Tag Archives: Agricola

Project DG

About six weeks ago, I made a card game. I fiddled with it for a couple of weeks, pitched it to a publisher, got a soft acceptance, and now I’m in the process of designing it some more.

This is a part of the process I never see anybody write convincingly about in their design diaries. This early-middle, bulking up part. I’m not sure I’m going to write anything enlightening either, but I want to try to get something down.

I am not so far along as to call what I am doing “development.”* Even though I have a fully functioning, somewhat fun, already pitched-and-accepted game, I’m still designing it.

Project DG is meant to be light and play quickly. So adding to it is subsequently more laborious. You have to do more work to make a shorter, simpler thing. But it needs more muscle on the bones. So I’m adding mechanics, systems so gossamer that they barely qualify for the name, trying to add depth without adding mass.

I’m failing so far, but this is to be expected. Welcomed even.

My very first girlfriend is now a renowned sculptor. We haven’t talked in years, but when I read about her process, it resonates with game design. (And I suspect, with most creative endeavors.) Here’s a quote about her work from a short biography:

Stichter’s large sculptures are first solid forms, built up around steel armatures with wet clay that she models and sculpts as she works. The amount of clay involved is huge—often 1,000 pounds or greater—and the effort of manipulating this heavy mass is also huge; Stichter describes literally digging in to the clay and slamming, pounding, working until she tires and needs a break to rest and reflect on the next approach.

In game-design analogy, it’s like making every game Agricola-dense and then hollowing out to get a Ticket to Ride.

I’ve gone way wide of the mark if Project DG gets Agricola-dense! But I’m in the part of design where the game is chunkier and slower and solid-er than the final product should be. In today’s playtest, my partner commented that the game was more strategically interesting, but taking far longer than our first tests of the game a few weeks back. The game has gotten head-scratchy with all these new additions. I’m aiming for a 10-minute playtime, and one game today was probably twice that long.

My takeaway from this is: “Good. Now to add some more stuff.”

I’m actually a little ahead of schedule, thanks to some muse tourism at the start of the thing. But I’m not done tossing more clay onto the armature. Another entire subsystem is probably still in the offing.

You need too much so that you can pare back to the correct pieces that make enough. I don’t know how long that will take, but I’m hoping not too long. A few more weeks.

If you’re reading this in the first half of 2018 and want to help playtest, find my email in the About section.


* For one thing, I think development is someone else’s job. Just as a writer should not be their own editor, a designer should not be their own developer. That said, no writer would tell you they don’t edit their own work! But the writer’s editing is part of the writing, not part of the “editing.”







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Good Enough Games

pic517933_mdA couple years ago I was repping AEG at boardgamegeekcon and had a great time. When the show ended, we had  inventory left over. Among other things, a couple of cases of Monkey Lab, a game about monkeys. In a lab.

During breakdown, I was over at the Funagain room, trying to sell leftover stock at a discount so we didn’t have to ship it home. I brought the full list of everything we had left–Thunderstone, Infinite City, Nightfall, some other stuff. The Funagain guy picked some, rejected others. He wouldn’t take any Monkey Lab.

I asked him why.

“It’s an OK game,” he said. “That’s the problem. There’s plenty of OK games.”

Monkey Lab is probably nobody’s favorite board game. It’s not a bad game. It was good enough to get published. It’s a decent kids’ game. But by some measures, that might be a step worse than being an outright bad game. 

Every game company that’s been around for long has a stable of these. Games good enough to publish, but not good enough to flourish. Games that will roughly break even and then sink to the bottom of the catalog.

Reminds me of the apocryphal story of when Sony bought MGM studios. The formerly-MGM execs presented their slate of movies for the year to their new bosses.

“We’re going to make 40 movies this year. Five will be blockbusters. Ten will do OK. Twenty-five will lose money.”
The new bosses ask, “Why don’t you just make the five that will be hits?”
The movie types say, “We don’t know which ones they are.”

Some of that happens in any creative endeavor. Nobody wakes up and says, “I’m going to make a sufficient game today!” But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell what’s really good until it gets out there. Your bullshit detector loses its calibration unless you take pains to keep it accurate. When you’re running a business, that calibration easily falls down the to-do list.

More often what happens is that you MUST put something out. Cash flow is desperately important to a small business, often more important than high-quality product. A game that you’re confident will break even keeps cash moving around until the real moneymaker shows up.

But as we’ve seen, it can be hard to tell the moneymakers from the money-not-losers. A lot of companies jump from sufficient game to sufficient game for a long time. I guess that’s really just called “business.” Nearly every game company would like to operate like Blizzard or Days of Wonder, only putting out excellent games on an excellent schedule. But in most cases, that is neither feasible nor desirable. One that I know of intentionally operates the other way, publishing good enough games as a wildcatting strategy. It works too.

Ultimately, I wrote in praise of the OK games. They have a place, although not an honorable one.  We would love for all our games to be Tickets to Ride, Agricolas, and 7 Wonderses. But thank the Lord there’s room for Monkey Labs too. Monkey Lab keeps us all here in ways that Power Grid cannot.

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