Otters from Clay Crucible Games is on Kickstarter!

Hello RPG fans! Yes, my board game blogging is primarily over at my board game company site now, Clay Crucible Games. But I thought you, my original readers, might be interested enough in this topic to justify a post here as well.

My first Kickstarter project is live! It’s a kid-friendly card game called Otters. If you have kids who enjoy card games or you just think otters are adorable (as I do), please take a look and help me get the word out there!

Michael Iachini
@ClayCrucible on Twitter

NaGaDeMon 2013 Part 3 – Otters – hiring a graphic designer

Recap: I’m participating in National Game Design Month (NaGaDeMon) again this year, making a kid-friendly card game called Otters. Previous posts:

Graphic design

Now that I have the mechanics of the game and the art for the cards, I need good graphic design to bring it all together. Specifically, I need:

  • Card layout
  • A game logo
  • Card back illustration (incorporating the logo)
  • Rules layout (probably on a card)
  • Maybe a box design (depending on how I make this game available for purchase)

For Chaos & Alchemy, I worked with a friend who is also a professional graphic designer, Bree Heiss. You can see my post about her awesome graphic design work on the game here.

Fortunately for her, Bree now works for Wizards of the Coast, doing awesome graphic design work on their games. That’s a bit unfortunate for me, though, since it means I need a new graphic designer.

Making my choice

I put out a call on Twitter, asking if anyone had any recommendations for graphic designers. Several recommendations came in, and I followed up with three different designers.

Ultimately, I decided to hire Dane Ault. You should definitely check out some of his earlier work over on his portfolio page.

By Dane Ault

By Dane Ault

Dane has done a lot of work for kids, and I love his aesthetic. I almost regret that I’m using photos instead of illustrations on Otters, since Dane’s illustration work rocks. But, since I want to get this game out before the end of the month, the photos are much faster to work with.

Want to play Otters?

While the graphic design isn’t finished yet, Otters is completely playable right now with my own (kinda crappy) graphic design. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can download a PDF with the cards (and my experimental “rules on one card”) right here! If you’d like some more detailed rules (which would probably help), you can download the rules here. I’d certainly love any feedback that you might have, especially if you try Otters with kids.

Photos by Paul Stevenson, Steven Zolneczko and Tambako The Jaguar

Photos by Paul Stevenson, Steven Zolneczko and Tambako The Jaguar

I’m aiming for a game that’s interesting for adults to play (with some strategic choices), but accessible for kids, probably ages 6 and up or so. Try it out, and if you have some feedback (good or bad), drop me a line at


Michael Iachini – Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Kickstarter projects I’ve backed: Number 21-30 (chronologically)

Continuing my series, I’m going through the Kickstarter projects I’ve backed, in chronological order, noting why I backed each project, what level I backed at, and how it turned out. Part 1 of the series, covering the first 10 games I backed on Kickstarter, is here. Part 2 is here.

21. Geek Love – September 2012

Why I pledged: Folks I follow on Twitter were talking about it. They had a fairly inexpensive e-book option. And hey, who doesn’t love a geeky dirty story?

My pledge: $20 for an e-book

How it turned out: I got the e-book, and I’ve read a few of the stories. They’re pretty good! Probably not really worth $20 on the merits, but I was happy to support some good folks in the geek community, so I’m fine with it.

22. d20 Monkey First Edition – November 2012

Why I pledged: Because I love the d20 Monkey web comic, and its creator, Brian Patterson, is an all-around awesome guy. (I met him at GenCon 2012.)

My pledge: $25 for a copy of the book, plus the e-book version.

How it turned out: Freaking awesome! I devoured the e-book as soon as it arrived, and I treasure my physical copy.

23. ArmorClass10 Shirts for Gamers – October 2012

Why I pledged: Because I didn’t own enough geeky T-shirts, and I thought some of the shirts they were offering looked cool.

My pledge: $34 for two shirts.

How it turned out: Great! I like my “Shirt +1: Protection from Nakedness” shirt, and my wife’s “Boobies of Distraction +5” is awesome, too. My shirt was a little on the small side, but I’ve lost about 15 pounds since I got it and now it fits perfectly. The shirts even arrived in time for Christmas last year, so I could give my wife hers as a surprise gift.

24. Dice Rings – December 2012

Why I pledged: How could I not? These rings looked so cool. And did you see that video? Worth the price of admission all by itself.

