Fun with Industry Speak

I have been giving some consideration lately to my so-called elevator speech regarding Ruins of Elysia, because basically, I’ve been told I suck at it.  On a similar note, as I have been play testing with gamers of varying backgrounds I have come to identify certain parts of the way in which I described my game to people as “industry speak.”  This sentence is rife with it: I’ve always described my game as a character based deck-builder on a modular map, but I didn’t realize how much there is to unpack in that sentence for those unfamiliar with industry speak.  Now, modular map by itself isn’t that hard to understand, but deck-builder is surprisingly ambiguous. 

First, to my surprise, there are gamers who have never played or heard the term “deck-builder.”  And for those who have, the term is still ambiguous.  This is because the term “deck-builder” can, if used loosely, refer to two types of games.  The first, and the original being Magic the Gathering.  This is because players “built” their deck before they play a game.

The second, and my intended meaning, is as a mechanic.  Oh boy, more to unpack right there!  If you’ve played enough games (and if you’re reading this, this will be akin to telling you the sky is blue) you begin to notice you can start to lump games into a category based on what you do in the game on your turn.  Let’s compare Monopoly, Sorry, Champions of Midgard, and Agricola.  In Sorry and Monopoly, you roll dice and then move your player piece that number of spaces on the board.  First, notice how this describes both games.  This is a mechanic (in this case called “roll and move”) and is a part of how the game operates.  Champions of Midgard and Agricola have multiple player tokens, and placing them on a certain space on the board activates some in game function that lets you gain a resource or perform an action.  This mechanic is called “worker placement.”

So, let’s get back on track.  When I described my game as a “deck-builder”, I thought said description was as mundane as the words differentiating types of vehicles, such as “car” or “truck,” but said term became ambiguous with the inception of Dominion.  Dominion put the process of building the deck front and center and the “mechanic” of building the deck became the game.

Now, given that my overall goal is to sell the game, and only about half of my target market is going to use words like “game mechanics” to describe the game, my elevator speech ought not to include “industry speak.”  But that got me thinking.  What if we went the other way?  What would the most ridiculous, industry speak laden elevator speech sound (or look in this case) like?  Let’s have some fun!

Ruins of Elysia is a turn-based, non-legacy, deck-building and tile-laying game with high replayability for 1-4 players per unit sold where a player utilizes deck-building to control and upgrade their character.  Players play cards and move their character standee to lay tiles in order to create a modular map.  Instead of victory points, winning is determined by meeting the requirements on any of the displayed objective cards that are set up at the beginning of the game and they encourage players to employ a multitude of possibly conflicting strategies to win.

That’s not so bad, is it?

I actually had to write the non-industry speak version first:

Ruins of Elysia is a fantasy adventure game where 1-4 players (per box) explore a vast, modular map and improve their characters by adding cards to their personal decks as they compete or cooperate to complete any one of an array of displayed objective cards set out during setup.  The game encourages an endless variety of player interaction and due to the games very modular nature, the game will be different every time you play it.


Getting the Rulebook ready

When I was at the protospiel in the hotel by the mall of america, some of my playtesters said “you should never write your own rulebook.”   What?  I found that notion honestly a little offensive.  My current job requires about 40% technical writing.  And I don’t just mean lab report write-ups — I mean instruction manuals for test and assembling products.  I refuse to believe these skills are not directly transferable to writing a rulebook for a board game.  But, rather than dismiss their notion entirely I’ve been doing a ton of research into industry standards and expectations as to what goes into a good rulebook.

Good technical writing needs to be concise and unambiguous.  Same with rulebooks.  Showing someone how to do something through pictures, icons, arrows, etc is always better than text.  Same with rulebooks.  In fact, I would consider rulebooks a form of technical writing.  I’ve also learned that there is a sort of fuzzy wall, a wall whose borders are not quite clear and that doesn’t stand tall enough that you can’t easily step from one side to the other, but the delineation exists nonetheless between art and graphics design.  Graphics design and the actual text saying what to do, when and why are the meat and potatoes of the rulebook.  On the graphics design side of that fence, showing pictures, arrows, etc is always better than just plain text in telling people what do to.

