I did it justice

I remember being a kid and being honestly perplexed when my school friends were complaining about Robinson Crusoe. Thick, boring book, with no dialogues. They whined. In Poland, Robinson Crusoe was mandatory reading in school. Every kid was complaining. For me, it was the novel of my life, even though my life was like ten years long at the moment. I loved it.

Years passed. High school. College. Life. I was a book worm, and geek, and a gamer. I discovered RPG, found a game company, wrote few RPG games, started a family. Robinson Crusoe was with me all the time. I read it few more times, watch all the movies about it, even designed an indie RPG game about castaways that never got published.

Then I discovered board games. I designed Witchcraft (2008), Stronghold (2009), 51st State (2010), and Pret-a-Porter (2010). Early 2011 I felt I am ready. I felt I have enough skills and knowledge about game design to do Robinson Crusoe justice and make it into the best board game I can ever design.

It was 10 years ago.

As for today, the game has nearly 100k logged plays on BGG. It sold in more than 200k copies worldwide. Released in 12 different languages all over the planet. And exactly today, on Sunday, April 11th, 2021, the new edition of the game, this full-blown fantastic Collector’s Edition, passed 2 million USD on the Gamefound platform. Quite the milestone.

And even though the design is 10 years old, I still look at it with pride and satisfaction, and I strongly believe I did Robinson Crusoe justice.

I like to think that this 10 years old Ignacy would be pretty darn proud of me right now.

The power of different angle!

‘I don’t like it’, I said when Joanna approached me with her idea for the newest expansion for 51st State. ‘Try it though, give it two or three weeks, see what happens. It won’t work, but you need to see it by yourself.’ I said and gave her green light.


It was early March 2020, and her idea for the expansion was a semi-coop variant for the game. Moloch attacks all players at the table, and they need to fight against each other, as usual, and additionally against Moloch cards. It makes perfect sense for the theme of Neuroshima world, but I really hate semi-coop games.

I had so many bad experiences with semi-coop games that I am basically done with this genre. It is tough to design a game that keeps everyone equally engaged for the whole game and to keep players who know that they have no longer a chance to win interested in the game.

So I said Joanna, I vote against the idea, but she should try it anyway.


COVID hit, we all ended up at home working in home office mode, and the playtesting process became super difficult. After few weeks, Joanna said she finally have it ready to show and that she built the prototype on Tabletopia.

I am not a fan of playing board games on the computer. Back then, in March or April 2020, when it all was new to us, I really was not a fan of the tool. But that was the only tool we had. So we played.

The test took us more than two hours. Operating on Tabletopia was a dreadful experience, talking over Skype, trying to understand the prototype, trying to understand Tabletopia, trying to keep my dogs silent for more than 5 minutes. It was 2 hours horror, but…

‘It’s not that bad.’ I said. ‘Maybe I was wrong. Keep working on it. You might have here something.’


Joanna worked on the expansion for another few months. We all struggled with playtesting, the brainstorming was difficult on Zoom, creating new versions of the prototype was taking much more time than the regular pen and paper method when you can scribble on the card, tweak one or two words and continue playtesting with the new version.

At some point, after months of work and many iterations, it was ready. It was much better than I expected. And what’s more, it was everything I would never create by myself. I would never create a semi coop expansion. I would never create an expansion with double-sided cards. I would never do an alternative co-op variant in 51st State.

Moloch changes the game. Adds a new angle. Throws at players new challenges and choices. It’s manifest of Joanna’s talent and manifest in general of diversity in design. The beauty of different approach and ideas. It’s like First Martians and On Mars and Terraforming Mars, three great games, three different methods, three examples of the power of design.

I was wrong when I said semi-coop is a bad idea. But man, I was so right that I let her work and do what she wanted. She did something I would never do.

So the bottom line, kudos to both of us, right? 😉

He smiled

I remember this moment very vividly – Przemysław is sitting in my office, it’s 2018, a few weeks before the Detective release. The game is already printed and will soon debut.

‘I want you to write me a spy thriller. Cold War era, players taking the role of CIA agents sent to Europe and dealing with some epic KGB operation. Would you be interested?’

He smiled.

