Pitching games to publishers at Gen Con 2013 – Part 2

Yesterday I talked about my first day at Gen Con 2013 and the experience of pitching my game designs to publishers. Today, I pick up where I left off in order to talk about Friday and Saturday. And yes, another reminder about the Chaos & Alchemy Kickstarter campaign!

Meeting 4: Medium publisher follow-up: Everest

On Friday while I was eating a late-ish lunch with my wife and a friend (at a restaurant called Patachou, which I STRONGLY recommend if you’re looking for healthy food within a block of the convention center at Gen Con), I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I decided to step outside and take the call – and I’m glad I did! It was from one of the publishers from the speed dating event who had seen Everest. This is a medium-sized publisher, with over ten card and board games in publication (plus role-playing games). The rep wanted to meet with me that day, so we set up a meeting for an hour later.

Everest game board

Everest game board

This was pretty exciting for me, as I wasn’t expecting to get attention from such a well-established company, especially for my secondary game! The meeting itself was great, I think. Since Everest is such a quick-to-play game, we were able to play an entire two-player game in about 15 minutes. We won in round 8, which was a fantastic result, too (Everest can be hard!).

The rep had lots of questions throughout the meeting, all of which I answered honestly and was glad to see that the rep liked the answers. In a couple of cases, I was worried that my answer would not be what this company was looking for, but it ended up being a really nice fit.

We talked a bit about a possible re-theme, which had also come up with some other publishers during the speed dating event. This was surprising to me, as Everest is really my only theme-first design so far (cooperative mountain climbing), but as I thought about it, I realized that the mechanics could also work for any theme where a group moves through tougher and tougher challenges. This could be a dungeon delve, a group infiltrating an enemy base, going through deeper layers of Hell, etc.

As with the previous night, I left this publisher with a no-bits prototype copy of Everest. I’m curious to see if this meeting leads anywhere!

Meeting 5: Pre-arranged meeting with up-and-coming publisher: Alchemy Bazaar

I had arranged to have dinner with the head of a small but quickly rising publisher Friday evening, after which we would play Alchemy Bazaar. Dinner ended up not working out, as the restaurant we met at had nothing my wife could eat (she has a gluten and soy allergy, and everything there was cooked in soybean oil), but the gaming afterward happened as planned.

I sat down with two people from the publisher and two of their friends and taught them to play Alchemy Bazaar. The game itself went just fine, though I realized that I hadn’t shuffled the Formula deck well enough and we ended up with a glut of gigantic Formulas on the board, which was not ideal. I plan to try cutting down the number of those Formulas in the deck, and to explore ways to cycle undesirable Formulas, too.

Alchemy Bazaar components

Alchemy Bazaar components

Anyway, it was a good experience, and the players were happy to sit and chat about the game afterward, offering great feedback. I was making it clear to publishers that I’m not done with the game yet – there are still a few things I want to play around with.

I got some good suggestions, as well as some ideas for other themes (one person suggested time travel, which blew my mind). I also loved hearing some thoughts about possible graphic design directions we could go with the game; for instance, making it look like a cave system with connecting passages or a deep forest with paths, if we were to re-theme it. That’s the sort of thing I never think of on my own, so it was really cool to hear.

This is a case where the publisher was already interested in Alchemy Bazaar before Gen Con, and I think the publisher is very much still interested. Good possibilities!

Addendum: After I originally wrote this but before the post went live, I received an email from this publisher telling me that his group had spent some more time talking about the game (an excellent sign) and he had a suggestion for a new theme: an archaeology dig! I love the idea, and I think it might be a great fit for the mechanics, too (possibly even solving one mechanical problem I’ve been wrestling with). I’m working on that theme now; we’ll see how it goes.

Meeting 6: Follow-up meeting with a large publisher: Robo Battle

This was a micro-meeting, and hard to arrange, but this came out of the publisher speed dating event from the publisher who asked, “What else have you got?” He wanted me to pitch Robo Battle to a colleague of his, and it was hard to nail down a time.

We finally made it happen at a point on Saturday when we each had only a few minutes before another meeting. I laid out the board (just a partial setup) and a few cards and explained how the mechanics worked. It was enough for the rep to get a feel for the game, and we’ll have some conversations in the future, but I have no idea whether this might amount to anything or not. If it does, great, but if not, that’s fine; this is still an embryonic design.

