A Magical Diversion

James says:

I love Magic: the Gathering.

I have since I first played in on the playground at my elementary school, when I got destroyed by grown-ups at Ory-Con in the mid-90s, and when I joined a bar-based back-room league a few years ago with some old friends. In a nutshell, I love playing Magic and thinking about the way it's designed - really, a series of interlocking games and formats that changed over-time.

So, when Wizards of the Coast launched a third iteration of the Great Designer Search (a reality show-like competition on their website to search for a new designer), I jumped at the chance. I didn't know that I wanted to move to Renton and work in a cubicle (actually, I was sure that I didn't want to), but it was a fun thing to think about.

So I spent a month and a half softly researching Magic, listening to podcasts, and trying to decrypt the sort of design elements that they would test entrants to the Great Designer Search with.

To fast-forward a bit, I submitted a series of essays along with 8,000 other people. That got me into the great cull - a fiendishly difficult 75-question multiple choice test that was designed to weed the field down to 100. The competition was so fierce that you had to score a 73, 74, or 75 of 75 to advance. I think I got a 62 or something. So I was out!

But I can still follow along, and I was moved to enter my own submission for the most recent challenge, Design Challenge #3. To be clear, this is for nothing but fun and because I was inspired to a good idea, but why run a blog for game design if you can't post off-the-cuff game design stuff?

So, here's the challenge - scroll down past Challenge #2 and go to Challenge #3. (I'll post the text in the first comment, too, in case the page goes down or gets changed.)

My submission:

  • DESIGN ONE (Common)
    • Branch Worker - 1G - Creature - Elf Crafter - 1/1
    • When this card enters the battlefield, craft an Emerald gem (create a green enchantment gem Emerald token with "Enchanted creature gets Tap: Add 1 mana of any color" and attach it to this creature)
  • DESIGN TWO (Common)
    • Gem Trick - B - Instant - Create a black enchantment gem Jet token with "Enchanted creature gains deathtouch" and attach it to target creature you control.
  • DESIGN THREE (Common)
    • Stone-Break Gang - 2R - Creature - Dwarf Warrior - 3/2
    • If a gem is attached to this card, it gets +1/+1.
  • DESIGN FOUR (Uncommon)
    • Honest Broker - 3W - Creature - Human Crafter - 2/3
    • 1, Tap: Attach a gem you control to target creature.
  • DESIGN FIVE (Uncommon)
    • Altar of Greed - 2 - Artifact
    • Sacrifice a gem and lose 1 life: add C.
  • DESIGN SIX (Rare)
    • Raid the Treasury - 3WB - Enchantment
    • At the beginning of your end step, target opponent loses X life, where X is the number of enchantments you control.
    • W, sacrifice a gem: gain 3 life.
  • DESIGN SEVEN (Rare)
    • Windrider Thief - 4UU - Creature - Elf Rogue Crafter
    • 4: Craft a Sapphire Gem (create a blue enchantment gem Sapphire token with "Enchanted creature gets flying" and attach it to this creature)
    • When this card deals combat damage to an opponent, you may gain control of a gem they control and attach it to target creature.
  • DESIGN EIGHT (Mythic Rare) 
    • Radios, the Gem-Lord - WUBRG - Legendary Creature - Azra Tyrant - 5/5
      • Vigilance
      • 1, Tap: Attach a gem you control to this creature.
      • If this card is enchanted by cards named Pearl, Sapphire, Jet, Ruby, and Emerald, then enchantments and creatures you control have indestructible.

Comments:

I've been wanting to play around in the space of token enchantments / equipment for a while with Magic. I think this execution works because the gems can be easily represented by dice, punch-outs, or paper, and the gems themselves are easily grokked. None of the gems stack with the same color, and none of them require math (well, menace maybe, but not power/toughness math).

Each gem provides an evergreen keyword ability (white and red aren't listed in my examples, they provide first strike and menace respectively) except for green. I wanted the gems to split between combat winning abilities (first strike and deathtouch) and evasion (flying and menace), which leaves a fifth. Vigilance, trample, and hexproof were all problematic, so I leaned into Green's mana-making part of the color pie. Since this set hints at multicolor with its legendary and the synergy decks that want you collect crafters, easy fixing seemed fun.

I settled on token enchantments so that players wouldn't have to track equip costs on the tokens, because it's relatively untouched territory, and because it was more suggestive of a magical power-up than something you use to hit people. It also opened up abilities to move the gems around and steal them from other players. Generally, they would use the existing rules for Auras, with one important exception: they stay on the battlefield if they become unattached. I believe it would work, rules-wise, and would be an exciting mechanic to base a set around.

Audio Blog #1: The Time Travel Game

Hey everyone!

Trying something new! I've been having so much fun creating The Board Retreat (a podcast with Paul Susi about making a board game) that I'm branching out a little and creating some solo audio blogs.

For our first episode, I delve into attempting to create a game involving Time Travel, and all the difficulties contained therein.

 

 

Forward!

2017 - IT IS DONE.

Hello friends!

 

End of year greetings from Fly Paper Games!

It's been a busy year for this fledgling company, and I have lots to reflect on that hasn't been out there in the public sphere yet.

First, obviously, Emily and I finished and shipped Saga of a Dying World, our first game. Super exciting! It's such fun to have the game still come up in conversation and still be in peoples' minds, even months after it essentially left our lives.

I have spent the months since Saga's release working through a few different things.

First, I designed a small set to complement the recent release of Magic's newest set, Ixalan. It was a fun exercise to elaborate on some game design mechanics, write some cool flavor text, and make something fun for my friends. Unfortunately, a couple things have stalled that particular project.

Playtesting and Timing: Ideally, I need seven other knowledgable Magic players to all be in a room together for three hours to test it, and that's a little hard to do in December. Also, I think I've lost a little "playtesting cred" among my Magic playing friends - they all gave so much time to testing Saga, that I think following that up with a tightly-scheduled Magic set hasn't been met with a ton of enthusiasm. Also-also, my work schedule keeps messing things up.

Cruel Reality: More importantly, though, Wizards of the Coast announced a return of their reality-show-esque Great Designer Search, where contestants compete for a six-month paid internship designing Magic. Obviously, I feel like I've been training my whole life for this, so I'm giving it a go (along with thirty thousand other people, probably - but never tell me the odds!). I had already winced a little at the intellectual-property concerns of publishing your own derivative set of Magic on the internet under the name of your game-making company, but the Great Designer Search made me decide that now was not a good time to go public.

