Thursday, May 28, 2015

A vegetarian and a butcher

Years ago, as a teenager, I participated in a class that would allow people only learning English to talk with actual native speakers. Each time we would discuss a specific issue based on a short text. I remember one of them specifically, as it discussed especially awkward mistakes made in all sorts of student exchange programmes. One of those mistakes was sending a vegetarian to a butcher’s family.

There is nothing wrong with being a vegetarian, and nothing wrong with being a butcher (although, I know some people might disagree with any of these statements). A problem may appear, however, if we try put these two together under one roof for at least six months. And as much as it looks like no more than a basis for a failed nineties sitcom, it does have something to do with board games. 

I’ve already talked about listening to your testers when you’re developing your game – and listening to them not only when they talk about what they think works or doesn’t work in your prototype, but also when they try to tell you that they feel uncomfortable with an idea your game might include, promote or be based on. However, there is one more thing you might want to actually do. 

A vegetarian is not out of place in most civilized western societies – and neither is a butcher. Still, by trying to make one work with the other might (just might) result in a disaster. Now, I specifically don’t want to point fingers at any particular games, but it often happens that a thing that is hardly worth a gasp in one culture, but perceived as deeply offensive in another, ends up in a family board game. To me that is a blunder you can easily avoid. 

There are many reasons somebody might feel offended, starting from the history of a given country or region, and ending with personal experiences that differ significantly, based on where you’ve been raised and where you live. And it would probably be impossible to be certain that your game will certainly not make anyone in the world uncomfortable. But some due diligence is necessary. 

To put it in simple terms: if you’re making a game about a specific region, specific people, specific historical events, just do your homework and be certain that you are not trampling the toes of someone whose ancestors or family members might have been involved. Don’t base it on just your assumptions, just spend a day making sure that you did not get anything horribly backwards, and you should be okay. 

But by all that is good an pure, spend that day.
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Come see us at the UK Games Expo!

It's the fourth time NSKN Games will take part in UK Games Expo in Birmingham, and we'd be very happy to see as many of you, as humanly possible! So, if you're attending this spectacular gaming event, we will be there between 29th and 31st of May 2015. And here's a quick rundown of all the legendary stuff we'll be bringing:

1. The first few copies of Exodus: Edge of Extinction - all fresh from the printer, still hot and waiting just for you!
2. The final prototype of Mistfall, our most recent and most sucessful Kickstarter up to date. There is still some waiting for the final game ahead, but if you want to see and touch a (near) final copy, there will be not better chance than now.
3. A prototype of Simurgh, a new game by Pierlucca Zizzi. So, if you want to see some dragon breeding goodness, and experience our new title due for Essen Spiel 2015, don't miss this chance!

Oh, and that is not all! We will have demo tables for our earlier releases, so you'll be able to build an ancient city in Praetor, guide your own civilization in Progress, Evolution of Technology, compete for the title of master builder of the legendary Versailles, or try out the base game of Exodus: Proxima Centauri, in its formidable, revised edition.

So, don't be shy. Come, join us, and see you in Birmingham!
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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the End really nigh?

Every now and again I hear somebody saying that the end times of modern boardgaming are near. There are too many games, there are too few original ideas, people will turn away from Kickstarter any day now, and the board gaming market will crash just like the video game market in 1983. Live the dream while you still can, they are saying, because soon, very soon, the boardgaming hobby will be nothing more than a post nuclear wasteland of half burned cardboard and (somehow) rusty plastic.
Atari 2600 made many childhoods memorable. It was vastly popular before 1983. Image source: Wikipedia.
I think it’s safe to say that we are living in a golden age of tabletop gaming. Never before have there been so many games in so many genres available on the market. Never before has the quality of most individual products been so high, both in terms of pure components, as well as the sheer fun factor. Never before has contacting the publisher been so fast and easy, or reaching out to the designer to ask questions or support with your money directly (via crowdfunding) so effortless.

All of the above makes more and more people involved in gaming – as “just” gamers, as reviewers, podcasters, designers and publishers. Finding a game that will tickle your fancy is a matter of time. With that many party games, strategy games, war games, card games, adventure games and abstract games, you’ll easily find the one you probably most want to play. You’ll hear what other people have to say about it, you’ll order it online or drive down to a FLGS and have it on your own table in a matter of days (or even hours). 

