The importance of imbalance

Update: In my next post, I talk about how I fixed this particular problem for Alchemy Bazaar.

My current primary board game design project, Alchemy Bazaar, has been under development for about six months. I’ve personally conducted over 30 full playtest sessions, and I’ve had at least five other groups elsewhere conduct blind playtests. It’s been exhibited at a local convention, local game stores, at board game Meetups and elsewhere.

An earlier prototype of Alchemy Bazaar in action

An earlier prototype of Alchemy Bazaar in action

Throughout Alchemy Bazaar’s development, I’ve been taking careful notes of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been especially looking for places where the game can be simplified (which I’ve written about before).

I’ve also had a keen eye on balance. This is a game with a wide variety of alchemical shops, formula cards and action cards. Many times, I’ve tweaked one of these that seemed overpowered or underpowered to bring it in line with the others.

Each playtest gave me fewer and fewer of these power level tweaks to make. I was approaching balance across the board. Success?

Well, as the game was becoming more balanced, it was becoming less fun.

This was brought into stark relief for me when my friend Nate, who lives in Seattle, agreed to try a blind playtest with his group there. His group is made up of pretty hardcore gamers, and when Nate called to talk to me about his experience, the news wasn’t good.

Now, part of the problem was a misunderstanding of the rules, and I’ve since clarified the rulebook so that this won’t happen again. But the main problem is that the players felt like their choices weren’t meaningful. If all of the shops were about as good as one another and the same was true for the formulas and actions, then every turn would be about the same as every other..

Alchemy Bazaar had become too balanced.


Nate had a hard time putting this into words, and it was fortunate that he was going to be visiting me in Colorado just a few weeks after this playtest in Seattle. When he was here in person, we were able to sit down and talk through things. Eventually I hit on this question of whether the game might be overbalanced, and he agreed that yes, that was it exactly.

Nate used to work as a designer on Magic: The Gathering, and he pointed out that this was a lesson Magic designers had to learn, too. It helps to explain why the existence of mana screw is actually good for the game; if you never have mana screw, you won’t have that sublime joy and excitement of curving out perfectly.

Look at any game that has great success; chances are it’s not perfectly balanced. I don’t mean that players have unequal chances of winning at the start; that’s a bad kind of imbalance, in my opinion. I mean that there are some options that are more powerful than others, and players will likely be vying over these and excited when they get them.

A great game will have more situational variety in power level. By that, I mean that some options will be really powerful in certain situations and less powerful in others. That’s a wonderful thing to have in games.

But if you balance your game to the point where every choice is about as good as every other choice, you’ve overbalanced. Choices feel meaningless at that point, which is the death knell for any game.

Make sure your game has some intentional imbalance. Even though this means players will sometimes be disappointed by getting a less-powerful option, this is worth it for the excitement of getting that awesome choice at just the right time. Game design is an art, not just a science; don’t forget that!

Michael Iachini, Clay Crucible Games

ClayCrucible on Twitter

P.S. My first game, Chaos & Alchemy, is going to be on Kickstarter from Game Salute very, very soon. It has an awesome amount of fun imbalance, I promise. 🙂

13th Age: Sell me a PDF!

Edit: I’ve received a comment from someone associated with 13th Age (see the comment on this post) explaining that a big part of the reason they’re doing what they’re doing is to keep retailers happy. While I know some people have no sympathy for retailers and their desires, I’m not among them. I understand this decision in light of wanting 13th Age to have support from retailers, so I’m ultimately okay with it (even though it may well mean that I never get into the game).

The original post follows.

-End edit


I’ve posted about this on Twitter a few times now, but I thought it was finally time to put these thoughts into a short blog post.

I’m a relatively new RPG player and GM, compared to most. I had a little exposure to D&D 3.0 over 10 years ago, and then I got really into D&D 4th Edition about three years ago. Now with the winding down of support for 4e, I’m available to be wooed by a new game. Sure, I’m devoting most of my game time to board games now, but I still like RPGs.

This is where 13th Age is frustrating me with a business decision. I had heard vaguely about the game in the summer of 2012, but I was neck-deep in development of Chaos & Alchemy at the time so I didn’t get involved (I think there was a pre-order campaign rather than a Kickstarter, but I’m not sure). I do understand that the game has some things that are likely to appeal to a 4e fan like me, so I’m interested in learning about it and trying it out.