***

At that moment, we were after the first demos of Detective at various conventions, and I was pretty confident we have something exceptional here. I knew we would need a follow-up. Changing the role of detectives into spies sounded really cool. New theme, new challenges, different angle and mechanisms.

***

Przemysław Rymer, the writer of the plot, was in heaven. He is a long-time fan of all those books by Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follet, and Tom Clancy. I guess I should also mention his fascination with the political history of Europe. He can quote books by Suworow or le Carre on the fly. He was born ready for this task.

He started building a plot. Based on real Soviet agendas and goals, set in real places and involving historical figures. He was the right man to create the most immersive spy-themed thriller the tabletop industry ever saw. Trust me, he took it seriously.

***

I got the script a few months later. It was around 30 pages long. I was reading it, and it was – believe it or not – sitting on Google at the same time checking the facts and names because the mix between the fictional story and real events and characters was just insane. It was a perfect immersive blend that took me to Europe in 70 in the middle of a secret Soviet operation.

I green-lighted it without any single comment. ‘I love it,’ I just said, and we were able to move to the next stage. Make a game around it.

***

It took us months to write the Vienna Connection. Intense, immersive spy-themed thriller as nothing before seen in the hobby. I read a dozen books about the Cold War era and got into it deeply. The year 2020 was, for me, the Cold War-era year. Books, comic books, movies, TV shows, even podcasts! I consumed it all. I even began to run RPG games with my friends set in Berlin of that period. It was crazy.

***

I have a fantastic job. I work with super talented people and create games I always dreamed of. Vienna Connection is on pre-order now, and if you ever wanted to play as a CIA agent in operations against the Soviets, you must play it. I said it. You must play it. It’s great.

And Przemysław? A few months ago, at the beginning of 2020, I invited him to my office again. I asked him to write me another story. And, yes, he smiled again…

***

Link to Vienna Connection pre-order page: https://portalgames.pl/en/vienna-connection/
Link to Portalcon with new titles announcement: https://portalcon.pl/en
My vlog: https://www.youtube.com/c/PortalGamesStudio/videos

Spiel.Digital as a manifest of virtual limitations

Now we saw it all.
We saw Origins “Epic Failure” Online.
We saw Gen Con “XLS of somebody’s else events” Online.
We saw the Dice Tower “Marathon of Gameplays” Spectacular.
We saw BGG “Not Paid Promotion of Discord” Virtual con
And this past weekend. We saw Spiel “Alternative BGG website” Digital.
So, yes, we saw it all.
We are ready to sum up the whole virtual thing now, but before we do, let me today discuss only Spiel.Digital

Vast exhibitor hall
I saw comments on the Internet that it was too much, too much of clicking, browsing, checking, people were saying that the whole website was too big, they were lost, they were tired after clicking on the site.

That is an interesting shift of perception. I myself dedicated 3 hours on Friday to check as many booths as possible, visiting them one after another. After those 3 hours, I was able to check more than half of the booths at Spiel.Digital in the Expert category.

In a real Essen Spiel, after 3 hours, I would probably be done with one hall. One of eight huge halls. I would just barely touch the event.

I found Spiel.Digital much easier to navigate than crowded halls where I am lost after every 20 meters of wandering. Here it was super simple, click, check what they have, click next, check what they have, next, click what they have… After 3 hours, as I said, I already checked half of the whole show. Super easy.

Hidden games on booths
Although wandering through the halls was much easier than in a real life, finding about the release was so so so much harder. In real life you walk by booth, you see game set up on demo tables, you see components, you can stay for 2 minutes and watch people playing and get some idea about the gameplay. Just look at the tables and get a first impression.

In the virtual world, you enter a booth, and you see a link to Tabletopia. No you are logging in, seeing an e-version of the game, and no gameplay in progress, just you and the table. What do you need to do now? Read rulebook? Look for some players to play? Ask for help? You log out. It is as simple as that. You won’t bother.

I heard yesterday a very interesting point – no hidden gem exploded this Essen. No Aquatica, no Spyfall, no other game that was on nobody’s radar before the show and exploded during the show. Small independent publishers had no chance to become supernova of the fair.

It is very simple – we did not try the new games on a massive scale as we do in the real physical world. No viral recommendation happened.

