All posts by ClayCrucible

2016 gaming recap

At the beginning of 2016, I mentioned to my wife Barbara that some people on the BoardGameGeek forums were talking about the “365 Play Challenge” – setting a goal to log 365 plays of various games during the course of the year. Barbara liked the idea, and so did I, so we set it as a goal for ourselves.

Every time we played a board game during the year, I logged the play in my BoardGameGeek account (user name ChaosAndAlchemy in case you’re wondering), using the excellent BG Stats app on my iPhone (it’s only a couple of bucks, and I personally love it). I also tweeted each play using the #365games hashtag. This lets me look back now that the year is over and reflect on what an awesome gaming here it has been!

365 Challenge

The main goal was to log 365 plays, averaging one per day (and yes, 2016 was a leap year, so we had an extra day to get there). Mission accomplished!

On December 17, during a run through several months of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, we hit our 365th play. By the time the year ended on December 31, we had logged 385 plays in total.

I’ll note here that I only logged plays of games that took place with the physical game, not online plays or plays against an app. We both played lots of app games as well (for me, mostly Star Realms, Pandemic, Backgammon and Chess), but only the real-world games counted for our challenge.

Now, while we mostly play games with the two of us, sometimes with friends added in, not every play included both me and Barbara. There were two games of Rhino Hero that Barbara played with a friend of ours at BoardGameGeek Con in Dallas in November while I set up and learned the rules to a different game (Shear Panic), so I only played 383 games myself. As for the other direction, I logged many plays of games at lunch breaks at work, plus a few at BGG Con while Barbara was doing other things, so Barbara’s total was 323 plays. Close enough!

10×10

Another common challenge that people set for themselves on BGG is the 10×10 Challenge. In the Normal version (which we ended up doing), you try to have 10 different games that you’ve played at least 10 times each by the end of the year. In the Hardcore version, you pick 10 games at the beginning of the year (plus one alternate) and aim to play each of those specific games at least 10 times during the year.

Mission accomplished on the Normal challenge! In fact, we ended up with 13 different games that we played at least 10 times. We accomplished the “11×11” in this case, but not 12×12 or 13×13.

Our 10+ play games were:

I like that our 10×10 list has a mixture of some quicker games with a bunch of meatier titles as well. As you can see, we played the full 15 game campaign of Risk Legacy and about half of a Seafall campaign. Not shown here are our 7 games of Pandemic Legacy; it was a very Legacy year!

25×5

When we were at BGG Con, we played some games with one woman who said she was working on a 25×5 challenge. Similar to the 10×10 but rewarding more variety, the goal is to have at least 25 different games that you’ve logged 5 or more plays of.

At the time, we realized that we had already hit something like 22×5, so it wasn’t too much effort to get to the full 25. In the end, we ended up with 29 different games with at least 5 plays each.

100×1

This is one I noticed when looking at our stats as the year neared its end. We had logged plays of over 90 different games during the year; wouldn’t it be cool to get to 100? Yes, yes it would.

This is the one that I was scrambling to get at the end of the year. We hit 97 pretty naturally by mid December, so I looked through my collection to see which games just somehow hadn’t hit the table in 2016 yet.

Barbara and I played a quick game of Otters (yay!) to get us to 98. As I looked toward the last couple of days of the year, I knew we would be getting together with friends on December 30, and that turned into TIME Stories night (we played the Marcy case), which got us to 99. We also pulled out Euphoria, which somehow hadn’t made it to the table in over two years, bringing us to 100.

Of those 100, 45 were new-to-me games. BGG Con certainly helped in this regard, since we got to play a bunch of brand-new games but we also took advantage of the game library to try some older games that we had never played. This was how we discovered Trajan, one of our gems of the year.

The people

Part of the fun of tracking board game plays is the ability to look back at the end of the year and remember the events surrounding those plays. In addition to all of the great times with just Barbara and me, playing a game at home, I also loved recalling these:

  • The many games we played with our friend Dana before she shipped off to Air Force boot camp
  • The flurry of Codenames plus Agricola that we enjoyed while visiting friends in Florida
  • The Risk Legacy campaign we powered through with our friends Lisa and Brian before they moved to South Carolina
  • The time I sought out a board game store in Oakland during a business trip to San Francisco and taught a new friend how to play Patchwork, Pandemic and Dominion
  • The visit from Barbara’s distant relatives where we taught them to play Love Letter (and they got INTO it!)
  • The two separate visits from my friend Mark from Washington, where we not only pondered the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and inhabited a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars: Rebellion,  but also tried out one of Mark’s prototypes
  • The big board game day in April that I had almost totally forgotten – the only time all year we spent with our friend Ben. And I forgive him for convincing us to play Munchkin that night 🙂
  • The many games of Star Realms that I played with Jack, the young son of a friend who seemed to really appreciate the time with me
  • The gaming desert from the beginning of May, when Barbara and I put an offer on a house and started the process of moving, through the end of June, when we had finally moved. We got to 385 plays while only logging 5 plays in May and 8 in June.
  • The visit from our Florida friends to come spend time with us in the new house, when we played a whole bunch of Happy Salmon with their little girls.
  • The discovery of the beautiful World’s Fair 1893 in July and the introduction of it to friends throughout the year
  • The housewarming party populated with great friends and a truly weird mixture of games
  • The “we are adults, which means we can have cupcakes for lunch if we want to” day with our friend Jess, where we introduced her to Set and Medici
  • The epic dedication Barbara and I developed to solve The Ravens of Thri Sahashri, despite constantly discovering various rules we had missed
  • The days when we wanted to log plays of something but didn’t have much gaming ambition, so we fell back on Yahtzee and Fluxx
  • The visit from my non-gamer mom and stepdad where we introduced them to Betrayal at House on the Hill (a perfect choice, as it turned out)

It was a really, really good year of gaming, and I definitely have more concrete memories of so many good times with friends and family thanks to keeping track of my games played.