As it is, then, I'll probably just shelve the Ixalan Bonus Set, and treat it as a design exercise to do Bonus Sets for future Magic sets when the timing works out a little better.

Beyond that, though, I've been working on two prototypes. The first is a Catan-meets-Dungeon-Crawler, which is probably in the realm of Above and Below (a game I've only seen played at a distance, though, so who knows). Here's a picture of the first playtest, with a generic Fantasy theme. The mechanics and gameplay are in a solid place, but the narrative needs a lot of work and a whole new setting - it just feels like a dozen other games, right now, which overshadows any of the cool things I discovered. More work to be done.

 

I'm also pushing forward a game that plays with the idea of Chess, and turns it into a dystopian adventure game through a ruined landscape. More to come on that one...

It's been such an incredible year, and I'm looking ahead to more of them to come. Thanks again for tuning in, for your support, and for your well wishes.

Happy holidays!

James

November 1st = The Holidays

Fly Paper Games is up to some exciting new projects, but they are under wraps at the moment. A quick announcement in the fly paper of record, though: I have a few dozen copies of Saga of a Dying World left over, and I am selling them off. Contact me at flypapergames@gmail.com if you're interested. They make great gifts (and gifs)!

Wrap Up Part 2: The Game and Campaign

Are you happy with the game and the campaign?

Immensely!

I do not think Saga of a Dying World is perfect - in particular, I think the gameplay ended up a little complex, and sometimes the game turns very harsh very quickly. Seeing the whole journey stretching out behind me, I think a lot of it has to do with how into Magic: The Gathering I was when I created it; a lot of elements felt totally fine in terms of complexity and challenge at the time, but that was just because I was viewing them through the lens of an experienced Magic player (a game which is renowned/reviled for its complexity and the number of harsh, sudden loses new players have to endure).

Despite that, I think the game is a success. I think it has interesting and novel gameplay, has its own fully-realized style, features some rad art and characters, and does a fine job of fitting onto a shelf of board games. I think it holds up well to published games by big companies.

Most importantly, I learned a huge amount. I learned to be aware of the game as I'm designing it, to make sure I don't stray from the ideal that's in my head. I learned about components, budgeting, printing, shipping, customs, websites, and starting a company. I learned a hundred Indesign tricks, another dozen Photoshop tricks, and one or two things about Illustrator. I learned about micro-tolerances in laser cutters. Since before the campaign started, I have been constantly learning, and it's all thanks to you all.

So, I am very happy with how everything turned out.

 

What aren't you happy with?

Oh, lots of things.

The packaging is cool, but there was an issue with the cardboard divider. The tiles were packed in such a way that as they were jostled in freight, some of them ripped the divider a bit. When we repacked the boxes with the additional pieces, we also reorganized things to hopefully prevent any further damage. Because the vast majority of them sustained some sort of rip, though, I think most backers got at least a slightly-damaged divider.

I wish I had been able to shrink-wrap the boxes after we had added the extra components, but I was out of money and it didn't seem worth it - especially since the foam sleeves and box size worked to prevent any shipping damage to the boxes (hopefully).

In terms of nitty-gritty details, I didn't catch that the logo on the backs of the cards is very slightly jaggy-edged. Just one of those things I have to live with. Similarly, I wish that I had done the map diagrams in the manual better, or had Emily illustrate them rather than trying to do them realistically. I like the graphic design that I did in general, but those graphics stick out like a sore thumb to me, and I don't think they look very clear. (At the time, I was wary of putting more illustration on Emily's plate.)

The big thing, though (and I touched on this before) is that I do wish the game was a little less complex. I spent a lot of time trying to simplify and slim down the rules, and I do think that I succeeded on improving the flow compared to earlier versions. It still feels like there's just one step too many in each turn. It's an excellent lesson to learn for the future.

Lastly and relatedly, I think the pacing of the game is a tiny bit off. The Omega Phase at the end is fun, and I intentionally pitched all the abilities to end the game quickly. Letting every character move an additional space and hit harder, in addition to their awesome new special abilities, means that the game rarely lasts two or three turns after the deck is empty. When it works, I think this can lead to massive, climactic plays. Un testing, though, I also found that it can just be a bit of a letdown sometimes - the game just ends, your secure-ish position flattened by someone who pushes you into a void and then clocks you for three damage. Supercharging is important to allow all characters to be effective in the end game, but is almost too much... anyway, I don't have the solution, I just wish games were a little more consistently paced.

After thinking about it, the root of the problem is that there isn't much buffer room in terms of making mistakes or taking damage; just one or two points of damage affect the cards you have so much that you're very disadvantaged to winning. I like some parts of that - it makes things matter and feels tense! - but I don't think the lack of buffer is 100% successful. Should players just have life points instead of needing to discard cards? I can't say for certain, but I'm glad I went with the choice that leads to more intense, unique gameplay.

 

What were you struck by during this process?

I was super happy and impressed by Emily's art, and took special note of how important that was to selling the game over kickstarter. I think that her art was the primary driver of non-family/friends backers, followed maybe by some of the interesting gameplay mechanics. It really drove home how important it is to have a hook - especially in the current landscape of kickstarter/board-games, where there are literally hundreds of cool choices.

Play testing is hugely important. In particular, I wished I had a better system than begging friends, especially six months after the kickstarter had concluded and it was "this game again, boring" territory for most of my friends. Having some ability to see the game from the outside is crucial, and repeated, careful playtesting is more valuable than gold. I would add "solid play testing plan" to a list of game design necessities. For future games, I intend to hire at least one tester for weekly testing sessions during development, so I have someone experienced and properly critical who can help test new ideas and balance. (That said, I think I did pretty good in this regard - thanks again to all the testers!)

On a purely philosophical level, I gave myself the chance to be bored or frustrated with making a board game, but I only ever had fun. Even with the challenges and deadlines that came up, it was just thoroughly great, and definitely something that I want to do (am currently doing*) again. Everything felt like a puzzle to be solved, and having mechanics snap together into a comprehensive whole was really satisfying. Also, ending a creative process with a permanent physical object in hand feels great.

 

What was the biggest challenge?

Two moments stand out. First, without talking about it much, the not-quite cease-and-desist letter I got regarding the original name of the game was hard. The situation ended up as good as it possibly could be, so I have no complaints (except about my own silliness in not researching the name a little more), but it was an emotional couple of days.