I’ve also learned recently that proofreading/editing has similar demarcations I never knew existed.  I always thought that crossing Ts, dotting Is (eyes) and correcting minor spelling and grammar errors were just part of what went into proofreading.  In fact, in my previously uneducated opinion that was the least important part: wouldn’t it make sense to completely abolish a paragraph that didn’t belong before you bothered telling me I’ve misspelled football in an article about baseball?  According to this article, the type of editing I care most about during the composition process is “substantive” or “developmental” editing.  This might be similar to the “Sanity Test” offered by the gamecrafter.  The page does describe their process as the more holistic idea I had of proofreading before I did all my research and I had thought about using them, but your game must be on their site for sale before.  However, their criterion is transparent enough.  There are plenty of other sources that offer good guides for writing a rulebook.

I have to wonder about this one, though.  It’s free and operates on a donations basis.


Favorite Dominion Sets

As I have already expressed, Dominion is probably my favorite game series of all time (it did inspire me to create my own deck builder, after all).  It isn’t flawless.  While I have found obscure references here and there, the rules woefully fail to address going beyond 4 players.  The other complaint I have heard, not just about Dominion, but deck-builders in general is that, “they are nothing more than turn based solitaire.”  There’s not  much I can do about number one, but on that second note I present the following recommended set.

First, Combat Dominion — a cherry picked set of cards for a balance of attacks and reaction.

  • From original Dominion:
    • Library
    • Moat
    • Bureaucrat
    • Militia
    • Cellar
    • Chapel
  • From Intrigue
    • Pawn
    • Masquerade
    • Swindler (update, use village from original for extra actions).
    • Torturer

Another issue that deck-builders suffer from is game balance.  Usually not in box, but for games like Ascension and Dominion that have multiple editions with the intent of being able to mix editions, some editions simply break the game, causing infinite loops or just plain ruining the fun.  The group I usually play games with during the weekends put our heads together and churned out what we have christened, “Broken Dominion”

Broken Dominion:

  • From Alchemy:
    • Possession
    • University
    • Scrying Pool
  • From Original
    • Adventurer
    • Festival
    • Council Room
    • Throne Room
    • Workshop
    • Village
    • Moat

Dominion started as, mechanically, a rather simple game.  Throughout the years, new editions have added new functions that require new placards and game pieces that basically added a worker placement element to the game.  I wanted to know, if you created a set of kingdom cards that basically maxed out on these ad-ins, would you break the game?  It turns out it was actually well balanced and a lot of fun.

Mega Dominion:

  • Renaissance
    • Project:  Road Network
    • Patron
    • Treasurer
    • Boarder Guard
    • Swashbuckler
  • Seaside
    • Pirate Ship
    • Island
    • Native Village
  • Adventures
    • Guide (or Coin of the Realm)
    • Wine Merchant
    • Transmogrify
    • Event: Traveling Fair


Protospiel Chicago

I took Ruins of Elysia to Protospeil Chicago over the weekend.  Chicago being an approximately 6 hour (one way) drive for me, I didn’t have the time or the money for more than the Saturday pass, but I did get do see some great games from some of the other designers..  Protopsiel is a convention for game designers to play through each other’s games and give/get more than “it’s good/needs work” response, but a more pointed feedback that a work in progress needs.

I got to sit down and play Brave New Worlds by Mickey McDonald, which is a resource management/discovery game that celebrates space exploration history.  I also want to mention Rob and Brenden from RattleBox Games.  They had a macabre and highly entertaining worker placement game themed after unleashing demonic forces in the woods (a – dare I say – spiritual homage to Crystal Lake).  Not only did I have a blast playing their game, but they were kind enough to sit down and take a run through Ruins of Elysia.  I’ll be keeping my eyes open for their games on store shelves and the pages of kickstarter.

The Birth of an Idea

I have a friend who is an avid board gamer, attending the WBC convention every summer.  My introduction to the world of gaming, however, was lukewarm at best.  I assumed what most non-gamers assumed, that board games were nothing more than Monopoly and Candyland, and maybe Risk if sleep wasn’t an important part of your life.  As someone who works in electronics, not being on top of your game at work can spell disaster.

At first, my friend introduced me to some of his favorite resource management games such as Power Grid.  Later, he introduced me to tabletop RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder.  To my uninitiated self, I found them overly complex, but the story made everything else worthwhile.  I may have been a latecomer to the world of board games, but as someone born in the 1980’s, I grew up with video games.  My favorite video games, despite not being good at them, were the ones that had a story to tell: Legend of Zelda, Heavy Rain, and so on.  Electronic or not, the games that had good stories to tell were demanding.  Moreover, the games that didn’t were a little too abstract for my taste, such as Acquire.