Unfortunately, I can’t. See, I’m not looking for more physical RPG books. I have enough of those. I have an iPad now, and I much prefer to read my RPG books on that. If I try a game and decide I’m passionate about it, then sure, I might buy a hardcover book to show my support and to have something collectible, but I want to start with the PDF.

Is the problem that 13th Age is only available in physical form? No, they have a PDF.

Is the PDF not ready yet? No, it’s out there.

Are they not willing to get it in the hands of fans? No, they give it to you for free… IF you pre-order the hard copy book.

And there’s the problem. I don’t want the physical book. I only want the PDF. And I’m willing to buy it! I’m just not willing to pay the hard copy book price just for the PDF.

The 13th Age folks (Pelgrane Press) have announced on their web site that they’ll start selling the standalone PDF in September, but not before. I get what they’re hoping for; they’re hoping that people who are only interested in the PDF might be willing to bite the bullet and spring for the full book. Which I’m not.

So what does this mean for me? Well, it means that I can’t check out 13th Age for a couple more months yet.

And yes, I’m aware that it probably wouldn’t be hard to get the PDF through shady means, but I have no interest in that approach. I want to give these people my money!

The reason I write this at all is to contrast it with Fate Core, another alternative RPG that could woo a guy like me. I got in on the Fate Core Kickstarter campaign for ten bucks, because that was the PDF level. But even if I had missed the Kickstarter campaign, I could go to the Fate Core web site right now and download the PDF on a pay-what-you-want basis.

Now, I’m not saying that 13th Age has to be as radically open as Fate Core is (but kudos to Fred Hicks for doing so with his company’s game). If I could go to the 13th Age web site, give them ten bucks and download a PDF, I would have already done so WEEKS ago.

But I can’t. They won’t let me.

This makes it extremely likely that 13th Age will just pass me by. I’m ripe for persuasion to try a new game right now, and 13th Age is quite possibly the best fit for my interests. But since Fate Core is available in the form I’m seeking and 13th Age isn’t, it’s likely that if I want a D&D alternative, I’m going with Fate Core. (Also, I’ve read the Fate Core PDF, and I think it looks like a lot of fun.)

It’s a shame, but so it goes.

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

The Staff of Suha Cycle – three free D&D adventures

I was excited earlier this week when a friend of mine in New York said that he was planning on running his party through the adventure trilogy that I had written for D&D 4th Edition in the past couple of years. This made me realize, though, that I had never put all of the adventures in a single document.

Well, now I’ve fixed that. The three adventures, The Stolen Staff, Tallinn’s Tower and Descent Into Darkness, are now all in a single document, called the Staff of Suha Cycle.

Download the trilogy here. (17.5 MB)

Staff of Suha Cover Page

For those who don’t know, this is a series of adventures that I wrote for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, mainly for me to run at local conventions. I’ve run all of the adventures a bunch of times and made lots of revisions along the way, so they’re pretty polished now. Each one is designed to be run in a single session of about four hours.

For more on the first two adventures (including MapTool files), read this post.

For more on the final adventure (including MapTool files), read this post.

If you want all of the maps from these adventures, plus other maps I’ve created, you can find those on the Map Library page.

In summary, the Stolen Staff is a pretty straightforward dungeon delve. Tallinn’s Tower is an adventure through a tricky tower maintained by a powerful illusionist (and it includes poetry!). Descent Into Darkness is exactly what it says on the tin, and it features my favorite puzzle that I’ve designed so far (the room of runes) and a really cool final encounter area.

Final encounter area for Descent Into Darkness

Final encounter map for Descent Into Darkness

If you do try out any of these adventures with your own group, I would love to hear about your experience!

Michael the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

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

DIY banner stand

First, a quick RPG note: I did play and run some D&D (4th Edition) at an event called Gator Con a few weeks ago. This was a fund raiser for a high school gaming club here in Colorado, which I thought was pretty cool. I ended up playing my first-ever paragon Living Forgotten Realms game with my first LFR character, Rhogar the half-elf paladin.

I then ran two games, one of which was from my MyRealms series and one of which was a random LFR adventure that my players hadn’t played before. A good time was had by all, but it was a long day!

Now to the topic for this post: Banner stands.

You may recall that many months ago I reviewed a web site called Banners on the Cheap. They were apparently looking to get the word out about their site, so they offered a number of bloggers (including me) some store credit if we would review what we received. I liked what I got (a horizontal banner for Chaos & Alchemy) and reviewed the site accordingly.

