Heartland – March Update

The state of my game is good. It has gone through several iterations in the past few weeks. I think the changes have been good and have improved the “fun factor.” After one playtest, I was sad to stop playing. 

One part I’m thrilled about is the effects the changing of the seasons has on gameplay. When Spring arrives, you may think it’s time for planting. One card has a late freeze set in, thus making farming more difficult. Not only does the late freeze affect the current season, but in the fall, livestock won’t have enough food. This will affect their production. The game forces you to interact with the random elements presented by the seasons. It also makes you prepare for their future impact. This creates a density of important decisions that is satisfying.

One aspect that I’ve had to tinker with more than I had hoped is the building upgrades. Each city will be able to construct buildings that help them thrive in the new economy. I have waffled between two choices. One is for the playings to each have access to every building type. The other is a common building “pool” for players to choose from. With the latter, once a player buys a building, it is no longer available for the other players. Both have their advantages.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your input to help me make a decision.

Interview with Geoff Engelstein – Part 2

This is part two of the interview I had with Geoff Engelstein. I encourage you to go back and read the first part. His insight into design and gaming with family was helpful and encouraging.

What gets a new game design started in your family?

Literally anything. There are like 8 different prototypes in different stages scattered around the house. And hardly any car ride goes by without someone throwing some type of idea out there.

What advice would you give a family that wants to start gaming together?

Play games that they want to play, at least at first. Don’t push them into games that are too complex for them. Also, don’t be afraid to change the rules if you need to for younger kids. We played Monopoly when the kids were very little with everything costing a dollar. Just play and have fun.

Having said that, my second piece of advice is, don’t let them win. They should earn it. You don’t need to crush them – by all means keep it close – but don’t deliberately throw games.

What advice would you give to budding game designers?

Just do it. I see a lot of people that have ideas, but aren’t always willing to put them out there and test, and tweak, and throw out the bad ideas. It’s a long road but can be very gratifying.

Also don’t expect to get rich. You’ll need to put out a lot of games each year to make a living at it, so do it, at least at first, because you love it.

The last bit of advice he gives about not making money was good for me. Several years ago, I considered getting into game design, but I was afraid I would be “unsuccessful.” We all understand the fear of failure. For some reason, I had linked making money with my desire to make games. I heard many designers share Geoff’s advice here.  After that, I became convinced that money and success in this craft aren’t tied together. Sure, there are the Alan Moons and Richard Garfields of the world, but most designers have day jobs. That was encouraging and empowering for me as a designer. My hobby didn’t need to make me money. I just needed to make me happy. And it has.




Interview with Geoff Engelstein – Part 1

Full disclosure: Rather than a traditional interview, I sent Geoff a list of questions. He answered them at his leisure. I also felt a bit starstruck by even contacting him. He was happy to answer my questions. Like me, he has a family that loves to play games together.

Geoff Engelstein is the designer of several published games, but my favorite of his is definitely Space Cadets. My friends and I have shared moments with that game that we still belly laugh about today. When I discovered that Geoff designed it with his family, I couldn’t wait to talk to him about designing with his family, and about design in general.

If you had to narrow it to 4 steps, describe your design process?

Wow – tough one. My process tends to wander around and loop back on itself over and over. But if I had to pin it down:

Inspiration – the core idea that you want to convey. For me it usually starts with an experience or emotion, and then I go from there. Sometimes I start with what I think is a neat mechanic, but not often.

Core mechanic – Identify the core mechanic to support the experience. Lots of rapid iteration to try (and usually discard) ideas.

Mechanic Explosion – Add lots of things to the core – effects, dice, cards, whatever. Use the ‘hooks’ that the core gives you to allow things to be changed. Then trim, trim, trim and get back to what really works.

Tuning – Final playtesting and tuning to tighten everything up, deal with balance, play time, etc.

How did your family become a part of the design process?

We always played together, whether it was board games, video games, or whatever. And we always talked about why we liked particular games, what worked, and what didn’t. So when I came up with the idea to take Starcraft (which we enjoyed) and turn it into a card game, it was natural that I would involve the kids in the process.

I also wanted to teach them that you could come up with an idea, and – with a lot of hard work – carry it through and actually see it on a store shelf. That creating things was not some mystical far off process that was out of their reach, that it was something that they could and should do.

What is an example of “kid advice” you’ve used in a game?

In “The Ares Project” we were challenged by Z-Man to come up with a fourth faction for the game. My son immediately wanted to do a giant robot. Because giant robots are cool. But we had absolutely no idea how that would fit into the framework. But we worked and worked and figured out how to do it, and it turned into one of my favorite things in the game.

Game Design with Family

I have not tried to design a game with my family. That isn’t to say I’m opposed to it. In fact, it is something that I plan to work on as a begin my new project, Lawn Mowers.

In an ideal world, designing a game with the family is a perfect storm. My family is my primary gaming group. They also know me more than anyone alive. It makes sense that they, the people closest to me, would make the best design team. We all have strengths that accent the strength of others. We help remove the influence of each other’s weaknesses as well. Again, in Eutopia, Chipman Family Design is a great thing.