While I don’t think we’re going to get nearly as many plays in for 2017 (we’re trying the hardcore 10×10 but not the 365), I know we will continue to build memories and relationships around the gaming table, and I can’t wait.

Happy gaming new year, everyone!

Two of my games have been picked up for publication!

This post has been a long time coming, but I’m thrilled that things are settled to the point that I can talk about them publicly.

The big message: Two of my unpublished game designs, Everest and Alchemy Bazaar, have been picked up for publication by Grey Fox Games. Woo hoo!

Now, things are a long way from the end point right now, and there can be a lot of changes between today and the day that you can buy these games in a store. The contracts aren’t signed yet (though they’re pretty close to being done), and Grey Fox Games will be doing some development work on both games, which could mean different names, different themes, etc. But they have agreed that they want to publish both of these games in the next few years!

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m excited about this. Let me tell you how I got here.

From Foxtrot to Grey Fox

The story of my connection to Grey Fox Games goes back to Gen Con 2013 and a different publisher entirely, Foxtrot Games. Specifically, the man behind Foxtrot Games, Randy Hoyt.

Randy was one of the publishers who attended the first Publisher Speed Dating event at Gen Con 2013. I was there for two separate one-hour sessions: One of them showing off Everest and the other showing off Alchemy Bazaar. Randy had apparently seen me talking about Alchemy Bazaar online and was specifically interested in checking it out at Speed Dating.

I wrote in detail about this event on my old Online Dungeon Master blog last year. The part about Foxtrot Games is what I referred to in that post as “Meeting 3: Micro publisher follow-up.” Randy is a great guy, and he and I have become friends over the past year. He and his son had a lot of fun with Everest, and he was strongly considering publishing the game, even to the point of having some nice prototypes made up and sent out to playtesters. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t quite the right fit to be his company’s second game, so he decided to pass. Everest Board However, because Randy liked Everest so much, he decided to help me find a publisher. He was doing some demos of the game at BoardGameGeek Con 2013 (last November), and he got a couple of people from Grey Fox Games to sit down for a demo. They were really interested in the game, and Randy and I ultimately worked together to develop the game further for Grey Fox.

Gen Con 2014

By the time I was preparing for Gen Con this year, I had already had extensive discussions with Shane at Grey Fox, and he had already agreed that he wanted to publish Everest, though it would likely come a bit later in their production schedule. Since he and I were both going to be at Gen Con, I set up some time for us to meet Saturday afternoon to nail down the details about Everest.

First, though, I had some other publisher meetings.

Thursday morning of Gen Con I met with another publisher friend of mine who had expressed interest in Alchemy Bazaar at Gen Con 2013. We went through a demo with the updated rules, and while he liked the improvements from last year, he ultimately decided to pass on Alchemy Bazaar.

Friday evening at Gen Con I went to Publisher Speed Dating again. This time it was two hours on a single game, Alchemy Bazaar. I talked to about a dozen publishers about Alchemy Bazaar, four of whom seemed to be very interested in the game. None of them got back to me before my Saturday meeting with Grey Fox, though.

So, Saturday afternoon I met with Shane at the Grey Fox booth, and we found a table in a slightly quieter area to talk about Everest. I pulled out the prototype copy of Everest I had made for him, explained the rules, and we played through the game (which takes about 15-20 minutes). It’s a cooperative game, and we just barely lost, but it was a close call. Shane was happy with it, and we talked about further development plans (getting it in the hands of Grey Fox playtesters and such).

As we were talking, I decided that I should at least mention Alchemy Bazaar. I described the game briefly, and Shane told me that he’d like to see it. I had a prototype with me (naturally), so I brought it out and went through things in a little more detail. Shane was very intrigued, so I offered to let him take the Alchemy Bazaar prototype (I still had another one), which he eagerly did. (I also gave him a copy of Otters, because he has kids in the right age range.) Alchemy Bazaar Formula Card Back

Decision!

Fast forward a few weeks to Labor Day weekend, when out of the blue I get an email from Shane saying that he and his friends had played Alchemy Bazaar, they really liked it, and Grey Fox Games wants to publish it!

As I mentioned above, there are still a lot of details to work out. It seems likely that Alchemy Bazaar will be published first and Everest second (which is fine with me). As publisher-level playtesting moves along, we will likely try out some changes to both games. It’s entirely possible the themes might change (which is also fine with me). But if all goes according to plan, you will eventually see two of my games published by Grey Fox!

By the way, for those of you who are not yet familiar with Grey Fox Games, they’re the publishing offshoot of CoolStuffInc. They are publishing two games that have already had success on Kickstarter, Draco Magi and Conquest of Speros, with Run, Fight or Die and other games coming in the future. I’m excited to have my games in their future lineup.

I’ll keep you posted when there’s news to report (Kickstarter campaign, etc.). It will probably be a while, so be patient! 🙂

Michael Iachini, Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Clay Crucible Catan – A free, no-dice rule variant for Settlers of Catan

Edit 8/2/2014: Thanks to user shendrite on reddit, I’ve changed the name of this variant from Clay Crucible Settlers to the much more alliterative Clay Crucible Catan.

