Posts Tagged ‘board game design’


November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Not a big deal, but I’ve been busy updating the site and cleaning up links, etc.  I’ve updated my About page, the Guide to Modern Gaming, the Links page, and a bunch of the links in the bar on the right.  You might want to check it out.  :-)


gaming gift guide 2014

November 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Okay, so I thought I would post another gaming gift guide — hopefully this’ll get me back into blogging a bit, but I’m not making any promises.

I’ve learned a lot about games in the last few years, and I hope to share some new discoveries.  Some of these games may be out of print, but that’s okay — it’ll likely still be possible to track them down.

A disclaimer:  most of these games are in the light-to-medium range, as I tend to prefer games that can be taught in 10 minutes or less.  I like gateway games — games that are suitable for gamers and non-gamers alike.  Heavy games are fun, but I find it a lot easier to get mid-weight games on the table.  And if I’m honest with myself, I’m up for a one-hour game a lot more often than I’m up for a two- or three-hour game.

These are the games that I’m almost always up for playing, the games that I can recommend without reservation, the games that I like best.  They are also, because I’m a designer, games that I consider to be elegant.  They are, in most cases, games that I wish I had designed.  Some of them are drop-dead brilliant.

So here they are, in order of their ranking on boardgamegeek:

  • Ticket to Ride — my favorite game to teach to newbies, it can be taught in 5 minutes or less.  There’s great tension, simple but meaningful choices, and a whole lot of fun.  My only complaint is that it can go on a bit long, but hey — it’s still a classic.  My favorite with 4 or 5 players is the original; my favorite with 2 or 3 is Nordic Countries.  The whole family of TtR games is discussed on the family page that’s devoted to them.
  • Jaipur — an excellent game for two, my wife and I play this one often.  The key to this game is getting into the flow of it — when you’re in the flow, you always seem to get the right cards at the right time.  Control the pace and you control the game.
  • Carcassonne — a tile-laying classic, this is the game that got me back into gaming.  It makes me feel like a kid when I play it, kind of like a sandbox where you can keep score.  Just don’t throw too many expansions in, though, as that’ll bog it down.
  • Battle Line — a great Knizia game for two, it’s kind of like Lost Cities‘ less popular cousin.  In many ways, though, I like it better.
  • Hanabi — if you like co-op games, you should give Hanabi a try.  It’s easy to teach to new players, unlike a lot of co-ops, and it’s fun, too.
  • San Juan — better than both Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico in my opinion, San Juan doesn’t get the love it deserves.  Sure there’s a lot of luck, but that doesn’t bother me.  It’s fun, it’s relatively easy to teach, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.  One downside is that it takes a game or two to get used to the cards, but that’s true of a lot of games.  Can be hard to find.
  • For Sale — a brilliant, two-stage auction game.  I’m not any good at it, but I still enjoy playing it.
  • Lost Cities — another excellent two-player game by Knizia.  Lots of tension, and you can never do all that you want.  The big lesson?  Never bite off more than you can chew….
  • Santiago — a brilliant auction game with some very clever mechanics.  I definitely wish I had designed this one.
  • Blokus — like a strategic version of tetris, you want to get rid of as many of your pieces as possible.  A classic.
  • Coloretto — absolutely brilliant.  Schacht is probably my favorite designer, his stuff his clean and elegant.  I like this one better than both Zooloretto and Aquaretto (larger games based on the same mechanic).
  • Morels — a relatively unknown game, it’s an excellent game for two.  As far as I know, it’s only available on Amazon.  My one complaint is that there’s a lot of card sliding, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying it.
  • Hey, That’s my Fish! — very abstract, but lots of fun.  A quick game of positioning and area control.  Reminds me a bit of Amazons, but it’s lighter and more playful.
  • Incan Gold — a classic push-your-luck by Faidutti and Moon where you’re also trying to second-guess what your opponents will do.
  • On the Underground — a great connection game with a lazy passenger.  The only problem is that some players have a hard time figuring out how the passenger will move.  Fussy, in other words, but good.  One of my favorite discoveries of the last two years.
  • Word on the Street — a great party game if you like words.
  • Zombie Dice — a great filler, fun to play while you’re waiting for your guests to arrive.
  • Cockroach Poker — you like lying to people?  Good — get Cockroach Poker.  It’s very clever, and some of our friends absolutely love it.
  • Lascaux — no, this isn’t designed by Schacht, but the core bidding mechanic is his (from Mogul).  It’s brilliant.  My only complaint is that the cards can be hard to tell apart when they’re all the way across the table.
  • Fastrack — an excellent and highly-addictive dexterity game.  I played a larger version at BGG con and loved it.
  • Battling Tops — what can I say, this game is awesome — it’s really fun to watch the tops do battle with one another.  More an activity than a game, but a great activity.  And there’s probably a great drinking game in there, too.
  • Nada — a quick dice game requiring very fast thinking.  Simple and elegant, it’s a nice filler if you have somewhat manic friends.