We don’t live in Eutopia. What we might experience instead would be different than the ideal. There might be a clashing of personalities. Some of us are more interested in design than others. I might be the least motivated family member with the most passion for the subject. At the helm, I would make a bad captain. Anywhere else, I’d whine. Maybe Chipman Family Design Minus Dad would be a good thing? Though it’s something I’d like to do, I can see the possible pitfalls.

Geoff Engelstein has designed several successful games with his family. I decided to probe his brain on his success and what advice he might have for a family design team. Next week, I’ll feature my questions and his answers, along with my own commentary.

What questions would you like to ask a successful family design team?

Game Design – Mechanics First Design

Another way to design a game is to design mechanics-first. By “mechanic” I’m talking about specific ways the game works. For instance, in Monopoly, designers call the movement mechanic “roll-to-move.” In 7 Wonders, the way you get cards is through the “drafting” mechanic. Mechanics represent the way we play the game. If the theme is the story, the mechanics are the math problem behind the story. A good game needs both.

I have a small design project that I’m working on that started with mechanics. Using the Gamer Deck: Mechanics, I drew out a few random mechanics. They were area control, resource management, bidding, and point-to-point movement. Area control is like the game of Risk, taking over a controlling a part of the map. Resource management involves gathering and budgeting particular resources. Bidding is offering a price for a service or resource. Point-to-point movement can be as simple as Candy Land.

So what can you build around these mechanics? I chose a game about mowing lawns. “Lawn Mowers” is about a group of kids who canvas a neighborhood in the summer. Each one is attempting to control the most amount of yards and make the most money. To do so, they have to budget their time and fuel. They also have to choose the best route through town. They must also manage their clients and outbid the other players for their yards.

Sound like fun? I went through that exercise to prove I could design a game mechanics first. My usual process would be theme first because that is how I think. I just wanted to travel outside my comfort zone a bit. There are lots of mechanics that one can use to make a game. The best way to learn these mechanics: play more games. All designers will say that gaming is the best inspiration in their design. If you plan to design, you have to play games, and choose different types of games.

What do you think? What draws you to mechanics-first design over theme first? Why is it easier/harder for you?

Game Design – Theme First Design

I designed my first project – Heartland – theme-first. Theme-first design is the idea that you design the game’s story first.  Next, you worry about the mechanics. Many games don’t need their themes to be good games. The designer or publisher pasted their themes onto a solid set of mechanics. In Heartland, I derived the mechanics from the theme.

Heartland is set in an alternate-history Mississippi-Ohio Valley. Heartland’s theme involves farming, gathering resources, and buying water. My first thoughts surrounding the theme were, “How can the players get water?” Since water is scarce, it will be a high commodity. I decided that is must be a regulated commodity. That is when I settled on a bidding mechanic. The players must bid on water rations to plant their fields and feed their livestock. Bidding makes you ration your money and plan well. That makes for some interesting decisions.

A second thematic decision had to do with how the seasons affect the struggle. In a world where resources are scarce, the events of the seasons would have a greater effect. They would affect all players, and the player that prepared the best would make it through. This is when I came up with the idea of season cards. The game lasts three years or three sets of seasons. Players draw the season cards during every round. They affect the game right then. There is also an effect that takes place in a later season. For example, a tornado is destructive at the time, but it could present a future opportunity.

Those are two mechanics in a game full of mechanics I’ve enjoyed from other games. I’ve also tweaked a few for my own spin on them. No matter what I add to Heartland, the theme remains at the center of those decisions.

How does theme affect your design decisions? How much value do you place on the theme?

Game Design – The Beginnings

I remember one of the first games I created. It was a game about professional wrestling. I used stand-ups from cut out from the back of a WWF action figure package. I made a ring out of a fancy old box I found in a closet. I had an “energy” counter made from legos. I had a Crown Royal bag filled with dozens of wrestling moves written on paper. I was 12-14 at the time and I thought I had created something amazing. Then it got thrown away. (by accident?)

I made games throughout middle school and even high school. I made them as a diversion the time during school. Another friend of mine also made games; his games were better than mine. We loved to play them. They were about everything from wrestling to Star Trek. We played other games together, but my best memories were when we played our own creations.

My own children have done this as well – but they’ve started earlier. My oldest started making games before she started school. They were simple “roll and move” games, but games nonetheless. They played them together and enjoyed the process. We even got them old games for Christmas one year, so they could use the parts and pieces.

Where does this inherent game-making come from? I think it’s in our nature to create. I also think we like to share the things we’ve made. You don’t have to teach a child to build things with blocks, nor do you have to teach them to show you when they’re done. They love to do both from birth. When my children finished their games, they wanted me to play with them.

Board games fascinate me with their intricacies. This fascination stems from my desire to create and show. When I play, I think about ways I could use that same mechanic in another game idea around a theme I enjoy. My current project, Heartland, is a mash-up of several games I like. I included ideas from Scythe, Cyclades, Stone Age, and a few more I forgot. The point: play more games. In turn, you’ll want to make your own games.

What creations do you have in your mind? What are your game-creating stories?

A blog discussing games, family, and games with family.

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