Are you designing game? You better have Vlaada Chvatil in your testing group!

Czech Republic is close, so when friend of mine recommended me this small Czech convention that took place 3 hours car drive from Gliwice I didn’t think too long. I took my wife, my daughter, I took Robinson and off we go! It was March or April, spring time, great time for nice weekend in Czech. This is a beautiful country as I heard!

Certainly, I didn’t see much of Czech country. I didn’t see Czech at all. I spent two days in games room playing Robinson Crusoe and Convoy. But my wife said country was nice. She went for a small trip when I was playing…

Anyway, at some point when I was looking for new players to play test Robinson, Vlaada Chvatil appeared in the room. One of players asked him to join test game. Vlaada looked at me, looked at Robinson and said: „OK, let’s play.” We began.

The game was hard. Players quickly got wounded. Few times they were very unlucky. Because of wounds they started to loose their character’s skills (when you got some level of wounds, you were loosing skills) and they looked like in despair. Since 4th turn Vlaada started to complain.

‘We are going to die. We won’t make it’

I was in good mood. The game was tough, they really needed to fight hard to survive on the island. I liked it. ‘Stop complaining, fight. Do your best!’ I told Vlaada.

5th round. They got another couple of wounds and again lost some of character’s skills. ‘We gonna die next round’ said Vlaada.

‘Stop doing that!’ I said. ‘You need to fight. You need to do your best. You need to survive. Think, try to find solution.’ I insisted.

‘I do. But there is no solution. Game will kill us next round.’

Other players weren’t demotivated as much as Vlaada, they saw chances, they tried. Vlaada gave up. He saw that the end is close.

6th round. They are dead. Vlaada is right. They didn’t make it.

***

‘You should try harder.’ I said. 

‘Game has bad construction. We had no chances.’ Vlaada answered. He was thinking, watching cards, character boards, dices. ‘If I may suggest… Well, in my opinion you have problem here Ignacy. When players got wounded, they loose skills. This is bad.’ he said.

‘Are you kidding? This is awesome! It’s like Die hard! You got wounded, you are bleeding, you have broken leg, you feel pain all over your body, but you can not give up, you need to fight!’ That was exactly what I wanted. You got wounded, you loose skills, you have to try harder. ‘It is like Bruce Willis, right? Wounded, bleeding but still fighting back!’

‘Ignacy, it ain’t a movie. It is a boardgame.’ Vlaada replied. I don’t know if Vlaada likes Die Hard, but at that very moment, he didn’t look like he was a big fan of John McClane.

‘Vlaada, c’mon! It’s like in Die Hard movie! You know, Bruce Willis in torn shirt, lots of blood and fight till the very end. Bruce Willis never gives up. That is the feeling I want to have here in Robinson. I want you bleeding, suffering but still fighting for survive!’

‘It’s a boardgame. You are designer. Not director. Remember?’

***

‘There is a serious problem here.’ Vlaada said. ‘When you get few wounds, you loose level of wounds and you loose skills of your character.’

‘Yes, this represent that you are tired, hurt and you loose your abilities…’

‘Take the story aside for a moment. Focus on problem. You get wounds when you are in troubles. When situation gets tough. Whey you have problem. But the game is not helping. It is knocking you down. You got wound, you are in troubles and what is more, game takes your skill away. It is double hit. You need tools to get away from problems. But here in Robinson when you are in troubles, game takes away your tools. You get the point?’

‘Yep.’ I may be John’s McClane’s fan, but I am not an idiot… ‘But if character gets wound and there are no consequences, getting wound will not be problem! I need players to be afraid of wounds!’

‘It doesn’t work. This mechanism is bad. You are in troubles. You get wound and at the same moment you loose tools to scramble out of this shit. This is bad.’

He was right. He just took whole ‘wound mechanism’ and throw it to the bin.

I hate when people are right.

I took my prototype. I went to the room.

No, I was not crying. True John McClane’s fans don’t cry.

***

That night I didn’t sleep well. To be honest I didn’t sleep at all. Well, maybe two or three hours. Let’s face it – if Vlaada Chvatil says that your game has a problem, you don’t sleep. Right?

I spent few hours rewriting rules. Tried to find solution. I wanted players to be afraid of getting wounds but on the other hand I understood what Vlaada said about taking skills away. I changed levels of wounds that take away character’s skills. I changed skills, now when you loose them you don’t suffer as much. After few hours I had new set of skills, new levels and I was sure that now, when players got wounded, they will still have chance to fight back. But still, getting wound was bad, was something that players will try to avoid.

I caught Vlaada on breakfast. ‘Got minute for me after breakfast?’ I asked. ‘Yes. Actually I wanted to talk with you. I was thinking about the game last night.’

I showed him my notes. I showed him how I changed levels and skills. I showed him how I changed wound rules and consequences of wounds.