I hope, if you try them, that you enjoy these games as much as I do.


April 22, 2012 3 comments

When I send out an invitation to game night, I typically include an easter egg somewhere in the list of things to bring:  “Please bring a snack, easter egg, and/or a beverage to share, and bring any games you’d like to play.”  Past eggs have included bowling balls, light sabres, and tam-o-shanters, but this months hidden directive was “trebuchet.”

I got several responses asking (a) what a trebuchet was and (b) where they could find one, so I sent out a follow-up email with a link to youtube ( and a link to instructables (

(For the relatively incurious, a trebuchet is essentially a catapult with a sling on the end to give it a bit more oomph.  Wikipedia has a very nice overview.)

I wasn’t thinking anyone would actually go to the trouble of making one, but I got a couple emails suggesting that a trebuchet was in the works.  This got me to thinking, and I decided that it might be fun to build one myself.

I knew basically what the concept was, but I was still a little unclear as to what released the payload.  As far as I can tell, there are several different ways of doing it.  There’s the simple way, where one end of the sling has a loop in it that slips over a pin on the end of the swinging arm, but then there are more complicated ways, too:  ropes in various configurations that trip a release mechanism when the arm gets to a specific point.  The advantage of the former is simplicity, while the advantage of the latter is greater control over the angle of release.

I opted for simplicity.

I did a bit more research to get some idea as to the design principles and considerations involved:

One problem was that I didn’t have a whole lot of time — I needed to get going, and I didn’t really know where to start.

So I turned to the construction material of choice for would-be modelers of the slacker generation, Legos.  And not just any old Legos, but the real deal:  Lego Technics.

I happened to have a couple small sets on hand (quel coincidence!), so I started building right away.  I didn’t have any specific plans in mind, but I knew I needed a base, two sturdy towers for support, and a pivoting swingarm.  I figured I could iron out the details later.

I didn’t know exactly how big I wanted to make the thing, but I knew I was restricted by the available materials — I opted for a swingarm that was 8.75 inches long and had a pivot roughly 1.5 inches from one end.  When the swingarm hung straight down, the end of it was just slightly above the base.

Once I had the basic structure down, I still needed four things:  a counterweight (and a good way to attach it to the swingarm),a pin in the end of the swingarm, a sling of some sort, and a smooth track for the payload to travel along (the bumpy tops of Legos would not do).

I fashioned the counterweight out of a little plastic box by cutting the top off, trimming the sides, and punching two holes in it (for the pivot pin) with a paper punch.  I figured I could then fill it with as many coins as necessary to get the right amount of weight.  I hung it off the short end of the swingarm and put about $8 worth of quarters in it.

The pivot pin was a little trickier, but only because I was overthinking it.  I originally thought I would need something both fairly rigid and yet bendable (because of the way they were bending the pin to adjust for distance in that second youtube video), so I started with a paperclip that I bent into shape.  All the while I was bending and tweaking the clip, I was making a conscious effort to try to channel MacGyver.

As it turns out, though, it didn’t need to be so complicated.  I switched to a simple plastic Lego pin at some point to try to ensure a smooth release, and that works just fine.  A longer pin seems to make for a later release, and a shorter pin allows the sling to slip off earlier.

The track was easy:  I started off with a bit of Hot Wheels track and then, when everything seemed to be working well enough, switched to a dedicated bit of masonite.  The original Hot Wheels track was too long, and I couldn’t bring myself to cut it up.  (Yes, yes, I know — I do appear to have kept a number of my childhood toys.  My wife occasionally makes the same observation.)

