Hiding the raisins

 

(this is guest post by Michal Oracz)

Neither Neuroshima Hex nor Theseus, and especially not Witchcraft are particularly story oriented games.

I’m not even trying to delude myself that these tactical monsters will take my players plunging into a different world, full of metal corridors, blue fog and radioactive fumes. These are all tactical games, kind of logical, while based in my beloved worlds – the postapocaliptic Neuroshima and the claustrophobic space horror.

Does that mean I don’t like story games?

Just the contrary – I love them.

In the last decade we created a lot of roleplaying games in Portal, among these two major lines. First, Neuroshima rpg – a 400 pages long rulebook and 23 expansion-books. All of these together with the anthology of short stories makes more than three thousand and five hundred pages describing the world of Neuroshima.

This universe has nested board and card games such as Hex, Convoy, 51st State, New Era, the Polish edition of Resistance, as well as a tabletop war-game called Neuroshima Tactics and a computer game Neuroshima Apocalypse.

Our second big rpg title is Monastyr, a dark fantasy game set in a world at a breakthrough between the age of knights and the age of industrialism. This world is ruled by xenophobia, populated by extremely intolerant and permanently stirred nations that form an anti-pagan alliance. Where the second part of the world is still filled with the hated magic. It’s a world divided in every aspect: religious fanaticism against rational cynicism, the pope against the emperor, union of men and technology against the world of magic, the underworld against the surface world, humans against the other races. For Monastyr we created 8 expansion-books and an anthology of short stories. Also the boards game Stronghold was set in it.

This is what we did for a dozen or so years. That was our job, hobby, passion. We created worlds, stories, we worked on characters and locations, events and threads, factions and challenges.

And this is where I feel best.

Most of my unfinished drafts and board game projects are mostly all kinds of adventure-story games, sometimes very weird ones.

Somehow, don’t ask me how (well mostly by coincidence) only my strictly strategic games were published so far. And so when you take Hex’s manual in your hand, or any of the expansions, you may under an impression that it was written by a robot.

I assure you, I’m not a robot 🙂

Using the space that Ignacy has given me on his blog, I’d like to sneak in a handful of curiosities; they will be a little hermetic and will concern the story that is hidden in or behind all of my tactical, board creations.

You must know that factions in Neuroshima rpg are very closely related to one another and are not as divide as in the board game NS Hex. A random example: Borgo. Mutants on the board fight against Moloch, in the world of Neuroshima rpg they kind of do the same but not really. Mutties often paranoid respect any kinds of technology, you can stumble upon whole altars raised from old engines and devices. Many mutants consider Moloch to be their god. To be honest Moloch is indeed their creator because in NS mutants are not an outcome of radiation nor magical anomalies, instead they are the effect of Moloch’s genetical experiments. It is Moloch that creates new species of a post-human, capable of existing in a completely devastated world. They are bred in terrariums that look like Moon’s landscape – desolate. Nobody knows why, since it was Moloch that initiated the destruction of the entire human civilization and took control over what remains. Naturally as authors of Neuroshima rpg we know perfectly well why but we left it hanging in the corebook as one of the few unanswered mysteries of this world. Moloch created many species of mutants, it’s armored convoys spread them all over the continent. Mainly in the proximity of the Mississippi river – the most noxious area of them all. As to Borgo himself – a charismatic cyber mutant, he rallied some a part of the mutants under his banner – hatred towards mankind.

Oh, yes. The factions they do mix – and it’s visible almost in every aspect of NS Hex.

The newest expansion for Hex is the Mississippi faction (as usually stripped of a complex story that can be found on the pages of Neuroshima rpg). We will find many mutants in the grounds adjacent to the Mississippi river because the river it Moloch’s main testing ground for new species. One of them being the Sharrash rats – independent but despite that they do a good job protecting the underground roads near Moloch’s borders. These mutated rats can also be found solo, for example in the area of Mississippi. Since humans are particularly distrustful towards mutties, that don’t look like homo sapiens, the mutated rats never take of their masks. Of course their looks are not exactly those of a normal rat, they are more like the batfaced vampires from the movies made after the year 2000. But hey, it’s better to keep your mask on, especially with a face like that.

And now a curiosity: well among the Hex’s Mississippi you can find one of the Sharrash rats – I’m curious if you can recognize him.

How about another piece of the Mississippi story? In the manual you one can encounter a strange rule called Dead Breath. When both armies will go down to zero during the battle, Mississippi wins. Why? Naturally to get rid of the unresolvable draw in the tournament rules (while using the tournament rules almost every draw is resolvable).

But what is it about story wise?

