Monday, August 17, 2015

Other games in development

This blog has mostly been about Sands of Time, but in case there's interest, here's a more-or-less comprehensive list of the games I've worked on (well, the ones that are worth mentioning, anyway...):

Finished or Nearly Finished

Sands of Time (Accepted by Spielworxx, publication anticipated 2016)

Civilization-building game set in classical antiquity.  Distinctive features include a board based on an ancient map, a scoring system representing players boasting about their grandiose accomplishments, and an economy in which players' costs to take actions are set by their empire's unrest level.

Lost Adventures (Submitted)

Co-designed with Steve Sisk.  Indiana Jones-themed artifact hunt with two phases, a globe-trotting information gathering phase followed by a temple crawl.  Uses a simple system through which the game "knows" the whereabouts of the lost artifact.  Players visit "theme cards" to acquire information, but must avoid and outpace "The Enemy" in their pursuit of the artifact.
 Le Sablier (Selected for Boston Festival of Indie Games 2014)
Real-time cooperative game about running a restaurant.  Players are each assigned an individual role in the restaurant, and must coordinate their activities so as to provide the highest quality dining experience possible to customers without them leaving in frustration.  Key feature is the use of 20+ sand timers to coordinate all of the different processes happening in the restaurant.  Super-frenetic and always fun; everyone has been to a restaurant at some point so the gameplay feels quite intuitive.

Santa's Reindeer

Breezy card game in which players are breeding reindeer for Santa's team.  Players play cards to present silly reasons why a current deer on the team is unfit for service, and must then propose replacements; but Santa needs to keep things simple, so replacement deer must preserve the original rhyme scheme.

Downhill Racer

Solo card and dice game about the Olympic Downhill.  Course is composed of cards, each of which represents a different element (a turn, a jump, etc), and symbols on the dice are used to pass these elements.  The player chooses how aggressive he wants to be on each element, and then rolls to see if he held his line.  If so, he increases his speed, if not, he must pay "save" tokens equal to his current speed, or else crash.  So, speed management is key to successfully navigating the course with the best time possible.


Dexterity game in which you toss "shuriken" tiles at "ninja" pieces, trying to knock down as many as you scan.  Semi-cooperative; each round one person tossses tiles to show where the ninjas will be placed, and the other players then toss shurikens to try to achieve as high a group score as possible.  Has been a very big hit with younger players especially. 


A game for the Decktet; drafting game in which you pay "time chips" to draft cards and then either use them in your newspaper or spend them to get "attestation cubes" in an amount equal to their rank.  You distribute these cubes to cards in your paper that match the suit of the card you just spent, and only cards with a number of cubes equal to the card's rank count in the end.

The Ministry of Knowledge

Another Decktet game.  A bidding game, in which the lowest bid receives chips equal to the bid card's rank; players then use chips they have won to publish papers, but number of chips paid must equal the rank of the paper being published.  You use the same cards to bid and to publish as papers, so good hand management is essential.

In Progress

The Acts of the Evangelists

Third in a planned trilogy of games about the first century of Christianity.  This game is about the process by which the "evangelists" composed the four texts we now refer to as the Christian Gospels.  Players will travel to various cities of the Roman empire, accumulating stories about Jesus of Nazareth, interviewing eyewitnesses to those stories, and arranging them into a pleasing literary account.  Two "prequel" games, Disciples and Apostles, are also in the works; Disciples is nearly complete but perhaps getting a big overhaul, Apostles is in the idea stage but seems to be converging.


Medieval-ish game of intrigue.   Players have "scheme" cards representing end game states they're trying to steer the board into (e.g. "[This] barony is biggest", "[That] Faction controls 2 cities").  Build a power structure to enable you to execute the actions you need to perform to achieve the schemes you're trying to achieve.   Form marriage alliances and utilize the power structure of your allies.  Most interesting characteristics are the importance of aligning your goals with those of other players, and the use of "loaned power" to access your allies' power, and to bribe other players into supporting you in elections.

 I Am Spartacus

Co-design with Rich Durham.  Recreates the iconic scene at the end of the classic film.  Large-group game in which most players are slaves, a few are Romans, and one is (secretly) Spartacus.  Romans ask for volunteers to confess, then some slaves declare "I am Spartacus!"  Romans must judge which slaves to execute, the confessors or those not confessing.  A promising idea but still needs some work.