My pledge: $15 for a ring, although I upped my pledge later to get three rings (I believe this put me at $42 or something like that).

How it turned out: Awesome! I got a ring for myself, one for my wife, and one for my brother-in-law. Everyone loves them. Plus, the Crit Success guys were at Denver Comic Con and I was able to exchange my ring for a slightly larger size (it fit my left ring finger, but I decided that I would prefer to wear it on my right ring finger, which it turns out is slightly larger).

25. Nothing Personal – November 2012

Why I pledged: I wanted to support Tom Vasel (one of the designers of this game) because I have gotten so much enjoyment from the Dice Tower podcast.

My pledge: $45 for a copy of the game

How it turned out: Funny story. I actually backed this game while knowing next to nothing about it; I just wanted to support Tom. Once I actually heard what the game was about (months later), I realized that it was a game that I wouldn’t enjoy playing. So, I used the BGG marketplace to sell my copy (unopened) for the price I paid to someone who actually wanted it. I guess that’s a win!

In addition, my backing of this game indirectly led to Chaos & Alchemy getting published. (You can find that story here, in the pre-pre campaign section.) So, extra win!

26. Fate Core – January 2013

Why I pledged: Ten bucks for the e-book version of the game – why not? I had enjoyed what I had seen of FATE from my earlier backing of Race to Adventure, which came with a free e-book of the FATE-using Spirit of the Century, and I liked it.

My pledge: $10 for the e-book.

How it turned out: Awesome. I loved reading this game, which I did in fact read cover to cover. I have yet to play it yet, but I want to. Hard to beat that for ten bucks.

27. To Be or Not To Be, That is the Adventure – December 2012

Why I pledged: I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, and I like Shakespeare. Plus, the campaign looked hilarious. And the price was right.

My pledge: $25 for a copy of the book (plus e-book)

How it turned out: Fantastic! I spent several days going through the e-book version, and it was genius. Seriously, this book is hilarious; I highly recommend it. The physical version rocks, too. Go buy it!

28. Guilds of Cadwallon – December 2012

Why I pledged: I’m not sure, really. Something about the game intrigued me.

My pledge: $40 for the game plus the board and box.

How it turned out: Um, I haven’t actually played it yet. I guess that means it didn’t turn out great, since I haven’t been motivated enough to get the game to the table. Hm.

29. Rebuilding EN World – February 2013

Why I pledged: I had gotten several years of enjoyment from EN World, and I wanted to support them. I also wanted the e-book version of the first five ZEITGEIST adventures.

My pledge: 25 British pounds (about $40)

How it turned out: Well, okay, I guess. I had forgotten that I backed this, actually. I guess I should go see if I can download those adventures. But either way, I just wanted to give one last thank you to EN World; I never go there any more.

30. The Dice Tower 2013 – February 2013

Why I pledged: As I mentioned with Nothing Personal above, I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of the Dice Tower, so I wanted to say thank you.

My pledge: $1, to say thank you.

How it turned out: Well, they’re thanked! Part of the reason I didn’t pledge more was that I had already supported Tom with Nothing Personal, and I had also paid for a bunch of advertising on the Dice Tower when I was planning to run my own Kickstarter campaign for Chaos & Alchemy. Still, I figured I might as well toss a buck in the virtual hat.

Scorecard for projects 21-30 that I backed:

  • Number that were actually funded: 10/10
  • Number that were eventually delivered: 10/10
  • Number that I feel were ultimately worth it in retrospect: 8/10 (the two exceptions being Guilds of Cadwallon and Rebuilding EN World)
  • Total money spent: $282
  • Money spent on not-worth-it projects: $80

What’s next?

As I mentioned in my last update, I’m at the point where I’m going to stop these recaps for a while, to give the next few projects I backed some time to catch up.

But I do have something interesting coming – a guest post from a friend of mine who decided to go through this same process for the first 10 projects he backed on Kickstarter! I’ll post that soon.

Michael the OnlineDM

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Kickstarter recap: Chaos & Alchemy

Edit: This post originally went live on September 5 before it was finished. I fail at post scheduling sometimes. Sorry about that!

The Kickstarter campaign for my first game, Chaos & Alchemy, successfully finished on August 23. Today, I’m looking back at the campaign to share what I’ve learned and to thank the many, many of you who signed up to help my dream become a reality

The numbers

Let’s begin at the end: How did we do?