Today I’m sharing a simple rules variant for Settlers of Catan that I designed, called Clay Crucible Catan.

Download Clay Crucible Catan here (1 page PDF)

I’m a big fan of Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan. It’s not the first modern board game I played (that would be Citadels, believe it or not, in its translation-sheet-needed form of Ohne Furcht und Adel). But when our gaming friends introduced my wife and me to Settlers, we fell in love with the game. It’s still a big hit for introducing new gamers to the hobby in our house.

One complaint that seasoned gamers sometimes have about Settlers of Catan is that the dice create too much randomness. A smart player who builds settlements on hexes with numbers like 5 and 6 and 8 and 9 should get lots of resources because those numbers should be rolled a lot… but sometimes the dice roll a streak of 3s, and weird things happen.

The publisher of the game introduced a tool to help prevent this outcome – a deck of 36 cards that reflect the “correct” distribution of each number that can be rolled on a pair of 6-sided dice. If you draw from this deck without replacing the cards you’ve drawn, you eliminate the possibility of a crazy “hot streak” for any number.

I think that’s a neat product. However, I wanted to turn resource production into an interesting decision. Rather than rolling dice or drawing a random card to decide which hexes produce resources each turn, I wanted players to have some decision-making power over production.

A solo playtest of Clay Crucible Settlers in action
A solo playtest of Clay Crucible Catan in action

The rules for Clay Crucible Catan are simple:

  • Replace the normal number circles with the numbers in the attached document (2-7, each appearing 3 times).
  • Deal the numbers out randomly, with the one caveat that you can’t have all three copies of a number surrounding the same point (just switch the last copy out for another number).
  • Give each player seven playing cards from the same suit, Ace through 7.
  • On your turn, instead of rolling dice, you choose one of your playing cards and put it on the table face up. The number you play is the number whose hexes produce resources this round. Leave that playing card on the table.
  • When your turn comes around again, you’ll play another one of your playing cards. Note that whatever numbers you’ve played before are still face-up on the table, so you can’t play those numbers again.
  • If you decide to play your Ace, this activates the knight/robber just as in regular Settlers rules, with one extra bit: You also get to pick up the playing cards you’ve previously played and put them back in your hand for future use.
  • When you play the Ace, you leave it on the table. When you play a different card next turn, you get your Ace back in your hand (so you can’t play your Ace in back to back turns).
  • Note that, since you choose when to play your Ace, you can know how many cards are in everyone’s hand (including yours) when the knight is activated.
  • Feel free to talk to the other players about which number to play. For instance, you could say, “Hey, if I play my 4, you’ll get two bricks; if I do that, would you trade me one of them for one grain?” Of course, these negotiations aren’t binding, so the person could change their mind after you decide which number to play. (You can use binding negotiations at your table if you prefer.)

The one-page PDF contains these rules (condensed) plus number squares you can cut up to use with your Settlers game (I recommend printing on card stock).

Clay Crucible Catan Rules v03

 

So far I’ve found this to be a fun variant for Settlers of Catan. I wouldn’t recommend it for new players, since the extra layer of decision-making makes Clay Crucible Catan a bit harder for people who don’t play games. But for gamers who prefer a bit less randomness in their Settlers game, this variant is a good fit.

Please let me know if you try this variant with your group – I would love to hear about it! You can leave a comment here, or email me at ClayCrucible@gmail.com.

Michael Iachini – Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Financial breakdown of the Otters Kickstarter project

I’m a big fan of transparency. When new game designers / publishers are just getting started, having detailed stories from people who’ve gone before them is a big help (it definitely was for me).

With that in mind, I wanted to share a detailed financial breakdown of my kid-friendly card game, Otters. This will cover everything from the initial concept of the game on November 1, 2013, up to the publication date of this article, April 28, 2014. It’s a six-month period during which I designed Otters, playtested it, got art and graphic design, found a manufacturer, built and ran a Kickstarter campaign and then fulfilled all of my Kickstarter pledges.Otters Cover HighRes v1.00

A few notes:

  • I’m proud to say that I delivered Kickstarter rewards ahead of schedule. My expected delivery date on the campaign page was May 2014, and here we are in April with the rewards already out the door! (I’m sure a few international backers won’t actually receive their packages until early May, but I shipped them all by April 26.)
  • There are still seven Kickstarter backers to whom I have not yet shipped rewards. One is local to Colorado, and she will be arranging an in-person pickup. Three haven’t filled out their surveys yet. Three indicated that they wanted to add something to their order but haven’t paid for the add-ons yet. The total amount of add-on payments I have yet to receive is pretty close to the total shipping costs I have not yet paid, so that’s going to be more or less a wash and won’t change these numbers dramatically.
  • If you want the quick summary, I ended up turning a very, very small profit on the game: About $250. This is on a Kickstarter that raised over $5,000. Call it a 5% profit margin (without getting anything for my labor, of course).

Income

The income side of the equation is pretty simple. I brought in money from the Kickstarter campaign, I had some post-Kickstarter add-ons to backer pledges, and I sold a few pre-order copies to non-Kickstarter backers.

  • Kickstarter pledges: $5,321.00
  • Post-Kickstarter add-ons from backers: $321.60
  • Pre-orders from non-KS backers: $35.32

Total income: $5,677.92

Public domain money bag icon

Expenses

I’m going to break expenses into several categories, because I think that will be most useful for other Kickstarter project creators.