Just Ideas at This Point

Sherlock Holmes

An entirely "visual" microgame consisting of 20 cards: 4 locations, 4 victims, 4 scenes, and 8 suspects.  Choose a victim, location, and scene to setup.  Players examine the cards to attempt to identify the common visual element that connects the three, and then figure out which suspect it implicates.  Game will have a built-in difficult system so that some cases are easy and some are nearly impossible without copious background knowledge.


Brand new idea about the investigation into the JFK assassination.  Collect evidence, interview witnesses, and chase down the conspiracy before the threads evaporate.


A game in the "Le Sablier" family; this one is a real-time strategy game about a villainous mastermind hatching schemes, and the heroes who are attempting to thwart his plans.  Diverges from conventional hero games -- it's not so much about comparing power levels and dealing out damage points as it is about time.  The villain tries to distract the heroes with irrelevant threats while his real plans (hopefully) go unnoticed.  Heroes must coordinate their action and time management to protect the city from the villain's major schemes!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The time of Sands

[Is there anything more irritating than blog post titles that try too hard to be clever?  I don't really think so.]

Feeble attempts at cleverness notwithstanding, as Sands gets closer to publication, I have been thinking about possible areas in which the game's theming might need to be polished; the terminology and whatnot that one uses in playtesting are mostly arbitrary, because one just wants to know if the systems work, but now that the design is "done", it's appropriate to take a step back and start considering those aspects more carefully. 

One criticism that pretty much all civ games receive, and almost all deserve, pertains to how they handle time.  On the one hand, these games are supposed to cover time periods spanning centuries or perhaps millenia.  On the other hand, you have individual actions like battles or construction projects or piece movements that seem quite out of proportion with the overall time period covered by the game.

Now I think that Sands is guilty of this criticism in spades.  But, I thought it might be interesting to see whether judicious choices of terminology, and thinking about the game in the right way, might be able to produce at least a hand-waving harmonization of the game's action and the time scale it purports to cover.

With its Roman-era map and Greco-Roman structures and advances, Sands is understood to occur primarily within classical antiquity, which (roughly) covers the period from about 800 B.C. to about 400 A.D or so. (This is entirely contained within the Iron Age). So, that's about 1200 years.   It's not crucial that every single thing that happens in the game occur in exactly the right chronological location or sequence, because we're remaking history here, but just roughly, the game should feel like it covers about 1200 years.  Good.

Now, there are two different "clocks" we therefore need to synchronize with this overall duration:  the population growth clock, and the individual player turn clock.

The basic unit of time in the game is the player turn, each of which consists of two actions.  Turns are grouped into multi-turn "clusters" of 2-4 turns (currently called "generations" in the ruleset, but let's just call them "clusters" for now).  Scoring happens after a certain minimum number of turns have elapsed (6, 7, or 8 turns, for the first, second, and third scoring round, respectively), but only after the current "cluster" ends as determined by a die roll.  So, let's refer to these groups of turns (and, simultaneously, groups of clusters) as "scoring rounds"; a scoring round, it can be seen, typically contains 2-3 (or rarely, 4) "clusters".  And the total game lasts 22 turns or 44 actions.

 If we divide 1200 by 22 or 44, we get 54 or 27 respectively.  So, could we simply view each action as taking ~25 years, and call it good?

With respect to population growth, this seems to work.  Each player starts with 9 "citizens" (6 peasants, 3 warriors), and population growth is abstracted:  rather than occuring every turn or cluster of turns, it occurs automatically in three specific turns of the game (4, 9, and 15, currently), and adds a single peasant to each of the player's owned territories. Making an allowance for the addition of warriors (which happens through an independent process), and sort of roughly compensating for war losses, a typical population growth curve might be:
Turn -- Pop
0 ---- 9
4 ---- 13
9 ---- 18
15 ---- 23
(No mention of how many people each citizen represents -- it's "quite a few" -- because the main thing is to get the rate of growth roughly realistic)

If we make the above assumption that the full game spans about 1200 years, then 15 turns should correspond to about 750 years, and this would give a population growth rate of 0.2% annually. The actual growth rate in the Roman Empire from 1100 BC to 200 AD was about 0.1%, according to an extremely reliable source (wikipedia). So, for a crude system, it seems that population growth gives a pretty decent model of the "correct" behavior under the time scale we're assuming.

