Wrap Up Part 2: The Game and Campaign

Are you happy with the game and the campaign?


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