Essen, behind the scenes

Day 0 – Wednesday, 8:00 AM. Hulk.
Have you ever been thinking how these all games get to publishers booth? I’ll tell you how – we bring them there. I may not look like Hulk, but this is exactly how it works – transport company like UPS delivers palettes of games to halls and then we need to unpack all these palettes and take all games to out stand.

1500 copies of Robinson. 1000 copies of Convoy. 1000 copies of Winter. 1000 copies of Dancer. 1000 copies of older stuff like Pret-a-Porter, The New Era, 51st State or Steel Police. Nearly 20 palettes all together.

And there are three of us to do that. Rest of the team arrives to Essen in the evening.

I may not look like Hulk but being honest, after day 0 and unpacking few thousands copies of games I am not sure why the hell I don’t look like Hulk. On Wednesday we carried few tons of games. I talked with Petr from CGE – they had nearly 10 tons of games. They don’t resemble Hulk neither.

Well, some publishers look little bit tired in the first day of the show. Try a guess why…

Day 0 – Wednesday, 2:00 PM. Willson.
At 2 PM I have demo of Robinson on BGG live stream. I go to BGG stand. I am a little bit nervous. Did you hear about stage fright? Yes, I did hear about it too. So I am there, but BGG schedule is torn in pieces. They have 30 minutes of delay. I have to wait and trust me, waiting is not helping. Waiting is making me nervous. Waiting is making me think about few things… That English is not my native language. That BGG has delay and I have to shorten my presentation because they want to lower this time problem. That in a few minutes I am going live. Worldwide.

Sophie from Z-Man Games appears at BGG stand. She greets me. She wishes me a good presentation. She will keep her fingers crossed. I tell her that I am prepared. I tell her that demo of Robinson will be great. I tell her to not worry.

There is only one thing I don’t tell her. I don’t tell her about stage fright. Yes, it just got me and hold me tight.

Finally BGG is ready. They give me microphone. We can start. We start. I am no more nervous. No more care about stage fright. I just do what I can do the best. I talk about my beloved Robinson. And this is live. And worldwide. Yes, it is.

30 minutes later we are done. My mobile starts to beep every few seconds. Many friends from Poland send me immediate feedback. They say it was good demo. I am happy. Few days later, when Essen is done I finally can watch it. Robinson’s demo happens to be – as far as I can see – most popular video from Essen 2012. 1800 views. Woow.

Day 0 – Wednesday, 5:00 PM. Z-Man’s crew
That day at 5PM demo guys from Z-Man came to our stand. We did teach them how to demo Robinson and Convoy. You know, doing demo during convention or fair is not a piece of cake. There is no space for improvisation. This something you have to prepare for.

We’ve spent whole week at Portal’s office training how to explain rules of Robinson in the easiest way possible. At the beginning it was taking us 30 minutes. Later that week we were able to explain rules of Robinson in 10 minutes. It was hard work and lots of trainings.

You need to cut off the crap. Cut off all rules that are not important at the very beginning. Cut off all unnecessary details. Be focused. Be clear. Be understandable.

You have to remember about one important thing – in Essen you will meet gamers from Germany, from France, from Italy, from whole damn world, gamers for whom English is not a native language. Your demo has to be simple. Your demo can not involve sophisticated vocabulary. Your demo has to be easy to understand for any one who can barely speak English.

We spent an hour with guys from Z-Man. We did teach them a special, dedicated for Essen set up for the game with the easiest events and cards, set up that makes demo easy. And we were lucky. Z-Mans crew was a bunch of great gamers. They picked up things in a second. I was sure we were in a good hands.

Later on I visited Z-Man’s stand to check if everything is going well and if they need any help. They showed me that they changed a little bit set up of the game. They start demo from second turn so the game speeds up from the very beginning. It was a great idea. They knew what they were doing. No need to worry. I was happy.

Day 0 – Wednesday, 7:00 PM. Everything is set.
At 7PM we were ready to go, 11 hours after leaving hotel, 11 hours of work without lunch break, dinner break, any break. Few thousand games were set at our stand. Demo of Robinson was live on BGG site. Z-Man’s crew was ready to present Robinson and Convoy.

We were tired. We were hungry. And yes, we were damn happy. Man, it’s Essen. We were waiting for that day for whole year!

Designing the game is not 8 hours job

I don’t know how other designers work. I don’t know if I am a freak among designers or I am a classical example. But I want to tell you how it looks. How it looked with Robinson. I spent last year on the Island. Really…


For me 2012 was year of Robinson Crusoe because for the last 12 months I only read adventure books. I really mean it. I read a lot of Julius Verne novels. I read all novels I could find about castaways. I read all books about survival I could find. I read also comic books and I – certainly – watched all movies I could find that were about deserted Island or castaways.

