, a co-worker during lunch, or a buddy at your place for the afternoon. Despite how common two-player sessions are, there is a surprising lack of high-quality two-player games out there in the boardgame-verse. Designers and publishers take note: we need more!

There are plenty of games out there that are designed for more players, but play well with two players, (like Pandemic and Agricola) but today I want to look at games that excel with two players. That is, games that feel complete (even if the best strategies change) with a reduced number of players, or awesome games designed for two-players in the first place.

The games are presented in no particular order and are not supposed to suggest an exhaustive list of possibilities.


Carcassone is designed for more than two players but the base game actually plays better with two. In Carcassone, players take it in turns to play tiles and construct a top-down view if the French countryside, scoring points for completing features like cities and roads. With a larger group of players, you don't have a whole lot of control over the development of the board - but with two players, you will find that both of you directly compete for the creation of the same features and the whole experience becomes much more cut-throat. It's an older game, but it's become a boardgaming icon for a good reason. You can also check out my full review for more details.


Dice on Fire Review: Friday

Robinson Crusoe has found himself stranded on a small island, beset by all kinds of animal horrors and pirates on the horizon. He would be doomed,were he not so fortunate to have Friday, a member of an indigenous tribe, to help him out. As Friday, you must train Robinson to face off the many dangers of the island, develop his skills, and eventually fight back against the pirate threat. Friday is a solo deck-building game by the renowned designer, Friedemann Friess. Let's check it out.

What you get: Loads of cards, three card mats, and little corn-meeples acting as health tokens.

Dice on Fire Review: Ugly iOS Games

There are swathes of neat little iOS adaptations of boardgames, but I can't say they all deserve their own post. Today, I'm going to look at a bunch of iOS adaptations that you may want to consider giving your time (and sometimes money!) to. Granted, phone adaptations of games usually lack the charm of a full blown physical version, but they are an excellent way to decide if you enjoy a certain game or mechanic, before dropping the double-digit dollars on the real versions.

Rather than some sprawling mega-post, I'm going to limit myself to a small selections in separate posts, grouped by theme. This time round, the ugliest iOS boardgames.


So once upon a time, Collectible Card Games (CCGs, see glossary entry) like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon became a huge deal. Players spent thousands of dollars to get huge stacks of cards to play with. They would construct their own custom decks to bring to game-events and have a whale of a time.

In recent years, there has been something a backlash against these expensive collectible card games, and instead, game makers have tried to extract the fun things from CCGs without having all the associated costs placed on the player. Living Card Games (LCGs) and deck-builders were born as a response to this. Today, I'm going to look at the deck-builder format.

Single player deck-builder, Friday.

A deck-builder takes the deck creation and customisation activity associated with CCGs and LCGs and turns it into a game itself.

Dice on Fire Review: Timeline Inventions

Which came first, the ball-point-pen or the polio vaccine? The saxophone or the telescope? Timeline: Inventions is a trivia game about the dates of inventions and discoveries and it's been selling like crazy - flying off shelves around the world. Personally, I'm something of a history buff, so when a buddy managed to grab a copy of these tiny cards in their tiny tin, I was excited to give it a crack.
From the publisher's website (Asmodee).

A Quick Guide to Netrunner

Netrunner is a game for two players, largely about bluffing and calculated risks (see my full review here). Learning to play Netrunner for the first time can be a daunting task - with two distinct roles, it can feel like learning two games at once. The packaged rule book is thirty pages of new lingo and diverse card types, which can be torment for the new player to get their head around. Here, I will try to provide an introduction for new players, covering the essentials for their first few games. Hopefully, this should help beginners find their feet and actually get round to enjoying this wonderful and compelling card game.

Dice on Fire Review: Android Netrunner

Image source:
Android: Netrunner is the current hotness in the living card game genre (see glossary). A cyber-punk battle between evil corporations, with sinister secret agendas, and lone-wolf hackers, intent on stealing precious data from those same malicious organisations. Netrunner is a tense game of bluffing, mind-games, gambles and guts for two players.

Living Card Games and Collectible Card Games

Two formats for massive card games, usually involving two battling players with pre-built, personalised decks.

Collectible Card Games

The Collectible Card Game (usually abbreviated to CCG) is the older style of these two formats, usually associated with Magic: The GatheringPokemon, and so on. In these games, you buy a base deck and then buy randomised booster packs of additional cards. Because of the random nature of these games, players may have vastly different decks in play, often encountering unexpected or relatively rare cards. But to get the most unexpected and rare cards, you have to spend a lot of dough!

CCGs reward cash investment and subsequently:
1. Require a dedicated player base so that you can keep playing and don't feel ripped off
2. Require players to buy a lot of updates so that they can fully engage with this player base

Because they require a dedicated player base, most CCGs do not remain in existence very long - with a few notable exceptions. Now a lot of modern CCGs (particularly in Asia) tie in digital game aspects in order to give their games greater longevity and raunchy card art to keep teenage-boys engaged en-mass.

It's unfortunate that often times CCGs end with a pay-to-win model. This is because the winner of a CCG game is often the player with the rarest, most expensive, and powerful cards. Of course, this is a generalisation.
A selection of CCGs (from Wikipedia)

Living Card Games

Living Card Games (LCGs) are a more modern invention and an attempt to mitigate some of the negative aspects of CCGs, whilst still extracting your moolah. Most significantly, LCGs totally do away with aspects of chance and randomness when you buy booster packs. In an LCG, booster packs come in named, standardised decks, so players should have a fair idea of what one another potentially has in their deck, and subsequently, the game should take on a form that rewards skill in-game and during pre-game deck-building rather than rewarding cash investment.

