Wake the dragon. Indie + Retro.

Even before the rise of Kickstarter, electronic publishing, print-on-demand, or desktop publishing, RPGs were a thing that lots of people tried to do. Even back in the hoary days of paste-up in the ’70s and ’80s you had TSR, FGU, ICE, and several other companies that weren’t three-letter acronyms.

Not everybody who dreams of professional football or going to space gets to do it. But everybody who dreams of RPGs has a shot at being a roleplaying game designer/publisher. That has led us to 5th edition in a painful way. Continue reading


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Wake the dragon. The OGL.

D&D has had five fallow years. A new version is upon us. As with a lot of game stuff, I know more than I’m telling, but not as much as I’d like to know. I’m going to spend a few posts taking about some things I think about the state of RPGs and I’ll hazard some guesses about what’s next that, statistically, will be embarrassingly wrong. Continue reading


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A meditation on game box sizes

At work, we recently had a discussion about box sizes. I wrote a whole essay to get to my thoughts on the matter, and then, as sometimes happens, the essay was not really relevant to the final, relatively short comment. So I thought I’d put it here.

The original question was: Does the American market want big, fancy boxes? My argument was basically, no.

There are a few standout party games (Apples to Apples, Scattergories, Pictionary, Taboo… you can think of a few more) and they do come in unnecessarily big boxes. And they sell very well! From the outside it’s hard to deconstruct how much of sales is due to oversized, bright packaging. But everybody does it, so even if you think it doesn’t work, you can’t not do it, right?

Except interestingly, the big boxes aren’t so big any more. I’ve got an “updated for the ’90s” version of Pictionary that comes in a crazy size: 18″ long, 7.5″ wide, and 3″ deep. That was 20 years ago. A more recent edition shaves the length down to 10.5″ and basically leave the other two dimensions alone. I checked product specs on Amazon, and the most recent version of Cranium is 10.5″ x 10.5″ — and that’s a game full of stuff, not just air! Party games just don’t come in big, stupid boxes of air like they used to.

That’s mass market though. What about hobby market?

In the US market, they’re OK with big boxes as long as the size is justified by the contents inside. No one had a problem with Ogre in a box that measured nearly 4 square feet because it weighed 15 pounds. American hobby gamers do not want a big box for marketing purposes, just to take up shelf space or just to be “American.” For instance, Guildhall‘s box is not large. 10.5″ x 10.5″ (~26x26cm). But at AEG we got many complaints about the box size because it only contained 120 cards and some punchboard tokens. The thinking at the time was to make boxes bigger so they would stand out on a store shelf.

I see the wisdom there, but it doesn’t hold up to experience. Looney Labs is doing great with Fluxx in a small box, for example. The hardcore customers order off the internet and would rather pay less shipping for a smaller box. They’ll never see it in a store anyway. You don’t want to cater to those guys, but their money spends as well as anyone’s.

Customers also want consistency within a line. They’re happy to have the boxes stack well on a shelf or for travel. So even expansions that come in a smaller box should have at least two dimensions the same as the base game so you can hold them all together.

I know Fantasy Flight has sworn by having an entire line of games that uses the same size boxes and inserts. I don’t know if that was a really successful choice for them…. Maybe! It was definitely an inexpensive choice for printing and design costs.

But cheap and commoditized is not the Iello way. We make fantastic looking games. That should be our primary decision-maker in box size. Who cares if it’s big–does it look amazing?

Under that rubric, smaller boxes are generally better, regardless of market. Currently, my favorite box trick is Castellan from Steve Jackson Games. The retail box is big with a plastic shell, but the game contents are neatly packaged within a smaller interior box which you pull out and actually keep. Big for the store, small for the storage.

Other tricks include:

  • plastic windows to show off cool internal components (Fun Farm, Dicecapades)
  • varnish print layer (every Iello game has one of these)
  • tins instead of cardboard boxes (Forbidden Island/Desert)
  • lenticular sections (haven’t seen a game do this yet, but it was all the rage in comics 20 years ago)
  • holographic elements (haven’t seen this outside of an occasional sticker)
  • textures like faux snakeskin or fake fur (never seen this, probably not cost effective and nightmarish to stock)

Any other ideas? Leave me a comment.


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Project: Dark beta run

I backed Will Hindmarch’s Kickstarter campaign for his first-person sneaker RPG, Project: Dark. It’s an RPG in the way of computer games like Thief, Dishonored, or say, the sneaky parts of Metal Gear.

Though the full game won’t be done for a few months, Will pushed out a beta kit to backers after the end of the Kickstarter campaign. I was unusually excited for this game. In reading rules snippets, it seemed to capture the feel of a PC sneaker well. You have limited resources. You need to stay hidden. Your main job to get your objective and get out alive.

It’s easy to say that’s how you want your game played. But if the mechanics don’t back it up, then players will probably just treat it like D&D. Dark delivers. Continue reading

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State of Curiosity 2014


Having a kid has not slowed down my gaming at all. In fact, it’s picked up a little bit. Most of this is due to my highly supportive wife and friends. Thanks wife and friends!