‘Is it ok? This is what you were talkin’ yesterday?’ I asked.

‘Well… It is step in right direction’ he said.

For all of you who don’t get it – ‘step in good direction’ is polite way of saying ‘Man, it sucks. Try harder.’

We talked about other problems of Robinson for an hour. Then I packed Robinson, Convoy, my wife Merry and my daughter and we drove back to Poland. My prototype was devastated.

So here is my advice for all of you – think twice when you decide to take prototype to Czech next time…

To be continued…

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Why I needed 3 years to discover Frozen City

In 2010 I designed 51st State. I was proud as a hell. It was a great game. I got great reviews, I got few nominations for awards, I saw people playing it on many conventions and having great time with it!I believed I designed perfect card game.

Year later I discovered that 51st State is not a perfect game. Year later I designed direct interaction rules for 51st State and that’s how The New Era hit the market. With direct agression 51st State was just awesome. I believed I designed perfect card game.

Year later I discovered that The New Era is not a perfect game. Year later I designed Frozen City and Production dice and thats how Winter hit the market. With Frozen City, Production dice 51st State was just awesome. I believed I finally designed perfect card game…

***

Leaders
Leaders? Players who played 51st State were complaining about them a lot. They are powerfull and player who have them have huge advance. If you are draw a Leader you are in better position that your opponent. Many gamers compained. ‘Leaders suck.’, ‘Leaders are unbalanced.’, ‘I play without Leaders!’

This is bad.

OK, let’s take a moment to look at the problem. Leaders are bad or distrbution of Leaders is bad?

I take all Contact cards and all Leaders put aside. I put them on special board called Frozen City. Every player can send ther a worker whenever he wants to have a new Leader. It is no longer random draw. It is no longer huge advance. Everybody can have Leader if he wants to. It is simple. It is obvious. Why it didn’t work that way since the vry beginnning?

The question? Why I am such a moron? Why I needed three years to discover it?

Production
It is first round. You play Merchants or Mutants and you have – almost – no chance to attach Location. Incorporating new Location cost you two irons, at the beginning you don’t have them. And no chance to have them. You play first round and you know you will not play a Location on the table.

This is bad.

It is last round, you have six or seven Locations with Action icon. Each of them needs a Worker, but you produce only 3 workers. Pitty. You were developing for an hour and now you are stuck. Half of your Locations will not work. It sucks.

This is bad.

In 51st State production is constant – every single round you get 3 Workers and 1 Resource but players needs aren’t constant. At the beginning they need iron to build Locations, then they need redevelopement tokens to change Locations, then they need hell of a Workers to make many Actions… Why not make Production phase different in every round? Why not make Production phase follow players needs? Why not give them additional Iron at the beginning of the game and additional worker at the end?

The question? Why I am such a moron? Why I needed three years to discover it?

***

Every year, when I finish my new design I am 100% sure that this is a perfect game. I see no flaws. I see no points where it could be improved. I see it as a brillant piece of work.

And year after year I learn something new. Every year I discover new stuff. Every year it turns out that I can do better.

Today I am happy to announce – without false modesty – that Winter is a perfect card game.

But to be honest I have a hunch I may want to change this statement next year…

Die Hard Merry

It was March 2011. I finally had rules for The New Era expansion. I had new cards and I was ready to test it. I came back from work, eat supper, say good night to kids and sat at the table with my wife, Merry. I needed to see how those new rules worked. We played.

Merry was playing terribly. Chaos on the table. No good decisions. No strategy. It was terrible and yes, I really mean it. I was tired after work and I was disappointed with Merry’s approach. At some point I just put my cards away and say: ‘OK, we stop. You are playing like moron. Thank you very much for such help!’

I was really disappointed that she didn’t want to help me with testing.

Merry however didn’t say sorry. She reacted quite the opposite. She exploded. Yes, woman do that.

‘What?! I don’t care?! I fake that I am doing my best?!’ and it was just beggining… ‘I am playing here with you though you didn’t even care to explain me rules! I didn’t play 51st State, remember? I don’t know what I am doing and I am desperately try to understand this damn icons! I don’t care?! Are you kidding me?!’

It always ends like that. Man is the one who is guilty. Man is to say ‘sorry’. So I did say sorry. I took my cards back. I spent 20 minutes explaining rules. We played again. Merry was playing really good.

That very first night of testing she felt in love with The New Era.

***

Since then Merry played countless games of The New Era. It can be more than 300 or 500 games. I have no idea. She is playing all the time. She was testing it with me. Then, when The New Era was balanced and I was really sick of it, she decided to find new players. And yes, she found them.

Are you going to visit Mr. and Mrs. Trzewiczek’s house? You will play The New Era. Merry will explain you rules and make you play it.