An Introvert’s dream come true
Visiting a booth at Spiel.Digital was an experience suited for an introvert. You enter booth. Nobody chit chat with you. Nobody asks if you need help. Nobody asks you to join a game. You are alone, nobody talks to you, you can read a description of the game, browse through photos, check videos with gameplay or reviews.

No rush. No crowd. No noise. Only you and the complete information about the game in front of you. Personally, I loved it.

But! But then there are publishers. And publishers…

…Publishers disrespected players
More than half of the booths I checked had no materials dedicated to their releases. It is freaking mindblowing. Publisher pays for the booth. Publisher participates in the biggest virtual show of the year. And he is too lazy to upload a freaking photo of the product. Too lazy to upload a single video. He doesn’t even link a review of the product from Dice Tower or any other YouTuber.

I cannot believe how not prepared most of the publishers were. How disconnected they are from the ways and tools of promoting the product in the XXI century. How lazy their marketing teams are.

Many booths at Spiel.Digital were a sad manifest of complete disrespect to attendees.

Buying games was easy
Spiel.Digital did something revolutionary for geeks who buy games – you were able to buy most of the new releases from one general webstore. Instead of buying games at each separate booth (which also was an option), you were able to check Spiele Offensive and Pegasus Spiele webstores, and they had in the offer most of the new releases. In a few clicks, you were able to buy 20 new releases from all these small and big publishers and have it boxed in one package and shipped to your home.

So efficient. So easy. Click, click and you have a new game from Portal, Kosmos, Amigo, Board & Dice, Hobyworld and all other publishers – packed in one box, shipped to your home.

So much better than holding these insanely heavy IKEA bags through the halls and pulling them to your car in the far, far away parking lot.

But…

Buying games lost the charm
You see the crowd at the booth, people holding the new game, the line of gamers excited to buy the new one hot thing is long, and the energy is here, and the need to be in the line, to buy the game, to bring it home, to have it in hand, to open it in the evening in the hotel, to discuss it in the nigh at restaurant, to show it to other geeks what you bough, discuss it… It didn’t happen at Spiel.Digital, right?

When you go to Germany, when you travel to Essen, you want to bring memories from fair. You buy stuff, because it is Essen, it is celebration of new releases, and you want to bring memories home.

Spiel.Digital lacks of this element. When you sit at home, at your desk, when you browse the catalog, there is no charm. No geeks pressure. No hype. No crazy energy. No people proudly holding the game. No need to have it and to have it now!

You can order it two weeks later from your fav online store. Buying games at Spiel.Digital makes no difference from buying on Amazon.

So why care?

The conclusion
Spiel.Digital by far was the best virtual con of the year. Spiel.Digital by far prepared the most epic infrastructure and gave us tools to enjoy virtual board game convention. We were given so many features to have a great time at the con. The site was mindblowing with all the booths, live streams, Tabletopia integration and all other possible features. It’s a stunning effect of hard work and months of preparations. No other virtual con so far was even close to what we received here. I applaud and respect what was achieved here.

Spiel.Digital did all there is to provide board gamers an event to enjoy.

The question remains, though – was it enough?
And even more important question – is it even possible?

Please, let me know in the comments what’s your take on the virtual cons and Spiel.Digital in particular.

Managing provinces in the campaign mode

Rise of the Empire introduces three pillars that add new gameplay elements to the Imperial Settlers. The first one is well known for all fans who played Imperial Settlers solo variant I published as a free expansion back then in 2014. I will discuss this element today as an opening material for this short series of articles.

Playing Imperial Settlers in the solo campaign mode (free PDF can be found on BGG) or with the Rise of the Empire expansion, you’ll have a series of games that conclude with a special phase at the end of the game – Managing your Provinces. In terms of the theme, it’s the time to manage the growing Empire – taxes, investments, new constructions, and others!

When playing Rise of the Empire campaign, each player receives a dedicated sheet that represents their domain. On this sheet, there is a map where you mark lands and provinces you already conquered. After each game, you mark one new territory. Each of these has a different cost – the cost you must pay to support and keep the province in future games. That’s why the first thing you must do after finishing the campaign game is paying the maintenance cost of each Province you already have in your Empire.