Second, I was surprised at the final push to test and finalize the mechanics of the game. I think this is a blog post all its own, but a bunch of factors combined right as I was doing the proof card files (aka the final versions).

- I wasn't able to test as much as I should've

- I was getting tired of testing

- The game was too complex, and sometimes wasn't fun

These things all cooked together in an alchemical stew. For example. the fact that I had an unfun, too-complex testing session with a friend was magnified, emotionally, by the lack of other testing I had done that week. The fact that I was tired of testing meant I wasn't seeing the playtests the right way - I was dwelling on the negatives too much. The complexity of the game felt insurmountable; in a couple frustrated moments, all I wanted to do was rip it apart and start over again. (I am glad I didn't.)

Across all forms of creative expression, one of the biggest challenges is using your own emotions properly. In my opinion, you should not be unemotional (you must be excited by your work, for example - it's crucial!) but you need to have some separation. If I feel thrilled by something that happened in-game, I need to also analyze why I felt thrilled, whether other people would feel that same way, and how to plays into the larger emotional arc of the gameplay.

But when I felt down about the game and the process it was much harder to do that. I think I was able to keep my head and not make any terrible decisions, but I don't think I used the last month before the proofs went out as well as I could've - and I think I could've been a little less grumpy, too. 

Now, all that said, the pressure in the final leg of the race was good, too. I think it was only the "this is it!" feeling that let me overcome my own inertia and finally get rid of a couple of useless, overstuffed mechanics that had been there since the beginning. So in that sense, that feeling of impending doom was a good thing.

 

An Aside About Last Minute Design Choices

Generally, I tried to get as much testing and balancing done as possible before I sent in the proof version. The printed proof should be more about correcting little things about the art and design; otherwise, things should be as set as possible, because you won't get another chance to review it before the whole game gets printed all in one go. I did make two changes, though, in that last twilight period between proof and final:

First, I cut a cycle of cards that forced a player to discard a certain card type (I think of them as counter-spells, but that's because I play too much Magic). My most trusted and excellent collaborator insisted that I needed player-aid cards, and finally convinced me. (These are the cards that sit in front of you on the table with the turn order, and also give you spaces to play your Active Card and discard pile.) The number of cards I was printing, though, was set at 54, and I suddenly needed to free up three more slots to print all four Player Aids (there had always been a single player-aid, just due to math of 4 players but only 3 disaster types, so that was where the fourth slot came from). 

So, suddenly, I was looking through the proof version of the game, trying to decide which cycle of three cards was the least fun. When I saw them, I suddenly remembered all the confusions, questions, and frowns that these counter-spell cards had created. And then I remembered that they were really from a different era of the game, where some cards could be played at any time (that was cut early because it was incredibly confusing in its own right). I had an epiphany that it would be a better game without these cards, and felt absolutely right about cutting them, once and for all, totally untested.

Because of this cut, there's a series of art that ended up unused. Bonus backers can see it on the back of their Bonus Manual, as the background to the bonus story about the Terraformer. Coincidentally, it was always some of my favorite card art, but shrug; the cards sucked so get 'em out.

The second change was much smaller, but strangely more terrifying. One of the last major mechanics to arrive were the Character Cards, with their unique abilities (in older versions, each player had a unique card in hand that could be played once during the game). These were especially hard to test; beginning players tended to forget they had them, and games were influenced by so many factors that it was hard to tell whether a particular power was actually deciding the game as much as it seemed like it was - or, whether better use of a particular power would correct a deficiency with the game. I spent a lot of time tweaking these powers.

As part of testing, I created three prototypes and sent them to friends who had never played the game, to see how hard it was to learn and play it. All of their feedback was incredibly helpful, both in terms of finalizing the manual (which was being printed locally, so had a later deadline than the game) and checking balance mechanics. One old friend, now a NASA engineer, laid down a huge amount of stunningly great info; among his thoughts was that Morgana's power was too good. At the time, an attack or a shove took one or two charges (can't remember) off an opponents card. Basically, if your opponent didn't have any good attack or move cards, you could paralyze them by just following them around and attacking them.

I wanted to keep the spirit of that power - that Morgana polices the players trying to charge up big attacks - while removing the soft-lock aspect of it, so I changed it to be on a melee attack only (which also removed the overlap with Sludge's ability) and to take off up to 2 charges (this is a very Magic: The Gathering way of writing things, also). That meant that you could hack down someone's important Charge Up card, but you had to successfully set-up an attack. I did not ever test this change before I printed the game, but it's seemed good in the games I've played since. Only time will tell! (I'll schedule a panel discussion at Saga-Con 2018.)

The bigger story about both of these changes, though, is that I felt like I had to trust my instincts when something needed to be addressed. I probably played 50 to 75 useful test games of Saga (across a whole year of different versions, not even counting the earliest versions, when it was a totally different game), but that's nothing when it comes to statistics. I have no doubt that, if you were to play 10,000 games of Robo-Mob versus Morgana, one of them would have the statistical edge over the other - that's just the truth behind asymmetrical abilities. Without being able to run the endless computer simulations, though, I had to make design calls just based off my imagination, my experience of the game, and what I thought would be most fun and least confusing.

 

What's next?

In the near future, I have about fifty copies of Saga that I'd like to sell, both to recoup that shipping money and have a bit of cash in the bank for the future. I also have ten to fifteen copies to ship out to game companies and publishers, on the off chance they might be interested in what they see. It's a long shot, but absolutely worth it in my mind.

Long-term, I want to do more games. I'm currently developing the initial versions (I call them explorations, before even a first-draft or prototype) of three different games; once I have a first draft of them, I'm going to do a little play-testing/seminar with some friends to see if any of them capture the right excitement and interest in other people. If one does, I'll move into full development of it.

I'm also creating a bit of game designer fan-fiction by creating a Bonus Pack for Magic's most recent set, Ixalan; a print-and-play set of stickers that basically add a super-small, tightly-designed cube pack to replace the third pack of Ixalan draft. If this paragraph made sense to you, congratulations! You're worse than a nerd, and the PDF will go up on the website sometime in the next month.

More seriously, I'd like to do another kickstarter in a little more than a year - this time, with a fully -rototyped game that's ready to go into production upon completion of the campaign. In addition, I'd like to have a small, simple print-to-play game available on the website, to show off the creativity that I think is so important in a game company.