My original banner from Gen Con 2012

My original banner from Gen Con 2012

Now I’m getting ready for Denver Comic Con, at which I will be demoing my games (mostly Chaos & Alchemy, but I’m hoping to demo Alchemy Bazaar as well). I’ll have a table as well as space to set up a vertical banner.

I decided to go back to Banners on the Cheap to order the actual banner, which I’m happy with (image file below).

Banner for Denver Comic Con 2013

Banner for Denver Comic Con 2013

But the next step was to get a banner stand. Frankly, I haven’t been able to find good information about the pros and cons of different types of stands, so I ultimately decided to take the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach.

Using my projector rig

Those of you who have been following my D&D posts for a long time probably know that I run games in-person using MapTool and my projector rig. It’s been a fantastic investment for me over the past few years, and I don’t know if I’ll run D&D any other way.

The projector rig, without the projector attached

The projector rig, without the projector attached

Projector mount - rear view

Projector mount – rear view

The vertical pipe from my projector rig is 5 feet tall, and my banner is 6 feet tall. So, all I needed to do was to get a junction, a 12 inch extension, a tee and a dowel, and I would have a rig ready to hold a banner!

The banner stand, without the banner attached

The banner stand, without the banner attached

As you can see in the picture above, I’ve replaced the elbow, the pipe nipple, the flange and the board from the top of the projector stand with a reducer coupling (going from 1 inch diameter to 1/2 inch diameter), a 12-inch piece of pipe, a pipe tee and a 5/8″ diameter wooden dowel. You can see a closer view of the top of the new stand below.

Top section of the banner stand

Top section of the banner stand

Now all I needed was a way to actually attach the banner to the dowel at the top. There are “proper” ways to do this, but I decided to go with a “simple” way: binder clips. Would you believe that the office supply store carries them in gold? Heck yeah!

Note the awesome gold binder clips

Note the awesome gold binder clips

I discovered that just letting the banner hang this way caused the bottom of the banner to wrinkle up, so I clipped another dowel to the bottom, with the bottom edge of the banner wrapped around it.

Banner Bottom

Now everything was hanging the way I wanted.

Complete banner stand with banner on display

Complete banner stand with banner on display

I have to say, I’m really happy with the way this turned out. I spent $12 on hardware and another $4 on the binder clips, so a total of $16 to adapt my projector rig into a banner stand. I might end up taping back the white borders on the side or something like that, but either way, this is going to work.

If you want to build this type of stand yourself, you can skip the big pipe coupled to a small pipe and just go with the following:

  • Base board (about 1 inch thick, about 12 inches by 12 inches)
  • Pipe flange (1/2 inch diameter should be fine) with appropriate screws
  • 6-foot long section of pipe (1/2 inch diameter) – or whatever length you need for your banner
  • Tee junction
  • A pair of 3-foot long dowel rods (5/8 inch diameter) – or whatever width you need for your banner
  • 6 binder clips (large size)

That’s it! I’m guessing this will cost you about $25 or so, all in. Not bad for a DIY banner stand.

Anyway, if you’re going to be at Denver Comic Con 2013 on Saturday or Sunday, June 1-2, come look for me and try out some games.

-Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

Clay Crucible Games

Receiving playtest feedback: Unpub and more

I have three stories about receiving game feedback to share today: Two Unpubs and one blind playtest.

Unpub 3 in Delaware: Chaos & Alchemy


I learned last week, to my surprise, that my first game, Chaos & Alchemy, was available to try at Unpub 3 this past January in Delaware. As you may know, Game Salute is in the process of getting ready to publish Chaos & Alchemy, and they were apparently at Unpub 3 with games in tow, including mine. I had no idea it had been available there until this past week, when John Moller, the Unpub coordinator, mentioned that he had some feedback forms from Chaos & Alchemy from that event. How cool!

Chaos and alchemy001 chaos and alchemy002

There were only two forms, but the players seemed to get the game easily and to have a good time with it. My favorite was the place on the second form where the player mentioned liking the game, and listed “Random / dice games” as his/her least favorite type of games. If you hate random/dice games and you still enjoyed Chaos & Alchemy (which is very random and uses lots of dice), then it’s a good game. 🙂

Blind playtest feedback: Alchemy Bazaar

I’m not going into a lot of detail on this one, but I sent a copy of Alchemy Bazaar to a friend in Florida for blind playtesting. That is, I sent a copy of the game with the rules and all of the components and asked my friend to try it with a group, without me providing any input beyond the rules as written.

