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.

First Martians: will they differ?

It was late at night, a few minutes after midnight. We’ve just finished the fourth game in the Lost signal campaign and we were preparing for the final episode, for the fifth, closing scenario. I was busy setting it up, while most of the other players went to get something to drink and took just a few minutes’ break before the final game. Two of us stayed at the table, David and me. He was helping me with the setup, and we were talking about the game.

After these four scenarios we were both impressed how the story developed, how the astronauts’ situation has been changing for the last two days of our playtesting and how many things happened in the HUB during this time. It was a crazy roller-coaster.

David asked: ‘How much will the gameplays of different groups differ?’.

That was a very good point. Let’s talk about this today.

The stronger story you put into the game, the more interesting and better-designed turning points and twists you want to incorporate, the less freedom you leave for the players’ choices. That’s the main difference between books and board games. A writer creates an immersive story and puts the protagonists into it, while keeping a full control over every single decision a character makes. A designer creates conditions, a framework for the immersive story to emerge, then gives it to the players. They come and act like a bull in a china shop.

Now that board game designing trends change and players’ expectations evolve, we see more and more board games drift towards story-driven experiences.

The most famous last year’s examples are surely Pandemic: Legacy and Time Stories, but of course we’ve been seeing story-driven games for years. My personal favorite of all time is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, but we definitely should mention Tales of Arabian Nights, the upcoming This War of Mine, or my very own Robinson Crusoe (especially with the HMS Beagle campaign expansion).

The question remains legit for First Martians as well as for every other game I mentioned. Can we solve Case #1 in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective in any different way? Can two or three groups have truly different experiences? Different paths to victory? Can we solve a Time Stories mystery in a few different ways? Can two groups of players discuss the game after they’ve finished it and tell each other two different stories?

The real question is actually different—the question is: ‘Do we need to have unique experiences?’.

What would you choose if you had a choice: to have a freaking awesome story to discover but one that is pre-constructed to some degree with the main twists and plot points already fixed or to have a slightly less immersive story and experience but to have a full control over every single moment of the game and have no pre-constructed plot?

I put strong plot points into the campaign, I design epic events that will throw new tasks and quests at the players. They are scripted, they are the plot points, they are my huge story elements. At the same time I shuffle a ton of random shit into the event deck, hundreds of cards that will surprise the players. In Scenario #2, every group will face a sandstorm that will turn off the solar panels for the whole scenario. It’s scripted. One group, though, started this scenario with a destroyed oxygenator (a result of them playing Scenario #1), the other had a seriously sick astronaut in their HUB, the third one had a very low food supply because of a previous scenario’s pest.

The plot point remains the same, big and epic. The details, the scenery, the conditions—they differ. Two groups will, hopefully, tell a different story that took place within the framework I prepared for Scenario #2.

It’s hard. It’s like combining fire and water.

As always, I am super eager to hear your thoughts on the subject. Is pre-contructed immersive story good or bad? What do you think about Time Stories and its scenarios? Would it be a problem for you if you knew that a different group played exactly the same way? Is having only one way to solve a Sherlock Holmes case a problem for you? Have you ever thought about it when you played the game? Have you ever felt that playing a game with scripted events is just like reading prepared stuff?

Give me your comments. I need them. I need your feedback on the subject. Thank you.

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!

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.

Inseparable brothers

In the latest #askboardgames show I answered a very interesting question about keeping my motivation high during a long process of designing a board game. In fact, this question is not only about being motivated and focused this whole time. It’s about much more than that. It’s also about frustration, despair, and being stuck with no idea how to fix the damn prototype.

I had that feeling again only yesterday. It was another test of First Martians. Another test game when everything works smoothly, everything goes well, and yet I know the game is missing something. My testers says the game is great, but I know it’s bullshit. There is something wrong with how the gameplay works. Something I cannot name, something I cannot identify, but I know there is a problem. I am pissed off. I am playing another game, everything works, all mechanisms function well and it just drives me mad.

Don’t fucking pretend you are finished. Don’t try to look awesome. You suck. You are a bad game. I won’t publish you.

It’s not that late, sometime about 10PM but I feel like I am done for today. I am so frustrated I cannot focus on anything. I don’t want to read a book. I don’t want to watch a movie. I don’t want anything. Angry and frustrated, I go to bed. This day ends early and in an extremely bad manner.


It’s Friday morning. I‘m standing next to my desk with a cup of hot tea. After yesterday’s test session, the prototype is like a battlefield. I look at it with anger. I think about Robinson and I try to find the mysterious thing that is missing here in First Martians. That final detail, that invisible something that makes a difference.

And then it hit me. In a split second I can see everything clearly. I grab a piece of paper. I note it down.

And then I smile.

Despair and pure happiness. Every designer’s inseparable brothers.

edited by Piotr, thank you!



This is what I do

At some point she – out of nowhere actually – says something like: ‘This weekend we played Robinson, me and my family. We had a great time. My mom was so excited that she was standing next to the table, because she just couldn’t sit still. And you know, she is not a gamer, she never plays board games. We won. I know, I know, we played a few rules wrong, I double checked the rulebook after we finished the game. We had an amazing time together, though. It was great.’