Expense: Kickstarter / Amazon fees: $499.17

Once the Kickstarter campaign ended, backer credit cards were charged via Amazon payments. Each charge showed up in my Amazon payments account with some money coming to me and some money going to Amazon/Kickstarter.Kickstarter Logo

I ended up moving money from my Amazon payments account to my business bank account in three waves: One the day after the campaign ended (the bulk of the transfer), one a few days later after a few backers had updated their credit card information so that the payment would go through, and one three weeks later when the last backer’s payment finally went through correctly. I simply added up the total money I was able to transfer to my bank account and compared it to the total pledges to get the fees lost to Kickstarter and Amazon.

I’ll note that this expense was 9.38% of the total pledged. So, all the advice you see about expecting these fees to be 10% – that’s pretty good advice.

One last note here: Every single backer paid me. When I read about other Kickstarter projects, I’ll usually hear about 5% of backer payments failing to go through and never getting fixed. I had a grand total of one backer who took longer than a day or two to have his payment go through, and while I was expecting to write that one off as lost even he came through in the end.

Expense: Card print runs: $2,038.55

Naturally, this is the biggest expense for a card game like Otters. I used DriveThruCards as my manufacturer for Otters, and I’m completely happy with them. The card quality was excellent, the communication was excellent, the speed of production was excellent… what more can I say? I hope they someday offer custom tuck boxes for card decks, but I can live without them.Otters print run photo 1

This expense is actually two separate expenses: $1,688.10 for the main print run, and $350.45 for the “Speedy Otters” print run that I had done before the campaign started. That Speedy run gave me decks to ship to Speedy Otters backers right after the campaign ended (those went out within a week) as well as review copies to send to bloggers and podcasters in advance of the campaign.

Expense: Quality Assurance: $65.60

This covers the cost of test decks from DriveThruCards, both prior to my initial print run and prior to my main print run. QA is important, folks!

The borders on all of the cards were supposed to be blue. For my first test deck, they weren't.
The borders on all of the cards were supposed to be blue. For my first test deck, they weren’t.

Expense: Art and graphic design: $886.12

Otters uses primarily Creative Commons licensed photographs for the “art” on the cards, which doesn’t generally cost money – but I ended up sharing some of my profits with a photographer who let me use a ton of his photos (not required, but he asked and I thought it would be nice).

This expense is mainly made up of the cost of graphic design – the Otters logo, the cover design, the card layout, rule sheet layout, creation of PDFs for DriveThruCards, etc.Otters Rule Sheet 05

It also includes the cost of a couple of illustrations that I commissioned before the campaign began, when I thought that a stretch goal would be for illustrations instead of photos. We hit that stretch goal, but my backers preferred photos over illustrations as it turned out, so those illustrations were unused.

Expense: Custom cloth bags: $374.00

This covers the cost of manufacturing and shipping for 50 custom Otters bags.photo 5

Expense: Supplies: $209.70

Most of this expense ($121.93) covers the cost of 500 blank brown cardboard flip-top boxes shipped to my door, each big enough to hold two Otters decks and a rule sheet comfortably.  I only went through about half of these for this campaign, but they come in 500 packs.

The other components are a box of 250 bubble mailers ($51.77) and a set of color printer ink that I went through in creating prototype decks ($36.00)

Expense: Printing labels and rule sheets: $168.41

I went to my local Staples office store for a whole bunch of printing over the course of this project.

For labels, I used some nice glossy sticker paper that I left over from my initial Chaos & Alchemy print run. I printed 9 labels per page, cut them apart with a paper cutter and stuck one to each box.

For rule sheets, I had Staples print on paper that was a step up from their normal quality; it just feels nicer.

Expense: Shipping: $1,065.61

Until I actually sat down and added this up, I didn’t know that I had crossed the thousand-dollar-mark in shipping expenses. Now, to be clear, $59.43 of this cost is for review copies of Otters that I sent out prior to the campaign. But that still means I spent over $1,000 in the cost of postage alone in getting Otters into the hands of my backers.

Shipping Update photo 1

Not included here is the cost of shipping labels; I already had plenty of them on hand.

Expense: Taxes: $124.77

This is a little bit of an estimate right now, and I know it’s not 100% correct, but we’ll go with it.Money 1

For sales tax, only a few backers are here in Colorado, so I’ll only owe a total of $5.62 in sales tax so far.

For income tax, I’m estimating based on applying my marginal federal and state income tax rate to the nominal profits I’ve made on this game so far. That’s not going to be the actual number in the end, I’m sure, because it’s ignoring inventory for one thing. But it’s a reasonable guess for now.

Expenses: Total

  • Kickstarter / Amazon fees: $499.17
  • Card print runs: $2,038.55
  • Quality assurance: $65.60
  • Art and graphic design: $886.12
  • Custom cloth bags: $374.00
  • Supplies: $209.70
  • Labels and rule sheets: $168.41
  • Shipping: $1,065.61
  • Taxes: $124.77

Total expenses: $5,431.93

Bottom line

  • Total income: $5,677.92
  • Total expenses: $5,431.93
  • Profit: $245.99

The future

Now, I’ve simplified things a little bit here.

First, I’ll say that if all I had to show for this whole experience with Otters was 246 more dollars in the Clay Crucible Games bank account than I had beforehand, I would still call this a success. I’ve created a game out of nothing and gotten it into the hands of hundreds of gamers around the world, and I even made a little money doing it. That’s pretty good.