Given my lackluster interest in board games, I never expected to fall in love with a mechanism.  Then my board game friend introduced me to Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion.  I was instantly hooked.  Dominion was unlike anything I had played up to that point.  Most of the games I had played, especially Pathfinder, used dice to randomize the outcome of player actions.  I didn’t like this.  It made it feel like you couldn’t really plan your move.  Dominion, on the other hand, may randomize what cards you draw, but once they are in your hand it was essentially multiple choice.  You might have a bad hand, but it never felt like your overall plans were hanging by a thread tied to your d20.

Slowly, an idea began to take root in my mind.  What if you could use the deck-building mechanism as an engine to control character actions within an RPG style map world?  I drew from my experience playing classic 8-bit Nintendo games, the kind with a map that started as a black square and slowly filled itself in as your sprite traversed it.  I could recreate this in the physical world with a map made out of components: terrain hexes similar to CatanMage Knight uses a similar mechanism, but I wanted more variety.  I didn’t want forest village number 3 to always be forest village number 3.  At first, I used a d6 to simply roll for a structure when you placed a new tile, but alas I hate dice.

Dice can be so fickle.  During play testing, we spent the middle of one game marching around the map rolling the die because all of the structures hadn’t been placed despite using up every hex in the map deck.  Finally, I was inspired by another deck-builder: Mystic Vale.  Mystic Vale is a unique and wonderful addition to the deck-builder genre because you don’t add to your deck, you change the cards themselves.  They accomplish this by using clear cards with an image in one of 3 positions.  You overlay the cards and can eventually create a card with 3 images on it.  Imagine a dominion card with a copper, silver and gold on it.  I figured I could use the same idea for my map hexes.  Instead of using tokens that would be placed according to a die roll; I would just shuffle the structures and terrain hexes together virtually guaranteeing that they would all eventually be placed.

I knew I wanted to control player action with a simple deck-building mechanism, so things like draw extra cards, movement and so on would have to be on the card itself.  Despite this, and my hatred of dice, I used attack dice, hit-points and a leveling system that was clunky and frankly annoying.  I shelved the idea for a year.  Then, I had an epiphany.  This is, at its heart and soul, a deck-builder.  Dominion doesn’t have health points.  Ascension has attack points, but those are on the card – there are no dice in Ascension at the time of this writing.  When you play a deck-builder, you have a hand.  What if you just treat the cards in a player’s hand like health points?

If you get hit with 3 attack, discard 3 cards.  That’d be kind of rough in a deck-builder, but made sense and led to the structure of the cards.  During your turn, you’d either be in combat, or you wouldn’t.  Combat would require attack and defense.  Then there’d be everything else, so I called that General (and now that the game has a theme I’m calling it the Exploration Phase).  Again, drawing inspiration from Pathfinder I decided that defeating someone would be a threshold, but just that in itself seemed a little boring.  I wanted to recreate the feel of an actual martial-arts fight with cards.  So, keep it turn based, but use the Dominion action structure: you can only play one card.  That would give players an incentive to buy better cards and make it harder for a player to win just by stacking all their attack.

Now I needed enemies.  I had already designed starter decks for 6 different characters.  What if you could just make one of those characters an enemy?  How would that work?  The only difference between a player and non-player character is that no one is choosing the cards or what to do with them for a non-player character.  So, just make a hand pile face down for the non-player character, and hold them to the same rules as player characters: if you run out of cards in your hand, you’re dead.  Well, not dead.  That was too rough and too likely to happen at the beginning since you don’t start with good cards – and you shouldn’t.  Fine, let’s call that exhausted and you basically loose a turn.  That worked well.  However, since enemies could be playable characters, and playable characters have weak starter decks by design, I added a couple wild tokens to them to give them a boost.

I wanted to design the game for 4 players, but to make the game easily expandable by simply adding copies of the game.  That still meant that for one box, and a four-player game, you had two enemies.  That wasn’t enough.  Plus, I wanted some kind of “item-drop.”  So, I created three distinct levels of monsters.  Rats would be the most pathetic, even though your starting hand probably won’t let you kill a rat without help.  I followed that up with wolves, and then the highest level monster: trolls.  Since monsters couldn’t be played by players, I just put the item-drop as the third thing on their card.  I later changed wolves to Goblins because wolves just seemed to kill the fantasy feel of the game.