 

Do you have any thoughts on successful Kickstarter campaigns?

There are a lot of reasons that our kickstarter succeeded, I think, and it's important to reflect honestly about them. First and foremost, Emily and I have a pretty wide group of supportive friends and family, and most of our friends are involved in the arts, which I think helps people come forward to help an unfinished project out. I do not know if our friends and families will be into the second game the same way they were for the first - there's a big difference between an exciting new project and another new project. (Because of that, I know that our next game needs to be something exciting to the board game community, moreso than Saga necessarily was.)

I do think that the care Emily and I put into the game and the campaign came through via the initial art and video. I think our campaign materials did a good job of showing that our vision was a real thing that just hadn't been made yet, as opposed to a distant dream.

Lastly, without much evidence, I hope that some people chose to back because it's an ambitious game that's not copying the rules system of another game. Saga feels like its own game, not "Dominion but with Space Elves" or "Risk crossed with Monopoly". (Ironically, the game some people have compared it to is Forbidden Island, which I've never played.)

So, with luck and a lot of effort, the next time you'll hear from us is the announcement of a new game - as interesting, unique, and attractive as I hope this one is.

Thanks again, everyone who backed or supported us. This has been an incredible privelege and journey - and we're addicted.

Until next time,

James and Emily

Wrap Up Part 1: Time and Money

Now that the campaign is totally concluded, how did you spend the money?

Lots of details incoming!

The campaign finished at $9,209, and Kickstarter (and the processing company, Stripe I think) immediately took about $800 of that, which is great. Thanks Kickstarter!

Emily made about $800 for something like 100 pieces of finished art, which is a criminally small amount of money - but it was excellent to be able to pay her something.

The vast majority of the money went into printing the actual components. I was working at a small scale for board games; because physical board games often involve lots of specialty pieces, most manufacturers have minimum orders that start in the thousands. They compensate by being able to print each game at a small cost, usually between $3 and $6 per game. Even with a small unit cost, though, once shipping and all the other "big company" fees are factored in, those avenues were too expensive.

My primary manufacturer was through boardgamesmaker.com, which is a Hong Kong company that prints at a couple plants in mainland China. They printed and shipped the box, cards, and tiles for about $4,100 (250 copies). The cubes were a few hundred dollars, and the manuals (basic and bonus versions) ended up being a steal at about $500, from a local company that prints brochures for some theater companies I work for (Cedar House Media! Thanks again!). Thus, my unit cost ended up being much more, but the overall cost of the games was within budget.

(An aside: without doing too much research, my guess is that the hypothetical designer wants to go to a larger company once they get up to needing 500 to 1,000 copies. At that point, it's probably cheaper to do a mass run of 5,000 or so. Depending, of course, on the actual contents of the games.)

Because the campaign came in over its goal, I chose to put that into a better version of figurine. Originally, I had intended to print additional cardboard tiles with character art on them, then get stands that they would fit into, meaning the character pieces would have been done along with the rest of it for relatively cheap.

Instead, I looked into other ways of doing it. A company called Infinity Images does a lot of cool stuff for tradeshows and store displays, and we figured out how to print directly on acrylic and laser cut the rough outline of the characters. Originally, I wanted to do the exact outline of the characters, but the complex outline would've taken too much laser time (approximately $6,000 for all the figures I needed), so instead I did simpler outlines with printed, see-through character art, which is pretty cool (and they discounted it to $1,300). 

I tried to keep the bonus kickstarter stuff to a relative minimum, mostly because I couldn't (for example) afford to print two kinds of boxes. All told, additional pieces for the Bonus Version, buttons, art prints, and a limited run of t-shirts and stickers ended up costing about $400. 

If you're keeping track, we're at about $7,900, leaving about $600 left over and one big task: Shipping.

Let's talk about shipping.

I was an idiot about shipping, but not the way that most kickstarters are. Although I undercosted the shipping line items on the kickstarter pledges a little, behind the curtain I had the right number: about $1,500 to ship out everything. It was right there, in the budget.

So was it a failure that I ended up with $600 to ship $1,500 worth of stuff? Well, no. I basically took money earmarked for shipping and put it into laser cutting and printing the figurines. I was prepared to do this because I was willing to put some of my own money into the project (there was never any intention of paying myself or breaking even), so it felt fine. That's it - that's the whole story of why I ended up short on money.

Thus, I was smart and well-considered about budgeting. The idiocy came later.

Essentially, I came back into the country after a month of work and vacation to 150 copies of Saga that needed to be put together. Due to an issue with the laser cutting, each figurine needed to be pre-assembled to ensure that the base fit (there were extremely minute variations in the spacing of the holes). The manuals, cubes, character cards, and figurines had to be sorted into each box. And, most unpredictably, I was heading into another hectic work situation at the top of September.

So I sat up late watching Sherlock and fitting together small plastic pieces, and organized some dear friends (thanks again!) to spend a couple nights as an assembly line. All of that worked fantastically. I found packaging that fit the games really well (I hope the snug fit treated everyone right). Only when the games were finally put together and packed did the troubles begin.

With hindsight, I can see that the problems arose because I was completely ready to be finished and done with the project. So, lazily, I did a quick export of the spreadsheet kickstarter sent me, printed out shipping labels, and packaged everything. If you can spot the problem, then you are smarter than I was.

Because I hadn't used any "shipping label" software (like stamps.com or FedEx's business stuff), I ended up with a little over 100 boxes that had to be hand-entered by people at shipping desks, and that was not a fast process. 

So I dropped most of the Super Backer packages off at a commercial FedEx location, which led to a nasty surprise when I got the bill and discovered it was $3 more expensive per package than I thought it'd be, based on the quotes I'd gotten through the website. It turns out that there's a "deliver to residential door" surcharge that only pops up if you put in the address on the website, as opposed to just the zipcode. That was a bummer, on top of the "not having enough money for shipping anyway" problem.

I did the rest of them via USPS, logging the zipcode and address for each one via the automated package kiosk; it took about 4 hours, in total.

 

All told, the phase of "putting products in the mail" was way, way more complex and baroque than it should have been, and it was not a fun process for me, which just goes to show that laziness maybe doesn't lead to good results.

This is my one unequivocal piece of advice for anyone doing a kickstarter: research your shipping until you're sick of it, because I didn't, and it was terrible. Again, I don't think that I'm an idiot in general, but I stuck myself into a bad situation by just wanting to stubbornly get through it, and mistakes compounded themselves into too much time and money.