However, I’m also left with some inventory. I have plenty of leftover game boxes, several labels and rule sheets, a few custom bags, and importantly, some Otters decks. After setting aside the 11 decks and 1 bag that I owe to backers who have either not paid for their add-ons or not completed their surveys, I still have 53 Otters decks and 9 custom bags on hand. I also have 11 Speedy Otters decks, which I have no idea what to do with (probably give away to worthy causes of some sort).

If I end up selling those decks and clear $9 of profit on average for each of them, and call it about the same for the bags, that would be another $558 in future profits.

Furthermore, I plan to eventually put Otters up for sale directly on DriveThruCards, and the sky’s the limit… but I’m not expecting anything crazy, of course!

I hope this helps!

My goal with this sort of post is to help other Kickstarter project creators and game designers / publishers to understand the financial reality of putting a game out there via Kickstarter. This was a very humble campaign, and it worked out just fine in my book. But I’m certainly not quitting my day job! 🙂

If you want to say thanks for the information, you can get yourself a copy of Otters right here.

Thanks for reading!

Michael Iachini, Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Design Diary: Mansion Builder chapter 3 – Icons

In the first two chapters of this Design Diary (chapter 1, chapter 2) I talked about the underlying inspiration for my auction game, Mansion Builder, and the different methods of conducting the auction that I tried.

Today I’m talking about the use of icons on my game cards.

First attempt: All text

When I’m developing a new game, I start with the quickest, simplest prototype I can make (prototype early and often). This typically means that I’ll put some card names and text and numbers into an Excel spreadsheet, print them on regular paper, cut them into slips and insert those slips into sleeves with Magic cards for backing.

This also means that I’m not investing any time in making these cards look good. They need to be functional, but that’s it. They’re black and white (cheaper to print) and they have no graphics. This way, if my initial attempts reveal that my game idea just isn’t fun or it’s completely broken or I’m not inspired to work any farther on it, I haven’t wasted a bunch of time making a nice-looking prototype that I’ll just throw away.

In this vein, my first Mansion Builder cards featured all text with some numbers.

Mansion Builder text cards 1I was happy to discover that the basic game mechanics worked and were interesting. Players were bidding on Improvement cards for their mansions (the top row of cards), and then they were getting money from selling mansions with the right Improvements to the various Buyer cards (the bottom row).

The problem was that I had 12 different Improvements, and it was hard for players to scrutinize the various Buyers in order to tell which Improvements they wanted. With a bunch of cards on the table, the text became overwhelming.

Solution: Icons

I have an intermediate set of icons that I won’t show here because I don’t own the rights to them. These came from simple Google Image searches, and I wasn’t specifically looking for Creative Commons icons or anything like that.

However, I later discovered The Noun Project (discussed a bit in an earlier post), which had all of the icons I needed. The cards now look like this:

Mansion Builder icon cards 1I’ll point out that I switched from Excel to Photoshop for this version of the cards, but I did have an intermediate step where I dropped the icon images into Excel.

Beyond the icons for the improvements themselves, there are two other things I want to point out. The first is that I’m using icons with numbers for money and reputation/victory points (the “dollar bill” icons on the improvements and the “laurel wreath” icons on the buyers). This makes it clear that there are two different meanings for numbers on cards.

The second thing I want to point out is that there are two different types of numbers now. In the first iteration that you saw above, all numbers were the same – money. I soon realized that it was important to separate money (the stuff that gives players more options during the game) from victory points (the stuff that lets you win the game). I’ll write more about this in a future post, but if you make the power-giving currency the same as the game-winning currency, you tend to get a runaway leader problem.

Next steps

Having icons on the cards has made things much easier, and I’m glad The Noun Project exists (I bought the rights to use all of these icons, which was quite affordable, just a dollar or two apiece). The icons are still black and white, though, which needs to change (being able to tell which icons are which based not just on shape but also on color will help).

Michael Iachini – Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Design Diary: Mansion Builder chapter 2 – Auction methods

In chapter 1 of this Design Diary, I described the initial idea for my work-in-progress game design, Mansion Builder. It’s an auction game in which players are property developers, bidding in auctions to acquire ridiculous improvements for their mansions in order to satisfy the desire of oddball buyers.

The layout for my very first playtest of Mansion Builder.
The layout for my very first playtest of Mansion Builder.

One of the first issues I had to deal with: How do I want to actually conduct the auction? It’s a simultaneous auction where everybody decides how much they want to bid and then everyone reveals their bids at the same time. How did I want this to work at the table?

Well, as a designer I had a few different approaches for running simultaneous bid auctions.

Auction cards

My first thought (since it was at hand) was to go with cards. Specifically, I used regular playing cards and gave each player a set of Ace (representing 1) through 10 of a suit. When it was time to bid, everyone would choose one of their cards, put it face down in front of them, and then everyone would reveal simultaneously.

Auction Cards

This actually did work, but it had some drawbacks.

First, it limited the players to bidding up to 10. In theory, if a player has 25 money and they want to bid all of it, they should be allowed to.

Second, it created an awful lot of components. A full set of bidding cards for each player is unwieldy.

Third, if the game were played a lot, these  cards would wear unevenly. The lower numbers (5 or less) would be used the most, and could end up being marked.

Dry-erase cards

My next idea was to give each player a card with a dry-erase coating on it, along with a dry-erase marker (think Telestrations, but smaller). Everyone secretly writes their bids, then reveals simultaneously.

Auction writing

This worked okay in practice, but I still wasn’t completely happy with it.