Meeting 7: Follow-up meeting with a small publisher: Alchemy Bazaar

This was another meeting that came out of the publisher speed dating event. The publisher and I set up a meeting via text message on Friday to meet Saturday afternoon (in my case, immediately after the Robo Battle meeting). We found ourselves a table in the big board gaming hall, and I taught the full rules to Alchemy Bazaar.

We played through one “day” of the game (the first of five rounds for a two-player game). It was enough for him to get a good feel for the game, and he made it clear that he really liked it. When he described what type of game he was looking for, he almost perfectly described Alchemy Bazaar (medium weight strategy game, not too heavy, somewhere between Caracasonne and Agricola).

My plan is to finish my design work on Alchemy Bazaar and then follow up with this publisher in October. This was another case where the publisher and I “clicked”.

Actually, I would say that I clicked with the publishers really well in every meeting except Meeting 1 (the very large publisher) and Meeting 6 (Robo Battle). And even in those two cases, we got along just fine; I’m just less optimistic that those two publishers came away feeling like, “Man, I really want to work with Michael.” I think that the other publishers felt that they would like to work with me, and I felt the same way about working with them.

Closing thoughts

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with the way things went at Gen Con 2013 for Clay Crucible Games. My Chaos & Alchemy demos were great. I got to meet some of my Kickstarter backers (thank you all!). I picked up some sweet metal dice to trick out my own copy of Chaos & Alchemy. We picked up lots of pledges for the Kickstarter campaign throughout the Con, with great momentum heading into the final few days.

And on the game pitching front, I was thrilled. Getting call-backs from well-established publishers, finding interest in THREE of my games (when I was really only planning to talk about two – and one of those only secondarily), building good relationships… it was everything I could have hoped for. I think that there is an excellent chance that both Alchemy Bazaar and Everest are going to see publication in the not-to-distant future, and I’m feeling really happy.

So, the main lessons I walked away with are:

  • Be prepared with sell sheets and a polished, short pitch about how your game works and what makes it special
  • Be honest with publishers about your game, no matter what
  • Set up meetings ahead of time if you can
  • Be prepared to be flexible with your schedule if meeting publishers at a convention
  • Keep in mind that you’re partially selling yourself here; you want publishers to feel comfortable working with you, whether it’s on the game you’re pitching or something else that might come up in the future. Present yourself as someone who has their stuff together and is easy to work with.

And if you’ve found this post to be useful and it’s before August 23, 2013, as you read it, please also have a look at Chaos & Alchemy on Kickstarter! (Hey, this is my blog; I’m allowed to plug my Kickstarter, right?)

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)

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. 🙂

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

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

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

Alchemy Bazaar scoring mechanic: Avoid analysis paralysis

Playtesting continues apace on my newest game, Alchemy Bazaar, and it’s going really well so far. I had a great session over the weekend with a friend who is also a game designer, and as I had hoped, he helped me identify something to simplify in the game (no more tile ownership to track). I’ve put together a new set of tiles and cards, cleaning things up and adding more flavor, plus more creative tiles. Fun times!

Playtest 4 in action, with Michael getting help from Buttercup the cat

In the mean time, I wanted to talk a little bit about the scoring mechanic I’m using for Alchemy Bazaar. As I’ve said before, Lords of Waterdeep was a big inspiration for this one, and both games have a similar mechanic of collecting “quest” cards (Formulas in Alchemy Bazaar) and completing them throughout the game for points.  In Lords of Waterdeep, these points are tracked on the game board.

For Alchemy Bazaar, there are two reasons I didn’t want to go with the “points tracked on the game board” approach. The first is that there is no game board; the “board” builds up over time as players add new shop tiles to the bazaar. That’s not a deal-breaker, though; if I wanted, I could include a small side board just for point tracking (a la Seasons and some other games).

The main reason I skipped the scoreboard is that I want to avoid “analysis paralysis” where possible. Alchemy Bazaar is intended to be more strategic than Chaos & Alchemy, but I don’t want it to devolve to the point of players spending 10 minutes staring at the board before moving. One factor that can contribute to analysis paralysis is knowing exactly how far ahead of or behind the other players you are. I want players to have a general feel for whether they’re doing well or not, but I don’t want a precise number on it until the game ends.