Dead Breath is a disease that made its first appearance in the area of Neuroshima’s Detroit and changed the city into a closed fortress. This disease changes people into bloodthirsty – let’s not beat around the bush – zombies. Where did come from? Who, one day, delivered its source in a metal container to the border area of the ruins of Detroit? And why was it opened? By whom? Officially it’s not known. All fingers point at Moloch and yet one of its sick experiments, aiming to prove something, to check something. Why in that case a unit that draws with Mississippi loses? Since for this faction a draw is actually a win? And why is this form of winning called – Dead Breath. Precisely, it’s a suspicious relationship, isn’t it?

In many places of the Hex there are resins hidden and they are very no more no less a kind of hermetic references to the world of Neuroshima rpg.

Does this introduce anything to the game? Absolutely nothing.

Why are this story based ‘winks’ in a game like Hex? Absolutely for nothing.

It’s just additional fun during the process of creation. Creating game, even such tactical monsters, should be mainly based on fair fun. For example a fun game of hiding the raisins.

 

PS. I just can’t wait when my new game comes out, since I have this feeling that the constant discussion about Hex, Theseus or Witchcraft is starting to sound with an echo of a bothersome mantra 😉

About randomness and luck in games

…or why I didn’t throw out randomness from Hex and Theseus?

(this is guest post by Michal Oracz)

 

A warm, spring evening. You’re sitting comfily in front of the screen reading a game review. There’s a picture, a title and five blocks of text.

Scrolling…

At the end of the review there is a summary:

Rating: 8/10
Pluses:
– Beautiful graphic design
– 90 plastic figures = money well spent
– Innovative mechanics of city development
– Theme and humor
– The whole thing weighs over 5 kilos and makes a pleasurable sound when shaken = money well spent
Minuses:
– Non-standard card size
– Randomness
– No interaction
– The game is for 2 players only
– Play time: 10-15 minutes
– Player’s age: 12+
– The box is red and black

 

No, it’s not a summary for Her nor for Theseus, they don’t have figures, boxes are lighter and interaction level is at 200%. This is a summary of some nonexistent game taken straight from Narnia.

The question is different: when did you notice that something was wrong with this whole summary? Was it the game time or the player’s age or the red and black box? If so, not bad.

But maybe it was earlier, where randomness and lack of interaction were mentioned as minuses? Really? It’s hard to believe since we’re used to treating randomness and lack of interaction as obvious defects and evident mistakes in games.

Who didn’t hear about a „stupid, random game”?

I personally like a bit of randomness, which even may – focus here! – influence the result of the game!

Sometimes I’m asked if Hex wouldn’t be better off without the random element. If everything would be in front of the player and accessible from the very beginning, turning the game into a real contest of the minds. Similar situation takes place with Theseus. Hmmm…

It is said that Theseus is a difficult game. The rules are very simple but during the game itself you really need to flex your brain in all directions to put all that you got into a game winning, asskickin’ combo machine. Phew, tough sport. Is it good? No. In commercial sense it is absolutely a flaw. But there is something instead. Theseus is very fast, experienced players can deal with it in about 20-25 minutes. Secondly all games are unique, each time there are different combos on the board composed from different cards and in different locations of the game. Finally: Theseus includes an element of RANDOMNESS. It’s not major but it’s enough – same as in Hex, you simply don’t know what will come next to your hand, that’s it. But IT IS THERE.

Oh yes, the short play time and the random element were kept in the game as a painkiller for the general brain consuming factor of the gameplay.

I wanted to make a game that would involve a huge amount of brain work while thinking about all these combos yet it would forgive the player the mistakes he makes. So that if you lose you wouldn’t leave the table feeling your brain is somehow worse than that of your opponent’s. So that you could always cheer yourself saying: This time you had some luck, let’s see how you’ll do in the next game. Let’s play again.

As a player I hate to lose because my brain was worse than somebody else’s. There surely are people who enjoy such level of competition. But I’m not one of them.

Adding the element of randomness to my games is not a result of tests, nor demand of the players, nor even a fashion. It’s the effect of the player I am, of what I enjoy in board games and of what I don’t enjoy, of what annoys me and of what I miss. Many players love to engage in heavy games with no randomness at all, logical and ruthless. I unfortunately don’t, I’m a different type of a player. I wrote earlier that I try to be honest and polish the gameplay while feeling it 100%, so I design games as if they were for myself. It’s the easiest way for me to evaluate the fun that comes from the gameplay. I’m not starting to design a complicated eurogame only because they are appreciated and a popular genre. I won’t make a game for kids only because it’s a huge and great target and a lot of players want to play with their little ones. I prefer to be honest as a designer and work only on what I know and what I feel. I like games with a well-placed and well-choses element of randomness, that’s why randomness will be present in my games.

