Category Archives: Design Diary

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

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