Lastly, I needed a way to win.  I wanted the gameplay to encourage conflicting goals among players, but leave room for party play and everything in between.  So I came up with the idea of “objective” or “Main Quest” cards.  Basically, a number of tasks to complete, and whoever completed one first would win the game.  I started with the “kill the bad guy” idea, then added a few more.  If I want conflicting goals, and one of my objectives is “kill the bad guy,” then I ought to have, “become the bad guy.”  That required a unit of measure, so I added a basic alignment system, light tokens and darkness tokens.  Then I added a “get a bunch of money” objective, and a “become a thief” objective just to spice things up.  I might add more in an expansion pack later, but for launch that seemed sufficient.

The name and background lore actually came last.  From a story stand-point, why do you suddenly “poof” into village one?  Why is there a bad guy, and what do they want?  Why can’t you die?  I wanted to name the game “Legends of…” and name the land, but I couldn’t decide on a name.  I had trouble coming up with one on my own, but the ones I looked up just came with too much baggage.  “Legends of Atlantis,” for example, just came with too many expectations that my game was not designed to meet, plus the name has pretty much been overused.  Then I came across Elysia.  Elysia is basically heaven, but heaven reserved for Greek heroes.  Perfect.  It explained everything: why you “poof” into town 1, why you can’t die and what the bad guy wants.  Legends of Elysia was taken by an upcoming film, but no one had a claim on “Ruins of Elysia.”  And thus the game was christened, “Ruins of Elysia: A Deck-Building Adventure Game on a Map With Limitless Possibilities”

What makes a game fun?

I was sitting down with my business partner/longtime friend, Chris, who has been creating the art for Ruins of Elysia, when he asked me an interesting question, “what makes a game fun?”  Granted, he was asking me this question because we were working out how to pitch Ruins of Elysia, but it got me thinking. 

What are the games I like, and why do I like them?  Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion is probably my favorite game of all time.  Before Dominion I did not consider myself a gamer.  Dominion made me realize that my favorite game mechanic was deck-building.  But why?

I love most deck-builders, but I have some bones to pick with some of them.  Ascension is a great deck-builder, especially due to its ability to support more than the 4-player limit of Dominion.  However, there are aspects of Ascension that I don’t like.  I don’t like Ascension’s marketplace, because the random nature of the market mechanic makes it very difficult to plan ahead and strategize.  That’s actually a minor gripe, though.

I think big turns are the crux of what make deck-builders fun.  In Dominion, you can plan ahead based on what cards you buy and see it pay off towards the end when you churn through your entire deck and purchase the last couple of provinces for the win.  That kind of turn takes a lot more luck to pull off in Ascension.  It’s harder to get cards that do specific things like get rid of unwanted cards from your hand or get cards to allow you to draw cards.

I’m not as one-dimensional as I sound, however.  Deck-builders may be my favorite, but they aren’t the only type of game I enjoy.  I would have to place tabletop RPGs second, such as Pathfinder.   Unfortunately, they are a lot of work.  I’m pretty good at writing a story, but I’m not sure I could do so on the fly.  I need to see my words so I can think about them carefully, so I’m probably not cut out to be a DM.  I might be able to feed a DM story in chat format, but that just seems impractical.  Anyways, we’re getting off topic.  What makes tabletop RPGs fun?  Granted, this is my opinion.  I like exploring and hearing the story.  I have yet to play Above and Below, but its storybook mechanic has me intrigued.

One of the games that I find myself playing repeatedly with my avid board gaming friend I refer to as “draw your track” games.  The use of a map adds another dimension to gameplay and I feel a sense of adventure.  These games usually feature a random stack of cards that include events and delivery requests.  The gameplay then focuses on you drawing the most efficient set of track to get those loads to the places requesting them to make the most money. 

I definitely suffer from wanderlust, so I love games that use maps as their mechanic.  In fact, I thought it was amusing to play Empire Builder on the Empire Builder line when my friends and I rode it to Chicago.  Train games aren’t the only map based game I like, though.  Runebound is great, albeit long.  I do have a preference for controlling a character, rather than a faction such as Small World.

It’s September 2019

I thought I would come back to my first blog since I recently read something relevant. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the source (I think it was a scholarly article via Google). Anyways, the main point of the article was that for a board game to be fun it required two things. As far as the game is concerned, the article asserted, ultimately it served only one purpose: to put constraints on what you can do. So for it to be fun, the player had to enjoy whatever activity was still permitted by the components of the game and its constraints. Basically, our personal tastes will always be a factor in whether or not a game is fun.