It’s the first of many important choices you must take. When playing Rome, will you conquer the Provinces that have a stone in the maintenance cost? It’s easy to pay for you, sure, but if you spend stone on keeping Province, you won’t have a stone to score points during the game.

As the campaign progresses and you must pay a dozen of resources to keep the Empire intact and keep all Provinces under control, you start to feel like these Roman Emperors, who struggled when the Roman Empire reach the point, when the collapse was the only answer.

After you pay the maintenance cost, the much more fun stuff happens – you draw a new Province card. In the Rise of the Empire, you will find 55 new cards that represent different Provinces. All of them are Production cards, so they boost the Empire’s resource engine. When you play the campaign, you start with all your Province cards already on the table, so the more Provinces, the more strong start in the first turn. The cost, in the end, balances it out in a big way, though…

That’s the first pillar. Gain new Provinces after each game. Get them into play right from the start and have a fantastic start. Have Japanese faction start with the production of Gold and Stone. Play Barbarians who produce a ton of Apples. Command Romans that have a few additional Swords in production from the start… It’s time for your Empire to rise. Eager to find out how it ends!

The Interview feature or How Rob Daviau changed Detective

I am with Rob Daviau at Grandcon, and he goes like ‘I have this idea for a new Antares feature, but I am not sure if this is possible…’
‘It’s possible.’ I promptly say. He didn’t even manage to finish the sentence, but let me tell you this – when the industry icon has a new idea for Detective, you say you can do this, period. You just have to keep in mind that long conversation with whining Portal Games Digital team is your first step when you get back to Poland.

Rob wanted to give players the feeling, the sentiment of old school adventure video games, those in which you choose some pre-constructed dialog sentences, and you choose one to move the story forward. Instead of reading the transcript of questioning like in the base game of Detective, you’d actively pick the questions you wanted to ask.

The idea was brilliant, but I was not surprised. I greenlighted it, so obviously it had to be good.

Over the months of designing and development, the system was evolving, and Rob was sending me updates. He prototyped the Interview feature, and we were able to play-test it. It turned out Rob went even further with immersion and putting players in the shoes of Detective – there were no pre-constructed questions anymore. There was a blank space and simple instruction: What do you want to ask about?

I typed: KNIFE.

The system reacted: I have it from my father. It’s a family item. What’s the problem?

I typed: ALIBI

The system reacted: I was with my buddies. We were watching baseball. I have a dozen people who can confirm that.

I typed: TRZEWICZEK

The system reacted: I don’t know anything about that.

Strange. But that was a clue. The guy was not a boardgamer.

***


Dig Deeper expansion is a single case that takes players to Boston. Not only it is a new amazing story to discover, not only a new case to crack, but you must understand – this is a new expansion designed by the industry veteran. And with the small tweaks in the system like the Interview feature, you can appreciate and understand what industry icon means. It’s not a blurb on the book. It’s a sign that you will play good old Detective and yet, you will experience something absolutely unique.

I am happy for you. You are gonna love it.

Why Signature Series makes a difference for Detective line

‘I hate you.’ said Rob Daviau when he approached me at Gen con 2018. ‘I played Detective. You know I was thinking about designing a story-driven game like that for a long time, and you did it. It is everything I wanted my game to be. I hate you.’
I look at him, confused, and he burst into a laugh. ‘Congratulations. You designed a great game Ignacy.’
‘You played it? Finished the whole campaign?’ I asked
‘Oh, yeah. I invited friends for a game retreat weekend; we played the whole thing. That was the game of the weekend. The only game of the weekend to be precise. Brilliant. I hate you.’ he patted my back, winked, and left. I smiled.

The idea behind the Signature Series was very simple. Invite the best storytellers in the industry and ask them to play with the Detective system. Ask them to write their own unique cases for the game. The fact that the game spoke to the storytellers was a good starting point. Few months after the release of the game, I reached Rob Daviau and Mike Selinker and asked them if they are interested. They both were.

The script
When you work with legendary designer, the icon of the industry, like Rob Daviau, designer of Betrayal on the Haunted Hill, or Pandemic Legacy, you might be in an awkward position. What will you do, if the material you get won’t meet your expectations? Will you pat Rob on his back and tell him to try harder? Really?

I was waiting impatiently for a script for his case. Finally, I received the email. At that very same moment, I got a Twitter notification. I checked it. It was Rob’s tweet.