So, I’m going with point cards. Whenever you would score points, you draw a certain number of cards from the point deck (I”m calling them Knowledge cards in the current playtest, but they might end up as Wisdom or something else). These are very simple cards with a single number on each. There are an equal quantity of 1, 2 and 3 point cards in the point deck, plus a sprinkling of 5-point cards.

I’m loving this mechanic so far. It helps to head off analysis paralysis and adds the potential for someone who’s behind to get a bit lucky and draw better point cards. It also opens the door to mechanics that let you discard point cards of your choice (get the 1-pointers out of your hand in the hopes of drawing 3s and 5s). This hasn’t changed in the slightest throughout playtesting so far; I think it’s a winner.

If you’re interested in joining the playtest for Alchemy Bazaar when it gets beyond the alpha stage, drop me a line at claycrucible@gmail.com. I have some playtesters lined up, but I wouldn’t mind a few more!

-Michael the OnlineDM – Clay Crucible Games

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Alchemy Bazaar: A new game design begins

Those of you who follow me on Twitter have probably seen some mentions in the past week of a new game I’m working on. My first game, Chaos & Alchemy, has been very successful (by my standards) and is in the process of moving toward publication by Game Salute.

My second design, Gods & Champions, was my NaGaDeMon project this past November, but it ended up not exciting me all that much, and I set it aside.

My third design, which I’m tentatively calling Alchemy Bazaar for now, is rolling along and I’m starting to playtest the alpha version. As of this writing, I’ve run three playtest games, and each one was better than the last.

Alchemy Bazaar is shamelessly inspired by one of my favorite games of the past year, Lords of Waterdeep. I love worker placement games (Agricola is still my all-time favorite game), and I really liked the buildings in Lords of Waterdeep. So, I decided to make a game that essentially takes those buildings and makes a whole game out of them.

In addition to buying buildings and doing worker placement, I also wanted to have the placement of buildings matter, somewhat like Alhambra but not quite. I wanted the players to build a common board, and then be able to not just place their workers, but also to move them around.

How does it work?

The game progresses through a series of rounds, each of which has two phases.

In the first phase the players are landlords of the bazaar. Each player gets to choose from three available tiles (representing shops that want to set up in the bazaar) and puts one on the board. The player collects some coins from the shop proprietor, who is eager to get a spot in the bazaar.

In the second phase, players get to move their tokens around the board, shopping in the bazaar. They’re trying to collect reagents (gems, metal and spirits) to complete alchemical formulas (similar to Lords of Waterdeep quests), which will give them knowledge. The player with the most knowledge at the end of the game wins.

The part I’m experimenting with here is the placement/movement rules for “workers” (alchemists and their apprentices). You can start by putting your token anywhere you want and using that shop. Then, you may pay a coin to move to an adjacent shop and use it. Then, you may pay two coins to keep going, then three, and so on. In the next round, your token starts wherever it ended the last round, and you begin your shopping by moving to an adjacent tile, then paying to keep going if you like.

My expectations

Unlike Chaos & Alchemy, I didn’t sit down and immediately create the game as soon as I had the general notion. I noodled on this one for a while. When I did start to create it, I expected that it would more or less immediately break down in play because of all the moving parts (tiles, formulas, actions, four currencies, movement on the board, etc.). I expected that I’d try an aborted game with my wife, then fix the fundamental flaws, then try again in a week, etc.

Happily, that hasn’t been the case at all. Much like Chaos & Alchemy, this one has been fun from the start. It’s only been played three times to this point, but those are some very encouraging games. The most recent game involved me flagging down a couple of strangers at the local game store, playing a game with them, seeing them have a great time, and only after the fact learn that they’re not even board gamers. That’s a very encouraging development!

Interestingly, I’m finding out how much fun good game components can be. After my first game, I replaced the Lords of Waterdeep cubes I had been using with some cool beads to represent the reagents. After my second game, I printed the tiles onto sticker labels and put them on matte board to create actual tiles instead of the cardstock I had been using. Such an improvement!

Next steps

I haven’t yet gotten to try the game with my favorite playtester, and I’m sure he’ll have some great suggestions for me. Also, the Formula and Action cards haven’t gotten a whole lot of thought yet, and I’m sure I’ll be able to refine them to include more of the fun stuff. But so far so good!

Watch the blog for future updates. And who knows? Maybe I’ll have a second board game out in the wild before long!

-Michael the OnlineDM

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