Randomness, while anticipating the occurrence of new tiles or cards in the game, be it ours or the opponent’s, is also connected with a special type of emotion, totally different than the ones that we feel while anticipating opponent’s move. We know what may come to the opponent and what may come to us. But we don’t know when. We prepare a certain situation on the board, calculating in our heads the chances for drawing and playing more or less fortunate elements of the game in the upcoming turns. We create a flexible machine to overpower our opponent, we update it as the elements appear and we modify our plans. Sometimes we pray for a Bomb or a Sniper; sometimes we pray so that our opponent wouldn’t get a fast unit or a net-fighter or Move. We pray for him not to place the Duplicate or Safeguard. We beg our luck for the opponent not to draw Battle this turn! Not now! He got it… damn… Hurray, it’s a Bomb! I did it! A shooter, yay! I’ll close the combo! Phew, that was close, just one Push and I’m saved.

For the whole gameplay the player digests wishes and prayers in his mind, he keeps his fingers crossed and holds his breath. There is another game taking place in his mind, next to the board. Satisfaction and frustration occur, one after the other, anger and happiness. The gameplay is short and intense, the tactic is short-distanced so these emotions are also very temporal, the anger is very short and disappointment after a lost battle can be easily wiped with a rematch.

All this without feeling that your brain is somehow inferior because there always is light in the dark tunnel, a simple fact at our hand: “if I had the proper token back then everything would have been different. You were lucky!”. So what if luck or bad luck are just a minor element of the whole gameplay? What is important is the fact that we can always blame our defeat on fate.

Of course I don’t like „stupid, random games”. But I also don’t like ruthless, logical monster without the faintest trace of randomness in it. A minor and well placed element of fate is like a well-chosen spice. The game just tastes better.

The Terrifying Borgo

jaskiniamutantów_piofoks

(this is guest post by Michal Oracz)

The Neuroshima Hex factions are asymmetrical. They vary in terms of: mobility and attack strength, initiative, toughness, potential for clearing enemy units from the board, ability to control the board, ability to get out of trouble, possible combos or with the abilities allowing to blackmail the enemy and force him to declare Battle when the board is full and when it’s beneficial to us.

They also vary when it comes to how easy they are to learn and play, using their maximum potential. At the beginning some of them seem to be too easy, others too hard. They become equal only in the hands of experienced players.

When we sum up the statistics of both the experienced and the beginning players we will discover something not surprising at all: an army easier to master is the one that has more wins in this statistic. The problem vanishes in the long-term summaries of games because players are beginners for a lot shorter than they are veterans.

Borgo definitely bears the palm when it comes to terrifying players.

„I’m surprised Borgo’s balance wasn’t corrected in 3.0. Everybody knows Borgo is too strong and it’s a mistake of the Hex’s designers”.

I guarantee that never, in any upcoming edition will we change even a single tile in Borgo’s army. This faction is just the way it should be, it’s not even slightly too strong. It’s not too weak either – such voices can also be occasionally heard from players who have uncovered all of Borgo’s weaknesses and they feel overconfident.

What’s crucial in grasping both weak and strong sides of Borgo was included in the game manual:

Borgo is incredibly fast and can clear the whole board. It can cause a lot of wounds to enemy’s Headquarters when it gets close enough.

Meanwhile it is very weak at breaking through the protective wall around the Headquarters and the most effective attacks (Net-Fighter) are carried out by units that are rather defenseless, that need additional protection.

That’s exactly it.

This is where the truth about Borgo and its Achilles’s heel is. However, knowing this secret won’t change Borgo into a set of thirty-five useless pieces of cardboard. It’s still a fully functional, strong army.

So what should Borgo’s opponent know to feel he steps into the ring as an equal?

Let’s put things in order.

First of all Borgo’s Headquarter will most likely be placed at the middle of the board, which will give Borgo the six terrifying, hasted fields around it. This is when the knowledge of the less obvious Hex tactics comes in handy. See the tokens have more uses than just attacking or building combos, they can also be used to block certain crucial fields on the board. Should we flood these six fields with our own units we would rob Borgo of its haste.

Secondly if we cover all three fields in front of our own Headquarters, hidden in a corner of the board, and will NEVER trigger Battle in this game, Borgo probably won’t be able to get past to our HQ and won’t inflict any wounds. When Borgo activates Battle, it will at most remove some of the units defending our HQ, of course we will replace them just after this Battle in our own turn with new ones. Borgo’s only chance for scoring a hit on our covered HQ is a situation when a faster Borgo’s unit kills one of our defenders and in the next initiative turn Borgo’s Assassin shoots through the newly made gap. However Assassin’s initiative is 3 so the unit that takes down the cover must have an initiative of 4 or more and the shooter must be perfectly placed. Oh, and of course the shooter will only score a single wound on our HQ.