So, why do we still think that it will all come to an end? Why do people gaze upon this abundance and start looking for signs of the coming end? Probably exactly because of how big and robust the boardgaming market has become. Some of us instinctively assume (basically taught by the history of mankind) that something as big has to finally fall flat on its backside. And many people are already drawing parallels between the booming boardgaming industry of today and the video game industry of the eighties – just before its fall. 

Now, I’m a little too young to remember the video game crash, and I certainly lack the tools to pick apart and properly analyze the events of 1983, but I think a little bit of research and some common sense are enough to see that the situation of board games today, and video games in the eighties are only superficially similar. Sure, it seems like there are so many board games today that the market is getting saturated, even completely flooded, but the growing numbers of games sold each year contradict this idea. 

Don’t get me wrong: there are too many games published every year for a single person to play the whole yearly haul. New publishers are appearing on the market almost every day, and the number of tabletop games struggling to get our attention on Kickstarter is growing every month, but so is the number of people willing to play board games. And although crowdfunding is partly responsible for cranking out more and more games (many of which are not up to par), it makes up for this by allowing the gamer to support the creator directly – and make it worthwhile for games that would otherwise never see the light of day to find their way to gaming tables.
Dominion - the innovation nobody was expecting prior to 2008. Image Source: Boardgamegeek.
It is also commonly said that games today are less and less creative, that it is hard to create something really new and that we’ve probably reached the limit of what board games can do. We reuse and re-implement mechanisms, recombine known elements to make “new” games, we rehash the themes – but it’s all we can do, and there is nothing never-before seen that can be added to the hobby. And a lot of it is true – as much true as it had been in 2007, when people were already seeing this unbreakable stagnation, the rigor of “nothing new” setting in, before Dominion conquered many a gamer heart, and spawned a new game sub-genre that has been going strong for the past eight years. 

So, it’s probably wise to remember, that most of us cannot see an innovation from a distance, and thus predicting that it will not come based on not being able to think of something innovative is… well, it’s simply wrong. The board gaming market today is both beautiful and tough, being highly competitive and surprisingly open at the same time.

Covers of just some of the deckbuilding games published within 3 years in the new genre Dominion had created.
Yes, many games are made, but the methods of communication and critique available today allow gamers to make informed choices, and to promote quality in game publishing. And that in turn makes the publishers up their game in terms of quality – because a single person with a smartphone is now able to inform two thousand people of the shabby work you may have tried to hide behind a glitzy cover – all within a few hours. 

So, for now at least, there is not much to fear. Board games are here to stay. Good publishers are not going anywhere. And we will have a lot of great games to play for years to come.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Prototypical Influence

There are mostly two things I remember vividly from presenting the first prototype of a certain game that has since fallen into oblivion. The first was how initial reservations of people who sat down to play it would change into all out enthusiasm by the end of the third or fourth turn. The second was the question that was seemingly asked by every other person who sat down to play: “Are you really allowed to use Magic layouts for your own game?”

Three stages of prototyping for Mistfall.
During the last two weeks I talked about making a prototype of your game, starting off with advising on what not to do when preparing a prototype for a potential publisher, and then sharing my own tips (part one and part two) on giving your game idea an actual shape in the real world. Before finishing off the practical advice series, I’d like to take a small detour to discuss one more aspect of prototyping, and that is how the form of your prototype influences the way your testers will react to it - and what you are probable to get for a basic or a "good looking" prototype.

I’ve already talked about why it is not the best idea to put in too much work into the art and graphic design part of your prototype. But aside from using up time that could be better spent on perfecting the actual game, there is also the matter of how your testers will perceive your prototype – and how willing they will be to share their ideas on it with you. 