I read about tens of ways of making fire. I read about building shelter from almost nothing. I read how to find water, I read how to find north without compass, I read everything I could. I am – with no doubt – one of the most educated persons on this planet… in terms of castaways… 

If, by any chance, you are on the deserted Island, just call me. I will teach you how to survive. You don’t need to worry. 



For me 2012 was year of Robinson Crusoe because every single weekend of this year I had prototype of the game set up in our living room. Our home was literally paralyzed by Robinson. The game is big, it covered nearly whole table in our living room (I have to say – we have a big table). Because of Robinson we had mess on that table for every single weekend of 2012. I played it all the time, every single weekend, I drove my wife crazy with this tokens, cards, notes, dice with all that stuff that was living with us this year.

It was like part of our furniture. We had sofa, we had table, we had chairs and we had Robinson. It was part of our everyday life. 


2012 was year of Robinson Crusoe for my whole family. Kids have grown – it is a year of time! – and they saw and hear all the time about Robinson. They discovered this story. They played prototype with me. They played live Robinson all the time. They built real shelter in our garden (ok, I helped them a little), they spent countless hours in our garden hunting imaginary beasts, strengthening the roof or searching for treasures. With no doubt, if in 20 years I ask my kids about summer 2012, they will tell ‘It was time of Robinson’.


2012 was year of Robinson Crusoe because it really touched our every day life. We spent holidays this year by the sea and of course I had Robinson with me. Game was with us all the time. Sometimes it touched our life in a funny way. I remember one Sunday few weeks ago. I was a little bit late for a dinner, I entered the room, all kids were already eating and there was no plate for me on the table. I asked: ‘Hey, what about me? I don’t eat?!’

And I heard answer from 10 years old Nina: ‘You know, it is like in Robinson. There is never enough food… Today you get 2 wounds’ 

Woow. That was accurate… 


Next week I am in Essen. My adventure with Robinson ends. I finally leave the Island. I am finally free. I spent here whole year of my life. It was great but I that’s enough. It is time for you to visit the Island. I strongly recommend. This is a great adventure.

The Lesson

[This is third and last one article that was inspired by my visit in Czech this spring and playing Robinson with Vlaada. That would be good if you read previous ones (they are here on my blog) so you know what the story is all about so far.]

The game ended badly. One of characters is dead. It is game over and it is game over in bad style. They had no chances. They weren’t even close. It wasn’t a good game.

‘You were unlucky. Too many bad events. It’s adventure game, sometimes you have luck, sometimes you don’t…’ I say. Vlaada is searching throught decks of cards. ‘There are good and bad events in all of those decks?’ he asks pointing four decks of cards.


‘You can’t have good events, here, Ignacy’ he says.

Did I just hear him saying the thing he just said?

‘Are you kidding?! You’ve just lost because of lack of good events!’

‘There can not be good events in those decks. You have to get rid of them. You don’t control the game at this moment. Ignacy, you – as an author – have to have control over your game.’

OK, I have to admit it – at that very moment I wasn’t sure what he was talkin’ about. Remove good events? Why? Have control? How?!

I have, however, courage to ask. So I asked Vlaada to explain me. And he did.

‘How many good and bad events you designed in that deck?’ he asked pointing Event deck.

‘There are 40 good events and 60 bad events.’ I answered. ‘Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed IslandStatistically you will have 3 bad and 2 good events in first part of the game and then again 3 bad and 2 good events in the second part of the game.’

‘You have to get rid of all good events. Ignacy you don’t control it. This is bad. You can’t design game that you don’t control.’

Still no idea what he is talkin’ about. And still have courage to ask and learn.

‘Vlaada I don’t get it.’

He took one of my sheets of paper and my pen. ‘Look’ he said. ‘During set up you take five cards from this deck, right? You say that statisticaly there should be 3 bad and 2 good cards and that this is an avarage difficulty level, but…’ and he starter to write.

‘There may be:
5 bad, 0 good
4 bad, 1 good
3 bad, 2 good
2 bad, 1 good
1 bad, 0…’

‘I get it.’ I said.

‘You want game to be difficult, you want game to throw at players 3 bad events and you want the game to help them twice. That is your dream configuration. But math is cruel. There will be games like ours today, with 4 bad events and only one good. There will be even games with 0 bad and 5 good events. Players will play it, will have 5 good events, finish the game without smallest effort and then they will write on BGG that game is easy like piece of cake and boring and they don’t recommend it.’

‘You are right.’

‘You need to control the game. Now it is rollercoaster. You have no idea what will happen. It may be extremely easy. It may be extremely hard. Your intended configuration of 3/2 is only one of many possibilities. What about others? You have to remove all good events. You have to make it 5 bad events, 0 good events and then set difficulty of the game.’