Game Salute (my publisher, who was running the campaign) was looking for $5,000 in order to publish Chaos & Alchemy. We ended up with $40,761 and, even more exciting to me, 1,066 backers.

That’s an unqualified success in my book! How did we get there?


It’s worth noting the history of Chaos & Alchemy. I did a small (125 copies) self-published print run with black and white illustrations in mid 2012, which I sold through by last October. I then started planning my own Kickstarter campaign to fund full color artwork and a full size print run.

Example cards from first edition - black and white illustrations

Example cards from first edition – black and white illustrations

In preparation for that campaign, I sent copies of Chaos & Alchemy to several game reviewers and set up some advertising (primarily a video preview by Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower). I also got manufacturing quotes, started lining up illustrators, etc.

Then, Game Salute stepped in to publish my game. I no longer needed to worry about manufacturing and hiring illustrators, but the review copies and advertising would still come in handy (although I had to tell those folks to delay their reviews and ads, since Game Salute needed more time).

Also, having a hundred or so copies of Chaos & Alchemy in the hands of gamers who had bought the original print run definitely helped. I already had ratings on BoardGameGeek and some honest-to-goodness fans of my game out there. Most Kickstarters don’t have this luxury, but I can tell you that it helped.


It took about eight months from the signing of my contract with Game Salute until the launch of the campaign. The most important things that happened during this time were the new graphic design and illustration. Dann May did a great job with the former, and Enggar Adirasa is doing a great job with the latter.

Examples of some of the new cards from the Game Salute edition

Examples of some of the new cards from the Game Salute edition

20 of the 43 cards were finalized before the Kickstarter campaign launched, which was hugely important. Being able to show backers what the game was going to look like, even if it wasn’t completely finished, mattered a ton.

Game Salute had some more review copies of Chaos & Alchemy printed and sent them to more reviewers in preparation for the campaign.

They also figured out the manufacturing cost and the plan for pricing the game. My original print run shipped with 26 dice, but that was going to be prohibitively expensive for Game Salute. We would either need to have an unacceptably high pledge level to get the game, or lower the cost somehow.

I campaigned hard for the latter, and we ended up going with a “pass the dice” approach. The game would come with 10 dice instead of 26, which is enough if players pass the experiment dice and free success marker around the table rather than giving each player their own. I think this was the right choice, as it made the pledge level to get Chaos & Alchemy $25 instead of $30 or more.

I also sought input on the campaign page from people whose opinions I value, including the BGG game designer forum and the Card and Board Game Designers Guild on Facebook. I highly recommend doing this for your Kickstarter campaign.

Campaign launch

For launch day, I had arranged to take a day off work. We launched around 10:00 AM Mountain time (I live in Colorado), and I spent most of the day spreading the word.

I went a little nuts with my excitement on Twitter; I recommend not overdoing it (but people will cut you some slack if you’re just overly excited).

I announced the campaign on my personal Facebook page as well as the Clay Crucible Games Facebook page.

I updated the Clay Crucible Games and Chaos & Alchemy web sites to include links to the Kickstarter.

I thanked the BGG and Facebook designers groups for their help with the campaign page, also mentioning that it was now live.

I sent emails to people who would be interested in the game. I went with personalized emails for most of these, though I had a copy-and-paste email for the people who had signed my sheet at Denver Comic Con to be notified of the Kickstarter.

I kept checking the Kickstarter page itself, keeping a close eye on the comments so that I could answer questions. Same goes for BoardGameGeek; I made sure to chime in on threads where people were discussing my game, especially where there were questions I could answer.

I stayed in close contact with Game Salute about the questions that I couldn’t answer – namely, anything to do with money.

And I stayed up late to watch the campaign hit its funding goal on the first day. Huzzah!

Ongoing campaign management

As the campaign rolled along, I spent a lot of energy talking to Game Salute about stretch goals. We had some goals in mind, but I don’t think Game Salute was expecting to need them quite so soon!

The initial stretch goal plan was not well received by backers. Basically, we started adding extra dice to the game every few thousand dollars. This went over like a lead balloon.

Plans were revamped. $15K became the level to get a cool cube to mark the Free Success. $20k would come with upgraded art for the success / failure tracker card. $25k would get upgraded card stock.

Success Cube

The big one, though, ended up coming at $18k: the Enhanced Edition. See, I had designed the Substances expansion last year, and it’s a lot of fun. I know that fans will love it, and the only question was at what level it would become economical to make it available.