The individual player action clock may be a bit more problematic.  Let's 
look at a few actions, and ball-park some time estimates that we might associate with those actions:

  • War -- A decade or less (?)
  • Major building project -- Several years to a few decades (?)
  • Establish a regional trade route -- A decade (?)
  • Implement a tech advance -- Several decades to a century (?)
  • Manage unrest through reforms, etc. -- Several years to a decade
This suggests that a turn (two actions) might be about 10-20 years or so.  (Call it 15, split the difference).  That would make a cluster of turns, which, again, can be 2-4 turns, 30-60 years.  I've called that a "generation", i.e., the reign of an individual ruler; and maybe that's about correct.

As for a "scoring round", which typically contains 2-3 "clusters" or "generations", the game currently refers to that as an "epoch" which is clearly wrong.  At 90-120 years, a scoring round seems to coincide not-too-unfavorably with a "dynasty", i.e., the length of rule of a typical ruling house before it falls or is overthrown or dies out or whatever.  So maybe "epoch" should become "dynasty".

There's a problem, of course:  at 15 years a turn, the 22 turns of the game only correspond to 330 years rather than 1200 years; and with only three "scoring rounds", only three dynasties rule over a 1200 year period, which also seems wrong.

I can see two possible reconciliations, both of which require a compromise to accuracy.  The first is to view the turns as lasting about 50 years each, and then the clusters are "dynasties" and the scoring rounds are "eras" or "periods".  The compromise this requires is that it over-estimates the time scale of the individual actions (more egregiously for some than others).

The other option is to view the turns as 10-15 years, the clusters of turns as "generations" or "reigns", and the scoring rounds as "dynasties", BUT, the idea is that we're not tracking EACH AND EVERY ruler or dynasty, but only the MOST CONSEQUENTIAL ones.  There is, to me, great thematic appeal to this reconciliation -- it acknowledges that some rulers didn't do that much or didn't establish a reputation that was preserved for posterity, and this is in keeping with the game's theme.  What I also like is that it keeps the theming of the player-as-individual-ruler intact.  Yes, with each generation, the player "magically" becomes the next ruler in a succession, but at any individual instant, the player's representation is concrete:  he is the current ruler of his civilization, and his current horizon is simply the length of the current "generation" -- his own life span, which is uncertain.

So I tentatively prefer the second, but ultimately, it's mostly a cosmetic consideration, and decisions of this sort ultimately fall to Spielworxx to implement.  Happy to hear any other comments, suggestions, or considerations that others have on this subject.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Solo play

Back into the weeds for a bit.

A while back, I wrote about how, originally the game had an idea of "trade routes" as adjacencies between players' cities, but my good friend John Velonis (designer of, among other things, a really fun beer and pretzels game, Venus Needs Men) observed that these were a pain to visualize, and additionally weren't entirely historical -- trade routes were about access to resources that were far flung over a vast geography.  This prompted an addition to the board of "trade good" spaces (the star spaces that show up in the image in this post) and of "caravans" (think Settlers road pieces) that players use to connect their cities to those trade goods.  In the present ruleset, connections to trade goods are a scoring category, but connecting caravans to other players' cities or to trade goods let you increase your heritage and other players' caravans that touch your cities authorize you to hit them up for tribute.

Now the nice thing about this is that, somewhat like Knizia's Lord of the Rings, different player counts give a different feel.  The more players in the game, the more potential cities you can connect to (more access to heritage) but the more exposed you are to tribute demands from other players (and of course the more players you can potentially collect from).  With fewer players, you can still get heritage from your caravans, but you'll have to build longer routes to reach all the stars (at the same time incurring less tribute risk), or you can rely more on the other means of acquiring heritage.

But what took me a while to realize was that, for the first time, none of the core scoring mechanisms depend on the presence of other players, and in fact, it's possible to play the game solo.  I've tested a solo variant a number of times now, and it seems to play pretty well.  I'm hoping it will end up included in the ruleset inside the game's box.  It's a variant because it does include two ghost civs, which exist merely to give you someone to attack (so military development is still a plausible path) and to give you some risk that you have to factor into your plans.  The AI for the ghost civs is trivially simple -- when population grows, they add a warrior in each of their territories, and each time you roll a 6 when testing for the end of a generation, one of them attacks one of your territories. (Since the game lasts 21-24 turns, statistically you'll face about 3-4 attacks per game, and this feels just about right).  They don't build or advance or anything like that, so you have to do the legwork of caravaning mentioned above by yourself, and there's no one to discover new techs on the tech tree for you, so scores are probably a bit lower on average, but it's still a fun way to get to play the game and a good way either to learn the game or to play around in the sandbox and try some new strategies.

