Every once in a while

Every once in a while we receive a prototype that blows our minds. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. We found Legacy: Testament of duke de Crecy in 2012. Tides of Time happened in 2014. Crazy Karts came to us in 2015…


I remember exactly the first afternoon we played the Crazy Karts prototype. It was during a whole day that we at Portal Games dedicated to playtesting the submitted prototypes. After a few games, I was tired. I was disappointed. I was one step away from leaving the office and going home. There was nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing immersive in the prototypes we played that day.

Greg put another prototype on the table. “It’s a racing game”, he said. Hundreds of little hexes printed on a small board almost made me run away. The player boards were in French. The player screens were slender and tended to fall over. What a mess.

Anyway, we played. Sixty minutes went by like a second.


I remember looking up from the table at the other players. I remember looking at Greg and trying to make eye contact with him. I remember the smile slowly appearing on my face.

I remember thinking: ‘Well, that was actually fun. We’ve got something here. Oh dear, we’ve got something here…’


There were many issues with this game. The board, full of these small hexes, looked super boring. The rules for movement were too complicated. The scoring was… well, there was scoring in the first place! I was surprised. I didn’t race to score. I raced to be the first one to drive my cart across the finish line! I didn’t want to score points…

But, below all of that, below all the mud and dirt there was a gem. There was pure fun. There was a brilliant idea of two drivers trying to steer one kart.

We contacted the designer. The work began. Time to polish this diamond.

[To learn more about Crazy Karts, please, visit the game’s dedicated website]

Try again…

You play TIME Stories, you reach a point when there is not much to do because of your previous decisions. You make a time jump and start over with all the knowledge you gathered during the first run. This game is all about runs. The first, second, third. Time stories, huh?

You play Pandemic: Legacy, you reach a point when there is nothing left to do, the disease will just explode in a second. You shuffle the cards and play the month again…

You play Imperial Assault, you reach a point where the bad guys kicked your ass and are clearly winning the game? Well, sorry, but the game continues. The bad guys get some cool rewards and powers and will make a harder opponent next time but the campaign won’t stop. You just gave them a few additional tools to screw you up.

Yeah, the campaign games. There is some tricky stuff going on there. Let’s talk about our options.


Pandemic: Legacy keeps it pretty simple. Whether the players succeed or not, the story continues. They are—after all—only little human beings trying to stop the unstoppable. Pandemic doesn’t give a crap about those few dudes trying to save the world. Pandemic is marching onwards no matter what. Players struggle, the game moves forward every single round (every other round, to be precise . It’s both thematic and simple. Works perfect.

TIME Stories has a super-smart solution, too. When the players are stuck, they just restart the story and try again. Everybody who plays the game tries to do it in one run, but let’s face it—we know a couple of reruns is needed to finish the story. We know that. We are prepared for that. We don’t complain that, OMG I need to play this again from the start!! The idea of replaying the same scenario over and over is actually at the heart of the game.

Imperial Assault has this very efficient way of resolving the scenario effects—the winner gets a reward. The story continues. Clean and swift.


OK, let’s talk about First Martians now, huh?

An average campaign takes about 5 scenarios. The story evolves, the players struggle, the tension builds up by the hour, with every successful roll, with every emotion experienced, and with every important decision made. Players got attached to their characters, they couldn’t wait for the grand finale and the story’s resolution.

Sorry, but this was not going to happen. In the middle of the fourth scenario, one of the characters kicked the bucket. End of story. He is dead. That’s it. You didn’t finish the campaign. You will never see the grand finale.



This problem is a tough one. Should I ask the players to actually play the whole campaign from the very beginning? Start with Scenario #1 and go through the whole campaign again? Or should I let them replay only the fourth scenario? How would you feel if you were to play again this one scenario that saw you die? How would you feel if you were to do it over and over, if this particular scenario was a difficult one and killed you time and time again?

At this moment—and you need to remember I‘m writing these words when the game is still in development—I managed to teach the players that scenarios goals, the objectives given by NASA are important, but surviving is crucial.

The game’s campaign mode is built in such a way so that fulfilling the Objective is not mandatory to continue the campaign. The setup or the next scenario’s objective will differ depending on the outcome of the previous scenario, but if you didn’t achieve the goal the campaign will simply continue. The only problem is—the next scenario will probably be more difficult. If NASA asked you to give them coordinates for where to drop the supplies and you screwed this up… well, in the next scenario you will need to search for the place of this drop, because the supplies landed somewhere and only God knows where…

So failing one objective doesn’t end the campaign. It only changes your situation for the next scenario.
However, what ends the campaign is getting killed.

Would you restart the scenario you died in?
Would you restart the whole campaign?
Would you just assume you didn’t finish the campaign and moved on to the next campaign?

I REALLY REALLY appreciate your feedback here. Give me your thoughts on the subject.

P.S. First Martians now has its Facebook Page. Check it out!

Let’s play… outside the box

It was a game of Elysium. I didn’t pay enough attention when the rules were explained and it cost me a lot from the very beginning—I had no idea what to do.