I sent @trzewik something. I hope he likes it.

I took a deep breath and opened the attachment. Read the thing. Read it and loved it. Rob took real-life locations and places, real-life events, and build around them a fascinating crime story. It felt so real and so convincing. He moved the action to 70′, changed the setting of the base game, but kept the spirit and the heart of Detective – solving crimes that feel so real because they are hooked in the actual places and events. It was a load off my mind. No patting Rob on his back and asking him to try harder. His reputation is no joke. He is one of the best storytellers in the industry. That’s a fact.

The twist
‘I want to change how the questioning works in Detective.’ he said to me when we met at Grandcon. ‘Can your team change the way the Antares website works for my case?’
‘What do you have in mind?’ I asked.
‘I want players to actually ask questions. Type them into the website and then get appropriate answers.’
‘OK’ I said and greenlighted the idea. We started play-testing – players were able to bring in suspects or witnesses and ask them questions about these particular topics. The questioning changed from reading a pre-constructed transcript into a real discussion with the suspect. Play-testers loved the idea. Portal Games Digital team who was supposed to code it and upgrade the website, not so much.

New rules
In Dig Deeper, Rob introduced a few new rules and, by a few, I mean, the exact perfect amount. Not too much, so players won’t be confused and, at the same time, enough to make everybody excited about playing this new expansion.
It’s 70′, it’s Starsky and Hutch, it’s police chases. Here is the Gun It rule – players can spend Authority token and ignore the time cost of moving in the city. It’s a one-sentence rule, and at the same time, so much theme enchanted in it and added to the game (you turn on your sirens and slam on the gas pedal!). Rob added few more small tweaks to add flavor to the game, searching libraries or turning in witnesses. With just a few well-designed rules, he changed Detective: Modern Crime Boardgame into Detective: Starsky and Hutch edition!

The conclusion
Having icons like Rob Daviau joining the Detective line is a game-changer for the whole series. It not only gives the game a new audience and exposure but also adds new ideas and approaches to the game system. We called this small boxes line ‘Signature series’ because it is what they – great designers – do, they put their signature on the game, their very own stamp.

Dig Deeper is a fascinating new take on Detective: A Modern Crime Boardgame and a great promise of what can be done with this line in the future! I tell you this. I have on my desk script from Mike Selinker, and yes, he puts his stamp on the game too!

The Library feature in Dig Deeper or why somebody can hate Rob

There are two teams at Portal Games HQ. There is team #RobIsAwesome, and there is team #IHateRob. I must admit that #RobIsAwesome team is much bigger. Frankly speaking, it consists of most of my employees. The opposition, the #IHateRob team consists of only Portal Games Digital, and after all those delays they procured in the past months, I can openly say that I am, and I always was in the #RobIsAwesome team.

I need to give you some context, huh? OK, let’s get back to the beginning. I think it was Gen con 2019…

***

‘The case takes place in Boston in 70′ and…’ Rob does the pause, looks at me and continues ‘…and there is no Antares database. It’s the seventies. People used libraries back then.’

Libraries. Books. Mystery. Lovecraft. I love Cthulhu. Man, I miss Call of Cthulhu games. Maybe when I get back from Gen con, I could… Rob notices he lost me on ‘library’.

‘Ignacy, focus!’

I am back. ‘Yeah, library. I get it.’

‘If players need files, need dig deeper, need to find something in the archives, they’ll go to the library.’ he smiles ‘And then they wait!’

‘You mean?’

‘You fill in forms, and that’s it. You wait. You get an answer the next day. If you are lucky…’

***

Rob introduced to the Detective the delay mechanism – you fill in the form, you put a library token on the time track, and you will be able to get the result a few hours later when the time token meets it.

It’s smart, it’s thematic, it changes the game and the way you approach the case, as players need to think ahead and follow different leads without some important data that they’ll get a few hours later from the library. With Antares and modern crime it was so different. The change in pace here was significant.

I loved the idea, I green-lighted it. And then Portal Games Digital entered the scene. You’d think if the mechanism is called ‘delay’, they’d love it.

Nope.

***

I don’t want to spoil too much. I don’t want to ruin the surprise and the experience, so let me be very subtle here and just tell you this.