First, depending on how sneaky players were being, it could be possible to figure out what others were writing based on the movement of their pen.

Second, it was a little bit messy with all of the dust from erasing the bids.

Closed hands

My current approach is making me happy so far. Money in the game is represented by small tokens of some sort. I’m currently using small plastic “scatter” that looks like little crystals. The clear crystals are worth 1 money each, and the amber crystals are worth 5.

Players put whatever quantity of money they want to bid in a closed fist, then all players simultaneously open their hands to reveal their bids.

Auction hand

The biggest advantage of this approach is that it’s a lot of fun. There’s a nice moment of tension when all of the players have a closed fist in the middle of the table right before the bids are revealed.

Another advantage is that it makes bookkeeping much easier. I always had tokens for money, and with the other methods the players had to reveal their bids, then reach into their supplies to fish out the right amount of money and put it back in the bank. Now they can just drop the crystals that are in their hands right into the bank pile.

End of chapter 2

So, that’s one issue solved: Closed fist auctions are going to work for Mansion Builder. Next time, I’ll talk about the challenges of designing useful playtest cards. Icons ahoy!

Michael Iachini – Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Interview with Michael Iachini on the Strebeck Law blog

This week I was interviewed by Zack Strebeck for his legal blog. He was interested in talking about the legal aspects of running a game company, including:

  • Why and how I set up an LLC for my game company (more on this here)
  • How I decided to go with Creative Commons photos for Otters
  • Contracts with illustrators and graphic designers
  • Contracts with publishers (Game Salute published my first game, Chaos & Alchemy)
  • General stuff about the experience of being a small publisher

Go have a look!

ZS_logo_2014_4

Part 1 of the interview

Part 2 of the interview

Michael Iachini

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Publishers: Pay your artists!

When you’re just starting out in game design, you probably don’t have a lot of money to spare on game-related stuff. You’re going to be taking money out of your own pocket to cover the cost of paper and printer ink and card sleeves and meeples and such, just to get your game prototypes to the stage where you can test them out.

I sympathize. Really, I do.

Later on, perhaps you’ll get to the point that you have a great, playtested game that you’re ready to put on Kickstarter so that you can afford a big print run (or a small print run, as in the case of Otters). If you’re going to run a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s going to have to look good. You’ll need some illustrations to show what your final game is going to look like. You’ll also need some great graphic design.

You don't want art like this. And I hereby release this into the public domain. Go nuts, guys!
You don’t want art like this. And I hereby release this into the public domain. Go nuts, guys!

You want backers to see you as a professional. And that’s going to cost money.

Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t the whole point of a Kickstarter campaign to raise money that I obviously don’t have? How can I pay for art and graphic design before running a Kickstarter campaign?”

And here’s where you have to face a hard truth:

You’ll need to invest some of your own personal money into your game before you’re ready to take it to Kickstarter.

Lesson 1: Don’t ask professionals for free art

You might be tempted to ask talented people to work for free. Please don’t.

Palette icon by James Fenton
Palette icon by James Fenton

Now, if it’s a close friend or family member who just wants to help you, that’s fine. But please don’t work your network to find someone you’re vaguely connected to who has artistic ability and then ask them to donate their time and energy for nothing.

Lesson 2: Don’t ask professionals to work now for post-Kickstarter payment

This is the one that inspired this post. A game designer was asking for referrals to professional artists who would work now and get paid if the designer’s Kickstarter campaign is successful.

That’s a big if. What happens if the campaign does not succeed? The artist gets nothing.

Public domain money bag icon
Public domain money bag icon

Now, if you have an artist who wants an equity stake in your project, that’s open to negotiation. Maybe they are interested in getting, say, 10% of the Kickstarter gross or an actual share in your game publication business or something. That way they share on the potential upside, too.

But if you have an artist who would charge, say, $500 for the work you want done, it’s not cool to ask them to do the work now and pay them if (and only if) your Kickstarter succeeds. You’re the one taking the business risk here – don’t ask the artist to take that risk for no upside.

Lesson 3: Don’t steal art

I hope that this one doesn’t need to be reiterated, but we live in the era of the internet, and it’s easy to use creative works that you don’t have the rights to. Do a Google image search, and you’ll find tons of awesome artwork that’s ready for downloading and dropping into your game.

Burglar icon by Joab Penalva
Burglar icon by Joab Penalva

If you’re putting together a first draft prototype that will only ever be seen by your close personal friends and family, then this is okay. But if you plan to show your prototype online, let alone print it for money, you can only use art that you own the rights to.

This means that you either pay to commission or license art from a professional, or you find art that you’re legitimately allowed to use without paying for it (such as public domain or Creative Commons commercial-use art). Don’t just use an awesome image because it’s there if it’s not yours to use.

Why should I care?

One of the criticisms I faced when I called out a designer who was trying to get artists to work for potential post-Kickstarter payment was that the question of work terms was between the project creator and the artist. If the creator could find artists willing to work for the hope of payment, that’s between the creator and the artist, right? Why was I butting in?

Well, I think that all of us in the (relatively small) game design community have a duty to make it a better place. I want a community where artists feel welcomed and respected, not one where they feel like they’re going to get screwed over at any moment. I want to foster a feeling of respect all around, and standing quietly while a fellow designer engages in business practices that I find unethical doesn’t build the community that I want to see.

Community icon by Wilson Joseph
Community icon by Wilson Joseph

We’re all in this together – designers, artists, gamers and everyone else. Let’s make the gaming community a better place.