Nonetheless Borgo’s shooters, there are only two of them, are our number one target on the black list of Borgo’s units for elimination.

A Grenade can also make a hole in our wall, there is very little we can do against the instant tokens.

It’s time for a little digression concerning the Battles. It pays to remember that playing Hex often reminds a contest of nerves – it’s a game of forcing your opponent to invoke Battle. When the board is full the one who invokes the Battle pays a dire price: it’s always opponents turn afterwards and it is the opponent who gets to be the first to fill all the best strategic fields on the game board (for example resupply the defensive wall around the HQ or set up an effective attack). The one who possesses the potential assets to win this contest of nerves will often force his opponent to declare Battle and therefore gain the initiative. Such assets can be: a Bomb, a Sniper, a Grenade, a Net-Fighter, a Blocker, a Scout, a unit with armor, Movement or Push waiting in hand, all this depends on the situation on the board that led to an impasse.

Usually one of the players has the advantage – has more points or at least will have more points after resolving the Battle. You can be sure that this player won’t rush to declare Battle. The rule is simple. If both players will delay in this situation, the one with the advantage will simply win when one of the players will run out of tokens to use. So in most cases the situation looks like this: when the board if filled and only one empty field remains, the player who has the advantage won’t declare Battle and will only discard tokens in order to quicken the end of the game, meanwhile the player with a disadvantage delays with declaring Battle waiting for the token that will be a game changer for the upcoming Battle (like the earlier mentioned Sniper or Bomb). The winning player delays and risks; the losing player counts for a miracle and fearfully counts the time remaining until the end of the game.

Playing against Borgo, should you have at least a few points of advantage, cover your HQ and never declare Battle.

Third, thanks to its speed Borgo can, with time, take control over the board – meaning, after each Battle more of his units stay on board. We must remember about it. If there only is a chance to strike the unprotected back of the units controlling the board (such as the hasted Mutant or Claws) you have to go for it. Same goes to the possibility of a blow for a blow exchange if we have tough units at hand, so they will take out Borgo’s units even if they have lower initiative during the Battle.

Should you have at least a few points of advantage and your HQ covered, Borgo’s control over the game board is no biggie. You just have to last until the end of the game, just like a soccer team carefully defending a not-impressive but sufficient 1:0 score.

Oh and please remember that nothing clears the board like Moloch’s Bomb dropped on Borgo’s HQ.

Fourth thing, the Net-Fighter. It’s Borgo’s most dangerous unit – we can never make this fatal mistake and simply assume that the opponent won’t draw him next turn. Protecting our HQ, we can never allow ourselves to be so careless and leave an empty field near our HQ without even few quick-shooting unit’s targeting it from the neighboring fields. Placing our tokens we must assume that Borgo’s Net-Fighter will be set up there, paralyzing our HQ and dealing three wounds every Battle and possibly until the end of the game.

Summing up: don’t fall for the Net-Fighter trick, cover the hasted fields, gain few points of advantage, cover your HQ, never declare Battle, eliminate Borgo’s shooters. These are just the basics because the tactical and even strategic secrets of Hex are numerous.

Simple? Not at all. Borgo is a hard opponent even if we know its weak sides. It’s hard as any army in the hands of an experienced player.

However it’s high time to grow out of the fear of the blue color.

PS. In one of the upcoming episodes I’ll look into a similar case concerning Theseus, to be more precise concerning the Fire, a terrifying card of the Marines faction. Similarly, with pleasure, I’ll tell you more about other terrifying tiles from Hex, for example about the Outpost’s Mobile Armor or the Moloch’s Bomb – and about other strong and weak sides that you’ll be better of knowing about 😉

PPS. Thanks for all the propositions for the name of the Theseus’ robot faction! For now we are calling it Bots, it worth to say that during the polishing phase the army broke into two completely different factions: the first being the cunning and greedy A.I., which does whatever it wants to the Station, second being the heavy, armored, crushing machines that will roll over anybody like a tank. Both factions are being developed simultaneously (for now) but soon one of them will send the other to the waiting room, we will see which one it will be 😉

Sci-fi is childish

monastyr (5)

[this is guest post by Michal Oracz]

 

On one of the forums I’ve recently encountered a very curious thread, where gamers discussed how it’s often the case that the theme of the game repels them from even giving it a try. The discussion was dominated by hating all kinds of fantasy, horror or sf.

Many voices declared that they will never play a game in which there are zombies, space ships, vampires or elves. The only exception they allow is when such game reaches the top of all rankings, then and only then can these very serious people stain their gravity – to simply check out if under these silly clothes there is something noteworthy enough for them to participate in this child’s play.

Is it really the case that so many board game fans hate fantasy?

