Friday, September 20, 2013

Congres of Gamers Preview 2013: Nathaniel Levan

Just one more week till Congress of Gamers ( in Bethesda, Maryland on September 28th & 29th.  I have been checking in with diffrent game designers that I have met on the UNPUB circuit who I know are also attending Congress of Gamers.  Today I am talking to Nathaniel Levan of Oak Leaf Games about his game New Bedford.

I met Nathaniel at UNPUB South Jersey 2013 when he was demoing New Bedford.


Nathaniel Levan: That was my first public showing of the game, and my first UNPUB event.  I had no idea what to expect at UNPUB South Jersey, but people said a lot of positive things about the game which encouraged me to  keep developing it.


Dr. Wictz:           Can you give us a quick rundown of New Bedford, which you will also be playtesting at Congress of Gamers?

Nathaniel Levan: New Bedford is a worker placement game about building a whaling town.  Players add actions to the game by building buildings and launch ships to compete for the best opportunity to catch whales.  Whaling uses an original “track” mechanic that balances the time players spend collecting whales with the competition as supply of whales decrease.

Dr. Wictz:           How does the “track” mechanic work?
Nathaniel Levan: Players have the ability to launch ships to the whaling track.  The ships farthest from shore get the best choice of the randomly drawn whale tokens.  Ships slowly move toward shore, which gives other players a chance to push their ships further out to sea and grab better whale tokens until you can launch another ship.  Meanwhile, you need to earn enough money to pay your ships crew when it returns to port.  Whale tokens are never returned to the supply, so as the game progresses it becomes harder to catch good whales.   
Dr. Wictz:           How has New Bedford changed since you started presenting it UNPUB events?

Nathaniel Levan: There are a lot of small graphical changes, which is natural for a prototype.  Most of them were superficial changes that make it easier to pick up and learn the game.  But there was also a few big changes.  Thanks to input from Dr. Wictz, the main board was separated into two pieces, and the whaling mechanic was dramatically simplified.  Based on feedback from my last UNPUB event, I removed an entire resource.  Even after these changes the core gameplay is still the same, but the game is much more elegant and compelling.
Dr. Wictz:             What inspired the whaling theme in New Bedford?
Nathaniel Levan: I had been interested in developing a game about whaling since rereading Moby Dick a couple of years ago, but I didn’t really put the two together until I saw a documentary on PBS about whaling.  After that everything started to fit into place.  Moby Dick provides a  great slice of mythology and culture from the golden age of whaling that New Bedford draws upon for thematic inspiration.  At the same time, I wanted to keep specific references from the book out of the game so the game has its own identity.
Dr. Wictz:            How did you get into designing board games?
Nathaniel Levan:  I’m an engineer, so I naturally think about ways to rearrange and combine parts into something new.  I started writing down ideas and developed some fan expansions by tweaking game rules and borrowing rules from other games.  Then I moved on to developing whole mechanics and games based on what I have liked and dislike from other games.  I’ve been working on a number of designs, but New Bedford is the first one I have gotten into a playable form.

Dr. Wictz:            Why do you love making board games?
Nathaniel Levan: I love having interesting things to think about in my spare time.  Games let me combine that analytical portion of my brain with all of the random snippets of information I have gathered.
Dr. Wictz:            Any shout outs to your most dedicated game testers (cough cough, wife, gf, etc.)?

Nathaniel Levan: I’d like to thank my wife for both her moral support in the development, and practical support with the design.  When I have a problem with the game or add something new I ask her to take a look and she tells me what fits and what doesn’t.  She has really helped shaped the playing experience of New Bedford.  I’d also like to thank/apologize to my friends who put you with my continual requests for playtesting.
Dr. Wictz:           Thank you Nathaniel for stopping by and chatting.  You can learn more about New Bedford and Nathaniel’s other games by following his blog or by following him on facebook at .

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Congress of Gamers Preview 2013: Paul Owen

Today I have another conversation with a game designer I have met on the UNPUB circuit who will be at Congress of Gamers ( in Bethesda, Maryland on September 28th & 29th.  Let me introduce you to one of my earliest supporters, Paul Owen.  His excitement over Post Position convinced me I should develop the game further.

I first met Paul when I debuted Post Position at Congress of Gamers last year. He was playtesting an earlier version of “East India Company.”

Dr. Wictz:        I know you are planning on demoing an improved version of East India Company, could you give us a quick overview of the game?


Paul Owen:      It's an 18th-century mercantile pickup-and-deliver game in which players run companies that speculate on overseas trade.  The goal is to make the most money buying goods overseas and selling them in Europe and elsewhere.  Profits are affected by competition and market saturation, and pirates introduce a risk element as well.

Dr. Wictz:         How has the game changed since you started presenting it at UNPUB events?


Paul Owen:      Mostly I've improved the flow of the game turn sequence to shorten the overall game duration.  I've also modified some of the market tiles, prices, ship characteristics, and initial set-up rules to fix problems that playtesters uncovered with unbeatable strategies.


Dr. Wictz:          What inspired East India Company’s game theme?