But I got through it, and I hope everyone has their games now.

 

Did you get screwed on taxes?

A little background - kickstarter money is classified as income, as though you were an independent contractor. I started an LLC for Fly Paper Games, so the gub'mint treats it as money that I made as the owner of that business. I have read a lot of struggles that people have had with taxes from kickstarter hitting them before they've had a chance to spend the money (because business expenditures aren't taxed like income).

I didn't really have the opportunity to spend the money in 2016 (the kickstarter wrapped up last October, remember), so I did take a "tax hit" in 2016. But it was something that I was prepared for, and it's not actually like losing money; because I spent all of that "income" in 2017, without the same level of money coming in, I should get a break on my 2017 filing. (And unlike a lot of people who do kickstarters, all my "normal" income is also as an independent contractor, so I have a big tax pool to get breaks on.)

 

How did you do in terms of schedule?

I think we did great. I had a secret hope that I could ship the game out sooner, but setting the shipping deadline a little further out ended up being helpful when work situations delayed both Emily and I over the spring and summer.

The year-long delay between campaign and shipping was a simple fact for this project, because we had to learn so much about our process and the game itself, but in the future my projects will be prototyped and ready to go to print if the campaign completes successfully. I think that's the only way to capture a large amount of internet traffic to support board game kickstarters - there's just too much competition. It takes a big leap of faith to support an unfinished game over a finished, reviewed one.

 

For more on the game and its process, check out Part 2, which is above this one, because blogs.

Side-Quest: Quidditch

In the quest to develop games, it always behooves us to do side quests.

I've been reading the Harry Potter books lately, in anticipation of someday reading them to my daughter (dawww). I used to be a huge fan - though, I haven't read the last few since they first came out.

A couple aspects of game design leap out from just the first book. First off, Wizard Chess seems like a fun upgrade to normal Chess for casual players. The intelligent pieces improve the casual dimensions of the game in two ways; first, they add a dimension of negotiation to the game, where you can no longer sacrifice your pieces with impunity. Along with that, though, the pieces themselves are able to give newer players advice, and sometimes stop them from making a major mistake.

More fun to think about, though, is Quidditch. 

Quidditch is absolutely ridiculous. Just to get it out of the way, a combination of football/soccer, dodgeball, and rat-catching is straight up ridiculous. Unfortunately, proper Quidditch requires a surprising number of magical props to function (sorry, college kids - you're playing an imitation!), and the game breaks without them. (If you need an overview of the rules, Wikipedia's got you covered.)

Once we get past the magical spectacle of the made-up sport, though, I do find a fascinating aspect in it - and one that informs possible game designs.

Essentially, Quidditch is two games played in parallel, related only spatially (they're all on the same pitch) and by score (the result of each mini-game contributes to a total score). In each match, six of the seven players on a side are involved in the football-esque game, where players try to score a ball through a hoop against a goal-keeper. Scoring is a gameplay event that happens regularly, and ticks up a team's score by ten points. At the same time, a team's seventh player is playing a different game - they are trying to find the Golden Snitch, a tiny ball that rockets around the stadium. Catching it  gives a ton of points - 150! - and ends the game. 

Most importantly, this is the only event that can end the game. The first mini-game can run the score up to arbitrarily large totals, and there are mentions in the book of games that last days or weeks - or even months.

In the books, we are also witness to one of the shortest games in Quidditch history. That's because Harry Potter is his team's seeker, the individual player responsible for finding the Snitch; his mini-game is a convenient narrative device to keep him above the action of the rest of the game, while also letting him win a game for his team with only natural talent.

Fictional worlds and narratives aside, there's something fascinating in an unbounded amount of time for a game. There are games that do this, to a degree (like Risk, which makes total and final victory difficult and time-consuming to achieve). But having the end-point be another game, occurring in parallel, adds a ton to the strategic possibilities. The tension between ending the game and preventing others from ending the game is real, and could flip-flop between players depending on how they're doing in the primary game.

It's been remarked by some that Quidditch is a strange and flawed sport, owing to the bulk of its rules being written before Harry Potter became a highly watched success. I think that JK Rowling hit it out of the pitch, though; the structure of her game is super inspirational, and it all feels unique.

Update to ring out 2016

Hello all!

Obviously, the Kickstarter Campaign was successful - wildly so, even. Emily and I have been doing a ton of work on the art, the balance, and coordinating the best-possible printing of the game.

So why the radio silence on this blog?

To collapse a longer story down into a shorter one, I was contacted just after the campaign by another gaming company who had some very understandable trademark concerns. To honor their intellectual property, I've changed the name of the game to Saga of a Dying World.

As this blog has talked about in the past, this whole process is about learning the steps it requires to make a game, and these trademark issues are another part of that. I'm incredibly thankful that this learning process hasn't involved lawyers or courts; just reasonable conversation. And now, I've learned more about the industry, more about the research that I need to do, and more about trademark concerns in general. More than that, though, I've learned something about myself: I can't be an optimist or fall into wishful thinking when it comes to something that could spell doom for my games. If I had held myself to greater scrutiny instead of settling on a name I thought was cool, I could have avoided the switch.

It seems good to note that it is not possible to scrub the internet of the previous name - Kickstarter, in particular, doesn't let me alter the campaign after it was launched (and concluded). Older entries to this blog, for example, will remain as they are: time capsules to a different era of the game. 

So, with that, let us move onwards into 2017. I'll have regular updates with new art, characters, gameplay details, and progress coming soon! Forward!

But why Games?

I am feeling pretty good right now. Rift is just over three into its Kickstarter campaign, and we've passed 40% funded. I keep thinking that the oft-spoken initial surge of backing has ending, but then it doesn't; we really are averaging about $1,000 a day. 

The most amazing thing, though, has been the strangers. I have overwhelming gratitude for the family and friends that have backed Rift, but I'm not surprised to see their names on the list. To see that a third of the backers so far are total, complete strangers - from all over the world! - is mind-blowing. Sure, new board games are hot right now, but I'm just beginning to dare to hope that it means that Emily and I are doing something right.

I wanted to bridge from the bubbly-happy-excited-intimidated feeling the campaign gives me into talking a little bit about why I designed Rift to begin with.

