Dice on Fire Review: Smoke and Mirrors

I love a quick bluffing game, so when Smoke and Mirrors arrived in the mail, I was pumped to give it a try. And I’m happy to report that I wasn’t let down: Smoke and Mirrors is a cool little game of lies and deception, which only needs eighteen cards and five minutes of your time.

Here’s how it works. There are three small decks of cards. One deck has five cards, each with a single number from 1 to 5, one deck has five cards numbered with a 5, and one deck has five cards with a 1 on them. Each player gets one random card from each deck, and with the cards now in their hand, they must begin to bluff. The first player must take any number of cards from their hand, lay them on the table, face down, and announce that the sum of the numbers on the cards is 1. That’s easy enough. Then the next player must do the same, but now announce that the sum of the numbers on the cards they have played is equal to 2. And then the next player goes for 3. Of course, pretty quickly, you’re going to have to lie. In this game, you must offer convincing lies, whilst calling out other liars – if you get caught lying, or wrongly accuse someone of lying, you’re out. The last player to remain in the game is the winner.

To keep things from being too calculated and predictable, each of the three decks also includes a “Mirror” card. This is a card that reflects the value of another card it is played with. So if you play a 3 with a mirror card, the sum of your cards is 6. Or if you play a 3 with two mirror cards, the sum of your cards is 9.

And then, players also have a once-per-game ability to skip a turn, forcing a difficult number onto their probably unprepared neighbour.

Smoke and Mirrors is quick and brutal. Unlike some similar bluffing games, there really is a strong incentive to call out other lairs. If you don’t, the round will return to you and force you to skip or lay a nearly impossible combination, like a 7 or an 8, which you will surely be called out on. Unless… you can make a 7 or an 8 and want to the round to return to you so you can eliminate other players who accuse you. You see how this gets interesting? But you're unlikely to ever see more than three rounds per game - this is pure filler game territory.

Whilst the publishers say that Smoke and Mirrors is playable for between 2 and 5 players, it really shines as a 3-4 player game. With these numbers, the game is just long enough – a couple of rounds, typically – to give some fun bluffing opportunities. With 5 players, the game is really unfair on players whose turns come later in the round.

Lastly, I really want to draw attention to how Smoke and Mirrors is published. It’s the latest in a series of Button Shy's “Wallet games”. These are games that come in small plastic wallets that you can just throw into your bag. I love this punk-gaming mentality, which harks back to the old Cheapass Games’ philosophy – we need more publishers like this!

But yes, Smoke and Mirrors is a wonderful little bluffing game, with a bit of math and bunch of daring. It’s going cheap on Kickstarter at this very moment, so if it sounds like your kind of game, you should head on over to reserve yourself a copy.

Game Design Deadly Sins

I get sent a fair number of Kickstarter games in the mail for review. And while I love the idea of Kickstarter as a platform - it sure does produce a lot of terrible games! So I've put together some of the issues that I find prevalent in bad games, crowd-sourced or otherwise. These are things that, quite frankly, drive me crazy when I see them. I've provided examples of how I tried to avoid these issues in my own games, not to suggest that I don't ever fall foul of any of these issues, but just to examine them in a practical way.

Behold, 13 Deadly Boardgame Design Sins

1. Too much Downtime

I find that excessive downtime absolutely kills my enjoyment of a game, moreso than almost any other feature. There is little else worse than the kind of game that makes you wait ten-minutes until your next turn with nothing to do than watch your opponents. Even worse if what your opponents are doing has no effect on you. Because that's ten minutes of no-games, in time you have specifically made for games.

Classically, the worst offenders of this are games that feature player elimination, but at least in many of those games you can leave the table. Last year I played a dice game that had each player do a push-your-luck mini-game before each round to determine their upcoming resources. It could take two minutes per player and there were up to eight players. A potential fourteen minutes of twiddling thumbs. Horrifying.

King of Tokyo - player elimination done right. Source

Games like King of Tokyo handle downtime well. Even when it's not your turn, you are affected by the active player. And once you are eliminated from the game, it is typically nearing it's end, at which point you will be more than happy to laugh at other players getting beaten up.

