Category: Making

Articles in this category are about tools and ideas about making things, and my belief that you can make things.

Working In Layers

Making card games in print-on-demand is mostly the task of making a large .pdf which shows every individual card, back-and-face, like a book. When I first started out – well, when I first started out, I let Fox do it, because it was super hard and I was embarassingly bothered by Scribus.

Scribus does suck, but I was more afraid of it than I should have been and that meant that I did as much work as I possibly could in some games like Murder Most Fowl, where while the card had a variable face, each was a whole image, crafted for each version of the card, then put manually into a file. This meant that that game’s file is very large and I was using graphical arts to handle layout stuff.

What’s that mean? Look, if you haven’t experienced it’s hard to explain, but it’s the difference between being able to easily move around bits of a design and replacing them quickly.

My first proper experiment in using Scribus to layer the components of a game was Good Cop, Bear Cop. Here’s an example card:

And here are the five layers that go into that card’s face.

What’s this mean? It means that if I do something redundant to a card I don’t need to edit twenty files in the .pdf – I can just replace the file showing that component and it works. This happened in Good Cop, Bear Cop: I was originally using these icons for two of the game elements:

Which I replaced with these:

Replacing these icons meant I edited three images that were otherwise transparent, then reloading Scribus.

Shirt Highlight: HUIZINGA!


If you’re like me, you probably hate The Big Bang Theory, and you probably hate it even more when someone references it to you as if you should understand it. Yes, I study or read criticism, or trust science exists, that definitely means I am inclined to the comedic ouvre of one Chuck Lorre. This is our common ground, random stranger, this is the footing on which you and I can build an understanding, a friendship, and perhaps one day, love, blossoming into our lives and binding us together until the shadowy eternities close on us all and I hold your hand while one of us slips away first, murmuring, yes, it was definitely better than Young Sheldon. You sure get me and people like me.

However, if you are like me – and almost painfully specifically like me – you’re deeply amused by the comparison between Huizinga and Bazinga, and the imagery of the Magic Circle. And then, if that’s you? Well, this shirt is totally for you.



Bad Balance: Your Part In Failure

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Your Failure

You’ll find if you listen to any given D&D 3.5 player, they’ll usually have some memories of the things I talk about being total bupkis. I know I played alongside a cleric who wasn’t overpowered, and we had one game where the runaway behemoth was a telepath. As your friendly neighborhood min-maxer I had the game squealing under the heel of a bard, once. More often than anything else we’d see on the newsgroups players wondering about how they could play clerics well, because they thought their only job was standing by and healing, leading to an unfulfilling game of whack-a-mole. What’s more there are a lot of games where the wizard player felt worthless and ran away from goblins a lot with a terrible armour class. Once I heard the artificer dismissed as trash because a player could simply not imagine how to make it work.

This is one of the many ways D&D3.5 was unbalanced: It was entirely possible to play overpowered characters badly. Most of the characters who were busted were busted because of spells or magic items and that stuff was overwhelmingly available…

If you took it.

You could absolutely play a weak wizard! You could pick up the twenty totally worthless spells at every level, you could sink into the swamp of crap. You could take a level of sorcerer and a level of wizard, and then maybe level them up side by side and maybe you’d balance your stats and oh good god noooo.

You could be handed a high-octane chainsaw laser hammer and it was entirely reasonable for a new player, a player who had no reason to expect they were being given something totally broken, to sit down and tap nails in with the wrong end.

Bad Balance: Free Power

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Free Power!

A thing you’ll find in most games is there’s an opportunity cost to adding things to your character. Magic items occupy this space in D&D where there are slots, clearly recognising that there’s a good reason to limit the number of belts you wear, especially when those belts do magical things. Thing is, the item system isn’t the only place that came up.

In most games there’s an opportunity cost. Every choice you make is an option. In 3.5 D&D there were a surprising number of times when there were no such choices. If you were aiming for a prestige class at level 6 onwards, your first five levels could sometimes look like utter nonsense – fighter 2, barbarian 2, ranger 1, for example, would give you a grotesque fort save, a handful of benefits and lose you a single point of reflex and will, which was just not a reasonable trade. If you were building a wizard, prestige classes themselves could look ridiculous, as you cherry-picked the opening benefits of four or five of them because none of them had a meaningful late game reward.

When you give players an option for something, you need to make it so that they’re giving something up if they take it. Not that every option is punishing – that’s its own bad idea – but that every option is a choice, and choices should be meaningful.