Rift is not actually the first game that I've designed, but it is the first solid one, which is a very important distinction. Maybe I'll talk more about the other one (codename: the Medici) another time; today, I want to hone in on the process, and how game-making differs from the other creative things I've tried my hand at.

I was pretty quick to decide that I liked designing board games. I am actively excited to spend time tweaking a mechanic, drawing up cards, or writing backstory for characters. But why, I publically ask myself?

1. The Puzzle of It

Working on a board game is exciting because it's like solving a hundred puzzles at once; and sometimes, they all click into place at once. (More often, they refuse to budge, but I think that's just the nature of creative work.) The sheer exhilaration of discovery - no, *epiphany* - is like a drug, and it makes me want to delve deeper into the mechanics of the game to find even more connections, more surprises, and more discoveries.

When I was developing Rift, early on, there was a single moment of epiphany that created the game. I had been playing around with what was, basically, a fencing simulation. You could parry, or dodge, or lunge, and each move did different things based on whether you had the high ground or not. (It was awful as a game.) At the time, I think each player had five hit points or something. Somehow, in thinking about it, my mind spontaneously reorganized and asked a question: what if attacking a player made them discard?

That simple mechanic underlines all of Rift. It combines card advantage (a concept from Magic) and survival into one simple mechanic, and creates the atmosphere of shrinking, ever-more-tense decision making (symbolized by the world under the characters collapsing).

And it felt great. For me, the joy in creative work is in the discovery.

2. The Feedback

I've wanted to be a fiction writer my whole life (and still do, in combination with other things). I will certainly not knock writing, but here's one particular area where creating a board game absolutely, completely trumps creative writing: the feedback you get from people.

This comes in two forms. If I'm play-testing my game, I can feel how other people are reacting to the individual moments we're passing through. That's an enormously helpful tool for a creator. (I've watched people read my stories, too, and it's maddening. Why did they laugh, or why are they frowning? Am I making them nervous by watching them? Very different, somehow.)

For example, before launching the Kickstarter, I did a play-test of Rift with three other people, Magic players all. Early on, they clearly loved the flavor, the action, and the pacing of the game. But then, towards the end, the mood took a turn. It wasn't like anyone scoffed, or got mad, or flipped the table over - but it was clear that there was something oppressive about the end of this particular game. I took that experience, as well as a similar feeling from some of the other test games, and determined that there *was* a problem with the pacing and feel of the last part of the game. I made a tweak to address it, and am so glad I did.

The other kind of feedback, though, is the straight-up, spoken kind, and people love talking about games after they play them. With fiction, I've always found it crazy-making when someone says "I liked it, but it didn't really grab me". It's a legitimate thing to say and feel, but it always leaves me - as a creator - at a loss for direction. Is it something I want to change? Or something I should change? Or - cringe! - is it a fundamental problem with the story? 

Somehow, feedback on games is easier. It's not that people aren't vague... maybe it's that we experienced the game together, and that makes it easier to add mental notes to a person's opinion.

But aside from that, there's also something about games that excites the inventor in people. Lots of people have a ton of fun talking about new mechanics, or asking why something works one particular way and not another. In fiction, the words are sometimes a little sacrosanct, I think; but games are for fun, and they can be anything.

3. The Product

Probably my favorite thing about designing a board game so far is this: at the end of this project, I will hold the game in my hands. The whole balliwick of ideas, concepts, and thoughts will be packaged into a finite space, and I'll be able to show it to people. (And, hopefully, people all over the world will also hold it in their hands, and will also show it to their friends, families, and gaming groups - what a dream!)

Writing produces a thing, but it's rarely something you can immediately gauge just by looking at it; you have to invest time and attention to experience it. Theater is even worse - you work hard on a thing, some people come to see it, and then it's over. Some days I really like that about production work, but other days... I just want to make something.

And I am so excited to show Rift to everyone I know. Emily's art is already fantastic, and I'm really proud of how the mechanics look as the game is played; I feel like there's a lot of kinetic energy to the game, with people pushing each other, playing and trading cards, and flipping over map tiles. Even just spending time on the graphic design of the prototype is exciting; sleeving the cards and xacto-knifing the tiles is a great feeling.

I am new to game designing, but I think I like it here. It's good to find something that feels so good and comfortable. But maybe that's just the Kickstarter talking.

I am excited.

The Kickstarter campaign launches tomorrow, in the sense that I will be the one clicking the button and launching the campaign. So that's awesome.

 

I am excited.

 

In the post below, I talk in great detail about why I chose to do a Kickstarter campaign, but in this moment I think I can narrow it down: it is exciting. It's exciting for me to do, and I hope it's exciting for other people to participate in - and that adds up to a fun thing to do.

I spent the day revising copy on this website, editing the manual, and redrafting cards and map tiles to make a cleaner set of PDFs for the Print-to-Play version (available here, if you're curious). Tomorrow has its own list of things to do.

But for the first time in a week, I think that I have some spare time. I have time tomorrow to review everything before I click The Button, and more time scheduled out for a first round of contact.

So I'm going to relax, and leave the excitement for tomorrow. Happy pre-launch, world.

So why Kickstarter?

The Kickstarter campaign for a first printing of Rift: Saga of a Dying World starts at the end of the week! (Insert wild-eyed, excited emoji, if one exists!)

So why a Kickstarter?

What a simple question - with so many answers! I think I can narrow it down to four answers.

1: It's the funding model that makes the most sense.

I don't have a network of capital investors, and I don't have a publisher. In addition to not having direct access to money through those sorts of channels, I also don't have any name recognition as a game designer to attract either of those sorts of people. (My careers thus far have translated to a lot of local recognition as a lighting designer and theatrical technician, and a tiny little bit of wider recognition as a science fiction writer. Sadly, neither are very helpful for getting Rift out into the world.)

There are a couple other ways of getting Rift made, like some form of print-on-demand (but Rift is probably too complicated of a package for that), or taking out a loan to do it myself. On the other hand, I could package all the documents that create Rift, pay for the art out of pocket, and shop the Design Document around to publishers without ever making it public.

But a Kickstarter seems like the most exciting and fun option; and really, those are the reasons I'm doing this whole thing to begin with, so it seems like a good direction to go in. A Kickstarter is really a marketing flurry wrapped up in a funding scheme, and those are the things that I need right now.