Paul Owen:        It was my wife Kathy's idea, actually.  The original theme was going to be interplanetary mining, but I kept stumbling on the space travel mechanics.  I was on the verge of making it as complicated as Phil Eklund's High Frontier, until my wife suggested that I look for an historical setting instead of a science fiction one.  Once I settled on sailing ships, everything fell into place.
Dr. Wictz:           How did you get into designing board games?
Paul Owen:        Well, I've had game ideas since I was in junior high school, but they were all terribly undeveloped and unwieldy.  My first serious game design was based on the wars of the successors of Alexander the Great, because I thought that that historical setting was ideal for a multi-player wargame - kind of a historical version of Game of Thrones.  I pitched it to a couple of companies and didn't get anywhere with it, but in the process I made some contacts that paid off later on.
Dr. Wictz:            What games have you had published?
Paul Owen:        Just one - Trains Planes and Automobiles, a family game of card-driven board movement in which players complete travel assignments around North America as news correspondents.
Dr. Wictz:            Why do you love making board games?
Paul Owen:     I think I get such a kick out of playing board games and have such an appreciation for a well-designed game that I'm enamored with the idea of contributing to the "portfolio" of games that people can break out and play with each other and have fun.  Nothing tickles me more than when somebody tells me that they played Trains Planes and Automobiles with their kids, and they really liked it.
Dr. Wictz:        What is your favorite past moment from Congress of Gamers?
Paul Owen:     That's a tough one.  I think it was probably when Darrell Louder broke "East India Company" and made me go back to the drawing board.  He figured out a winning strategy of keeping one ship and just sailing it back and forth between Europe and North America, buying and selling tobacco, not getting distracted by buying more ships or competing with other players for other goods.  I called it the "Quiet Louder" strategy, and it forced me to modify the costs and benefits of buying ships and growing the company to motivate more aggressive investment and risk-taking.  
Another real highlight was when you and Austin walked into Congress of Gamers with "Post Position" for the first time.  Most of the designers in that room knew each other either personally or by reputation, but the two of you were completely new to all of us.  And you completely blew the doors off the room with the most raucous, fun big-group game of them all.  That was such a great day.
Dr. Wictz:        How does Congress  of Gamers compare to other game conventions you have attended?
Paul Owen:      It's by far the smallest, least formal, and most personal convention.  It's very friendly, and it runs pretty much on volunteers helping out almost on a moment's notice wherever they're needed.  The designer's room (what they call the "Copyright Office") is a great game design lab experience.  I used to compete in the game tournaments and occasionally stick my head in the designer's room, but now that's the only place I spend my time for the whole con.
Dr. Wictz:        What draws you to Congress of Gamers?
Paul Owen:     Well, it's geographically convenient to me personally.  Plus it's just so friendly and informal, and the opportunity to demonstrate my game and play other prototypes is just priceless.
Dr. Wictz:        Any shout outs to your most dedicated game testers (cough  cough, wife, gf, etc.)?
Paul Owen:     Yes, my wife is indeed my biggest playtester.  I've also had a lot of support from my local game group - Keith Ferguson, Brian Greer, Mike Rusanowsky, Glenn Weeks - as well as designers that I regularly meet at cons - Chris and Cherilyn Kirkman, Darrell Louder, TC Petty III.  And I have to give credit to John Moller for being the UnPub ringleader for the past several years.
Dr. Wictz:       Thank you Paul for being with us today. 
If you want to learn more about Paul  visit his blog at where he writes about game design and his latest progress on East India Company.  Or, follow him on twitter @PaulOwenGames.  Paul will start contributing to the Dice Tower News podcast every Friday with a Kickstarter report beginning September 13. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Congress of Gamers Preview 2013: Charlie Hoopes

Only a few more weeks to one of my favorite conventions, Congress of Gamers ( in Bethesda, Maryland on September 28th & 29th.  In preparation for the event I am checking in on a few folks we have meet on the UNPUB circuit that we know are also attending Congress of Gamers.  Today I talk to Charlie Hoopes of HoopCAT Games.

I first met Charlie at South Jersey UNPUB last April.  He was there showing off his new game prototype FireBreak.

Charlie Hoopes: It was the first event where I showed FireBreak publically.   I was nervous on the drive to New Jersey that morning.  Firebreak was in a less-finished state than when we first exposed At-tat to UNPUB. And just because you and your own family like playing your new game there is no guarantee that anybody else will.

Dr. Wictz:          I think I was only a few tables away from you at South Jersey UNPUB.

Charlie Hoopes: You were 2 or 3 tables away from me and wandered over to play while taking a break from Post Position.  If I remember right, you suggested some changes and then immediately played a second game of FireBreak to test them out.  Your response as well as others to Firebreak’s debut that day erased any doubts I had over whether Firebreak was wroth further development.

Dr. Wictz:          Can you give us a quick overview of the games you will be playtesting at Congress of Gamers?

Charlie Hoopes: Firebreak is a cooperative game where players must work together to extinguish and/or contain a series of forest fires.  As the fire spreads, the players lose points, with extra penalties if buildings or wildlife areas are lost to the flames.  To win the game players must bring the blazes completely under control before they run out of points.