Pay your artists.

Michael Iachini – Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

P.S. You may have noticed that the illustrations accompanying this post are icons. These are from the excellent Noun Project, which has tons and tons of icons that are available either in the public domain or in a Creative Commons commercial-use license (hence the attributions in the captions). And if you want to use the CC-licensed icons without attribution, you can buy the rights for $1.99 per icon (or $1 per icon if you buy 10 at a time or 50 at a time or whatever). Great site – go check it out!

How to run a humble Kickstarter campaign

There are lots of lessons out there for running a big, blockbuster Kickstarter campaign. The advice is excellent, in my opinion.

However, when I was planning my campaign for Otters (which is now over, but you can get information about acquiring the game here), I wasn’t going for a blockbuster. I was going for humble.

What does humble mean?

Humble, in this case, means that I wasn’t looking for a ton of money (just $1,000). I didn’t plan for a ton of stretch goals. I didn’t want to promise something overly shiny. Just a fun little game for a reasonable price.

Most importantly, I didn’t want the Kickstarter campaign to take over my life!

Humble step 1: Low funding goal

A humble campaign only works if you don’t need a lot of money in order to deliver your project. In the case of Otters, I was using a print-on-demand company (DriveThruCards), which meant that I could theoretically just print a few decks and call it a day.

Some cases where this approach can work:

  • Print on demand games (DriveThruCards, The Game Crafter, etc.)
  • Digital-only projects (RPGs, art projects, comic projects, music downloads, etc.)
  • Capped rewards (handmade items where you’re only making, say, 50 of them)

Some cases where this approach probably doesn’t work:

  • Manufacturing projects (gadgets)
  • Games with lots of components (minis, dice, etc.)
  • Projects with big fixed costs (art commissions, recording studio time, crafting of molds for plastics)

Basically, if your project gets dramatically cheaper per backer to fulfill the more backers you have, it’s probably not a great fit for a humble campaign.

Humble step 2: Pay for graphic design

Wait, didn’t I say this campaign was humble? Doesn’t that mean I can’t afford to pay anyone?

Well, I can’t afford to pay a lot of people, but I can spend money where it counts: Graphic design.

Otters Card Back High Res

Your humble campaign still needs to look good. Backers need to have confidence that you’re a professional and that you know what you’re doing.

If you’re already a skilled graphic designer, great! If not, hire one. You at least need a logo, and you can use that to craft a consistent look and feel to your campaign.

In my case, I hired Dane Ault. I highly recommend him – he does freelance work! Give the man a call.

tumblr_static_danelogo

Humble step 3: Creative Commons art

Like I said, I can’t afford to hire a lot of people. This includes illustrators. Good art costs money, especially if you need a lot of art (such as in a game with lots of cards, each of which needs its own illustration).

This is the type of thing that Creative Commons was invented for. You can use Google Image Search – Advanced Search to find images that are available for reuse, even for commercial purposes. You’ll still need to make sure you give credit to the creators of those images in most cases (sometimes you’ll find true public domain images), but that’s a fantastic deal.

cc.logo.large

In my case, I was actually planning to pay illustrators to create custom illustrations if my campaign raised enough money, but by that point my backers were in love with the Creative Commons photographs of otters – so I just added a bunch more of them.

Otter illustrations by Maria Keller and Dane Ault; photograph by Paul Stevenson
Otter illustrations by Maria Keller and Dane Ault; photograph by Paul Stevenson

I’ll note that it’s not just illustration and photography that can be released under Creative Commons: You can find music, too, and even some other media.

Humble step 4: Getting the word out

This was the main step where I wanted to be humble. I’ve read so many stories of how Kickstarter campaigns will dominate the lives of their creators. You won’t sleep, you won’t eat right, your friends and family won’t see you, etc.

That’s not for me.

Now, this meant that I wouldn’t be able to maximize my campaign, and I had to be okay with that. Fortunately, I was indeed okay with that. I wanted to get Otters out there in the hands of families, and I wanted to make a little profit doing so, but I wasn’t planning to launch a gaming empire from this campaign.

My outreach mainly consisted of reviewers. I reached out to about a dozen game reviewers (you can find lots of them here, thanks to James Mathe) about five weeks before I launched the campaign to ask them if they would like a review copy of Otters. They all said yes. I sent them games, along with a letter containing details of the Kickstarter campaign, and they did their reviews.

I had several reviews that were already done before the campaign launched, which is hugely important for credibility (backers want to see third party opinions of your game). I also had several more that came out during the campaign.

There were blog reviews, video reviews, and podcast reviews. I only approached reviewers who were interested in covering Kickstarter games and who didn’t charge for their reviews (beyond the cost of sending them a game, of course). I tried to target folks who reviewed children’s games, since that’s what I was making.

Beyond reviewers, I kept my blog going and I talked about the game on my Twitter and Facebook pages (but not too much).

A special note on reddit: I only put up one post about Otters on reddit, and that was on the next-to-last day of the campaign. The /r/Boardgames subreddit can be very particular about spam. Reddit is a powerful force for traffic, but you have to be involved in the community and not just use it as an advertising platform. I’m pleased to say that my post about Otters got over 100 net upvotes, which is huge for me.

Humble step 5: Keeping the campaign in check

Now, I don’t mean that I actively tried to keep people from backing me in an effort to stay well away from $100K. I mean that I didn’t want the campaign to get swept up in too many stretch goals and add-ons.