And then I saw a card with an artwork by my favorite illustrator—Vincent Dutrait!

I grabbed that card and looked through the deck if there were any other cards that he illustrated. Indeed, there were.

I smiled. I had my goal for that game! Collect cards illustrated by Vincent Dutrait. Those cards only, and none other.

As you can imagine, this tactic didn’t bring me many Victory Points, but my tableau looked amazing and I called the game a win!


We sit and play a board game with an obvious and clear goal—to win. If we play with a different goal in mind, we may ruin the game for somebody else at the table. Other players assume that our actions will be reasonable and lead us to victory. They adjust their strategy accordingly to that assumption.

If we start playing like a madman, doing random stuff, play in an unpredictable way—we will ruin the game.

That’s bad. That’s not why we play at all. But…


If we come up with a little twist for our strategy, if we announce that new goal and we make sure we will not spoil game for other players… it might be worth a shot. Build 7 buildings during a game of Citadel, each with a different value on it. Collect the most monsters in Kemet. Pick only the ugliest spouses possible in Legacy and build the ugliest family in the game.

Did you ever try playing outside the box?
Which game? What was your goal?

First Martians: the one about psychology!


A couple of years ago when I was writing about designing 51st State I wrote a story about Baby Swift. For those who don’t remember or didn’t follow my blog back then, here is a short recap.

One week into a 51st State playtesting marathon, we received new artwork for the game. I printed the old cards updated with the new artwork and prepared a newer version of the prototype. Among these new cards there was one—called Baby Swift—that gained an amazing piece of art (shown above).

Prior to that, the card was almost never drafted, but with that artwork it has become nearly the most often drafted card in the game. I didn’t change the card’s rule. I just put an amazing piece of art on it.


We always say that a lot of maths is involved in the process of designing games. We work very hard to balance stuff, to calculate the odds, to make all actions equally valuable. And yet, even though these calculations are pretty easy to do and in most cases we have no problems with that part of the designing process, we face many other problems, problems that cannot be just simply calculated away. The problems that have much to do with pure emotions and psychology.

Let me tell you today about some interesting problems I’ve faced when playtesting First Martians.


First Martians is being developed using the Robinson Crusoe engine. Both games use the same basic mechanism—you spend 1 Action Pawn and you roll a dice or you spend both of your Action Pawns and that’s an auto success.

For example, you go for the Explore action, you spend 1 Action Pawn, so you grab 3 green dice and roll them. Most likely you will succeed with your action (there are 5 success icons), most likely you will have an adventure (5 adventure icons), and there’s a chance you’ll be wounded (3 wound icons).

Even though all adventures in the deck are bad, players often want these encounters. They are eager to see what will happen. Will they get lost in the woods? Find a cursed hut? Stumble upon a corpse of a dead goat? So many cool things might happen!

They roll the dice, they have adventures, the game is rich in stories and theme. Robinson Crusoe at its best!

Let’s visit Mars.

There’s been an interesting issue for me to deal with. The playtesters don’t roll the dice. They perform all their actions with 2 Action Pawns and they do everything, literally everything they can, not to roll the dice.

The last test I ran? They didn’t plant the seeds in the greenhouse, the plants didn’t grow (obviously!), and in the second scenario the players will most likely die of hunger, because food reserves are really low. And yet they managed to just achieve the scenario’s objective, the absolute minimum they needed to achieve to finish the game. They did nothing more, no preparations were made for the next game.

‘Why didn’t you plant the seeds?’, I asked after the test game.

‘We had no time for that.’

‘You had the time. You kept using 2 Action Pawns for your actions. You could have easily split them, roll the dice and do the planting’, I pointed out.

‘I am not rolling these fucking dice’, I heard in response (and that’s a quote, just in case you wondered).

‘You will die of starvation in the campaign’s second scenario!’

‘This is space. I am not rolling these fucking dice in space.’


There is no logic in that. This is nothing I could have predicted when I was building the game. There is nothing in the rules that could be changed to resolve this issue. This is just a purely emotional problem. Having adventures on the Cursed Island is exciting and cool. Having adventures on Mars is…

‘I am not rolling these fucking dice.’


The one about components in designing games

Yesterday I played a very interesting board game prototype. The theme is not a revolutionary one but it’s not bad, either. What’s interesting—the theme meshes well with the rules even though the game is—at its core—an abstract strategy. I know, sounds weird, but that’s what it is. A thematic abstract strategy game.

Today, though, I am not writing about themes. Today I’m writing about the components.

The submitted prototype weighs 1.3kg (2.9lb). It comes with nearly 150 big wooden cubes, 2 boards, 4 player boards, more than 200 big tokens, then additional money tokens and cards, and so on and so forth…


The very first words I said when my employee Martin put this prototype on the table and began to set up the game were: “We are not going to publish this.” I looked at the components and I knew it was impossible to produce the game at a reasonable MSRP.