Something is not right here because when you look at the BGG’s ranking around half of the games in the first fifty are pure fantasy.

Why so many enemies than? Do they think of sci-fi as flippant?

I checked few threads ahead: the same people wondered why so many other people, who know nothing about the world of board games, think of it as childish, that such people look on board games having in mind the image of Snakes and Ladders. They wondered where all that ignorance and aversion comes from. Well isn’t that a similar situation?

Honestly sometimes I am flabbergasted when on a convention I hear my board games buddy doesn’t like fantasy. How could I have missed that? Do I assume that all board game people are also sci-fi people? I guess I do, completely unknowingly…

I partially understand the problem. For example a macho-guy want’s to play with his prettier half. If he doesn’t want to be seen as a nerd (nerd = a child with a beard – author’s annotation) taken directly from X-Files, he will think thrice before taking out a game with dragons or vampires in it. I am dangerously approaching the gender topic and I might get it in the neck but it is a fact that on conventions, forums and through my own eyes I see that: it is the fairer sex that hates sci-fi.

Fortunately there is a large percent of the notable exceptions (I salute you with the vulcan gesture, live long and prosper!) Luckily my second half included!

Coming back to our macho: it is a lot safer to put an economical game with some historic setting on your table. It’s serious as fit for adult people.

Maybe our potential co-players are a whole family, together with its mature members? Or we are playing with colleagues from work. The serious kind of work. We persuaded them for a weekend with board games. I think I’d hesitate myself thinking whether should I introduce them to this hobby through a gateway game with aliens and wizards in it.

You know how it is. Yes I play but only historical games. The serious ones. Logical. Optimization oriented. Space adventure games? No, never. I grew out of these a long time ago!

Don’t grow out of everything, too many people do. Sci-fi is an ability to look at yourself, your situation and your surroundings from a distance. And as you might know it’s easier to notice all that is hidden without a proper perspective. A useful tool, really it is.

It might be the case that I am under my own illusion. As Portal Games, from the very beginning and for many years, we created role-playing games, obviously sci-fi at that. Neuroshima (post-apocalypse), Monastyr (dark fantasy), De Profundis (horror), Frankenstein Faktoria (horror) etc. Only later did we enter the world of board games.

RPG and fantasy were always bound by an inseparable bond. It was so for many decades, right now it is starting to change. Still 99% of RPG games are sci-fi, space opera, horror, post-apocalyptic, gothic punk, fantasy, steampunk, primal punk etc. Something non fantasy? No way.

After so many years spent around fantasy role-playing games it’s not hard to forget yourself, to forget that we don’t design board games for the same people. That some PLAYER might hate fantasy. I will try to remember this in the future, it will save me the shocked expression on board games conventions.

I promise myself that, in the name of breaking with habitual behaviors, I will finally do something non sci-fi.

Meanwhile on my designer’s desk there is a new add-on for Theseus – Robots. Have you heard about Saturn 3? 2001: A Space Odyssey? Moontrap? Death Machine? Robots have quite a history in claustrophobic sf horrors.

And to celebrate it I’m going to the cinema tonight to watch Robocop, yet another remake of the 80s classic. Quite a few good ones lately, even though they lack all that red-violet reflectors and hectoliters of fog…

Watch out for the telepaths!

[this is guest post by Michal Oracz]

11 AM, according to the plan I’m having a short break for a cup of delicious coffee while working on a short text about the new edition of Witchcraft. A couple of completely new versions of the game lay in front of me on the table, next there are two secret projects for 2015, opposite them new add-ons for both Theseus and Hex.

I receive an email. I read it and all of a sudden the coffee is no longer delicious.

Today won’t be about Witchcraft.

Some time ago Ignacy wrote how you should always finish your game projects as soon as possible because even a small delay might cause it to be too late. Someone will do it before you. He or she will design an almost identical game and show it to the world first. All you can do then is throw your project into the trash.

It’s not hard to become paranoid in this business. We constantly have these threats hanging above our heads: “move it man or it will be too late!”.

Such was the email I got from Ignacy.

Subject: „
Content: „I think someone already came up with your game.” And a link.

As you can imagine I felt my heart jumping somewhere around my throat.

Click. I start reading.

Suddenly the coffee was no longer delicious.

I followed the link that lead to a description of a co-operational sf horror, “Aliens” themed game that is being developed. Just what I’ve been working on for the last few months. Maybe it’s just a coincidence of theme and genre? Maybe Ignacy made a mistake? I read on…

The game begins in medias res, oops. Each player takes control of one of the crew members, has his hidden goal that is or isn’t the same as the ones possessed by others. The crew searches the ship, repairs the damage, avoids encounters with aliens. Instead of aliens there are markers indicating that something might be ‘over there!’– movement in the darkness, murmurs. The monsters have their own card and development and breeding mechanics. In the game we’ve got escape pods, self destruction systems, we can barricade the door, research alien remains, secure samples, use special ventilation shafts, negotiate with other players. And so on…

Oh well. I read till the end. EVERTHING is the same.