This is my oxygen. This is why I work. This is why I stay up till 1AM cutting out prototype pieces and trying to playtest the shit out of this mess. This is why I have the strength to struggle with a prototype that is not working the way I want it to work. This is why I will trash bad ideas and look for good ones over and over again. This is why I am ready for sleepless nights and for long weeks of bad mood when I can’t find a solution and the prototype is not working.

I am ready for all this mess.

Because at the end of this struggle there is a family somewhere out there that will have a great time together.

And this is my oxygen.


edited by Piotr, thank you!

I am tired of boring rulebooks

[warning: this post contains strong language. If you don’t accept such language, please, don’t read this post, visit me next week when I’ll have a new article. Thank you and sorry for the trouble.]

On Monday I posted a short article explaining how the Neuroshima RPG book came to life. It’s sort of a preface for today’s article, so if you have a moment please, head to my other blog post and read it. It’s a 3minute read, a really short story. It’ll give you a good background for today’s article.

Link to Monday’s article.


There were plenty of reasons why the Neuroshima RPG was a tremendous success. It was because there was no other post-apocalyptic game on the market. It was because of its rich and immersive world. It was because of a huge marketing campaign I created.

And it was because it read like no other book on the market.

Let me just give you a few examples.

How did we describe the Abilities of Player Characters in the Character Creation chapter? More or less like this:

You need this to be high to shoot well. If you can’t shoot, you’ll die. You need this to be high because you will need to escape from ruined buildings that have just collapsed, or to drive a motorbike and try to escape from mutants. You need this to be high or you’d better start creating a new character because this one is already dead.

You had better focus. There is death [to be found] in every corner of the ruins… in every bunker, old shelter… everywhere. If your perception sucks, you’ll wake up with a gun next to your stupid head and ‘boom!’ will be the last thing you’ll ever hear. Have too few points of Perception and you won’t even see that fucking tomahawk that is coming to cut you in half.

Yeah, sure, invest in Charisma you dumb-ass. It’s super helpful when you are surrounded by 10 pissed-off villagers who want to kick your ass and your ammo is gone. Yeah, sure, I bet Perception will save your ass when you need to interrogate this ganger to know when his gang is going to attack your hideout. Let me just ask you one question. Have you ever hear of a dude who dodged a bullet when he had a gun next to his head? Because I tell you this… I did hear about a guy who was able to convince people to put the fucking gun away.
So low Charisma? I don’t think so…

Sure, you might be agile like a gorilla. You might have the perception of damn Jessie James. You might be a charismatic bad ass like Tommy Lee fucking Jones, but you’ll end up dumb as shit if you don’t invest in Intelligence. Guess, what…

And it went on and on in that manner. Every single sentence in the book was written for the player, and by saying “player” I mean a gamer who loves RPGs, who wants to create the best character possible and he wants to enjoy this process. Lots of jokes, lots of meta-stories, lots of bantering with player so he knows that we – authors of the book – know what we are talking about.

It’s not [merely] a boring rulebook that just includes all the how-to-play rules. It was an amazing, engaging, funny guide that told players how to survive in the world of Neuroshima and how to create a cool character. This is true for how we wrote the whole Character creation chapter and  this is true for how we wrote the rest of the book.

A chapter describing Europe in the Neuroshima RPG? It goes more or less like this: “Europe, mate?! I have no fucking idea what’s 10 miles away from the shithole we are in now and you ask me about Europe? Are you kidding me? There is no radio, no TV, no Internet, and you want to know about Europe. What’s the next thing you’ll want to know? What’s my opinion on the weather on Mars? Wake up, dumb-ass. No one knows a shit about Europe.”

And that’s all about Europe you’d find in the rulebook. That’s how we rolled back then.


I’m writing about the Neuroshima RPG because I strongly believe that the revolutionary approach we made regarding the language in this book… the way we wrote it… was an extremely important part of its success . Players loved to read it. Players immediately got engaged in the game and its world. Players would – they really would! – quote the book like some movie one-liners. They were posting ‘the best of’ quotes and sentences from the book. It was a blast for so many players.

Board game rulebooks are a whole different animal. They have much more in common with technical manuals for your new DVD player than with RPG books.

And yet, I’ve been struggling lately with the idea of making them more reader / geek friendly. I wonder what if instead of writing: “Each player draws 7 cards, chooses one to keep and passes the rest to the player on his left. Players repeat this process until every player has one card remaining. This card is kept along with all previously chosen cards.” I would just simply write: “Draft 7 cards. Friendly advice – choose the best of them and then crush your opponents.”

Wouldn’t it be cool to read rulebooks that are fun? Rulebooks that provide important information but don’t spend the time on explaining every stupid detail we all know? I mean, do we really need to read sentences like: “Put the board in the middle of the table so every player has a comfortable reach.”

I don’t know.

I have a well-earned reputation of a guy who was involved in extremely terrible rulebooks. I know that. I messed a lot. I am probably the last person who should talk about improving the way we write rulebooks. And yet, yes, I am struggling with this topic. And yes, I am trying a different approach. And yes, I want all of us to have better and better rulebooks.

I might try doing something crazy with the 51st State rulebook but before I do this, I’ll probably post some fragments on BGG and ask you guys for your opinion. Would you be interested in telling me that I should or shouldn’t take that route? Would you like rulebooks to be fun and engaging to read or you just want them to be extremely precise and you don’t care that they are boring as shit?

Please, give me your thoughts. Meanwhile, I’m going back to experiment with the 51st State rulebook…

Edited by Piotr, thank you.