Far and away the hardest part (and the part I’m still playing with) is the sling.  I started with some heavy cotton string and a bit of plastic bag (for the pocket) but then needed something a bit lighter and more flexible.  I’m currently using some black thread and a bit of nylon.  In order to get the pocket to have a bit of depth, I bunched up the ends, but I bunched them up a bit too much:  sometimes the payload gets stuck and doesn’t come out at all.

The difference between success and failure in the trebuchet business is a very fine line.  Small tweaks to any of these details (weight of counterweight / weight, size, and shape of payload / materials in sling / length of sling / length of pin / &c.) will mean that the payload either flies across the room in a satisfying way, gets stuck in the pocket, shoots straight up, falls out of the pocket, shoots backward, zips around in a circle (when the sling doesn’t slip off the pin), or just doesn’t go all that far.  If the payload is too light, it won’t cause the sling to slide off the pin soon enough; if the payload is too heavy, it’ll cause the sling to slide off way too soon.  Everything has to be balanced.

This makes it sound like a pain to get it dialed in, and I’ll admit it’s a little tricky.  But when  you get it to work, and specifically when you’re able to fling a small d-20 across the room and into the side of a cardboard castle you’re wife built (because you’re a very lucky guy), it’s very satisfying.

Here’s the castle S built:

Here’s the trebuchet against the same background:

And here’s the trebuchet sitting on our table:

You can see the release mechanism in that last picture, it’s the black plastic rod there on the left:  push it in to hold the swingarm in place, pull it out to let ‘er go.  The counterweight falls down, pulling the swingarm around; the swingarm pulls the sling around with its payload safely in the pocket; the payload swings out as it comes around; the sling releases from the pin in the end of the swingarm; the payload (hopefully) flies across the room.

So how did game night go?  As it turns out, this was the only trebuchet there.  It worked well, didn’t hurt anybody, and even hit the castle once.  I’d call it a success.

I was hoping to have several trebuchets present, so we could have a contest of some sort, but that’ll have to wait until next month.

I’m thinking it would be fun to build a bigger trebuchet (I may have caught the bug), maybe one that could launch a baseball.  It wouldn’t be that hard to do, and I don’t think the counterweight would have to be all that large, either.  A few free weights, a few 2x4s, a bit of nylon cord, and some leather for the pocket, and you could have a pretty decent baseball chucker.  I’m hoping to get a few of the other guys from game night interested, too.

And of course I’m inspired to try to come up with a board game about trebuchets, but so far I haven’t had any luck.  It seems to me the real appeal of this kind of tabletop trebuchet is its physicality, and the fact that you have to play with it to get it dialed in.  I’m just not sure how that would scale up (or down) to a board game:  you could have a game where multiple trebuchets attack a castle, or you could have a game where you’re building a trebuchet, but in the end you’ll still be left with a bunch of plastic bits and some cardboard.

Some things can be easily abstracted (building a railroad, creating a financial empire, &c.), but some things can’t (riding a motorcycle, firing off a trebuchet, &c.).

So you could make and sell a trebuchet toy, but I fail to see how you could make a good trebuchet game.

If anyone has any thoughts they’d care to share, I’m all ears.  :-)

milestones and updates

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been blogging for a little over a year.  I currently have 41 subscribers (not many, in the grand scheme of things, but this is, after all, a blog about board games and board game design).  And the blog has just passed 9,000 hits, which really is just a stone’s throw from 10,000.  (I was hoping to have 10,000 hits by January first, but that didn’t happen.)

My blogging goals for next year?  100 subscribers and 25,000 hits.  We’ll see how that goes.


I’ve recently updated my Guide to Modern Gaming.  It now has 29 games, ranging in weight from 1.1 (Zombie Dice & Incan Gold) to 3.6 (Agricola).  It’s a great resource if you’re just getting into gaming.

I’ve also recently uploaded pictures of some cards to the Wargame page.  That’s undoubtedly the best graphic design work I’ve ever done (and it won a prize, too).