First thought: someone really did design my game. Not a very pleasant feeling.

Then a moment of clarity. Alright, let’s have another look at this description. Carefully, sentence after sentence, board game photos and then work-in-progress game components.

The longer I looked into it the more differences I spotted. But my feelings were still mixed.

Not long ago I wrote about how I design games that I would like to play myself. Only because nobody else designed them. So if somebody is designing my dream game why do I have this unpleasant feeling? Why do I keep looking for differences and similarities with a growing nervousness? And inside I pray that this other game would be totally different than mine?

Have I lied in the earlier entry?

Well, no. I didn’t. There is a difference when you find your dream game BEFORE you spend half a year of hard work and AFTER you do it, am I right? I sacrificed a huge amount of my time and energy on this game. I honestly pray that these two games will be totally different.

I know that maybe all those similar or identical elements are just a small part of both of these games and the thing that is most important might still be different. I am aware how small a part of my game all these similarities are those, that have turned my coffee into a mug of undrinkable mud. These are just a dozen or so pieces in a box that will contain more than a hundred.

Maybe there is additional work ahead of me to change my game in many places. Maybe I will have to throw out a bigger part of the mechanics as I will be the second in line. Tough luck, I’m ready. I still have some time for this and I plan to finish this project until 2015.

Finally I look at the pile of my game materials, on the board, the tokens, the notes and the cards. I look on the codex of the project, describing the most important assumptions to be put to life. This is the essence of the game. This codex is the quintessence of the character of the gameplay. If the games were to be identical they would also have to have identical foundations, identical proportions of adventure and tactics, simplicity and complexity, horror and heroism – and so on. The author would have to have the same expectations from his game as I have from mine. If this would be the case than I have a clone, I can relax and throw all my work to trash. From then on I would buy only this guy’s games.

One thing remains. Do I still remember why I started to make this game in the first place?

Why? Because I love this theme. Claustrophobic sf horror – my favorite genre since… forever. Instead of ripping through hordes of aliens – you sneak through dark corridors, check each spot of the spaceship with fear hanging in the air, listen to every screech of the metal floor. You check out the monitoring. You research samples. You don’t trust your fellow crewman. It’s a small territory with limited resources, unknown danger and no hope for escape.

On my list of all time favorite movies there are two hundred claustrophobic sf horrors.

So since someone else is designing a game in a similar mood – can I not see this person as a soulmate? He has similar taste and views on games. All I can do is to keep my fingers crossed for his game and as soon as it’s out, buy it because it seems that it’s what I’ve always wanted to play!

What is left for me alone is to make a completely different game – however I already know the games will share quite a few mechanisms – it has to be the best adventure, claustrophobic sf horror game that anyone can imagine.

Then all that I will have left to do is to finish Space Scream – role-playing game in an almost identical setting.

Half an hour passed. My morning coffee time is over and so are my doubts and temporary confusion. I’m going back to work because the goal is clear.

Can you steal your own idea?

[guest post by Michał Oracz]

 

Did you guys ever stole something from yourself? I did.

And so last year I insolently stole my own idea.

What can I say in my defense?

First of all it was an accident. I didn’t realize…

Yeah, so I sound like a typical thief.

Secondly, in game designing business stealing ideas is no big deal or so I heard. It’s not like MP3s or something, anybody can take whatever they want. So I didn’t press charges and you are probably wondering what’s all the fuss about?
Third of all, it’s not all black and white since I changed a few things and…

Wait a moment, wait a moment, do you remember that ‘golden’ rule about being truthful? If you have too many excuses it means that you don’t have any real ones.

OK, so maybe we should establish what is it that I actually stole?

Your Honor, it was like this: for many months, each day and throughout half of the night I designed, tested, polished, perfected and played my newest game. Sir, you might have heard of it, its the one taking place in a space station with space commandos, two alien races and a bunch of weird scientists.

At some point my work overlapped with another one, a certain project that really stretched in time. Finally got a green light and had to be finished.

The space themed game is Theseus, and the second project is Mephisto– a new add-on to Neuroshima Hex. I worked on Mephisto together with its author Michał Herda. And so somehow these two projects got mixed up a little and some of the solutions we used in Mephisto found their way into Theseus.

The first being the Quill, a super efficient attack as for Neuroshima. It hit’s anything that’s on the game board, no neighboring or line of sight required. You target a victim and it will surely be hit. The Quill emerges form under the ground and bang! It’s a hit. Mephisto really needed this. It serves as an inner balance tool so that the army won’t be too strong when it is next to enemy’s headquarters nor will it be helpless when it can’t get in range with it. Being a one soldier army forces nonstandard solutions.