With stretch goals, I had two. The first one, as I mentioned above, would let me pay for illustrations on the cards. As it turns out, the backers didn’t even want that.

The second stretch goal would let me have a rule sheet with the game instead of three cards with the rules on them. Amazingly enough, the backers seem to prefer the rule cards (though some do want the rule sheet).

I did have a stretch goal in mind in case the campaign hit the $15,000 level that would let me use a more traditional game manufacturer for a bigger print run with a custom printed box, but we never got close to that, and I’m okay with that.

As for add-ons, I only have one: A custom cloth bag to carry the game in.

Otters Dice Bag

A minor side note here: All of the various dollar amounts are set (serendipitously) such that I can tell what add-ons each backers has picked based on the dollar amount. In some cases, a backer might round up a $24 pledge to $25, but I usually know that:

  • $12 is a one-deck US backer
  • $20 is a one-deck international backer
  • $21 is a two-deck US backer
  • $24 is a one-deck and one-bag US backer
  • $29 is a two-deck international backer
  • $30 is a three-deck US backer
  • $32 is a one-deck and one-bag international backer
  • And so on

I wouldn’t suggest killing yourself to set up your pledge levels to have this feature, but it sure helps me keep track of things.

Humility achieved

If you want to run a simple little Kickstarter campaign rather than a blockbuster, keep it humble. This might be because you have a simple project that you just want to put out in the world. Or it might be because you want to establish your reputation on Kickstarter with something you know you can fulfill before you go for the big project down the line.

Either way, humble is good.

Michael Iachini

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Design Diary: Mansion Builder, chapter 1

I haven’t written a full designer diary on a game since my first game, Chaos & Alchemy. I think it’s time I started up again.

I’m in the early playtesting stages right now for a game that I’m tentatively calling Mansion Builder. It’s going well enough that I think it’s worth writing about. So here we go!

Theme Idea: Building… something

The original idea for Mansion Builder came from reflecting on the idea that players like building something during the course of a game. You build a farm and a resource engine in Agricola. You build a rail network in Ticket to Ride. You build a plot quest engine in Lords of Waterdeep. You build a laboratory in Chaos & Alchemy.

Agricola board - photo courtesy of Henrique Poyatos
Agricola board – photo courtesy of Henrique Poyatos

Building stuff is fun and rewarding. So why not build a literal building? I decided I wanted to make a game about building houses, with a comedic touch. I wanted players to build ridiculous mansions with over-the-top features like solid gold bathtubs and heliports.

I could envision this game with some cute cartoon illustrations of crazy home improvements on cards. It was a concept that got me excited.

Mechanic idea: Different types of workers

When I first started pondering Mansion Builder, I had been playing a lot of Keyflower. This is a game that features several different colors of meeples and uses them as a type of currency.

Keyflower meeples - Photo courtesy of Meoples Magazine
Keyflower meeples – Photo courtesy of Meoples Magazine

I started thinking that I could have different colored meeples in Mansion Builder, representing different worker skills. I could have tons of specialties like masons, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, drywall hangers, painters, landscapers, etc. I could instead have a few basic classes of workers: Regular, skilled, master. And then I could have various improvements that had costs of materials and also costs of labor, with the players bidding for all of these things.

I quickly realized, before I even got to the point of putting anything on paper, that this was way more complicated than I wanted Mansion Builder to be.

Mechanic idea: Pooled auction

In thinking about the varied workers idea, I started thinking about how players would get those workers, and I liked the idea of some sort of auction. Once I abandoned the variety of workers, I decided I wanted to focus on the auction mechanism.

Players would now bid on various improvements that were offered by contractors. This would be done in a pooled auction.

A pooled auction is a rather uncommon type of auction. Bidders all bid simultaneously. Each bidder pays however much he or she bid. The highest bidder gets first pick of the items that are for sale. The second highest bidder gets second pick, and so on. Everyone gets something, and the players are effectively bidding on choice order.

I was familiar with this type of auction from my days as an economist back in graduate school. As a matter of fact, my lone academic publication in economics was a paper I co-authored with one of my professors, Tim Salmon. He did most of the work, honestly; I mainly built and ran the experiment software that we used to put undergraduates through various auction games, while Tim did the theoretical work and the actual writing. If you’re looking for some heavy academic writing on the topic, you can find the paper here.

The main graph from my paper. Bidder behavior in pooled auctions is interesting.
The main graph from my paper. Bidder behavior in pooled auctions is interesting.

How it would work

Mansion Builder will proceed in a series of rounds. In each round, there are a number of improvement cards up for auction.

Players will bid in a pooled auction, with the winner getting first choice of the improvements, second place getting second choice, and so on.

Any improvement that is not selected is “sweetened” for the next round (probably putting money on it), and then new improvements are revealed.

At some point, players will be able to sell their improvements to various buyers who want various combinations of improvements. If you sell a buyer a house that has all of the improvements the buyer wants, you get bonus money.

The player with the most money at the end of the game would win.

Next steps

I’ve described the initial playtest version of Mansion Builder above, but I can tell you that there were some issues I had to deal with right away. How will the physical realities of the auction work? Is having the winner determined by money a problem? (Hint: Yes, it is.) How exactly do these buyer cards work?

I’ll leave those questions for the next entry in my Design Diary: Mansion Builder series.

And shameless plug time: My kid-friendly card game, Otters, is still on Kickstarter at this very moment. It’s fully funded, so you can get a copy if you want one! The campaign runs through February 27, 2014.

Michael Iachini

@ClayCrucible on Twitter