Poster 2

There’s no easy way to put this; it didn’t go well. When I’ve taught the game in person, it’s been a big hit all around. But the blind playtest just didn’t work, and it was almost entirely because of the rules. Lesson learned: I need to get much, much better at writing rules. I’m working hard on this, and I’m confident that I’ll get the rules to where they need to be. If I have any blog readers who are interested in giving my updated rules a read-through and providing feedback, let me know in the comments! I’d love the extra set of eyes on the rules.

Unpub Mini Enchanted Grounds: Alchemy Bazaar

The most fun bit of playtest feedback I’ve gotten recently at Unpub Mini Enchanted Grounds, which was an event this past Saturday at my friendly local game store. I was basically the organizer of the event, as well as a demonstrator of a game. We had six games going at a time: five designers who were there for the whole six hours, and a pair of designers who traded off the first six hours and the last six hours (so, a total of seven games).

Things started off a bit slowly, and I played the role of host, talking to people who came into the store and shepherding them to games that they would likely enjoy based on their preferences. Eventually I got to start demoing Alchemy Bazaar, and had the chance to run a total of three games.

Alchemy Bazaar in action at Unpub Mini. Note the game board for my super-rough game Everest in the foreground.

Alchemy Bazaar in action at Unpub Mini. Note the game board for my super-rough game Everest in the foreground.

Two of those games were won by a guy who had first tried the game the week before at Tabletop Game Day. He liked it so much that he came back this week and played it twice more. Definitely a good sign!

The feedback forms from this event were very positive. One of the games ran a bit longer than I would have liked, and that was reflected in one of the feedback forms, but that’s fine; I can tweak the length easily enough.

Unpub Mini was a rousing success for all involved, I think. Lots of players came through the store to play lots of games. Some, like Mighty Heroes and the Monster Zone, were very polished in terms of production values and will soon be on Kickstarter. Others, like my own Alchemy Bazaar, were in earlier prototype stages, but still complete games. I didn’t get a chance to actually play any of the other games, but I at least got to talk to the designers and learn how the games work.

Frankly, I’m just happy to have met some other local board game designers! I think we’ll be getting together again in the not-too-distant future.

Dealing with feedback

Through this process, I’ve learned some lessons about productively dealing with playtest feedback. The positive feedback is useful because it tells you what elements of the game are working, so that you can be careful not to change those too much. The negative feedback is even more useful because it tells you where you need to focus your efforts. I’ll admit that I took the negative feedback hard and was feeling pretty down, but I eventually buckled down and fixed what was broken (or at least worked hard to fix it; I don’t know how fixed it is yet).

So, through it all I think I’m continuing to grow as a game designer. That’s the hope, anyway!

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

Clay Crucible Games

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Unpub Mini Enchanted Grounds – Come try new games in Colorado!

This coming weekend on April 6, 2013, I will be participating in an event at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds, called Unpub Mini. I’m actually the “host” of the event, which means I’m the one who reached out to the Unpub organizer, John Moller, to ask about having an Unpub.


Some of you might be wondering what the heck Unpub is. Unpub is short for “unpublished” and the main Unpub convention is an annual event held in Delaware early in the year. Unpub 3 took place earlier in 2013, and it seems to be a growing event where game designers bring their works in progress, demonstrate them for players, get feedback, and sometimes even talk to publishers.


Enchanted Grounds logo

The bad news for people like me is that Colorado (where I live) is quite far from Delaware (where the convention is held). The good news is that John is interested in there being a network of Unpub events taking place all over, and he tries to make it easy. Thus, when I heard him talking about Unpub and these Unpub Mini events on the Funding the Dream podcast, I decided to reach out to him to ask about bringing an Unpub Mini to Colorado.

Fortunately, I have a great game store within walking distance of my house (yes, you can hate me now). The owner was very interested in having an Unpub Mini event, so getting the ball rolling was a piece of cake.

We have six games registered for the event, all of which will be taught by their designers. I will be showing off the latest version of Alchemy Bazaar, my worker movement game. This game is far along in development, and I’m really excited about it. The preview page for Alchemy Bazaar on the Unpub site is here. Getting feedback from strangers is always exciting; I’m sure I’ll come away from the event with some good ideas.