Ultimately, with the campaign mired in the mid-campaign slump, Game Salute decided to pull the trigger and unleash the expansion. This was important not just because it made more content available, but also because it gave fans a way to pledge more than $25 if they wanted to support Chaos & Alchemy (the Enhanced Edition cost $39).

This is a important point: it’s really useful to have ways for fans to pledge at higher levels if they want to do so. Game Salute is very opposed to add-ons (custom dice bags, premium game box, play mats, sleeves, etc.), which is one common way of creating premium pledge levels. The Enhanced Edition gave us this option without adding too much administrative complexity.

Gen Con

One nice feature of the timing of this campaign was that it was running during Gen Con. Game Salute had scheduled six Chaos & Alchemy events, which all sold out pretty quickly even though the Kickstarter campaign came way later than the Gen Con event sign-up period. I asked my players at the GenCon events what led them to sign up to play this particular game, and it was largely because it was something new and it sounded interesting based on the name and description. A few even mentioned the good ratings on Board Game Geek!

Ultimately, though, Gen Con didn’t make a huge difference to the campaign because no one was demoing it in a booth. My Gen Con was really about pitching my new games to publishers, not about Chaos & Alchemy.

Final days

The Chaos & Alchemy campaign ended the Friday morning after Gen Con. This meant that the reminder emails for people who were interested in the campaign but not ready to back yet would go out Wednesday morning after Gen Con.

Most Kickstarter campaigns get a significant boost in the last few days, of course. This is partly because of that reminder email – people who glanced at the campaign a few weeks ago will take another look, see the stretch goals that have been reached, and decide to get on board. I think the boost is also in part because of human nature – many of us are procrastinators!

Looking at other gaming projects, I was trying to guess how much of a boost we might get in that final stretch. I was estimating that 20% of our funding could come in the last 2-3 days.

As it turns out, the final boost was much bigger – we got about 30% of our funding in the last three days.

Kicktraq chart. Note the huge increase in the last three days.

Kicktraq chart. Note the huge increase in the last three days.

I think a big part of the late-campaign success was the $35K stretch goal that was announced near the end of the campaign: custom dice.

Blue Starry Dice

This at last was a stretch goal that people were really excited about, and I’m so glad we got them!


In the end, the Kickstarter campaign for Chaos & Alchemy was tremendously successful. We hit 800% of our funding goal and managed to unlock the expansions and the custom dice. My personal work is mostly done; I just need to finalize the design of the new Apprentices mini-expansion (let me know if you’re interested in playtesting!). I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished products in my hands – and in stores – next year.

Thank you so much to everyone who supported me!

Michael Iachini

Clay Crucible Games (@ClayCrucible on Twitter)

Pitching games to publishers at Gen Con 2013 – Part 1

Gen Con 2013 was wonderful! While I did get to play some games, most of the time was spent meeting people, and I loved it.

This was a “work” Gen Con for me; I was there mostly to pitch games to publishers. I did a small, self-funded print run last year with Chaos & Alchemy, which led to Game Salute picking up the game for publication. That has worked out great, so yay! (We’ve just hit the $25,000 stretch goal on the campaign with several days to go – please check it out if you haven’t yet!)

But in the future, I would prefer to not deal with self-publication. I want to be a game designer, not a game publisher. That means that if I want my games to see the light of day, I’m going to work with publishers and convince them to publish my games.

Today I’m posting Part 1 of my recap of my publisher meetings at Gen Con 2013, since this ended up being a LONG post. This part covers Thursday (a busy day!). I’ll post Part 2 tomorrow. (Here it is.)

Meeting 1: Pre-arranged large publisher meeting: Alchemy Bazaar

Months before Gen Con, I reached out to a large, well-known publisher to see if I could meet with them at the Con to talk about Alchemy Bazaar. This was a little out of my league, frankly, but I figured why not?

Alchemy Bazaar components

Alchemy Bazaar components

I had 30 minutes Thursday afternoon to meet with the head of this publisher in the publisher’s dedicated room at the Con. I really enjoyed this meeting, as it turned out. I was mostly there to pick the publisher’s brain on how they think about this sort of game. The publisher liked the core “worker movement” mechanic of Alchemy Bazaar, but did NOT like the randomness from the Ingredient Die and from the Action cards.