In 2011 I went to Protospiel for the first time and took three games:  Coloronimoes, Rum Runners, and Lemuria.  One of the three is currently being considered for publication, and I hope to hear something soon.

I plan to go again in 2012, and I intend to take several of the following games:  Capital (a.k.a. Urban Conquest, née Metropolis), Puppet Masters, The Game of Stuff, Hex Herders, Global Economy, and Tabletop Railroad.  I’m really looking forward to seeing all those folks again and being in a room full of game designers.  It’s an amazing experience, and, for me at least, feels like home.


So what games have I been working on lately?  Puppet Masters (largely finished) and Capital (coming right along, but it still has a couple issues).

I played a three-player game of Puppet Masters with S and my dad recently, and it worked really well.  S and I were able to figure out that my dad was the traitor, and she was able to move in and make the capture.  While there’s a lot going on in that game, it’s really all about the table talk:  you’ve absolutely got to be able to tell a convincing narrative explaining why you’re doing whatever it is that you’re doing.  If you’re the traitor, you’ve got to keep a low profile and sow the seeds of doubt; if you’re trying to catch the traitor, you’ve got to try to figure out who it is (and how you can catch them) without doing anything that would cause other players to suspect you.  It’s a hard balance to try to maintain.

I think the traitor (whoever that turns out to be) probably has a slight advantage since no one else knows who they are.  The trick lies in getting close enough to the helicopter that you can make a break for it without drawing too much attention to yourself.

Capital is coming along splendidly.  It’s definitely my heaviest game to date, and it’s really quite subtle and nuanced.  Maybe even too nuanced.  The idea is that you’re bidding on properties and trying to connect them into chains while at the same time investing in the companies belonging to other players.  Spend too much time and money on your own company, and you won’t have any left for investing; spend too much money on your investments, and you won’t have enough to grow your own company.  I’m trying to rig it so you have to do both in order to win.

It’s fairly well-balanced at this point, but if anything the money and the bidding and the points are all too fine:  every dollar counts, and somehow that makes the game feel flat.  I’ve recently decided to make everything a bit chunkier and more granular, so we’ll see how that goes.  I’m hoping that by breaking things down into bigger pieces, I’ll give the game more texture and increase tension.  If nothing else, though, it’ll simplify the math.  :-)

Power Grid mods

January 7, 2012 Leave a comment

After a grueling 4-hour Power Grid last night in which (a) the power plant market stagnated and (b) the order in which power plant cards came out had a considerable effect on the end game, I’m thinking of instituting a few house rules.

Now I know house rules are anathema to some people, but I’m a designer, and that’s what I do.  I tweak, I play, I play with, I tweak, I play some more.

In the interest of full disclosure, so you know better where I’m coming from:  we were playing with 5 on the France board, and we had the cards from the BGG promo deck in there, too.  We were using the original power plant deck, not the modified one.  And, as far as we know, we were playing correctly.  :-)

At first I wanted to keep it minimal, and I wanted to use a three-pronged approach:

  1. Take out a few of the power plants.  Either that or slip the Step 3 card into the deck 2 or 3 cards from the bottom.  This would help prevent stagnation.
  2. Tier the power plant deck, breaking it down 1-20, 21-35, and 36-50.  Shuffle each tier independently, then stack them.  This would help prevent small and useless power plants from turning up late in the game when nobody wants them.
  3. If all players pass on a power plant that turn, it’s the smallest power plant and not the largest that’s removed.  Again, this would help prevent stagnation.

So a lot of stuff to keep power plants moving through, but not a lot to counteract the “luck-of-the-draw” issue at the end of the game.

Some, of course, would argue that the luck-of-the-draw is not so much an issue, but a feature.  I’m of two minds about it, honestly.  In many ways I enjoy the luck-of-the-draw aspect to the endgame, as it keeps the game tense and exciting, but it can also be somewhat frustrating at the end of a four-hour marathon.  It makes the game a bit more family-friendly, but it also seems a little out of place.

So I decided to get a bit more ambitious, a bit more radical.  What if, instead of building up the power plant deck for Step 3 out of the largest power plants throughout the game, the Step 3 card was simply inserted between the cards for tier 2 and the cards for tier 3?