Right, so where did this Quill come form? There was this card in Theseus, in the Aliens deck, which allowed attacking even when no Alien’s units were nearby. How does it work? Simple, the walls of a space station are filled with technical nooks, lockers built into the walls and such. Inside them, between cables and other devices all of a sudden an additional Alien jumps out and attacks. This card is called Hidden.

And so the Hidden found its way into Mephisto as Quill. Your honor, I swear this was an accident, I didn’t mean to!

The second shared mechanics solution are the Upgrade tokens.

Theseus is mostly based on upgrading your own cards the ones you were able to introduce into the game during your course of play – this is accomplished by putting upgrade tokens on cards. It can change a seemingly useless card into a raging behemoth capable of instantly winning the whole game. Of course Theseus rookies in their first few games don’t pay much attention to this mechanics, they are more focused on chaotic running about and inflicting some minor damage to their opponents. But when they grow bored with all the silly running tactics they start to look for the second or even the third layer of the game. Ignoring minor damage in favor of higher aspirations they discover the real power of Upgrades. Only then with one precise combo they can knock out any fan of running about. It’s one of many inconspicuous secrets of Theseus.

Coming back to Mephisto. One fighting token for the entire army is a huge threat for the balance of the whole game. If it’s too fast no one will stand a chance. Should it be too slow it won’t stand a chance itself. If it’s too strong it will always win in a hit for hit situation. If it’s too weak it will loose. If it will be too mobile it can escape from any trap set by the opponent. If it will be too stationary it won’t get a chance to get closer to enemy’s headquarters which will remove itself to the far end of the game board from where it will attack with immense fire power.

So what should this token be like, so that everything will work?

Well it should be variable. It’s the player who should decide whether he currently lacks fire power, mobility or speed. When you combine it with the ‘short blanket’ syndrome it provides demanding yet satisfying choices to be made during the game. With the seemingly useless Incubator tokens the player creates something that can equalize his chances and make up for his current shortages. This way Upgrade tokens from Theseus sneaked into Mephisto, of course they were previously modified to fit in with Neuroshima’s mechanics. And so Mephisto became Theseus’ cousin.

Is that all?

Nope. Many more cheeky thefts took place here, both sides. Above I’ve mentioned only two examples.

But… maybe you know about which Theseus’ cards and Mephisto’s (and generally Hex’s) tokens I’m speaking about?

The player and the designer

[I am happy to present you guest post by Michał Oracz, author of Neuroshima Hex, Witchcraft and Theseus. This is his first appereance and as far as I know, not the last one!] 

I’m a little bit ashamed of that but I must admit I like to play my own games. Whether it is Neuroshima Hex on my smartphone or with real life opponents. Theseus I can play alone or with another player, three players or even in teams.

Witchcraft is the only game I don’t like to play. Because Witchcraft is unforgiving, a slightest mistake you make may cost you the whole game. The bitter feeling that I get after loosing will not be satisfied merely by saying ‘I had no luck with the tokens’. Unless I play solo – than Witchcraft is as pleasurable game as any other.

The eagerness with which I set up Hex or Theseus is suspicious… even for myself. I sit in front of my PC and struggle with some work that has temporarily burned out my enthusiasm and a whole container of inspiration. Hmm, a short break wouldn’t hurt, right? Maybe, a little bit of java power and a short Theseus/Hex match? I wonder what combos I’d put together this time?

I go the other room, I set up the game playing for both sides and in less then a quarter I’m playing a short game sipping my coffee. I always regret that there is no ‘save’ option in board games, especially if I come up with something nasty, so nasty it won’t probably happen again.

Borgo’s mutants totally immobilized by Hegemony’s troops.

The Scientists who are able to found a complete Space Hospital by the end of the game and in one turn they come back to their initial health level.

A construction that has an overpowered automated defense system that takes down enemy troops with just one shot, blasting them from the surface of the Space Station.

A contraption capable of controlling enemy units so that they behave like puppets, barely alive after a short time while the rest of them slowly drift in the outer space.

That’s why I have these urges to stop what I’m currently doing and spend some quality time with Theseus or Hex.

Can no notice what’s wrong with that?

I do. It’s just that I like to play my own games.

It is very, very, very unprofessional. Extremely unprofessional.

A designer should hate his own games. After hundreds of tests and months of creating he should feel sick whenever he sees his game.

It’s not the case with me. And that’s bad.

I like to play my own games because of one simple thing: I created them for myself. To my own liking.