Simply put, if your prototype looks like an almost finished game, chances are that some of your testers might doubt themselves more than your design. This may lead to them refraining from voicing their complaints or ideas, just because visually the game looks like a ready to go product. Obviously, this will influence only some people, but still, if you want more sincere responses, you should probably go with a more basic looking prototype.
Here's some basic prototyping components, just for good measure.
On the other hand, building a serviceable but simple, very much “work in progress” prototype makes people more eager to actually share all their thoughts, as they receive a visual cue that what you gave them to play with can still be modified. When you're still running basic playability tests, it's generally better to have more to work with (and weigh out) than to falsely believe that your game is perfect. And some people might be easily convinced that something they would perceive as a flaw, is actually a feature, since the game looks "so completed".  

Now, if you’re still somewhat perplexed by the Magic story in the first paragraph, let me also elaborate on that. To make my life easier, I used a free editor with Magic: The Gathering layouts to create all the cards for the game. And although I would start each and every presentation with saying: “None of the components you see here, none of the artworks, no graphic design elements or symbols are final”, people would still ask me if this is really the layout I'm going with for the final game.

With that in mind, it’s probably good to remember that no matter what you say, the actual shape of your prototype will do more talking than your mouth. And for that reason, when you want actual criticism, show people a prototype that is as basic as humanly possible – and when you want some love for the game (maybe because the testing period is done), go with the almost-finished looking one. My experience tells me that it works almost every time.
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Plastic vs. Wood - Pros and cons of standardizing in board games (III)

Some time ago we started a discussion about standardizing board game components.
Originally I wanted to debate the pros and cons of plastic vs. wood, as many games offer the design space to choose between these two types of material, but then I realized that was a much to narrow topic. So, let's take a look at plastic and wood and their advantages and disadvantages and where and how do they fit best.

Custom Tokens

One of my first board games was Agricola, a classic and former BGG top ranked game. I was lucky enough to find a copy in Romania back in the day, when board games were as hard to find as gems. A few years later I saw a more recent edition of the same game. With the same rules, the new edition of Agricola triggered a completely different feeling because the token were personalized. The sheep were no longer white-ish cubes but tiny sheep, the grains were no longer yellow discs but little yellow grain-like custom wooden tokens and the cows looked like... cows! And yet the game played just as well with the old tokens.

Do you think that custom wooden pieces add value to a board game? This is the first tough question I want to ask today.

Custom tokens in Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia
source: BoardGameGeek

In my personal opinion they do, but like every good thing, it comes with an ugly hidden part. Custom tokens are more expensive than regular plain old cubes, discs and meeples. The added value is there, but it comes with a cost which is reflected in the final price of the game. Without going through the whole pricing philosophy, I can give you a simple example: Versailles, with an $55 MSRP - a game printed in 6000 copies - would have had an MSRP of $67.5 with custom wooden tokens. 

So it all comes down to this: would you rather pay a bit more for custom wooden token or settle for the lowest possible price and play with cubes and discs?

Before you answer this question, please take a look at Euphoria to see some of the best custom token in a board game. For me that game would not be the same with plain wooden tokens.

Plastic tokens

There's a whole new universe of tokens made of plastic. I personally discovered this rather late, a few years ago and at NSKN we have not taken advantage of this discovery yet.

Plastic tokens

Regular plastic tokens are significantly cheaper than wooden tokens of the same size. But the key word here is regular. I We could easily replace the wooden resource cubes in Praetor with plastic cubes of roughly the same color. The same for Versailles. But the million dollar (actually just $5K) question is: how would you feel seeing plastic resources in a game about ancient Rome or medieval France for just a few bucks less?

Anyone who has played board games by Martin Wallace will know his "trademark" plastic coins which look a little like the ones in the image above but worse. I personally do not mind them, they seems to add a certain charm and to his games, but I know many who find them "too cheap". On the other hand, the plastic gems in Ascension look and feel great and I don't know anyone complaining about them.

It is probably a matter of taste - whether one likes plastic tokens or not - but they definitely did not become mainstream yet. My bet is on the gaining ground because they are cheaper than wooden tokens, they are even more solid and they can come in almost any color.

There is only one downside: plastic tokens require molds which are expensive, so without making tens of thousands of copies of a game, custom plastic tokens are not really an option.

So, how do you feel about them? Is plastic a real competitor for wood? Would you rather stick to the "classic" cubes and discs or do you see added value in custom tokens, plastic or wooden alike?

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