I don't know if players who only plan to play solo would seek to acquire the game just for solo play, but I do think it provides a pretty similar experience with only a very few simple additional rules, so it has some value.  And it would be neat to be able to say that the game seats 1-6 players; I don't think too many civ games can say that.  Because the lion's share of the game time happens in the simultaneous action planning, the game length shouldn't really change much with player count in principle, but of course in practice 5 or 6 players will generally take longer to play than 1-2 players.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sands in a slightly different nutshell

The news is public, so I guess I can officially announce that Sands will be published by Speilworxx, as announced here.  This is great news for the game; Spielworxx has set a high standard with a string of excellent gamer's games, and it will be great to be a part of an excellent brand.

It's been almost two years since the last "nutshell" post, and while it's likely spielworxx might change some aspects of the game before release, I can at least update the previous "nutshell" post with a few of the changes that have taken place since that post.

The overall scope of the game is the same; it's a civ building game set loosely in classical antiquity, with the action taking place on a Roman era map, and the goal (which I believe to be unique to Sands, and its most distinctive feature) is to record "Chronicle cards" boasting about your exploits, so that your posterity will remember your greatness long after your civ has succumbed to the ravages of time.

A few things have been streamlined.  First, the game now DOES have tech trees; the game has three civilization categories (cultural, political, and civil), and there are two tech trees in each, but it's really more of a " tech line" than a tech tree, as they don't "branch".  The trees are card- based, and the first player to reach a given tech level on a given tree gets to choose what card at the next level on that tree will be.  So, there's some variability from game to game, but everyone has the same trees available and it's easy to see what everyone's capabilities are.

The "achievement tokens" have been replaced with "heritage tracks", which reflect your reputation in the three civ categories.  Your heritage in a category increases when you score in a category (so, heritage, literally), when you build trade routes that contact other players' cities (reflecting the idea that your reputation is spreading), or when you complete an Emphasis card.

Emphasis cards are one of my favorite new additions; on each turn you select two Action cards, but once per "generation" you can instead play an Emphasis card, and this does two things; as mentioned, if you take at least three actions during that generation that match the civ category of the emphasis card, you get a boost to your heritage -- you've established a reputation in that area has increased by your having specialized in that action.  The second is that it unlocks some capability on other action cards.  So emphasis in building lets you build a city or demand tribute, emphasis in culture lets you put a marker on an additional tech tree or reduce your unrest for free, and so on.  

I'll post updates as additional changes emerge during development, but I hope this post, and the previous "nutshell" post give a good sense for what the game is mostly about and maybe what might be interesting about it.

Monday, December 29, 2014


I've just signed a publication contract for Sands of Time with a German publisher.  I'll wait to say more until they've announced it; there may be some internal development that will take place.  But, a nice step forward for the game for sure!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The goal revisited