My own example:

One of the things which I most happy about with Litterateur (free print-n-play link) is that there is no real downtime for players. All turns are taken simultaneously with time-limits on round length, so even if you finish before the other players, things should get moving again soon.

2. No Player Interaction

Boardgames are a social medium, for the most part. You get together with your friends, get a game out, and expect to play it together. Subsequently, I usually go a little mad at games that are in reality "multiplayer solitaire". This might prove an unpopular opinion because some large offenders of this are very popular games: Roll for the Galaxy and Agricola, for instance. You can influence one another to a degree, but you can also play without ever looking up from your own player board. Other offenders might include many push-your-luck games like Zombie Dice.

There should be something that you can do to effect opponents. Players should have at least some investment in what their opponents are doing, other than just concerning themselves wit what the end score will be.

Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

My own example:

When designing Director's Cut: The Card Game (details), I made the decision to limit the game to two players, even though it can be played with more, because high player counts really messed with player interactions. In Director's Cut, players take cards from a market of five cards, which is refreshed at the end of each player's turn. With two players, you need to watch what cards your opponent is collecting and try to snatch the cards they need before they get a chance. They, in turn, will do the same to you. But with three players, you can only really affect the player to your left, and likewise, the player to your right can only affect you. Very uncool. So I nixed the three-player version. I might not have been right in this decision though - plenty of playtesters told me I was worrying needlessly.

3. Runaway Leader

The game where once a player gets into the lead, they can never be unseated. They get first pick of resources, they get bonus resources, and they build impenetrable fortresses, And everyone else just suffers, trying for second place or just attempting suicide strikes. You can think of Risk as a classic example of runaway leader problems.

Most games that award points or resources depending on player position can have this problem - though it can be mitigated and well handled. If the runaway leader position is attained through skill, then that's cool, but once somebody gets into the position of runaway leader, the game should be close to finishing.

Risk is the runaway leader game.

Runaway leaders can be very reasonable sometimes. I'm a big fan of Netrunner (review) and have played plenty of games where I have fell so far behind that I can never hope to stop the other player. And that's my own fault - I shouldn't be granted a magic catch-up card just because I suck.

My own example:

Director's Cut: The Card Game actually does have a runaway leader, players get cash for finishing scripts and then use the cash to buy cast and crew to make even more money! The runaway leader is combated by making the money also count as the victory condition - if you leverage your good financial position to buy loads of cast and crew, you may actually just hurt your chances of winning. Additionally, no matter how rich or poor you are, there is always some crew that you can hire and the movies themselves don't cost a penny to make -- players should never feel totally helpless.

4. Nothing New

Probably the biggest offenders of this in the world of boardgames are worker placement games and deckbuilders. Lords of Waterdeep, though a fine game, offers nothing really new and original in it's design. I stress that the game is fine, but I don't know why I'd ever choose to buy it over something like Tzolk'in or Spyrium. And there are tons of deckbuilders which use Ascension's buy row and two currencies, or Dominion's buy piles. It's all just quite boring.

I think I'm exaggerating too much to call this a deadly sin, but its something that we should all think about when designing games -- What sets you apart from the competition?

Lords of Waterdeep. Old theme; old mechanics.

My own example:

In Litterateur I decided to try a variation on card drafting and victory conditions. For the drafting, you draft both at the start of round (to get cards needed to build a word) and at the end of a round (where you draft the cards you will play in the final round). The secondary drafting adds some unique decisions into the game and means that rather than collecting points, you are trying to manoeuvre yourself into the best position for the final round. Playtesters seem to find this an exciting and novel twist.

5. Uninteresting Decisions

These are the kind of games that you can play on autopilot. Decisions are available, but the consequences are small, too obvious, or uninteresting. The best example of this would be something like Monopoly, where your biggest decisions, for the most part, are buy a property or don't buy a property. There are offenders in designer games too - this is one of the main reasons why I traded away my copy of the (widely liked) Sentinels of the Multiverse (review).