What I took away from this meeting was that different publishers are looking for different things. This particular publisher doesn’t like much randomness in games (which surprised me a bit, knowing some of the games they publish). Now, I could certainly tone down the level of randomness in Alchemy Bazaar. I think this would make for a less interesting game, but if I officially submit Alchemy Bazaar to this publisher, it’s a change I could make.

At the end of the meeting, the publisher said, “Once the game is finished, if you don’t find another publisher, come talk to me.” I realized that despite some criticism (delivered well, I hasten to add, not cruelly), this publisher is actually intrigued by Alchemy Bazaar. That’s a great sign!

Meeting 2a: Publisher Speed Dating: Everest

Thursday night, I had two hours at the Publisher Speed Dating event to pitch my games. I want to give a huge shout out to James Mathe of Minion Games for setting this event up in the first place (web site, Twitter, Facebook). This was the part of Gen Con that I was most looking forward to, and it was fantastic. Thank you, James!

From 9:00 to 10:00 PM, I was at a table in a medium-size hall (20 tables total, I believe), demonstrating my light cooperative mountain climbing game, Everest. This was for the “light family game” track of the speed dating event.

Everest game board

Everest game board

I believe at this point there were five or six publishers on the light game track (I think there were more in the 7:00 to 8:00 and 8:00 to 9:00 slots, but unfortunately I had a late-night time slot and some publishers couldn’t stay the whole time). They would spend five minutes at a table, hearing a designer talk about a game. At the end of five minutes, a bell would ring and the publishers would move to the next table to hear about a different game from a different designer.

Everest was very much my “secondary” game at Gen Con; I’ve been spending far more energy on Alchemy Bazaar. This is part, though, because Everest is fairly simple, so it didn’t take as much design work to make it a pretty polished game.

I was very energized giving these quick pitches. Five minutes is not enough time to actually PLAY any of these games, but it’s enough time to describe what the game is all about and why it might be of interest to a publisher. I usually finished talking about the game in three minutes, leaving two minutes for questions from the publishers. I highly recommend this kind of balance in a pitch; if the publisher is interested, they will want to be able to ask questions.

I’ll also note that the designers were asked to make sell sheets available for their games – a little one-page sheet that gives a publisher the important information. Here is the Everest Sell Sheet. This sheet also included my contact information so that publishers could follow up with me if they were interested in the game.

One particularly interesting bit during this process game when a publisher heard the first part of my pitch and said, “This isn’t the kind of game we’re interested in. What else have you got?” I mentioned Alchemy Bazaar, which I didn’t think would interest this publisher either – and it didn’t. But I then talked about an early work-in-progress design called Robo Battle. It’s only had three play test games so far, but it’s quite promising. This publisher was intrigued and asked me to come by his booth later in the con for a quick demo of Robo Battle. All right, then!

Meeting 2b: Publisher Speed Dating: Alchemy Bazaar

This was the “main event” for me, so I was sad that it was taking place so late at night (10:00 to 11:00 PM). The biggest-name publishers had already left by this point, but I still had about five publishers to talk to on the “heavier Euro game” track about Alchemy Bazaar. You can see the Alchemy Bazaar sell sheet here.

One highlight of this cycle of pitches was when one “micro publisher” (as he described himself; only one published design so far) sat down and immediately told me that he was at this event in part because he wanted to see Alchemy Bazaar. He already knew me by reputation and was intrigued by what he knew of the game so far. That was a fantastic feeling! He was interested in Everest, too.

Meeting 3: Micro-publisher follow-up: Alchemy Bazaar and Everest

My first follow-up meeting came immediately after the Publisher Speed Dating event wrapped up. The micro-publisher I mentioned above really wanted to see Everest and wanted to have a chance to try a bit of Alchemy Bazaar, so we stayed after the speed dating event to play some games.

This was a great meeting, even though it might not lead to anything. As it turns out, Alchemy Bazaar is a bit heavier of a game than this publisher was expecting, and Everest might be too light of a game. Still, the working relationship with this publisher was really good; we clicked well. We might end up working together on one of these games, but even if we don’t, we might work together on a different game in the future.

And since Everest is such a light game, I had made up a couple of extra prototypes without the bits (just the map, rules, cards and reference sheet), stuck in Tyvek envelopes, that I could leave with publishers who expressed interest. I left one with this publisher, which he appreciated; it sounds like his young son might enjoy this game.

Next up: Part 2!