Rob is crazy. Instead of giving us files that players find in the library, he wrote the whole damn dialog lines with the library employe. Each time you visit the library, you have different dialog scene, different things happen additionally to the basic file you were looking for. Just a small spoiler, look at this:

Gary, the librarian, is a hippy. Ponytail. Beard. Glasses. He’s reading a book called the Master Dungeon Guide or something. You mentally note to keep an eye on this guy. Gary looks at you with a twinkle in his eye. “Hello adventurers! Here to pick up your loot? That’s my word for ‘research’.” Gary is a hippy and a nerd. Great.

So Portal Games Digital was ‘very happy’ to code all these dialogs, write the whole code to recognize which dialog you already saw, which one to show next and all that jazz. You can imagine.

***

And that’s why, dear detectives, Portal Games Digital is in #IHateRob camp. That’s why the rest of the company is in #RobIsAwesome camp. And that’s why I have no doubts – I can already produce tees with the logo. Because as I said, I have no doubts – you’ll be in the #IloveRob team.

The Platform

That day we stayed longer in the office. I decided to give Marek ride home.

‘I missed Detective.’ he said when we were in the car. A few hours earlier, they were play-testing a new case for the game. It’s been more than two months since the previous one. ‘I really missed it.’ he repeated silently, staring through the window.

Marek’s honest and surprising words struck me deeply. That evening, when I was driving home, I was thinking about the future of the game. Detective is a very unique design. It’s a board game; you invite your friends, you have your goal, there are rules, and you win or lose in the end. And at the same time, Detective is not a game; it is a system, it is a portal to tell different stories. To some extent, it’s closer to Netflix, Disney+, or HBOGo than to a board game.

Detective is a platform that my development team uses to invite you to experience amazing stories. And that being said, what’s a long-run future for the game? We are not tired of watching new movies, aren’t we? We are not tired of watching new TV Shows, and, I guess, we won’t be tired of experiencing new stories presented through the Detective platform. The ideas I have for new campaigns, the scripts I have on my deck with new plots and stories are wonderful, and I can not wait for you to discover them.

If there is more gamers like Marek, people who love stories, the future of the game is safe. Detective will be your platform for years. That day I was late at home, but I was in a great mood.

The next day I came to Marek’s desk and told him how he inspired me with his words the day before, and I told him how I see the future of the game and how motivated I am and with excitement, I asked him what he thinks about it.

‘I don’t know, man.’ – he shrugged his arms. ‘I just said I missed Detective.’

My beloved hobby!

Boardgaming is a ton of work. I look at any of these free weekends, and oh my God, I’ve been busy all day long. 

Let’s discuss last weekend. It all began with the new Arkham Horror expansion that I got. The suitcase, where I keep all my cards said enough, no space dude, you need to come up with a new solution. 

So I came. I took all cards from expansions I already finished and moved them to separate boxes – lucky enough, I had these “Return to…” boxes that FFG has in offer for crazy dudes like me. 

It went smoothly, and I looked at my collection with pride. That was time spent well. Then I decided to move all cards from all other campaigns to a new place and keep in the suitcase only the one expansion I am playing at the moment, along with tokens, rulebooks, and other stuff, and by stuff I mean all these custom bits I hide in the box.

I was in a pretty awesome mood already, so when I finished moving all the cards to a new place, I put on my desk all cards for my characters and looked at the deckbuilding options I was postponing it for some time already. This Saturday seemed like a perfect time for that. So I built a brand new deck for one character and then brand new deck for the other one.

Fun time.

Then some sleeving. Then reading rules for the new expansion. OMG, this new scenario – exciting stuff. I was about to play it, but it was a late-night already. Well, it turned out I spent the whole day preparing. 

***

As with every hobby, board gaming is about everything except the actual hobby – that is, playing the game. We spend countless hours painting minis, we spend nights building new decks, we customize our games, and we spend day and night on BGG reading about the hobby. 

The percentage of time we spend on actual gaming versus the time we spend on the hobby is not in favor for game time. 

My wife Merry makes fun of me when I spent all weekends preparing for playing the game. And I guess, many of you are just like me. We smile and we have one honest response:

“Didn’t play the game. Had a blast anyway.”