Alchemy Bazaar Photo March 15 2013 Cropped high res

So, if you happen to be somewhere near Colorado this Saturday or you know people who are, come to Enchanted Grounds in Highlands Ranch sometime between 1:00 PM and 7:00 PM Mountain time to try out some brand new games!

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Simplify, Simplify – Streamlining game design

I’m still a relatively new game designer, so I’m learning all the time. One of the best lessons I’ve learned so far about good game design can be summed up by the famous quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.”

Walden Pond

Thoreau was talking about life in general, but I’m talking about game design. My design process tends to have me start with an idea, ponder it in the back of my mind for a while (Chaos & Alchemy had very little pondering, but my other games have had more), put a prototype together, and start playtesting. My first playtests should be solo, followed by a game with my wife (though I admit that I’ve typically subjected my wife to my embryonic game ideas more often than not). After some initial revisions, I’ve historically played with a core group of friends, including my good friend Nate.

Nate is a professional game designer. He has worked on some very well known tabletop games in the past, and he currently works on electronic games. I’m very sad that he and his wife recently left Colorado, where I live, because Nate has a terrific skill for a designer like me: He can see what needs to be cut out of a game.

I’ve almost invariably found that my games start off too complicated. Too many moving pieces, too many decisions, too many things to remember for the players. I want to make games that are easy to learn and intuitive to play, which means that I have to simplify.

Example 1: Chaos & Alchemy dice

Those of you who have played Chaos & Alchemy know the basic turn mechanic: You conduct an Experiment by rolling three six-sided dice. Each die that matches or beats the shared Fortune Die counts as a Success and each die that’s lower than the Fortune Die counts as a Failure. You also get one Free Success per turn. Each Success lets you either draw a card or play a card, and each Failure forces you to discard a card.


In the earliest prototype of the game, players were only rolling two dice. They also were allowed to draw one card for free and play one card for free each turn, in whatever order they wished. This allowed for a lot of flexibility, but it was hard to keep track of.

My first solution to this tracking problem was to create three tracker cards for each player: Draw, Play, and Roll. When you drew your card for the turn, you flipped the Draw card over. When you rolled your Experiment dice, you flipped your Roll card over. When you took your free play, you flipped your Play card over. It worked, but it was still fiddly.

Nate’s suggestion was to eliminate the Roll card, since it was usually easy to remember if you had rolled yet. Simple enough.

He then suggested getting rid of the Play card and adding a third die to the Experiment. There was still a free Draw, but we were down to one tracker.

Naturally, Nate then suggested eliminating that card as well… and I tried it. Ultimately, though, the most fun solution was to have the Free Success that I ended up using. It’s only one thing to track, and it uses another die, so it works just like other Successes. Also, as a fun side benefit, you get doubles (Chaos in the game) a lot more often with three dice than you do with two (4 out of every 9 rolls instead of 1 out of every 6), and rolling Chaos is cool.

Example 2: Alchemy Bazaar tile ownership

I know that I haven’t blogged in detail about Alchemy Bazaar very much, but it’s in active playtesting now and going very well. I’m excited about this one!

The basic idea is that players add shop tiles to an ever-growing bazaar of alchemical goods and formulas, then send their apprentices through the shops to get the things they need to conduct alchemical experiments. It was heavily inspired by Lords of Waterdeep (one of my favorite games).

Playtest game by my brother Danny, at the end of the game

Playtest game by my brother Danny, at the end of the game

In the initial version, whenever a player added a tile to the bazaar, they would put a small token on the tile to show that they owned it. Whenever another player’s apprentice would later use that tile, the owner would get a benefit.

It was fun, and it made sense to anyone who has played Lords of Waterdeep (its building tiles work the same way). After the first play-through with Nate, his only suggestion was to eliminate tile ownership.

Now, this required that I revamp the economy of the game somewhat, but Nate helped me see that the core fun of the game came from moving the apprentices around the bazaar. Shop ownership worked, but it was a bit of a distraction.

And you know what? Removing it hasn’t hurt the fun of the game one bit.

