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.

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.’


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!



Show some respect!

It’s October 2009. Outside Poland no one heard a shit about me. I am a random Polish dude with his first big game being released during the Essen Game Fair. One day I got an email from the BGG team. They were preparing the very first Essen live stream and asked me if I was interested in presenting my game.

Hell, yes, I was. I scheduled a 30-minute-long demo in front of a camera.

And then I start practicing.

I prepared the whole demo at home and I practiced, day after day. Like an actor preparing for the play, I practiced my demo over and over again.

When the Essen’s time finally arrived, I was scared as shit. My spoken English was really poor and I had never done a live recording before.

And yet, I delivered one of the best demos of that show. My video was viewed an astonishing number of times. The game’s buzz grew like crazy.
It’s October 2012. I have a big game for the Essen show. It is called Robinson Crusoe. The BGG team contacts me again about a live stream. I immediately reply that yes, I am interested. I schedule the date and time.

And I start practicing.

I prepare the whole demo at home. I go for explaining the essence of the game. I go for emphasizing the most awesome key selling points of the game. And I go further than that. I prepare a hand out, I prepare Wilson – a volleyball with a handprint just like in the memorable movie with Tom Hanks.

Once again I am scared as shit. Once again my spoken English is pathetic. And once again I deliver one of the best demos among those live stream videos. When we finish recording and the camera is off, John from the BGG team asks me to keep one copy of Robinson for him. He will pick it up right after he finishes all the recording. He is not going back to the U.S. without the game.

In the meantime I receive dozens of text messages from Poland with friends telling me that they watched the demo and it rocked.

Practicing like crazy before the recording clearly paid off.
For the past few days Eric Martin has been publishing his interviews from the Nuremberg Fair. No finger-pointing, but let me just say this – once again there were publishers who did extremely poor demos. Boring. Unprepared. Chaotic. No hooks and no selling points presented, no idea and no concept behind it.

Honestly, I don’t get it.

BGG offers you the best exposure you can ever get. It’s free advertising. It’s John and Eric flying to Germany with a camera and giving you a chance to present your game to audiences worldwide. They approach you and say: “Hey, we have a few thousands viewers and we’d like you to present your game to our community. Interested?”.

Can’t you prepare a good demo? Can’t you find in your company a person who speaks fluent English, performs well in front of a camera and knows what he or she is going to talk about? Can’t you show some respect both to the BGG and to their viewers by preparing for the demo? Is it that hard to do a good show and promote your game?

Why are you so lazy? I don’t get it. Really.
Anyway, when contacted by the BGG before the Nuremberg Fair I did the same thing I had done a couple of times before. I told them I was interested. I scheduled the recording’s date and time. And then I began to practice. I noted down all the major key selling points and unique mechanisms we had in Cry Havoc – one of our big Gen con releases. I prepared every minute of this monologue.

And then I did the same thing for my game about Mars. I noted down a dozen of real life examples from the First Martians gameplay to show all players who were anxious about the app integrated with the boardgame that this was nothing to be afraid of. In short, during a few-minute-long video I was shooting with one example after another, like a freaking machine gun to convince the viewers that the app and First Martians combine into the most immerse experience they’ve ever had in their boardgaming history.

You won’t believe how many tweets, emails and text messages I already received after this video was published. All of them said: “I was skeptical. Now I am excited.”

I did my homework. I took the time to prepare. And I won a few hearts over.

So my message to my fellow publishers today is – show some respect. Prepare your demos. Make me excited about the game you are presenting.


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