What I was thinking went something like this:

  1. Tier the power plant deck by breaking it down 1-20, 21-35, and 36-50. Shuffle each tier independently, then stack them. Put the Step 3 card between the second and third tier.
  2. Each time someone buys a power plant, the new plant is introduced in the 8th slot of the power plant market.  All others shift down, ignoring the numbers on the cards.  Like in the original game, only slots 1-4 are available at any given time.  So the new plant comes in at number 8, what was number 5 becomes number 4, and the cards in the top row are shifted down until the hole is filled.
  3. Don’t clear out the highest power plant at the end of the turn, obviously, as that would break the new system.
  4. If all players pass, take out the lowest 1 or 2 power plants and put them in the box.  All four could be taken out, but that might move the game along too quickly.
  5. When Step 3 comes, continue doing the power plant market in exactly the same way.  Don’t switch to a 6-card market.  Implement the other changes for Step 3 (new resource refresh rate, 3 players per city, &c.), but leave the power plant process unchanged.

I can see advantages and disadvantages to the new way of doing it.


  • People can see what power plants are coming, so they know better what power plants to bid on.
  • Players can plan more.
  • The game is a bit more orderly, a bit more predictable.
  • The game is a little less fussy, involving a slightly fewer number of rules.
  • The luck-of-the-draw in the endgame would be reduced if not eliminated.
  • The power plant market would not stagnate.


  • People can see what power plants are coming, so they know better what power plants to bid on.
  • Players can plan more.
  • The game is a bit more orderly, a bit more predictable.
  • The luck-of-the-draw in the endgame would be reduced if not eliminated.
  • The game would be heavier and less family-friendly.
  • Because it would be possible to look further ahead, the game might take longer.

So it would change the game, but it might not improve it.  I do think, though, that I want to try something along these lines the next time we play.  If I can get my gaming group to go along with it, that is.  :-)

More full disclosure:  some of these changes may have already been made in the expansions.  I wouldn’t know, as I’ve only played France and Korea.  I’ve played with the BGG promo deck, but not with the new power plant cards.  My experience with the Power Grid universe is fairly limited.

Also, just so folks know, though the order in which the cards came out did have an impact on the end of the game, my relatively poor showing had more to do with poor play in the beginning.  That, and the fact that C and I were in direct competition for both cities and resources throughout most of the game.    

Holiday Gaming Goodness (HGG)

December 28, 2011 1 comment

The days here have been filled with plenty of Holiday Gaming Goodness, or HGG for short.

Last Friday we got together with some friends of ours and played Hex Herders, Fresco, and Basari.

For Christmas, I received Sneaks & Snitches, two Power Grid expansions (Benelux / Central Europe and China / Korea), Mr. Jack Pocket, and Ingenious. We also played the 15 cent game with my in-laws.

Then on Monday we got together with different friends and played Kingdom Builder and Ingenious. Yesterday we got together again and played Rattus and Fresco.

What do I think of some of these games?

Hex Herders is working well.  I’m concerned that the move shepherd / move sheep / build fence process is a little unintuitive the first time or two people play, but my playtesters haven’t necessarily shared that concern — and they’re the ones who matter.  The triangle board itself may be causing a little confusion, though, so that’s something I’m going to have to think about.

Fresco intrigues me.  While I’m not generally a huge fan of worker-placement games (Agricola and Stone Age being two notable exceptions), there’s something about Fresco that really appeals to me.  The game flows well, everything makes thematic sense, and it feels like there are a number of different ways to try to approach the game.  I was beginning to feel that I had the game figured out, but after getting my ass handed to me last night by two newbies, I’m not so sure.  :-)

Basari is an interesting game of bartering and bluffing.  I’ve really enjoyed the two games I’ve played, but I don’t know how well it’ll hold up over time.  It concerns me that it *might* boil down to a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors, where the winner is the player who most consistently chooses what no one else wants.  Time will tell.

Ingenious is an abstract tile-laying game where you try to score as many points as possible in each of the six colors by placing your tiles next to similarly-colored tiles on the board.  In typical Knizia fashion, your final score is equal to your score in your weakest color.  It’s a bit dry, but fun.  What struck me, when playing with B&A, was how quiet everyone was — it’s not a rollicking good time, but it’s an enjoyable way to spend 45 minutes.