                          If anyone is interested, I will also have a copy of At-tat/Planx with me.  We have not taken this out since UNPUB3.  We are putting a theme on top of this path-making, board-vanishing abstract game prior to publication.  So if I can get the rough themed prototype ready in the next few weeks, I’ll be bringing that too.  Even if for no other reasons than to get feedback on the theme ideas from designers who already played the earlier un-themed version.

Dr. Wictz:          How has Firebreak changed since you started presenting it at UNPUB events?

Charlie Hoopes: Has it ever.  I would say that the advice from Dr. Wictz and other designers at UNPUB events has greatly accelerated the development of Firebreak.  At Congress of Gamers I will feature two major changes to Firebreak.
                          First, I have replaced the 37 individual tiles with 7 mega tiles.  The mega tiles are 7 spaces each, now giving a 49 space playing area.  Not only do the 7 mega tiles make for a very quick setup time, they also give me a way to guarantee that key areas (wildlife preserves, lakes, etc) can never be placed adjacent to each other.

                          The second changes is that instead of tallying points at the end, now you start with the maximum points and lose points as the fire spread.  If you run out of points, you lose the game.  Watching your points dwindle creates a sense of urgency that earlier versions of the game were lacking.

Dr. Wictz:          What inspired the theme in Firebreak?

Charlie Hoopes: My younger son (now 12) loves Forbidden Island and now Pandemic too, so for months he suggested HoopCat should make a cooperative game.  Yeah, right, game ideas don’t grow on trees, easier said than done.  With competitive games the tension and challenge come from the other players.  With a cooperative game, the tension has to come from the game itself, yet also be balanced just right so that the game never becomes either too easy or too impossible.  But then one day I had the idea that a fire driven by unpredictable-changing wind could provide that tension to a cooperative game.

Dr. Wictz:           How did you get into designing board games?

Charlie Hoopes: That story goes back to my younger son.  The full story was the subject of my very first blog.  Here’s the short version.  A few summers ago my younger son was excited to get a new game with a gift card he received for his birthday.  He bought a nicely-packaged game (that I will never name) from a big-name toy company.  it was the lamest game I have ever played in my life.  (Maybe they should have dropped by UNPUB for some playtesting before release?)  there were no meaningful choices to make, no way to affect the outcome and worst of all it seemed to drag on and never end.  We only played it once.  A month later, my son was ready to put it on the Goodwill pile.  I thought to myself, “Even I could make a game better than that.”

Dr. Wictz:          What games have you published?

Charlie Hoopes: We formed the company HoopCAT Games to self-publish our first game Fill The Barn.  Our game game was a hit with the Junior’s tournament at the World Boardgame Championship this summer.  Yet despite numerous positive reviews from Father Geek, Casual Game Insider Magazine, ISlayTheDragon, John Moller, and others, I am fairly confident we have not yet surpassed the sales figures of the wasted gift card game that pushed me into game making.  Although I think I made the better game, I just can’t match their marketing budget.

Dr. Wictz:          Why do you love making board games?

Charlie Hoopes: You have to love it - there is too little returns for too much effort to continue otherwise.  The first rule of being a game maker is don’t quit your day job.  When somebody plays your game and tells you they enjoyed it, that’s a reward that money cannot buy.

Dr. Wictz:          What draws you to Congress of Gamers?

Charlie Hoopes: I am drawn to any event that has an UNPUB affiliation.  UNPUB is wonderful because instead of you having to hunt down playtesters, the playtesters come to you.  And, how could I say no  when I learned that Congress of Gamers was the birthplace of UNPUB?

Dr. Wictz:         Any shout outs to your most dedicated game testers (cough cough, wife, gf, etc.)?

Charlie Hoopes: Did you say cough, cough?  Yes, I will shout out for Aaron & Austin (aka Dr. Wictz), you two have been Firebreak fans from the very first time you played, and I have appreciated your advice and encouragement.  And I will give a shout out to every designer who is part of the UNPUB community - if  I started listing names, I’m afraid I’ll miss somebody.

Dr. Wictz:          Thank you so much Charlie for joining us today.  If you want to learn more about HoopCAT games you can follow them on twitter @hoopcatgames, join their facebook group HoopCAT games, browse their website, or read Charlie’s blog

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Where to start?

"If you don't know where to start, start at the beginning." -Escanaba in the Woods

Austin and Aaron are collectively known as Dr. Wictz.  Our last names both end with the sound Wictz and one of us (I'll let you guess who) is working on his PhD in economics. 

We have been designing board games together ever since Aaron's bachelor party in the summer of 2012.  We were going to create a new variant of Daytona 500 for the party but Austin accidently forgot the game.  So at the party, using some magical racing rocks, we came up with a new racing game where you buy and sell stock in the different racing rocks as the race progressed.  (Did I mention that about half of the party were econ grad students?)

After a number of refinements (like changing the magical rocks into horses) we created the horse racing game Post Position.  Post Position is a five round horse race where in each round players get to secretly submit  two or three horses they will move and then trade stocks in the horses before the movements are made public.

We are still play testing and refining the game.  In fact our next play testing will take place at Congress of Gamers in Bethesda Maryland on Sept. 28 & 29th.  (