6. Unnecessary Mechanics

That game that just has extra crap stuck to it, because it's cool. Whether it's games that just want an excuse for custom dice, or games that have to stick special card powers on an already fine mechanic. Or the kinds of games which have so many paths to victory, that the average gamer only touches half of them - games that are typically referred to as point salads. The mechanics should serve a distinct purpose in the gameplay, and not just be there to fill a gap.

My own example:

I wrote a long article about one of my first designs, for a space-based take-that card game, to which I just kept adding more and more features. I thought, wouldn't it be great if eliminated players could come back as ghosts and mess with the surviving players! No. It wasn't great. It was horrible and messy and most of all, confusing and pointless.

An old design of mine. There was so much going on.

7. It takes too Long!

This is particularly true when you have games that feature a lot of randomness - if you couple that with a long play-time, then I'll likely fall asleep. Many good games have a distinct end point (maybe it's the number of rounds or when a draw pile is empty) or a distinct sense of inertia that builds up, so the ending is within sight.

8. No Way to Handle a Tie

If your game has the possibility for a tie, and those ties are not so infrequent as to be negligible, then there should be a way to break the tie. It's a bit of a bummer to get to the end of a game and have such an anti-climax. It doesn't have to be complicated, but it should be something to edge out that one player was even just slightly better.

Very quickly, I just have to mention my favourite tie breaker ever, in the tree-themed game, Arboretum, from Z-man Games (rules). After a more traditional tie breaker, if a player still can't be declared the victor, then tied players each have to plant a tree. The player with the biggest tree in five years is declared the winner. This is so much fun that I totally stole this idea for Litterateur. A tie in that game is broken by the player who used the single highest scoring letter, but then after that, it's the first player to write and publish their own novel who wins.

9. Unwieldy Instructions

Bad instructions are horrible! They make that first playthrough of a game such a chore - particularly when you realise, after a hour, that you've been making huge rule mistakes. But this is a sin that can be remedied so easily: use blind playtesters and get an editor!

A blind playtester is a playester who plays the game based only on the rulebook -- not having been taught the game by other people. They are the simplest way to see if your rulebook is up to scratch and they may surprise you with the issues that they discover. Editors will usually look at the structure and language of your rulebook, and as far as I'm concerned, they are invaluable. I worked as an English teacher and writing coach for five years, yet I still find tons of errors in my own work. This isn't because I'm a bad writer, but because, I, like everyone, need a second opinion. You don't necessarily have to pay for an editor -- you could run it past a few well-read friends or even send it my way, if it's not too long.

I wrote a couple of articles about how to write a good rulebook. You can find them here.

My own example:

Outside of boardgames, I also write fiction. For a recent book, before I sent it to a publisher, I hired an independent copyeditor to check for language issues. I was horrified and embarrassed at the kinds of issues they pulled up. Things I had told my students about hundreds of times -- amateur stuff! But these things always slip through.

10. Not Tested

It's heartbreaking to get a beautiful Kickstarter game to the table, only to quickly find that it is fundamentally flawed. It could be outrageously unbalanced, or maybe the designer didn't forsee a particular play style or strategy. I've been given a few review copies of games that suffered from a lack of testing -- where in even one play, it was immediately obvious that something was off. Test your game. Test it a lot. Test it solo, test it with your partner, send it to blind playtesters (see point 7), bring to meetups. Something!

11. Bad Artwork

I don't think designers necessarily have to pay outrageous sums for artists, but designers should realise that some art is bad and will detract from the game. I would much rather see some creative commons or public domain artwork being used, then some terrible MSPaint or childlike scrawling. If you need some guidance, check out my article on how to find good, free artwork.

My own example:

In Director's Cut, I used public domain movie posters to add theme to the script cards. This has gone down very well with players and reviewers. With the cast and crew cards, I wanted to have images of people, but realised that (1), I can't use photographs without permission and (2), I can't afford good custom work. Instead, I relied on a simple image of a film negative and some funky graphic design. It's not as good as real artwork would have been, but not as much an eyesore as bad artwork.