Did you invite Mr. and Mrs. Trzewiczek to your house for a nice evening? Yes, Merry will, ‘by accident’ have The New Era with her. She will explain you rules and make you play it.

Are you on convention? Merry is there too? She will hunt you down and teach you and play with you The New Era.

Boardgames club in Gliwice? Sure! Every single Monday she is there. Playing The New Era…

***

‘It has the same problem like Race for the Galaxy’ once she said. ‘You’ve just developed your state, you have great cards built, you want to finally start scoring big points, but the game suddenly ends. You have 12 cards in RftG, or 33 points here and that’s it. I want it last longer.’

She looked at me. ‘Could you…? Please.’

What a man can do? Can he resist that look?

So I designed ‘Winter’ expansion.

***

I changed pace of the game. Now it takes always six turns. Game is much more strategic now. You plan your actions for all following turns, you plan how to develop your state and you plan how many points you can make in that time.

It is so much satisfying. Or so much frustrating when you see other player is developing better, having better plan, having their combos working so smoth…

I moved Leader cards and Contact cards out ouf the deck and put them into Frozen City section – now it is no longer luck that decides whenever you have Leader or not. You just take him if you need.

I changed production – now it follows players needs, in every turn it changes a little bit, so players get additional workers, additional cards or resources. It gives them great possibilities to create new combos and develop their state.

I played many times Winter and I am proud of it. I tested it for few months and I believe it is great. But what is more, I saw Merry playing it hundred of times with people. She is die hard fan of 51st State line and every time she played Winter I saw in her eyes that this is it, this is the expansion that fans were waiting for. I am happy seeing that every time she plays Winter.

***

Writers sometimes, on the first page of their novel, write dedication. Something like: ‘For my beloved wife and kids’ or ‘For Jenny’ or whatever.

Winter is not only dedicated to Merry. Winter is designed for her.

What can I say. You, 51st State fans are lucky bastards. You have die hard fan of the game living with me. She will be forcing me to design new cards for next 20 years. Stay tunned 🙂

Poland has gamers

I may be wrong in today’s post. I may have not right perspective. But what the hell, this is my blog and I write here what I feel. And I feel and I think, that here in Poland we did a really good of a job and we enriched gaming hobby in past 5 years.

***

From my perspective it all started in 2007, when Portal presented Neuroshima Hex in Essen. I remember words that Greg J. Schloesser said that year. It was: “I honestly don’t know much – OK, anything – about the gaming scene in Poland but if Neuroshima Hex is any indication I am impressed.”

Poland was a blank point on the boardgames scene. No gamer known anything about Poland and Polish games. With Neuroshima Hex we had a really good entrance.

Today Neuroshima Hex is worldwide known game, 138th place in BGG ranking, thousands of copies in gamers collections, six new armies published as expansions, more than 20 fan armies published as a PDF files. There are US, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian (Polish of course) editions, new editions are in progress. This is great what Neuroshima Hex achieved.

Two years later Portal published Stronghold, another great epic game that was widely discussed, was nominated for International Gamers Award, for Golden Geek, for Game of the Year in Poland and then was licensed and published worldwide by Valley Games. Without false modesty I do believe that designing Stronghold was an important for many players. There wasn’t such a game before.

We did a bunch of other games like 51st State or Pret-a-Porter, but Poland is not only Portal…

***

In 2010 Polish company – Rebel.pl – published K2, great family game about climbing the second-highest mountain on Earth. It is a great board game, with easy rules and engaging gameplay. It was designed by my friend, Adam Kałuża, who lives 20 miles away from me. This year Adam and his K2 was nominated for Kennerspiel des Jahres. It is a huge success. Many players now decided to try K2 and I believe they will love it, they will try to climb and risk a hard path or easy one, and will have to decide when to attack the mountain and when to rest… Simple rules, great game play. I do believe that designing K2 by Adam was adding a small gem to our hobby…

***

If we talk about gems… There is a guy called Edrache, my friend from Poznan, who in March 2010 started a tremendous project called Minimalistic posters. His geek list gathered 886 thumbs and this is not a surprise. It was a great stuff. He decided to design posters for different boardgames. His work was so great that Hans im Glück contacted Edrache and asked him to design 12 posters for their games. They published it in a form of calendar.

I was happy to have my games ‘postered’ by Edrache. Poster of Stronghold is hanging in passe-partout in my room. I love it. I have pleasure to know Edrache and play with him my games.

This 886 thumbs is quite a few. Edrache introduced to our hobby something that is interesting and new, something that enriched our hobby.

***

We have two war gamers who brought something really special last few years. Rober Żak designed Strike of the Eagle – it was published first in Poland and then licensed and published by Academy Games. I haven’t played it yet, but the reviews are quite clear – this is a great war game. The same situation is with Conflict of Heroes: Price of Honour – Poland 1939 co-designed by Michał Ozon and published by Academy Games. I haven’t played it yet, but it is on my short list to play, already on my shelf, waiting for free evening. These are great games from Polish designers. I am eager to play them.