Making Notes: Who Makes My Tokens?

I have this game idea: It’s a worker placement game where you’re overseeing a heist on a casino while other gangs are trying to do the same thing. There are a few ideas I like here, where the board is made up of a set of cards, which means it changes from game to game, and where and how you get to the locations for placement are in turn influenced by the movement of security guards between the cards.

What this game wants is a small number of cards: Right now it’s as few as fourteen possible cards to make a 9-card grid. It wants to have space between them, the cards have suits and behave a bit like poker hands, whatever. The point is, that it’s a small number of cards, but it needs ways to mark where you, the player, have put your workers.

Also, the workers have hidden information.

Now normally if you have something with hidden information, you use something with two faces: A card, duh, right? The problem is that putting a card on a card obscures a lot of that card’s information – and you need that information to make decisions about where things are. Moving other players’ cards might accidentally reveal things and it’d be a lot easier to put/move smaller tokens around.

Simply: This game wants tokens. Heck, this right here is nonsense, really: I should be in a position to say this design uses tokens without having to justify it!

I do most of my printing of card games through DriveThruCards. They are not a perfect printer service. I don’t know what a perfect service would look like – though I guess they’d be much more local and I wouldn’t have to pay international shipping and wait three weeks for my product to arrive for when I wanted to sell it face-to-face. That sucks (for me).

Still, I like DriveThruCards. The staff are nice and they’ve been very helpful with problems we have. I’m familiar with the tools and they have all my games on catalogue (with one exception).  They work. There are, however, things th  at they don’t do. In this case, what I’m thinking about is tokens.

The place I normally use for tokens is GameCrafter, where we made Skulk. It’s a good place for its kind of work, but if I put it there I need to do bulk orders of hundreds of games, and with only one game at a time there, I simply can’t afford it. The best sales I get are in person, where I can show a person my game and watch them buy it.

That means the sites are not worthwhile as markets, but rather as production fronts. It’s ridiculous. On the other hand, their tokens are really good: I like them a lot. One idea is to make the whole game there, and instead of buying a box, putting the game in a single nice bag like this:

This bag is about 5 by 4 inches; it’s light, it’s soft. It also, crucially, does not sit on a bookshelf neatly, and that’s something that Fox doesn’t like, and I also am sympathetic to that position. Still, there’s a definite appeal to a bag with some tokens and some cards that unpacks into a bigger, complicated game with a euro-game style thinking-building play style. It’d be affordable too – somewhere around $15-$20, which puts it around the level of our mid-cost card games.

I like our tuck boxes, which are standardised sizes, all cardboard, recycleable and give me room to put more designs and information. I like our tucks. The problem with the tucks is that they’re made at DriveThru. DriveThru gives me tuckboxes and bulk ordering and … no tokens. Now, I’ve done some testing! I can fit this game and all its tokens into the box quite easily, though then we meet a new problem: DriveThru doesn’t offer tokens.

There is a solution, one I’ve used for Wobbegong-12: That game comes with a card you cut into pieces to make tokens, and they live in the box you keep the game in. That would work, except there we have two new problems! First, the pieces would be cut up by end users, which mean that keeping tokens the exact same size and therefore, avoid giving away information to other players is hard, and second, there are some players resistant to the idea of cutting up cards. Bonus, I don’t know if those players are people who buy or want to buy our stuff, so… that’s hard to know how to judge.

This is a real pickle for me. This is also really frustrating because I like this game idea and I’d like to keep working on it. What complicates this further is that I can’t really get a good, useful response on how to approach this problem. Part of this is because there are people who would never buy this game who would still have opinions on how it ‘should’ work, and people who don’t know what the game is trying to do with equally firm opinions!

This is a really tricky place to be. It might just get the idea put on the shelf again, which would bum me out because I really like the idea. If Gamecrafter had a vibrant community, or wasn’t so expensive to ship around, I might try it out; if DriveThru did simple cut tokens, that would be perfect. Yet, neither are true, and so here I am, stuck with my tuck and my tokens.

This is the kind of thing you need to take into account when looking into your making process. How do you get your stock? Do you want stock? Do you just want to get access to tangible copies of what you’ve made? Can you split your sources? Can you afford to split your sources?

Telling A Story Through A Game Pt. 2

Here’s a link to the first part. I said I had to go to the tank for this one, and boy didn’t I.

When you want to design a game that conveys a narrative without writing that narrative, and when you accept that all games tell stories, you’re left with a need to construct your game’s components so that they’re made up of potential events, or perhaps better expressed, you’re made up of story components.