A discussion with Joe Pilkus over at BoardGameGeek about the new game "Historia" enabled me to revisit one of the earliest posts, about my design goals for the game, or my ideas of what a good "civ" game should, ideally, include.  Now that the game is closer to completion, it might be fun to look back and see how well the game achieves those goals:
- Growth:  Yes, certainly, particularly with the new population rules in which pop. growth is automatic rather than a turn option.  This is the kind of growth I originally envisioned, i.e., growth that creates pressure to expand although expansion for conquest's sake is also part of the game.
- Enhancement:  Yes.  The players achieve advances which provide upgraded capability, and build structures, which improve their territories.
- Differentiation:  Mostly.  The advance "trees" make it more likely that more than one player will acquire the same advances, but as players can have markers on more than one tree, and as players' scoring strategy isn't exclusively dictated by their tech strategy, there will still be room for some differentiation between the players.
- Specialization:  Yes.  It's easier to keep progressing along a single advance tree than to put a marker on another one.  Similarly, the more you progress along the Heritage track in a particular category, the easier it will be to keep advancing and keep scoring in that category -- and progress on the track is driven by selecting actions that promote that category.  So, the game definitely steers you towards specialization, while still allowing the possibility of diversifying.
- Multiple paths to victory:  Yes.  With 6 scoring categories, there's intrinsic diversity in the ways you can get points.  Even within a single category, there are often more than one way to go about meeting the conditions to get to the highest scoring cards, and more than one approach to resource acquisition and territorial control and unrest level management that enable you to meet those conditions.  Moreover, unless you're going for a purely monochrome strategy, it's frequently desirable to pursue two or even three different scoring categories, and this gives at least 30 combinations in scoring strategies.  Not all of these may be easy/viable, but we've seen a lot of different strategies in playtesting and I think every combination is do-able, even though some are certainly less effective.
- Cooperative interaction:  Not really.  This mostly went by the wayside during development, as the various systems that were built to achieve this either weren't used much by the players, or ended up replaced by something better.  The caravans, and the way they connect you to other players' cities, kind-of-sort-of looks like cooperative interaction, but there's no real deal-making or anything like that.
And the three opportunity areas:
- Self-aggrandizement:  Definitely, yes; this is what the whole scoring system is built around, the idea that you're boasting about your empire's greatness.
- Internal politics/management:  Sort of.  Your Unrest level sets your cost for several actions, so it's important to manage it; and, overcrowding or pressing on your populace increase it, so there's definitely a need to keep your population happy.  For better or worse, unlike other games, it's not about avoiding bad things (like a rebellion, e.g.) so much as it is about keeping your Unrest at a level that will still let you do stuff.  This fits with the theme of the scoring system:  you're trying to do stuff that will cement your status as a great civilization; if you do that by oppressing your people and having high Unrest, well, that kind of thing isn't completely unheard of historically!
- Cultural diffusion:  No.  There was an element of this when the game still had achievement tokens (you could use your connections to other players' cities to give you tokens, representing the idea that your reputation was being spread by your cultural interactions), and while this is still present in a small way through the caravan/heritage system, it's quite minimal and easy to miss.
So, overall, the game seems to have met most of the goals I had set, and the ones that it missed were probably part of the game at one point during development, but ended up on the cutting room floor.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


A recent playtest of the system discussed in the last post was a mixed result. 

On the one hand, the "tech trees", the idea of locked actions that become "unlocked" with advances, and the shorter number of turns were all received generally favorably.  On the other hand, the game was more difficult, and more complex. 

A particularly problematic source of complexity was the expanded role of caravans.  While in principle this seemed favorable, in practice the different meanings of the different trade good colors that your caravans touch was just too much; additionally, needing to combine sources (caravans +  heritage bonus) to see whether you advance or score a chronicle (but slightly different sources for each) was too taxing.  

We agreed that an improved system would be to have a single heritage track for each category (political, civil, and cultural), and you get to increase on a track when you (i) touch a trade good with a caravan, (ii) touch a city or capital with a trade good, or (iii) score a chronicle in that category.  Then, you just compare the heritage track to the chronicle value (if you're scoring) or your unrest (if you're advancing), so it's always easy to see whether you're allowed to do what you want to or not. 

One of the players suggested that the turns in a generation would be more engaging if there were more opportunities to create synergy between them, ie to invest in some sort of short-term boost that lets you be really effective in just one area for just this turn. This sparked an idea that I think I like.  In addition to the Action cards in your hand, you also have "emphasis" cards, probably one for each category.  An "emphasis" card costs a turn action to deploy, and it stays in place for the whole generation and does two things:  first, it "unlocks" all of the locked actions in that same category (eg, "political" emphasis lets you unlock aspects of the Raid, Conquer, and Muster actions that are otherwise locked); second, it gives you +1 on the Heritage track in the same category IF you complete a combination of 3 actions and/or buildings in that same category this generation. 

This makes you care more about generation length; ie a short generation in which you deployed an emphasis card would feel like a waste.  Long generations force you to reuse cards or produce, taking on Unrest, but there isn't currently a downside to short generations, so these "emphasis" cards would add one.  Although, since you don't really control generation length I'm not sure how much this matters.  

Maybe there should be, instead of the "generation" track, which is the same every time, a "lifespan" card, which has a generation track, and the numbers are different on each card.  That would give some variability to the expected generation length, and you may be more likely to invest an action in emphasis if it looks like you have a healthy ruler with a long life ahead of him.