Example 3: Alchemy Bazaar walls

Another inspiration for Alchemy Bazaar was originally Alhambra, which has specific rules about the way the walls on the tiles can be played. Alchemy Bazaar’s shop tiles originally had walls, too, which created various passageways through the bazaar. It was kind of interesting, and it allowed for cards that would let players pass through walls or rotate tiles and such.

My first blind playtester for this game, as with Chaos & Alchemy, was my brother Danny, who lives in Pennsylvania. He was a real trouper, creating his own print and play version of the game, and most of his confusion came about with the rules for walls. Clearly, I needed to write the rulebook better.

Later, I took the game to Genghis Con, a local gaming convention here in Colorado, and ran seven games over the course of a couple of days. Feedback was fantastic, and I usually asked players what they thought about the walls. I was noticing that these games usually ended up with the walls not really coming into play very much.

I received two suggestions. One was to add more walls. If there aren’t enough walls to matter, then make more of them! This could work, and would make those tile manipulation cards more interesting, too.

The other suggestion: Do away with walls.

I decided to try the latter suggestion. And you know what? I don’t miss the walls one bit.

Yes, I had to get rid of the cards that only matter when walls exist, but that wasn’t a great loss. And now the game is much easier to teach; the wall rules took up more time in the explanation of rules than they were worth.

A game about moving around a bazaar could be very interesting with walls as a major component. But as it turns out, Alchemy Bazaar just doesn’t need them.

Keeping it simple

Now, there are certainly cases where an overly-simple design needs an extra mechanic or something to make it interesting. But it’s my belief that more often than not, what makes a good game design into a great one is the ability to simplify the game to the core of what makes it fun. With Nate no longer here in Colorado, I guess I’ll have to take that lesson to heart myself!

-Michael the OnlineDM

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Alchemy Bazaar Name Game #1: Name those tiles!

The playtesting for my tile placement / worker movement game Alchemy Bazaar is coming along really well. I spent this past weekend at Genghis Con, a local convention here in Colorado, and all day Friday and Saturday were devoted to the board game room. I ran a bunch of tables of Chaos & Alchemy, leading to at least three people ordering the game from Noble Knight (the only place that currently has any copies of the original print run in stock).

I also ran seven games of Alchemy Bazaar, all of which went really well. I’ve made some new friends thanks to the game, and I have people offering to take prototypes to groups in other cities already. Excellent! I plan to test a little more myself, and then start making prototypes to send to playtesters in various locations (rather than making people go the print and play route to test my game).

Poster 1

In the mean time, I’ve been working with the art director at Game Salute to get ready for their publication of Chaos & Alchemy. He’s been a fantastic partner who really understands the feel of the game, and he has great ideas for more evocative card names. This has led me to realize something:

I’m good at designing games with fun mechanics. I’m not that great at coming up with flavorful names.

The Name Game Part 1

This is where you come in! I know that there are lots of creative folks out there, many of whom might have fun suggesting names that will be better than whatever I come up with.

I’m partly inspired here by my wife, who has a business making fiber for people who do spinning and felting and such. She’ll dye batches of fiber in all sorts of interesting colors and then put pictures up on Facebook to ask her friends and fans for name suggestions. They have lots of fun with it, so I’m trying the same thing!

Here’s the goal: Help me come up with evocative names for some of the tiles and cards in Alchemy Bazaar. I’ll put up a few examples, and you can leave your suggestions in the comments. Anyone who submits a name that I actually end up using in the finished product will get a “thank you” in the rulebook.


The idea of Alchemy Bazaar is that the players are rival alchemists who share an ownership stake in a bazaar of shops that sell and trade alchemical ingredients and related goodies (formulas, etc.). The players choose which shops will get to set up in the bazaar and then send their apprentices around to gather the things they need to do their experiments.

Right now the names are all very drab, placeholder names. I want some creative names that get the inspiration flowing!

Shop Number 1: Spirits Central

Spirits Central 1

This is a shop that gives a player two of the “spirits” ingredient whenever an apprentice uses it. Nice and simple. What would be a more interesting name? “So and So’s Spirit Shop?”

Shop Number 2: Formula Exchange

Formula Exchange 1

When an apprentice visits this shop, the alchemist discards one formula card and draws two new ones. New name?

Shop Number 3: Metal Trader

Metal Trader 1

At this shop, the apprentice gets to trade one “metal” ingredient for two ingredients of their choice (metal, gem or spirit) and one coin.

Thank you for your help!