Tune in tomorrow for more. And don’t forget to check the Chaos & Alchemy Kickstarter!

Michael Iachini

Clay Crucible Games (@ClayCrucible on Twitter)

Michael’s schedule at Gen Con 2013

Like many game fans, I’m going to be spending a bunch of time in Indianapolis this week at Gen Con 2013! I know that this is a bummer for people who can’t make it, but if you CAN make it and you want to catch up with me, here’s where you can find me.

Michael, wearing an awesome Chaos & Alchemy T-shirt

Michael, wearing an awesome Chaos & Alchemy T-shirt

Wednesday evening: Arrive in Indianapolis. Probably do some grocery shopping, check into the hotel (JW Marriott), pick up badges at Will Call, perhaps meet with some friends for a casual game or two.


  • 11:25 AM: True Dungeon: Lycans Afoot. My wife and I will be adventuring together. This will only be the second time that we’ve played True Dungeon, so I’m looking forward to it.
  • 2:00 PM: Dice Tower Designer Forum (schedule permitting). I’m just an attendee, not a panelist.
  • 3:00 PM: Video interview with The Spiel podcast at the Game Salute booth (#1735).
  • 4:00 – 6:00 PM: Chaos & Alchemy scheduled events (sold out)
  • 9:00 – 11:00 PM: Publisher Speed Dating. I’ll be demonstrating Alchemy Bazaar (primarily) and Everest (secondarily).



  • 10:00 AM: Alchemy Bazaar scheduled event (tickets available!)
  • 3:00 PM: The Doubleclicks concert
  • 4:00 – 6:00 PM: Chaos & Alchemy scheduled events (sold out)
  • 6:15 PM: Leave for the airport (sigh)

I do have some unscheduled time, thankfully (mostly Friday afternoon), so I’m hoping to have time to check out the exhibit hall a bit and meet with friends, play some games, etc. I’ll be wearing either a black Chaos & Alchemy T-shirt or a black polo shirt with the Clay Crucible Games logo on it throughout the convention (yes, I have multiples of these, so I won’t be walking around in days-old clothes!). And for my Chaos & Alchemy Kickstarter backers, I’ll have a prototype of the Substances expansion on hand, as well as a special something extra from last year’s Gen Con. Come find me to say hi, and I might have something for you!

And in case you haven’t checked out the Chaos & Alchemy Kickstarter campaign yet, please go do that! We’re really close to having the Substances expansion unlocked, and I REALLY want to see that happen!

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

Over-balance corrected for Alchemy Bazaar

Earlier this week, I wrote about the problem of a game being too balanced. To recap, you don’t want a situation where a game is completely unbalanced and players have unequal chances of winning or a player will win by luckily getting the most overpowered card or something like that. But if you balance everything to the point that every choice a player can make is about as good as every other choice, then the choices become meaningless and the game becomes boring.


To understand how this manifested itself in Alchemy Bazaar and how (I think) I fixed it, you need to understand how the game works.

Rules Overview

Alchemy Bazaar is a “worker movement” game. The object is to have the most Wisdom at the end of the game, which you get by completing Formulas (represented by cards). Each Formula has a cost to complete it; typically some combination of the three alchemical ingredients in the game: Gems, Metals and Spirits.

Basic Alchemy formula. Cost: One Gem, one Metal and one Spirit. Reward: One Wisdom and two Coins.

Basic Alchemy formula. Cost: One Gem, one Metal and one Spirit. Reward: One Wisdom and two Coins.

To collect these Formulas and Ingredients, players will send their Apprentices (workers, represented by meeples) around the bazaar, which is made up of Shop tiles. The game begins with five basic Shop tiles, and more tiles are added each turn as new merchants set up shop.

The five starting Shops in Alchemy Bazaar

The five starting Shops in Alchemy Bazaar

Each Apprentice can move to an adjacent Shop for free and use it, and then may pay 1 Coin to move again, then 2 Coins to move again, and so on until the player decides to have that Apprentice stop. Whatever Shop the Apprentice ends in is occupied so that no other Apprentice may use it (as in a typical worker placement game), but any Apprentice who enters a Shop and finds it already occupied may move through it for free.

The Problem

The fundamental “over-balancing” problem I had with my earlier version of Alchemy Bazaar was that all three Ingredients (Gems, Metals and Spirits) were of equal value. They had an equal probability of showing up as resources in Shops and and equal probability of being needed to complete Formulas. So, basically, players would just try to gather as many Ingredients as they could without caring too much about which Ingredients they picked from which Shops.