LCGs are mainly the forte of Fantasy Flight Games, who produce titles such as The Game of Thrones LCG (which I don't play) and Android: Netrunner (which I play loads of and have a review of right here).

By doing away with randomised and rare cards, LCGs should be much cheaper than CCGs, but I'm not totally convinced of the validity of this claim. Granted, with CCGs, you may waste a lot of money on duplicates or weak cards, and may pay through the roof for a rare and powerful card, but with a LCG, playing in any kind of competitive environment does require that you keep relatively up to date on booster packs (often released monthly), or else face being disadvantaged in a game, by a player with a more flexible deck.

In the six months since I've owned Android: Netrunner, in order to remain competitive, I've dropped 140SGD (113USD) on the game and data packs (booster packs). Doing so has not been the wisest way to spend my money, but frequent small purchases meant that I hardly even noticed. Without these data packs, I would be a sitting duck at a tournament, with predictable cards and underpowered attacks and defenses. I would have a miserable time without those extra cards. 140SGD is nothing like what I could have spent on a game like Magic: The Gathering, but nor is it a reasonable amount.

Android: Netrunner (from the Fantasy Flight website)

In Summary

In both competitive and non-competitive environments, LCGs really win out, generally demanding smart card play over savvy purchasing. But if you take LCGs into a competitive environment - tournaments or regular boardgame store events - be prepared for the war of attrition on your wallet.

I don't want to close this post sounding like a Scrooge because there's a reason why so many gamers take these expensive LCG and CCG routes. Because of these games' personalisation structure, many CCGs and LCGs do become more than games. Building your decks before a planned match-up can become a labour of love. It might take me an hour to build the two Netrunner decks I need for any given event, but making these decks work requires a lot of attention and thought. Cards initially need to be categorised into function; I have to make broad strategic decisions (faction choice) and decide on a general deck direction or trick; I have to select the cards, cull any excess, and figure out combos. That's a lot of brain-work and in the end, when I bring it to a match-up, it's incredibly rewarding. There's a level of game (or meta-game) there that you don't get with a standard board or card game. If you're willing to commit the time and money to a CCG or LCG (and you can find opponents who do the same), they do give back in a wholly unique way.

Dice on Fire Review: Rory's Story Cubes

Boardgaming is a peculiar beast and can encompass a huge variety of game types and themes and intentions. We have cards, boards, dice, word games, party games, pen-and-paper RPGs, huge and complex eight-hour brain drainers, and super-simple one minute brain-farts. So it might seem a bit strange to feature a "game" like Rory's Story Cubes on here, brandishing it as a dice game, but it makes perfect sense. Rory's Story Cubes is a game about imagination, creativity and a dose of fun. Honestly, I think these are amongst the core ingredients of every good boardgame -- so Rory's Story Cubes is getting reviewed as such. Another other core ingredient of a boardgame is structure, and that's where these story cubes are going to fall short.

You get nine plastic cubes with designs on each face. The designs are varied and often clear.

Introductions to Boardgames

It's been said again and again, "We are in the boardgaming golden-age". I'm totally down with this idea -- the sheer number of top rate games released in the past few years really is staggering. Games are getting more and more sophisticated, user friendly and fun!

And with this swelling of quality games, we can also expect a swelling of new gamers. I only returned to playing boardgames regularly about two years ago, and only playing in earnest about ten  months ago. I was raised on MonopolyCluedoThe Game of LifeScrabble (which I still love!), and a bunch of traditional games. It goes without saying that those thematic games are mostly junk. I was overwhelmed with joy this Christmas, when I was back in the UK, to walk into Waterstones and see Forbidden IslandCarcassoneAndroid: Netrunner and Space Hulk: Death Angel up amongst all those shitty old games. There are tons of reasons for this -- the proliferation of board games on smart-phones; recessions in many countries forcing people to maximise their leisure expenditures -- but whatever, it's great news!

Almost everybody likes playing games. In a boozy situation, pull out a deck of cards and everyone will want to play Kings. If you're lucky, and a little less inebriated, it's pretty easy to get a game of Poker or Rummy going. I don't think most people have anything against boardgames, but their experience of them is based around these long winded and low-strategy games like Cluedo and miserable, festering, attrition slogs like Monopoly. As we see more and more people look to boardgaming for a fun time, we need to think about how we can best introduce them into this wonderful gamey world. And for starters, throw out Munchkin!

A good intro-level game should have a strong and fun theme. It should be easy to learn and hint at the possibilities on the horizon. And lastly, it should offer a new player a chance to win; there's no point of dropping a new player into a game of Android: Netrunner, where they are liable to get beaten into a pulp for the first twenty games. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules and every potential player is different, but today, I'm going to look at my some favourite intro-level games. Most of these choices are not suitable for kids -- instead, you can expect a follow up post for such recommendations.

My favourite intro-level games, in no particular order:

Dice on Fire Review: DC Comics Deck-Building Game

Well I thought I was bored of deck-building games. I thought they were all pretty much the same games but with different skins. But then I got to play one as Batman! Deck-builders: I'm in love again!

The DC Comics Deck-Building Game wins the official "Dice on Fire Award for Most Boring Title", but despite that, it is the physical, cardboard embodiment of comic-book, nerdy fun. It's simple and quick, unbalanced and doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it's great for three or four players with thirty minutes so spare.

In the box you get, 214 cards (including bad guys, equipment, attacks, heroes, sidekicks, locations, and a bunch of minor attacks, vulnerability cards and starter decks), 7 character cards, which you assign at the start of the game, and obviously a rulebook. (Image from Cryptozoic website)