I hope that some of you will find this to be fun. Feel free to leave your name suggestions here in the comments, or tweet them to me at OnlineDM1. Thanks!

-Michael the OnlineDM

Book review: Characteristics of Games

A few months ago, one of my closest friends gave me a copy of a book for my birthday: Characteristics of Games by Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield and Robert Gutschera.

The quick review: I absolutely love this book. If you have friends who are interested in game design, this would make an excellent gift for them.


The authors spend the book analyzing and comparing games, but doing so in a descriptive manner (Game X has this characteristic, which is different from Game Y) rather than a prescriptive manner (game designers should do Z for a good game). They use copious examples from a wide range of games: classic board games such as chess and go, traditional board games such as Risk and Monopoly, modern board games such as Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, card games such as Magic: The Gathering, video games such as World of Warcraft and Mario Kart, sports like basketball, and other “games” such as crossword puzzles and “game theory” games.

I like their approach to definitions; they intentionally avoid saying “X counts as a game, but Y does not.” Instead, anything that people often refer to a game is treated as a game, and sometimes things that people don’t really refer to as a game (such as crossword puzzles) are also treated as games. This makes for a wide-ranging book.

The book assumes that the reader has a passing familiarity with the games it mentions, but there’s also a useful appendix with capsule descriptions of each game. These descriptions also tell you how important understanding the game in question is to understanding the book.

One thing that annoyed me was that the authors made the understanding of the computer game Starcraft very important to understanding many of their examples. I know that it’s a well-known game and that it has a huge following in South Korea, for instance, but having never played the game myself I found myself frustrated more than once at how often Starcraft came up. Ultimately, it’s really about the real-time strategy (RTS) genre in general, with Starcraft as the specific example used, but that’s not a genre I’ve played. Oh well; my fault for not being “well-played” enough!

Quick hit thoughts on individual sections

  • Introduction: I liked the coining of the words “orthogames” (games played for fun with more than one player, with winners and losers) and “agential” (characteristics that arise from the way people play the game, which can differ across groups)
  • Heuristics: Hugely enlightening for me. A good game has ways for new players to quickly pick up some basic strategies to get better at the game, but also ways for more advanced players to continue to get better at the game. Players enjoy this.
  • Player Elimination: I like the way they put concepts into words here, talking about players being strictly eliminated (out of the game entirely), logically or “mathematically” eliminated (literally cannot win, but still in the game) and effectively eliminated (theoretically could win, but really, really unlikely). Players tend to dislike being logically or effectively eliminated even more than they dislike being strictly eliminated.
  • Politics: Any game where you can choose another player and help or harm them will have some degree of politics. This can be good or bad, but many players dislike games that devolve into pure politics. Kingmaking is closely related (and comes out of logical/effective elimination).
  • Rules: The concept of first-order rules (the basics of how the game works) and second-order rules (these don’t often come up, but are useful for the situations where you need them) was enlightening. A good rulebook will make the first-order rules very clear, and de-emphasize the second-order rules for clarity’s sake.
  • Standards: Good games have some familiarity. Being completely novel makes the game hard to learn. It’s okay for players to say, “Ah, this works like Mechanic X in Game Y.”
  • Snowball and Catch Up:  These are very much on my mind as a designer already, and this section was packed with goodness. Randomness is a catch up mechanic. Games with lots of catch up lead to a sort of self-deception where the leader might feel like she’s farther ahead than she really is after taking the catch up mechanics into account; this is not a bad thing! It’s fun for many players.
  • Randomness and Luck: A surprisingly hard concept to nail down; for many players, they know it when they see it.
  • Downtime: One huge insight for me here is that Monopoly handles downtime well. The best things happen to you when it’s NOT your turn – that is, someone landing on your property and paying you money. That’s a fantastic way to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn.
  • Combinatorial Game Theory: Mostly handled in an appendix, I mention this because I knew nothing about it before. I actually hold a Master’s degree in economics with an emphasis in game theory, and the appendix on “Von Neumann” game theory was nothing new to me. But the combinatorial game theory section was totally fresh.

Closing thoughts

As I said, I really love this book. It aims to be useful as a textbook for a game design class; I would be happy to teach from it. As a developing game designer, I learned a ton from reading Characteristics of Games, and it’s a book I plan to keep recommending and to keep re-reading from time to time as well. Kudos to Skaff, Richard and Robert!

-Michael the OnlineDM

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