Sure, if you have a Formula that requires a bunch of Metals you’ll be more likely to go after those, but your next Formula is just as likely to have any other Ingredient.

I also had a very even power level in the Shops and Formulas themselves. For instance, there were several cycles of Shops that were paralleled through all three Ingredients:

  • Take two of Ingredient X for free (one Shop gives Gems, one gives Metals, one gives Spirits).
  • Buy three of Ingredient X for one Coin
  • Trade in one of Ingredient X to get two Ingredients of your choice plus a Coin
A cycle of balanced Shops; each one gives two of a particular Ingredient.

A cycle of balanced Shops; each one gives two of a particular Ingredient.

Similarly, with Formulas there were multiple parallel cycles

  • Pay 1 of Ingredient X for 1 Wisdom card
  • Pay 2 of Ingredient X plus 1 Coin for 1 Wisdom card and an Ingredient of your choice
  • Pay 3 of Ingredient X and 1 of each of the other 2 Ingredients for 3 Wisdom cards
  • Pay 5 of Ingredient X for 3 Wisdom cards

Cycle of Balanced Formulas – one Ingredient for one Wisdom card

And so on.

The Solution

The main part of the solution was to make Gems the most valuable, Metals middle of the road, and Spirits the least valuable. This required changing about half of the Shops and half of the Formulas. The Action cards (which I haven’t discussed in this post) remained mostly unchanged, interestingly. I also changed the “random Ingredient” die from one that gave an equal chance of each Ingredient to one with one Gem, two Metals and three Spirits on it. (This die is rolled on many Shops and as Formula rewards.)

Now there were still cycles of Shops and Formulas, but they work differently for each Ingredient.

  • Shops: Take 3 Spirits for free, 2 Metals for free, or one Gem and a die roll for free
  • Shops: Trade one Spirit for a Coin and two die rolls; trade one Metal for a Coin, a die roll and an Ingredient of your choice; trade one Gem for three Spirits and two Metals
  • Formulas: Pay 1 Gem for 1 Wisdom; pay 2 Metals for 1 Wisdom; pay 3 Spirits for 1 Wisdom
  • Formulas: Pay 3 Gems for 4 Wisdom; pay 5 Metals for 3 Wisdom; pay 5 Spirits for 2 Wisdom plus 1 Gem
A cycle of unbalanced Shops. A player can get three Spirits, two Metals, or one Gem plus a random Ingredient.

A cycle of unbalanced Shops. A player can get three Spirits, two Metals, or one Gem plus a random Ingredient.

I reduced the number of places where players could get an Ingredient of their choice (since they’re more likely to just pick the valuable Gems) and increased the opportunity to roll the die (since it’s a more interesting roll now).

I’m also okay with having some Formula cards that are better than others; the same is true of Shops. For instance, there is a cycle of Formulas that cost 1 Coin plus 1 of either Gem/Metal/Spirit plus 1 Ingredient of your choice; all three of these Formulas have the same reward (2 Wisdom). The Spirit version is easier to accomplish than the Gem version, but I didn’t change the reward (intentionally) to reflect this. If you get the Spirit card, you’re a bit luckier than if you get the Gem card. But since you’re likely to complete a dozen or more Formulas during a game, this is okay.

The Results

So far I’ve just had one playtest (two players, myself and my wife), but the difference was clear; the less-balanced game is far more fun. Decisions are more interesting and they feel like they matter.

On an unrelated note, I’ve also decided to shorten the game slightly. Before, a two- or three-player game would last six rounds; I’ve shortened that to five (which took just under an hour for my wife and I, with distractions). A four-player game has gone from five rounds down to four. And I’ve decided that the game just isn’t suited for five players at all, rather than taking the five-player game from four rounds down to three. This could change later, but that’s my current plan.

Further playtesting will be needed, of course, but I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track here. Let’s hope I get Alchemy Bazaar as polished as it can be before I pitch it to publishers at Gen Con next month!

Michael Iachini, Clay Crucible Games

ClayCrucible on Twitter

P.S. Game Salute is just about ready to launch the Kickstarter campaign for my first game, Chaos & Alchemy. It’s coming any day now, so keep an eye out for it!

Why victory points?

I’ve been musing about board game design recently (as usual), and I thought I’d share my thoughts on victory points.