“I know, I know, this is crazy, but please, play it first, then we will discuss it and see what could be changed in the final production copy.”

So I shut up my mouth and played. I liked the game. To be honest, I can’t wait to play it again. Also, I can’t stop asking myself The Question:

Is it possible to have fewer components without hurting the game?

That’s the question this game’s designer will have to ask himself—and then answer it. And he’d better find a positive answer.


We regularly receive prototypes that are overproduced (sic!). Many young designers are so driven by passion and creativity that they tend to forget that eventually their games need to be produced and sold at reasonable prices. You can’t squeeze an unlimited number of cubes, cards, and tokens in the box. It influences the production cost, it influences the MSRP, it might kill the game when it’s released.

For me it is easier in many ways, of course. I know the prices. I know the production process. I have the comfort of designing games with my Production Manager every day looking at a prototype and complaining about the components I came up with the day before.

What can you do without a Production Manager watching your back?

Look at your game and think how much you would pay for it. Ask this question to your friends. Think about the final MSPR for the box when it’s released. Is it a 20$ game? 40$? 60$?

Then take from your shelf the games that have MSRPs. List their components. See what’s in the boxes. See how much the publishers put in these boxes.

Then look at your prototype again.

And if you put twice as much in yours, then, sir, you are in trouble.

They deserve better!

I am a huge fan of children‘s games. I have a big collection of board games for kids and even though my own kids got older and they won’t play with me anymore, I still keep these kids games in my collection. I won’t get rid of them. I will play with my grandchildren, right?!

There are some real gems among games for children. Ramses II. Labyrinth. Gulo gulo – to mention only a few classics.

And yet, even though these days game stores offer so many great innovative children‘s games, there is still a ton of mere unimaginative variants of memory games.

Yes, sure, kids like memory games. They have a great memory, they beat their parents easily and they enjoy it.


But then at some point…


I was a teacher for a few years, and I was conducting board games classes. I would play with kids for hours. I would bring them stupid toyish games like Louping Louis, Operation, or Funny Bunny. Kids loved them.

I would bring different versions of memory games, with Chicken Cha Cha Cha, Monster Chase, or Ramses II being the highlights among many others.

And I would also bring them some more difficult games. Games like Batik Kids. Pickomino. Wicked Witches Way. Ribbit. And many more.

And guess what!

After a few lessons more and more kids were moving towards the more difficult games. They liked the challenge. They wanted to think deeper. They wanted to play something more than just another memory or toyish game. Operation and Funny Bunny sank into oblivion.


In 2015, Portal Games launched an amazing economy game for children (!) on the Polish market. It is called My Happy Farm and was designed by the authors of Mysterium. It quickly won the hearts of board game fans in Poland.

Soon after the release, we decided to buy full rights to the English version of the game and to release it worldwide. This week it’s going to hit retail stores in the U.S.

It is a very smart design. It challenges young players, it makes them think and engage with the game from the very beginning till the last minute of the play. Children will need to plan carefully in advance, they’ll need to sow and plant, harvest, feed the animals – they will have to manage the whole farm!

That’s a challenge they‘re going to love.
a story they will understand.
a task that will sound cool for them.

(and BTW: harvesting and feeding is something that you all love, too – I am looking at you, Agricola fans!)

Yesterday we began the game’s promotional campaign. We say: “Don’t feed your children with another memory game.”, and I strongly, strongly, strongly believe in this message.

We all know they deserve much better than just another memory game.


Remember the movie you saw last year? The one you didn’t like? Let’s face it. You will never have a chance to meet its director and tell him that he let you down.

And the book? Remember the book you read a few months ago? You’ll probably never meet the author of this book. You will never be able to discuss with him or her what you liked and what you didn’t like about it.

BTW: the game you played last week and you didn’t like? Go to GenCon or Essen and tell its designer what you think.


Of course not every designer attends GenCons. Not every designer is easily approachable. Not every designer is so open as to discuss and hang out with the fans. But many of us are. Many of us meet you—players—at conventions, hang out with you in pubs and talk vividly on social media platforms.

We love interaction, we love you and your feedback.

And we don’t want to fail you.


I always say that I am responsible not only for every game I’ve designed, but I also take full responsibility for every game Portal has ever published. I put my name—the Portal logo—on it and this means I fully recommend this design.

For years I’ve been building trust, I’ve published one title after another and I’ve never ever let myself disappoint you. I want you to know that if a game was published by Portal Games, that means I personally accepted it and I personally recommend it.

It takes years to build trust. It takes dozens of designs published year after year to build this repeating recognizable pattern of well-playtested, engaging, challenging games.

These days more and more often I read comments like ‘It’s a game from Portal Games so it tells a great story” or ‘It’s a game from Portal Games so I know it won’t disappoint me.”

It took years to build reputation and trust.

And you know what? It would take a second to lose it. But don’t worry. I put my name on these boxes. And trust me, I wouldn’t put it on anything less than the best…


Edited by Piotr, thank you!