So why not a GoFundMe or IndieGoGo? Kickstarter's all-or-nothing funding is actually really important, for two reasons. First, it's more exciting - which is actually a big factor, and is shown in statistics. Most campaigns that get a good, early start end up succeeding, perhaps because of the psychological benefit of seeing a campaign that's got some gas behind it. Second, it makes the most sense for publishing a board game; there's a huge difference between printing 30 copies and 250 copies, with quantity having an absolutely massive effect on the unit price. If I print 200 copies, they're about $20 per unit... that drops to about $5 if I can manage 1,500 copies. So, scale (and printing the whole run at once) is good, and funding at a lower level is actually not a good outcome. It's make it or bust!

2: The Outcome of making the Goal is Great...

I would be absolutely overjoyed to make our goal; that means I have about 200 new best friends who might play my board game with me. It also means that I'll end up with a few extra copies of the game, and that's where things get exciting. I touched on the idea of creating a Design Document to shop around before, and while I chose not to do that exclusively, it is absolutely true that I'll probably end up taking a few of the extra copies of Rift that I'll have and use them as a sort of resumé. I have no idea if game publishers will care if I send them a copy of Rift and a letter saying "check out what I did, let's work together maybe?"... but, hey, it's worth a shot.

Plus, having a successful campaign in my history and some physical evidence of how cool my game is would vastly help a future campaign for another game, if I want to keep doing this - and it's been pretty fun so far!

2b: ...But Kickstarter doesn't have a ceiling, either, so it could get Even Better.

But let's be honest for a second. I set my goal pretty high (it's a lot of money, folks!), but I also set it pretty low. That is, I spent a whole bunch of time about four months ago cynically counting my friends and calculating printing costs, and I decided that $7,500 is a good stretch. It's up there, but it's also achievable, and it starts to reap some of the rewards of printing at scale.

At the same time, board games are hot right now, and I think Rift is awesome. I absolutely cannot count on making my goal, let alone making more than my goal... but I can dream, too. (Not to mention responsibly plan ahead, so I don't end up one of those disaster stories of overwhelming Kickstarter success being a ruination.) If I can double up on my goal, then I can get really big and start following up on the quotes I got from big-name manufacturers. That lets me massively ramp up production without increasing the cost that much, which means having a ton of copies left over. That, in turn, means I'll end up with enough additional inventory that I can start selling them online, to game stores, or at conventions like Gen-Con - which might let me afford to do another printing, or create an expansion. Basically, if the stars align and I work hard enough (maybe not in that order), Kickstarter has the potential to start me off on a new, totally-awesome career.

I won't lie - that's part of Kickstarter's appeal. If I didn't have that bit of a dreamer built into me, I'd just look for a real job, right?

3. Validation

This is a point that's been driven home again and again and again in my other creative endeavors: External validation is important. In the theater, reviews matter, feedback matters, and the audience clapping at the end of the show matters. It feels good, true, but it's also a gauge of how well you're doing your job. In writing, it matters when magazines publish your stories or when you start winning contests. These things are not decided by accident, and it is a recognition that you're good at what you do, and that you're doing good work (which are not always the same thing). 

If this Kickstarter is successful, then it will be a validation of the year of work I've done creating Rift, and all the time spent tweaking, redesigning, and fine-tuning the mechanics, testing it, and working with Emily on the art. It's not the only metric - there are a lot of reasons a Kickstarter can fail; like timing, or marketing, or the public just not being very interested, or Donald Trump being elected and the world being swallowed in fire (though, thankfully, the Kickstarter is scheduled to end before election day, so we'll probably be okay on that score). In the end, I don't think it's vain to admit that validation is important to me; just honest.

4. Deadlines

But probably the simplest reason is that a Kickstarter campaign is a good thing to focus one's energy around. The Kickstarter has a schedule; I decided to launch it now based on some statistics about when the most successful campaigns are launched, and it's a good time for me to run it in relation to my work schedule. The campaign has a solid start date, and that means I've got to finish everything before that. It has a solid end date, when I'll know exactly how much money I have to spend and how many games I need to make for people (assuming it succeeds, of course). Doing a Kickstarter is the opposite of having a pet project; it is a real, tangibly-scheduled thing, and that makes it exciting.

And like I said at the start: that's kind of the point.

So I'm doing a Kickstarter, and it starts in four days (barring any setbacks, of course). Stay tuned!

Inspirations and Aspirations

As a creative professional, I'm very aware that creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum. To work on something, I want to soak in it - I want to dive into the genre, or format, or idea, and stay down as long as possible. In a lot of ways, Rift is a summary of how much fun I've been having playing board games over the last two years.

I wanted to spend this blog post retracing some of the inspirations that have led to Rift. Along the way, I'll be able to acknowledge the ideas that helped me develop my game, and also give a shout-out to the wonderful games that share the same flavor of fun that I hope Rift will - once it gets out into the world, of course.

As I said, I've been gaming a lot lately, and that gaming has come in two forms. First, my partner and I have been hosting a monthly dinner with some of our closest friends. It's mostly a chance for them to spend time with our daughter as she grows up (she just turned one, huzzah huzzah!), but after she goes to bed, we love to break something casual out of the gaming closet. A couple example of big hits in this group of four to six people have been Codenames (duh) and Scotland Yard. Neither of those games are like Rift, but that's not the point. To me, it's the group that's notable - the table conversation isn't about game mechanics, or who's winning or losing, but rather about the ups and downs that we all get to experience together.

When I started developing Rift, I was guided partly by the fact that I could not find another good game for our dinner party group. I wanted something that was complex enough that we wouldn't be bored of it after two play-throughs (sorry, Red November), and something that would have a competitive edge to it. Because of my friends, I've always tried to keep fun at the forefront of Rift.

This group also made me keen to have a game where the cards describe what they do as much as possible; I think that casual groups like a game that doesn't obscure gameplay mechanics behind too many symbols. For example, we like Race for the Galaxy, but it's hard to pick up once every two or three months; there's too much that doesn't explain itself if you don't remember what each symbol or roman numeral means. With Rift, I'm trying to find the balance of putting enough information on each card so that its exact mechanics can be sorted out with a little bit of thought.

(On that note, playing Race for the Galaxy may have opened my mind to the idea of a game where the turn order is more fluid. Who knows? That's how inspiration works.)