In many modern games, victory points (also called influence, honor, etc.) are an extremely common way to decide who wins the game. Players race to do various cool things on their turns, but the ultimate winning condition is “who has the most victory points?”

So here’s the question: Why use victory points?

Game designers probably understand this point already, but here’s my short explanation:

Victory points as a winning condition help prevent runaway leaders.

If you’re not much of a board gamer, this might be confusing, so let me explain.

Let’s say you have a game where players are competing to gain money (Monopoly, for instance). Money is useful in the game from turn to turn. It lets you buy useful things that can get you more money (engine building). It protects you against bad things that would otherwise happen (getting stuck in jail or going bankrupt or being forced to mortgage your properties).

Attribution: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Monopoly board. Attribution: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The problem with money as the victory condition (or more precisely in the case of Monopoly, lack of money as the losing condition) is that the rich get richer. Once you have a big lead, it becomes progressively harder for other players to catch you. Not only do you have a high score toward winning, but you also have more powerful options on your turns (buying property and improvements). You get a “snowball” effect, where the winner just wins more.

Let’s take Risk as another example. The winning condition in Risk is to control all of the territories. Controlling territories is useful in and of itself throughout the game, since it gives you more options of where to attack and, when you get complete continents, more armies each turn. It does present some drawbacks, giving you more territory that you need to defend, but Risk is another game where a player who gets into the lead tends to gain momentum, extending that lead until an ultimate victory. It’s another snowball effect.

Risk map

Risk map

Let’s contrast this with a game like Dominion. In the base game of Dominion, the victory point cards (Estates, Duchies and Provinces) are dead cards when you draw them. Part of the strategy of Dominion is to get rid of your Estates as quickly as possible, replacing them with “engine” cards that will let you gain lots of resources on future turns.

However, if you focus just on building your engine and never acquire any victory point cards, you will lose the game. Sure, you’ll have impressive turns, but they won’t help you win.

Dominion card image by Wim de Grom of BoardGameGeek

Dominion card image by Wim de Grom of BoardGameGeek

In order to win, a Dominion player has to start acquiring victory point cards at some point, which will throw some sand into the gears of the deck engine. Future turns for the leader will be worse, as her hand gets clogged with “useless” victory point cards. This gives other players some hope of catching up, and thus keeps players engaged longer.

Another example can be found in my first game design, Chaos & Alchemy. In Chaos & Alchemy, players add Innovation cards to their laboratories (their boards) in a race to build up to a total of 10 points in the laboratory. Some cards, like the Telescope, are very useful for building an engine (letting the player manipulate the Fortune Die), but provide few victory points (even zero points for certain very powerful cards).

Telescope Old and New

Other cards, like Capricious Favor (which will be known as Specter Jar in the updated full-color version that Game Salute will soon be publishing) are worth a large number of victory points, but they don’t help build an engine at all. In fact, this particular card might not even stick around in a player’s laboratory.

Capricious Favor Old and New

So, why use victory points rather than have the winning condition be based on the “active” resources in the game? It balances the game and helps to prevent the feeling of an inevitable victory by whoever is in the lead.

Sure, victory points have their detractors; they can be a little bit boring and flavorless. But in many games, they contribute to keeping the game exciting right up until the end.

By the way, you may have noticed two versions of some Chaos & Alchemy cards in this post. The black and white illustration versions are from the small print run I did myself last year (which sold out out in a couple of months); the color versions are from the upcoming version that Game Salute will be launching on Kickstarter pretty soon. I’m excited about this project; the color cards look so cool! Please let me know if you’d like me to drop you a line when the project launches; I hope you’ll check it out when it goes live.

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

Welcome to the new site!

Hello world! I suppose if you’re reading this by going through my archives, you’re bound to be confused. But for those of you reading around the time of my writing, February 2012, welcome to the new blog!

The old free blog was nice and all, but I decided that it was time for something a little more polished. Since I know pretty much nothing about web design, I turned to Mark Meredith, who has put together a nice-looking site for himself over at Dice Monkey. And the results speak for themselves – ooh, pretty! If you’re looking to hire someone for some web design work, give Mark a buzz.

Anyway, things should continue pretty much as-is with the new site. There will be some messiness for a while; all of my old links will take you to pages on the old blog, for instance, but I plan to clean that sort of thing up over time.

So, thank you for following me to my new digs, and please join me in thanking Mark for this sweet-looking new site!