One of the things that games tend to have that works well for them is the start of the game, the engagement of the player, is a singular instigatory action; the players’ presence change the status quo of the game’s universe before the player arrived. Now, most of the time the game’s narrative doesn’t incorporate that – most games tend to start from a place where nobody has done anything yet, and the game follows that.

That’s sort of all you need: You need the game’s mechanics to represent the movements, actions or reactions of people. People is a nebulous term, by the way: humans will see people in everything around them. It’s actually really hard to keep people from attaching humanity to the things in the games they play – how often do you see people treat the dice like they have motivation?

The trick then comes in making sure that players can all see the same things as having some degree of personality, of agency to them, something that forms the story around them. And to show the example of how this works, we’re going to look at two great games, with similar mechanics and a complete disconnect between the nature of how they tell story.

First we have Dominion, the game I tease as being themeless, and A Few Acres of Snow, a game about the invasion of Canada by America in that war they don’t like to talk about. Both games are deck builders, and both games have some pretty simple mechanics that they then expand outwards.

In Dominion

In Dominion cards are bought from a grid, and there’s a sort of variance in what the cards are, with a very vague idea that you are a ruler, or maybe you are the territory itself, with your deck representing things that exist on your territory.

In Dominion, you add cards to your deck, which then take some time to cycle around into hand. There are cards that represent territory, which is how you achieve victory, there are cards that represent money, which is how you buy cards, and then there are all the other cards that lend some character to your deck.

The thing with totally abstract currency in your deck is that they represent … something. Something maybe. Sometimes, it represents people who work in the territory – silversmiths and blacksmiths. Sometimes it represents objects in your territory – like a moat (even a moat!). Sometimes it represents an object (the throne).

None of these are bad game entities, but when you lay them out, there’s no clear idea for what they all are. Are you building a throne? What do you mean when you have two thrones? Does a blacksmith turning a metal coin into a different metal coin represent something like an actual act of alchemy? There’s no clear explanation, no solid or robust theming. The game has a theme alright, an overtone – it’s one of a sort-of-medieval sort-of-fantasy kingdom, with something like a government, but that’s all.

In A Few Acres Of Snow…

In Acres, the cards represent the actions you as a ruler of the war can take, the actions you can engage with and the ways you can direct troops with a limited range of options – sometimes supplies just don’t show up when you need them, sometimes you have the chance to communicate with three or four cities and don’t have the supplies to direct to them. The mechanisms of that game put the player in the narrative position of a leader dealing with the constraints of a military movement during a time before instant-speed communication.

What this means is that the mechanics of the game become part of the story the game tells you: You’re a leader, you’re making choices, they are all based on communication, and the cards that represent people are people dealing with you and talking to you, people available to you within your limited sphere of communication. One of the best cards in the game for this is the governor – a character that when you buy it, comes into your deck, gets rid of two cards you don’t need any more… and then remains there until you get rid of them with another governor – meaning that over time you can have a deck full of governors, managing beaurocracy, meaning your personal communication is now clogged with fewer bad options but with more dealing with beaurocracy.


The difference between these two games telling stories is that the games’ mechanics require you to change your mental position on what the card entities are pulling your focus to. In Acres, the cards represent opportunities presented to the player, to you. In Dominion, the cards represent things within the player’s space. That’s what keeps Dominion from telling its story; the character cannot be the player, the centerpiece cannot be a thing on the cards.

So, when you want to tell a story through mechanics alone, you need to give the player a through-line they can observe. You need to give them something that can hold the story.

This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @Fugiman on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!

MTG: The Anti-Legions

Hello, Wizards employees! I understand that you’re not supposed to see unsolicited card designs or conversations about same, and with that in mind I’m going to ask you to head elsewhere. Like to this rad interview with Alison Lurhs about Tumblr and MTG. As for the rest of you, let’s talk about making an Anti-Legions.

Man, that’s frustrating. I can’t help but feel this kind of article – if it’s good – would be great to show as a portfolio of design work. Ah well.
Continue reading

Arresting Godzilla

King of Tokyo is a great little game. I like seeing an existing simple mechanic used as a structure. I love mechanics as metaphor. I really like the metaphor it uses, the big smashy monster genre of movies. I like how silly it is, how it uses the tropes of that genre. I really like how the game makes for fast turns. Don’t think for a minute this is a complaint that makes King of Tokyo a bad game.