Kingdom Builder is an extremely abstract game with a bit of theme pasted on.  Which really surprised me, considering that it’s by the same designer as Dominion (Vaccarino).  I like how it’s different each time you play, and I imagine it’ll age well.  It reminds me in some ways of Colovini’s Clans, though it feels a bit deeper and offers more variety.  Some have said it’s a good gateway game, but S might disagree:  due to her (admittedly poor) placement of her initial settlement, all she could do the entire game was expand into adjacent territories.

Rattus is another abstract, but this one has to do with the plague.  Players expand into different regions of Europe, use special powers, and then try to withstand the plague.  It felt underwhelming at first, but that’s just because I hadn’t figured out how interconnected all the various parts of the game really are.  A simple-looking game with quite a bit of complexity under the hood, this is one I may have to add to my own collection (thanks, B).

And more is yet to come! I’ve got a guy’s game night coming up on Friday, we’re hosting a New Year’s Eve party / game night on Saturday, and I’ve got another guy’s game night coming up on the 6th.

Truly, we’ve been blessed with a cornucopia of gaming. I hope you and yours have had as many gaming opportunities as we have this holiday season. :-)

Happy Holidays!

I’m on a roll: Urban Conquest, Hex Herders, and Puppet Masters

December 22, 2011 4 comments

In the last few weeks I’ve made significant progress on three of my games:  Urban Conquest, Hex Herders, and Puppet Masters.

Urban Conquest, née Metropolis, is a game about building a chain of hotels.  It’s kind of like Acquire on steroids.  The basic idea is that players are buying various properties at auction, trying to connect them together into chains to increase their value.  Simultaneously, however, they’re also trying to invest wisely in the companies belonging to other players — at the end of the game, these investments are converted first to cash and then to points.

I’ve played it with S where we simulated two additional players, and it worked really well.  I can’t wait to try it with four actual players.  The only thing I need to do, at this point, is balance the need to build up one’s own company with the need to invest wisely in other players’ companies — I want the optimal strategy to fall somewhere in the middle.  Tweaking it so that happens shouldn’t be too difficult, since it’s basically just one number.

This is a game I’ve worked on for over 15 years, and I think it’s finally getting close to being finished.  Three things have changed recently:  (1) I’ve taken the dice out and replaced them with cards, (2) I’ve greatly simplified the hostile takeovers and the ability to add new stories to hotels, and (3) I’ve made it so players can invest in other people’s companies.  This takes a lot (but not all) of the luck out, it reduces the tendency for the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor, and it makes the game simpler, too.

I’m really excited about this game, now.  :-)

Hex Herders is, you guessed it, a game about sheep herding.  It’s an abstract family strategy game for 2-4 players that borrows elements from both Amazons and Hey, That’s my Fish.  I’ve tried it with 2 and with 4, and both worked quite well.

The big idea is that you’re trying to — surprise, surprise — herd as many sheep as possible into your enclosures.  What’s cool about the game is how you’re moving and herding and building fences all at once, so there’s a definite flow.  There’s more emphasis on tactics than strategy, as a lot can change between turns, but that’s not unreasonable in a more family-friendly game.

I’ve been working on Hex Herders for a couple years, now, but the game had stalled out due to an overly-restrictive board geometry.  I knew that putting it on a square board would be an improvement, but square boards aren’t as visually appealing.  The solution?  Triangles.  Now the board starts getting locked down at just the right rate, and the game looks good, too.

Who says all the good themes have already been taken?

And finally, Puppet Masters.  One of my friends recently described Puppet Masters as the first post-modern detective game.  While I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, there is definitely an element of truth to it.

In Puppet Masters, players are all running agents for MI-6 at the height of the cold war.  The problem is, one of the agents is a traitor.  Players must first nail down who the traitor is, and then, once the traitor has been determined, try to catch them.

The twist?  If it turns out that the traitorous agent is one of the ones under your control, then you’re assumed to be in league with them, and you have to try to get away.

The game is pretty much done.  I’ve recently stripped out some unnecessary complications and caused the game to be played in rounds, and that has made all the difference.