It has slowed blogging about games, however. That, and work.

In January I began working as a project manager with Iello, makers of King of Tokyo and Steam Park, among others. The experience has been excellent. Iello is a great company with a supportive atmosphere and a solid stable of games. I think you’ll see increasingly fun stuff coming out of the company this year.

Second Saturday game night rolls on and continues to pick up speed.  I’ll post about that soon, I hope.

One thing that has dropped off since Player 3’s arrival is progress on my own game designs. At the end of last year, I pitched some children’s co-op games to an under-respected game publisher. They passed on my favorite idea, one I like so much that I plan to pitch it other places. It’s a children’s RPG for kids ages 6-8. I’m a little in love with it, so that’s bad for objectivity, but I have non-rose-colored vision.

I was also working on another game with the inestimable Curt Crane who started a fantasy dungeon-crawl dice game and asked me to work with him. Naturally I said yes. I hope to get back to that in Q1.

I’m headed up to Toy Fair next week. That should be interesting. I haven’t been there in almost 10 years, and then as press, not as an exhibitor.

All in all, 2014 remains an excellent time to be curious. I hope to share some of it with you this year.

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February 15, 2014 · 1:09 pm

Welcome Player 3!

Now I have someone new to get mad at when I lose!

Posting will resume in the near future.

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Tynon, the game that plays itself

I’ve been playing cow clicker games on my ipad lately and have seen the banner ad blitz from several similar F2P games on the Web: Evony, Tynon, whatever that one is that bills itself as exclusively for male gamers.

They all strike me as ochre-jelly slimy. But somebody must think there’s money in them. So I investigated Tynon.

There’s plenty of T&A, but it’s not very… sexy. I can see the lens that allows me to see the female characters as sexy, but the game doesn’t even really work all that hard to objectify. And the figures are tiny most of the time, so you can’t even get all that excited over tiny sprites with what would be proportionally big boobs. Most of the NPCs are mammarily gifted females, but they’re static images. They’re just half-naked drawings telling you to kill ten rats. The sex is almost purely marketing. That’s objectification, but it isn’t porn.


I never learned how to go on the offensive, but this Chinese-revolution-faced siren would try to lure me into it occasionally.

I’ve been watching it for about 20 minutes, and it seems to be less related to an rpg and more closely related to combat guessfests like My Brute.

I let the game name me “Madisyn”, one of several stripper-esque choices. The general populace had the usual doggerel of fantasy-ruiner names, such as “Monkeybutt” or “TigOlBitties”. I could have made a dude avatar, but I wanted to get the full experience.


Madisyn in her natural habiTIT.

“Auto-Navigation” walks you through what we’ll call “the story” on technical counts. This means it does nearly everything for you. It finds the next quest giver, walks you over there, clicks on him/her, and gives you money for showing up.

In fact, it’s playing itself while I’m writing this. I think I’m fighting zombies right now. Ultimately, this is the best choice because 1) you do a lot of boring things repetitively to grow (without money), and 2) the UI is cluttered like a 5-year-old’s room. You don’t have to mess with that when the game plays itself.

tynon.cluttered UI

What do I click to check on my character stats? Trick question! All of them!

As I spent more time with Tynon, I began to see how deep it runs. It has dizzying complexity in equipment, henchmen, and skills, all of which pour into a central stat called “Power”. You want Power to go up so you can win more fights. Not all the math behind Power is transparent, so if you want to get at Tynon, you have to join the community and research.

What I would think of as the game environment—theme, graphics, my avatar, etc—is revealed to be entirely window dressing. Accordingly, they haven’t dumped just a whole ton of resources into that.

The real “game” is metagame. It involves management of Power-gaining resources, guild management, and a weirdly hands-off PvP, where you don’t control the fight — you just line up your guys beforehand and pick your opponents from a small pool. Protip: Try to pick the ones with lower Power.


You can successfully pick fights with slightly higher-powered opponents.

The game is dog-simple to start and play. If that appeals to you, it’s got quicksand-like capacity to keep you around with numerous clever little F2P touches: rewards based on clicking every 30 minutes, negative reinforcement based around checking in every 24 hours, an announcement of the dollar value of the “gifts” the game gives you so you understand what stuff costs, a crawl that tells you when other players get lucky.


The box on the lower left gives you server chatter, but when something big happens, everyone sees it in a crawl across the screen.

There’s a business model underneath all of this that doesn’t need quality or even, apparently, a game to lure in money. I can’t tell how much of this bad design/good business is intentional, but I’m thinking, most of it.

I came into Tynon wanting to revile it and left with a begrudging respect. Not for the barely extant game, but for the sharp gamification from uCool, Inc. In addition to Tynon,  uCool operates two different versions of Evony, and a Facebook game called Sunnytown, and yet has no customer-facing website of their own. If you work for uCool or know someone who does, get in touch.  I’d like to see how this watch works.


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