‘Math sucks’ I said.

If I were Vlaada, I’d say that Robinson sucks but Vlaada is a nice person. He didn’t say that.

Conclusion? I had to take some about 120 events from 5 different decks and throw them to the bin. I needed to take control over my game and to do so, I had to trash 40% of cards I was designing over last 4 months.

I did it. Without a blink of an eye.

The Lesson? Few, actually.

Vlaada knows math.

Math is a bitch.

Game designers need to have courage to throw ideas to the bin and start right from the beginnig.

That what game design is – no mercy.

Are you designing game? You better have Vlaada Chvatil in your testing group!, part 2

I give Merry car keys. ‘You drive. I work.’ I say and I sit in the back seat. I have Robinson prototype all in blood and tears after Vlaada’s comments. My beloved game was hurt and wounded. I had it right next to me. I also had sheets of paper and pencil. And I had three hours of car drive to Poland.

I came to Czech to present my great game. I going back with game torn into pieces. Oh, yes, I am pissed off.

So we are going home. Merry is driving. My daughter Lena is singing. I am working.


The problem – if player gets wound and as a consequence he looses skill, he is unable to fight back and get out of troubles. But on the other hand, if player gets wound and there are no consequences, he is not afraid of getting wounds. And this sucks.

I look at the notes from last night, new rules I designed in the hotel room. ‘It is step in good direction…’ said Vlaada. ‘Good direction’… I’ll show you ‘step in good direction’…

I torn it all into pieces. I don’t want good direction. I want: ‘Ignacy, this is brillant’.

Did I mention I may be a little bit angry that day? Just a little.

I took clean sheet of paper. I wrote: WOUNDS. CONEQENCES. LOOSING SKILLS.

I crossed out LOOSING SKILLS.

WOUNDS. CONSEQUENCES. I need new approach. I need new point of view. Merry is driving. Lena is singing. I am working. And I am really pissed off.


It always starts from a story. So I am sitting in the car and I am trying to imagine myself on the Island. I am trying to imagine that I got hurt. I am trying to imagine what is happening…

I am unhappy. I am scared. I am complaining. I want rest of team mates know that I got wounded so they know I won’t be able to work as hard as I wish. They are sad, demotivated, morale drops down. I am complaining…

Morale drops down. Hmm… Interesting. When player gets wound morale drops down. That is a new point of view.

There may be track of morale. It would show if players are motivated or not. It is one track for all. If one player gets wound, it affects this track. All group suffers. He is complaining. He is crying. He is hurt and wounded. Morale of team goes down…

Oh, yes! I got it! Merry is driving. Lena is singing. I am pissed off but I am getting close to start being happy.


So what we have here? Solution fits the story – which is always very important for me – if player gets wound and another wound and another one at some point he starts to complain demotivating the whole group. I can imagine it. It works with the theme, with group of people on deserted Island. Spirit of the team. One for all, all for one.

What else we have? If player gets wounded, he doesn’t loose any skills. I disconnected skills and wounds. You have skills till the very end, no matter how wounded you are. So when player is in trouble, if he gets wounded, game is not kicking him down. He is still capable to fight back.

What else? If player gets wounded whole group suffers. It means that he doesn’t want to be hurt because all players will have troubles but on the other hand if he suffers, he can still play and act and don’t feel like being next to the game. He is not having this bad feeling of being excluded from the group. He is in the game till the very end.

The problem solved. Certainly, at that moment in the car I did have no idea how morale of team would work, but it was just small detail, right? The thing – shifting wound penalty from one player to whole group was the most important.


Few hours later I found something more. I can differentiate characters. Explorer will have only one level of complaining. He can gets six wounds in a row and he will say no single complain. He is explorer. He used to be in much worse shit. The cook? My dear, cook is moaning pig, he complains after he gets three wounds, and then he complains after two wounds and then again, two wounds and again he is grumbling. You better have food for cook, if he is hungry, he will get 2 wounds and then will lament like a slaughtered calf.

It is fun. It – in very simple way – help diverse characters. And it help feel the character, feel the theme, feel the story. One characters will decrease morale often, other not. Ones are moaning pigs, other are tough like John McClane. This is simple and this is fun. This is good.


When we arrived home I was relaxed. My game was repaired. Vlaada pointed problems in my game, I managed to solve some of them during way home and now my game was much better than 3 days before. When I reached home I turn my laptop, open BGG and sent geek mail to Vlaada. I was eager to once again thank him for his help. And very eager to tell him that problem is already solved.

Well, what can I say… I may not look like Bruce Willis. But when I am pissed of I am getting better. Just like John McClane…