Litterateur uses wholly public domain artwork on it's print-n-play cards. All the images are taken from books printed in the 1800s, which fits the theme perfectly, and, best of all, are freeeeee!

12. Bad Graphic Design

This isn't that cards and boards need to look fantastic, but rather that cards and boards should at least be functional. Cards should have information in the top corners so that they can be fanned out in a player's hand. Font choices should be logical, so they can be read quickly. Colours shouldn't clash horribly and distractingly.

My own example:

I have no skills with graphic design. None! My first prototypes for all my games are absolute disasters in terms of graphic design - weird fonts and colours and uneven layouts - you name it, I've done it. So I had no choice but to work with a designer to help work out these kinds of things. I'm pretty pleased with the graphic design of my games so far, but can take no credit for it! All of the below examples have been designed by Tiffy Moon.

Director's Cut: The Card Game (details)

Eccentric Exhibits (unreleased)

Litterateur (free print and play)

13. Lack of Accessibility

Closely related to graphic design, there are too many games out there that do not accommodate for the needs of players with accessibility issues. One very prolific and easy to fix issues is choosing colours that are suitable for colourblind players. 1 in 10 men have a degree of colourblindness, so for a game not to address this is utter madness. I recently played the otherwise excellent game, Broom Service, which uses the colours, purple, orange and green for it's potions and towers. Two of the players were colourblind and we were utterly frustrated. We could exercise no subtlety in our plans as we had to keep on asking neighbours, "What colour is this tower?" Other offenders have included Race/Roll for the Galaxy and classics like Carcassonne (red and green meeples...). Choose colours wisely and use patterns and symbols.

I added belts to my meeples so I could identify them.

Other accessibility issues that should be considered and addressed include size of text and choice of font for those with vision difficultly and size of components for those with motor issues. Obviously, some of the solutions are more practical than others, depending on the kind of game being made.

14. Anything Else?

Of course, there are many more sins in boardgame design - these are just the ones that stand out to me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on other things you'd like to see done away with.

Super-Science Adventures in Twisted Space-Time (Print-and-Play)

Here's something I've been working on for quite some time now - a narrative based game, light on rules, heavy on theme and atmosphere. It's really been made to allow a bunch of friends to come together and have a laugh while creating silly stories.

The story goes like this:

Vastly evil inter-dimensional forces have destroyed the world as we know it by tearing apart space-time itself. Luckily, the world-famous and slightly crazy scientist, Dr Damon Thum, has developed a device that allows you and your adventuring team to travel through space-time to fight the minions of this evil force and set things right. An odd complication caused by Dr Thum’s device means that every time you use it, your own past is twisted into a new configuration, often granting you unique special abilities that you can use in each battle. 
The world needs you, adventurer, and your team, to defeat four evil enemies and recover the dimension stones that they possess. With these, Dr Thum can set things right with our universe. If you fail, it will be as if humanity never even existed.

You'll need to print out the 7-page black-and-white document, grab a single dice, and up to three more friends. The game will produce environments, super-powers, weird anomalies and horrible enemies, leaving it up to you and your friends to figure out how to escape these terrible dimensions.

This is currently a demo - I will produce a fuller version depending on responses. Please give the game a try and let me know your thoughts.

Print and Play Help

Take the PDF file and print it, double sided, instructing your printer to flip along the short edge. This game has no graphics, so you may as well select the ink-saver option, if your printer has one. Then chop up the cards and arrange them into stacks based upon the card-backs.

Some computers may show the PDF as having strange dark lines in place of letter L's. This is a display problem caused by the fonts, but it will only exist on your monitor and will not effect the printed copy. If you zoom in 300%, you will see that the fonts are displayed correctly. It's weird, I know.

Currency for Prototype Boardgames

Here's just a little thing. If you need a sheet of currency for your next prototype, save yourself the bother of making up a sheet. Here's one for you:

Litterateur Credits

This otherwise boring post details where all the various images from Litterateur come from. This has mainly been done to cover my tracks and show that all images are public domain. Warning: screwy layout happens after the break!