My other main inspiration for Rift is the elephant in the room - Magic: The Gathering. My wonderful, supportive partner tried to tell me that Rift doesn't feel at all like Magic, and I think she's right. Unless, of course, you play a lot of Magic. It doesn't take a leap of imagination to see Volcano cards as Red, or rename the "Countdown" mechanic to "Suspend". A Magic-playing friend of mine looked up from the first hand of Rift I ever dealt him and said "I think there's a magic card named this already", bless his heart. (I've changed the names since.)

I could try to pretend that Magic isn't woven into Rift's DNA, or that everything reminiscent of the game has been renamed, rebranded, or redrafted, but that's not honest. I've played Richard Garfield's epic since I was ten, and I listen to Magic podcasts when I run errands; of course there's a bit of MTG in there. Thankfully, I can - with total sincerity - say that Rift is a completely and utterly different game from Magic. To use an analogy, the fantasy genre of literature is based on the Lord of the Rings - but that doesn't mean every fantasy book is like Lord of the Rings, or has those characters, or even reads at all like it.

With Rift, though, I wanted to capture a very specific aspect of the way that Magic feels. It's something that happens the most in Limited (a format where you have a very limited pool of cards to build a deck out of, usually between 45 and 90); the feeling one gets where everything is going great and you have a plan, the feeling that lasts right up until your opponent plays a single card and ruins everything - and then you have to figure out a new plan. 

Is that sadistic? Well, so are board games, sometimes.

Plus, paying attention to Magic means I already know how powerful a card that says "Draw 3 cards" on it is. It's almost some kind of... ancestral sort of wisdom, or memory...

Seriously, though, my deepest hope and darkest dream is that Rift might have legs in the Magic community, and that it might be something that the really good, committed players might bring to a Grand Prix or Pro Tour to play with their team at night, just to break things up a little. Plenty different, but still hitting all those same buttons...

Well, it's possible, anyway.

There have been other inspirations along the way - like when I realized that the action of the game made the most sense if I thought of it like a series of Dragonball Z episodes. The idea of shuffling in the Rift cards (which, by the time you read this, might be called Collapse cards) is a reinterpreted mechanic from Pandemic. One of my favorite mechanics - the way that every card can be played as a "basic" move 1 or attack 1 - was suggested by a friend; he was inspired by a game I've never played and don't even remember the name of. And it plays great. That's the way of creativity, and my sincere belief is that being open about it is the best policy.

The biggest inspiration, though, has been there from the beginning. After dinner, over a drink, or down at the game store, I want to play a game with people I like and have fun doing it. That's why I made Rift. It pushes all my buttons the right way, and I hope it does for other people, too. 

A Short History of Versions

I'm super excited to tell the fun stories and strange developments that have happened as Rift was being developed, but a little history lesson seems important first.

Right this second, Rift is version .42. I use a complex system to determine when I change the version number, mostly concerned with a vague feeling of whether I've changed a lot of things or a few things, and ultimately decided by whether I can be bothered to change the number in the bottom corner of the cards.

There is a bit of reason to it, though. To me, .42 means "second minor adjustment to the fourth major iteration". I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what a minor adjustment is or isn't - it's mostly defined by time: time drafting changes into the actual card text in Indesign, and time spent printing, cutting, and sleeving new prototype cards.

The major versions, though, have a solid progression to them. This is how I'd sum up the major versions:

.1x: Crap. Let's not talk about it (until later).

.2x: An idea-prototype with hand-written cards that could be played on any game board (whooooooaaaa). The theory was to have a compact combat game with a fun gimmick; if you were bored and at a convention or game store, you could whip this game out and play through a quick duel on the island of Catan, or in the world of Arabian Nights, or across the war-torn planet of Risk 2210. I'm excited to talk more about what worked and didn't work about this idea.

.3x: But (spoilers!) the "any game board" idea was doomed, and version .3 was the first one to have its own game board. That change echoed through the rest of the game, too, and changed the design of the cards, the characters, and the rules themselves. This is the first version that was actually interesting to play, and this paradigm lasted for a long time. I would change a set of cards and go to version .32; change a couple rules and go to .33, and so on, all the way up to .39.

.4x: The fourth and current version brought a couple big changes, but I also ran out of .3x numbers. On a more emotional level, though, moving to .4 felt like a good way of recognizing that I was getting close, and that the game probably wouldn't need to go through any more gigantic changes. I have no idea if I'm right about that, but there's not much to go on if you're not going on instinct.

There's a tension in the versions, for me, between thorough testing and incremental improvement. Sometimes, I'm sure that a card or mechanic is wrong - either it doesn't fit, or it's too powerful, or it just doesn't feel right. Often, though, that's based off of a sample size of just two or three games with the current version. Do you make the change or test more? The closest thing I've found to the right answer is to deal with an icky feeling for at least one more play-through, and if it's still icky, then change it. Sometimes, that means changing entire mechanics or cycles of cards - but what's the alternative? Making something that makes you feel icky? Seems like a bad choice.

Anyway, I think version .4 will be sticking around for a while, but I'm also 100% sure that .42 won't be the last, either - mostly, because I already have a list of small changes for v.43 that I haven't put into the indesign file yet. I'll keep making adjustments until I finally have to lock everything down - and then, Rift will hit version 1.0. I can't wait!

First!

Welcome to the Fly Paper of Record!

Fly Paper Games is dedicated to two things: 1. fun, and 2. awesome, and that's it for mission statements. In the days to come, I'll be making entries in this blog to chronicle the creation, testing, and release of Fly Paper Games' first board game, Rift: Saga of a Dying World.

As I'm writing this, Rift has been in development for at least two years. The very first incarnation was just a set of rules called "Immortal Ninja Game", made to simulate a complex duel between two sword fighters. That version was completely terrible, and the idea that would become Rift was shelved for a long time.

I'll spend a lot of time in future entries talking about the winding path that led me to what Rift is now: a fast-paced, strategic arena combat game, built around a small footprint and colorful characters. In particular, I'm looking forward to delving into the different versions of the game that we've passed through, and the inspirations and testing that led to each big change (and there have been many of them). In the process, I hope I can give a little inspiration and guidance (by example) to other game designers and creative people. 

As we go forward, I'll be talking about the process leading up to our kickstarter and - hopefully - beyond, as Emily finishes the art, I finish the final tweaks to the design, get into the nitty-gritty graphic design, and finally as we find a home for every copy of Rift that we can afford to print.

Thanks to everyone who's helped us test the game, and everyone who's encouraged us on this project. And thank you for reading!