It does have one awkward design thing, a little bit, a tiny thing that bugs me. It’s a thing that I feel like you can design around, but I’m not sure what the fix, what the solution would look like.

When you play King of Tokyo, enemy turns don’t have any inherent value to you. You do things on your turn, but unless an enemy attacks you (in specific circumstance) or they buy a card you wanted (which can happen), you and your opponents aren’t acting and reacting in ways that necessarily mean a lot to you. That means turns that aren’t yours are spent not paying too much attention. Normally, this kind of time lets a player make a plan, prepare for their turn to act quickly.

Except in King of Tokyo, you don’t know what you can do until your turn. No plan survives their interface with the dice. Which means you’re waiting, maybe planning, maybe even daydreaming, before you suddenly have the dice in your hand and bam, and suddenly you have to make a plan out of that.

I wish that the game either meant there was less time waiting for those dice, or there was more you could do while you waited. As it is there’s a sort of mental arrest moment.

Me, I don’t know the solution.

Learning to Share

Let me tell you something that’s just the dopest hecking poop.

Today, Fox and I got talking as we had lunch, offhandedly, about Scythe. Specifically, about a random component of Scythe. Then the discussion was about how messy the box might have to be to need that, then suddenly we’re discussing the problems we see with Scythe – not with playing it, but with being cautious about even wanting to design a game like that.

Then suddenly we were chewing on the problem, as we chewed on our sandwiches. One idea – what about units with stacks of tokens on them, attacking them flipped tokens, what if you had to move pieces by hand, what about dice rollers, what about dice rolling work pools? What about –

I came home, I sat down, and took notes and detailed out some ideas and checked the progress and release on some games, and then realised I had four or five really good ideas I could use for games, for other games, for ideas that could be the basis of games in general.

Find someone you can talk to about games. Find a few someones. Find people where you’re not going to be thinking I can’t share this idea with them or they’ll steal it. Let go of that. Find a place to talk about games where you’re not defending your ideas, where you’re not going to have a reddit-style well actually argument. Find a way to share ideas, and you’ll find it fosters and creates and nourishes you and helps you make, and it makes you happy.

Bad Balance: Paralysing Potential

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Paralysing Potential

Did you play a spellcaster back in 3.5? Did you play a Cleric? A Druid? A Wizard? God help you, did you play an Archivist?

The 3.5 spell list is an absolute swamp of bullshit, a completely festering mire of options that include procedurally generated X damage over Y area with Z range math-up messes that really form the basis for what you can probably handle, balance wise,  to spells which are unimpressive with one basic form, and totally busted if you think about them innovatively, spells designed to be worse versions of the former, multiple spells designed to fill the same space by designers working on different books, grandfathered together, spells designed to duplicate other spells just with a different flavour to try and keep the spell schools reasonably balanced, then some complete out-of-context nonsense that didn’t have any combat-or-existing mechanical application but suddenly changed the context of how combat even happened. Feel tired at the end of that sentence? Good, because it’s worse than that.

Spellcasters 3.5 were broken and it was easy to get a modest amount of broken just by paying attention to a few exploitable spells, but if you wanted to go deep, if you were the kind of player who was willing to marinate deep in the dank shit of supplemental sourcebooks or even just read through the ramifications of everything in the player’s handbook, if you were the person who bothered to use Scribe Scroll and stockpile every level 1 spell you didn’t wind up using in any given day until you had literally a library of the dang things, then you knew how broad, how busted, and how blinding your potential was.

There’s no surprise that players – despite the weakness – really appreciated Sorcerers. All sorcerers needed to know was a small handful of useful spells, rather than try to learn all of the spells present in the entire danging game.

The way I coped with it, myself, was to opt away from the full-bore spellcasters. My few times playing Cleric or Druid were times that DMs quickly started nerfing things on the fly. If you instead limited yourself to doing a smaller handful of things really well, you might be less powerful, but you’ll at least be able to make a choice on your turn without ever being stymied by the thousands of things you could do. Levelling up and building your character was still a long, agonising process, but at least that concentrated the wait.

These older editions would sometimes present you with complicated puzzles in the form of a combat arena and expect you to answer that question with a spell template; a line, a point, a single target, a circular template or maybe a chain. But then, the Wizard didn’t have to do that, they could answer it by teleporting away, by charming something, by becoming invisible, by summoning thirty tons of stone directly above the enemy, by becoming something else, by making someone else into something else, and all of these options were presented to you.

Now it’s your turn.

Pick something.

Go go go.