If I were a professional game designer, I would behave like a pro from the very beginning. I would choose a solid theme that would be to almost everybody’s liking. I’d check how popular are the tags connected with are in the game search engines (Lovecraft and Zombie, my forever beloved motifs that became beloved by everybody else and with their popularity they always come up on the top!). I’d read blogs, forums and keep track of the trends and currently discussed mechanics. I would cruise between the testers I know and ask each one of them for an honest opinion, provided I’d be able to pin them down to a board game, whether they would be complete board game noobs, experienced players, extremely experienced authors or publishers.

If I were a professional game designer… See that’s the problem, in the first place I’m player of my own games.

I don’t start a project by saying ‘Hmm I’d like to create a game in which…’. I start with ‘Damn, I’d really enjoy playing a game in which…’.

As you can see theses are often very egocentric impulses.

In my head I have a collection of my dream games, the problem is that some of them are still only in my head. Although I keep on looking through the thousands of existing games some of my dreamed ones haven’t been yet created. It’s the case with board games, computer games and role playing games and that’s a pity because I’d really like to play them!

This is the only reason for my designing. More often than not I delay my normal work and I struggle with yet another version of my dream games, one of my ideal ones. I remake, correct, switch elements, start everything from the beginning because I know what should wait for me at the end. I’m a player with a very abnormal taste and I look for the perfect game for myself. To be more precise a few specific games. I know exactly what is it that I’d like to play! But there is no simple road leading from this knowledge to a ready-made game, at least I haven’t found it.

Finally the magic moment is upon me: here it is, I did it! I’ve got it! I created a good game, I can put my name on it, I’m 100% sure! It’s good enough! Here Ignacy have a look at it!

What does this mean? Just one simple thing. I forgot myself. I started to think as a pro designer: I prepared a solid product, let’s start the tests, let’s talk with the publisher, everything will change but the first stage is complete. Now it’s time for the other stages. Oh I know how it works, I know all too well. For twelve years we’ve been publishing games from the initial idea to a ready-made box. I took this path many times, through the smallest details, tiniest step in the long process of professional game designing and product preparation.

No. Stop. Not this time. It’s just a moment of weakness. I forgot myself and stopped searching for my perfect game. It will be just another title among thousands being published worldwide without any progress to my one true goal.

And than I-the designer get spanked and go for a sick vacation and the I-gamer come out. Merciless, demanding with an atypical taste. A player looking for a game ideal for himself. The best possible game for himself in a given genre and specified theme. I love retro-fantasy, horror, postapocalypse and most of all the claustrophobic sf horror taking place somewhere in space.

Than I look upon the prototype I’ve created once more. Is it for me? Will I loose myself in it and play without even a short break? Will I never get bored by it? Is there a similar game I’d like to play more than this one?

I picture myself after buying a box with this game inside. I’m a consumer. Player. I open, I read the instructions, I start. With a token or a character. I’m trying to see what can be done. What challenges await me, what limits and possibilities. Is this the real thing? The one I’ve been searching for? Can I really do all that I wanted with it? In it? If not that it needs a remake. It needs to once again land on the designing desk.

Is this a good method?

Should everybody share my gusto it would be. But they don’t.

This is a very bad method for professional game designers.

If I was ever to become a professional game designer I’d change it immediately and threw it into the deepest reaches of some long forgotten void. I would instead close the first stage of the designing process as soon as possible and head on to the next ones because this is where the final product is born.

Meanwhile I create games for myself and I keep searching for those few ones about which I’m sure how they should work and look like.

When I will finally repair, correct and polish these few projects that are being grinded all the time I will than have my perfect games. And I will play them all the time.

 ***

Is that all?

Nope. There is one more thing. I’d like to apologize to you all, my good folks. I lied to you. I totally lied to you. A bloggers privilege, isn’t it?

I’m not an exception among game designers, as I’ve tried to persuade you a moment ago.

Each designer has his own code, own style. Often a very particular style, like the one that music bands sometimes have or like a painter, illustrator or a writer.

Each and every designer creates not for everybody but for the people who share his gusto and expectations as far as games are concerned. At least at the prototype stage.

We all try to make the perfect game, the best one that is in it’s genre. And we all do what we can to accomplish that.

Each one of us prays for the largest possible number of players with the same taste. To become the Family Feud master of this domain, it’s not important what you know, it’s important that you think like the rest. So that when somebody asks you on a street: ‘what does a cow drink?’ you will answer with all confidence: ‘milk!’. Just like the majority.

If by some miracle your taste will be similar to the taste of a large number of players, if the later stages of testing and the publishing compromise will only adjust the game to be even more suitable for the demands of an even greater number of players and the game will be a spectacular success, no designer will cry because of this.

Even thou I’m searching for my ideal games, I wouldn’t cry as well.