***

And last but not least, my close friend Pancho. In 2000 when I was publishing RPG magazine Pancho was one of writers and he wrote a really great stuff for Warhammer RPG. When in 2010, ten years after he came to me, said that he founded Big Daddy’s Creations and asked for license for Neuroshima Hex for IOS I couldn’t refuse. We knew each other for a decade.

But, I am lucky bastard. Big Daddy’s Creations did one of greatest apps for IOS.

Neuroshima Hex is an example of best adaptation of board game for electronic devices. It was chosen as second best board game app by IGN magazine. They got iOS Game of the Year (GameShark), they got Best Card/Board game – runner up (TouchGen)… They did an awesome job.

And then they did Caylus. And now they do Eclipse. This is great crew from Poland.

***

In 3 weeks I do another edition of boardgame convention in Gliwice. We will meet together.

Pancho will bring me some screen shoots and stuff from Stronghold for iPad. I am very excited about this release. I now they will do a wonderful job with this app.

Michał Ozon will bring pre-production copy of CLASH: Jihad vs. McWorld. This is rethemed version of R.R.R. great abstract strategy game I brought from Essen two years ago and showed in Poland.

Adam Kałuża will show Cave, his new game about exploring caves. This is his great passion and hobby and as far as I heard, games is as good as K2. Once again Adam put his whole heart into this design.

I will show them my Robinson Crusoe, another take for epic game with strong theme. Like in 2009 with Stronghold, this time I again spent almost whole damn year working on it, and once again I believe I was able to put into Robinson’s box my passion, imagination, my heart. This is great adventure co-op I was dreaming about for years.

We will sit at the table, share our ideas and designs, drink a beer or tea, and have fun. We are a nice bunch of gamers. This year we will have good stuff for you. Again.

Yes, you can

We are preparing final files to print Robinson Crusoe. We are ordering wooden cubes, we are ordering cards, we are preparing tens of tokens. We are doing all that stuff that I really really hate. One mistake and man, you are in serious trouble. Robinson is a huge epic game. Reminds me Stronghold. Reminds me August 2009…

***

In August 2009, when we were finishing work on Stronghold every single day I was wondering what mistake we will do. I wasn’t wondering if we make mistake. I was wondering what mistake it will be. Oh, yes, I was sure that we will botch something. Nearly 150 tokens, nearly 100 cards, 60 pages long rulebook in 3 languages, more than 300 wooden pieces. It was a big production with ‘FFG’ impetus. It was like ride on rollercoaster. It was fast, exciting and it had to end badly. In August 2009 I had no doubts about that.

We were not FFG. In Portal there was 3 guys. 3 guys making biggest game in their lives. 3 guys scared as a hell. 3 guys that wanted to make good worldwide impression. 3 guys that tried to do ‘FFG production’.

We had no marketing department and yet we were on #1 place on The Hotness list on BGG for many weeks before Essen. We had no budget for advertisement and yet we had movie trailer presenting Stronghold. We had no copywriters and yet with our GDJ series we were one of the most discussed games before Essen fair.

Production of Stronghold exceed our possibilities. Not twice. It exceed it ten times. We were doing our best. And yet every day we were motivating each other to try harder. It was our life time moment. Our biggest game.

You, gamers, saw cover and board of Stronghold, you read GDJ stuff, you watched movie trailer, you were participating with this whole hype and buzz, and then, after Essen you were nominating us for International Gamer Award or Golden Geek but did you know that this whole fuss was done just by 3 friends?

Production department in Portal? Whole department – Michał Oracz.
Testing team? Oh, sure! Big big team! Rafał Szyma and Ignacy Trzewiczek (and bunch of our close friends).
Marketing department? His Majesty Storyteller Ignacy Trzewiczek
Artwork director? Michał Oracz, again.
Game development team? One Man Team – Ignacy Trzewiczek, again.
Movie trailer? Michał Oracz.
Essen stand design? Michał Oracz.
etc.

Yes, it was crazy. But we did it. There was no mistake in Stronghold. We did one of the most famous and respected games of 2009. It was awesome.

***

Today Portal is twice as big. We have 3 guys responsible for Neuroshima RPG and Neuroshima Tactics miniature game and 3 of us responsible for boardgames. We grown, but still – in a fact – we are bunch of few friends doing their best to bring you best games possible. This year we will bring Robinson Crusoe. This year again we have to exceed our possibilities. This year again we will do everything we can to stand next to FFG and other great publishers.

Have dreams. Have courage to follow these dreams. Do your games. You don’t need to have big budget. You don’t need to have 20 people crew. You don’t need anything except passion and will to fight. Fight for your success. It is at your fingertips.