Author Richard

Essen Report 2012

It has been ages (at least 3 years) since I have been to Essen Spiel, but I was there this year to sign cards for the King of Tokyo expansion. To me the most noteworthy thing was the number of cooperative games – which I suppose was easy to predict would happen after a while given the bias toward non-confrontational games in this market. It seems that almost every vendor was featuring some cooperative game or another. For most they failed to address the most important issue, which I have talked about many times, “How does the design prevents players from playing each others position?” I include here 3 games which did address this, in 3 different and interesting ways:

Escape: the Curse of the Temple: In this game by Kristen Østby players are trying to explore and escape a cursed temple. They are rolling dice that indicate what they can do in real time (the faster you roll, the more you can do). Frequently it is possible to use your dice results to help people in the same room. A soundtrack narrates the 10 minutes of game play. Since you have to roll dice and interpret them there really is no time for people to be managing other peoples positions. The game is fraught with people yelling for particular results and for help from their team mates. I have no idea how replayable it is but I am sure I am pulling it out for every play group at least once.

Shadows over Camelot the Card Game – Designed by the same designers as the base game; Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, this leverages the technique used in Shadows over Camelot of having a possible traitor (which of course, makes it not entirely a cooperative game.) Additionally it has periods of play where players are not allowed to talk. Restricting communication is an interesting technique that I have used to improve many of my coop game experiences, and it is nice to see it worked into the game design. Some players will be turned off by the fact that this is at its core a memory game, but if you are even a little open to a memory game you should check it out.

Hanabi – This is, for me, the star of the show. Hanabi is incredible, I don’t hesitate in saying that this is the best cooperative board/card game I have ever played. The designer, Antoine Bauza (7-wonders), gave me a copy and played with me one evening, the next day we picked up half a dozen copies for gifts, and the whole following week I played several times a day with my fiance. It works well with 2-4 players – and the key is that it is entirely about restricted communication. Like bridge you must use your plays to communicate the board situation to your partners as efficiently as possible, and like bridge there is a lot of opportunity to create conventions that will help you with that communication – and occasionally get you in trouble. This is a small unassuming game, don’t let it slip through the cracks – you must try it!


The Trouble with Robots

Any audience I have by now is aware of how interested I am in games which bridge the gap between traditional paper games, like Scrabble, and traditional computer games, which tend to be more simulations. This interest lead me to work with Alexey Stankevitch on Spectromancer, and to frequently mention Quadradius, one of my favorite games, by Jimmi Heiserman. These days there are more and more examples of this, particularly from the tablet market (Dungeon Raid and Wargames are worth checking out!)

This brings me to The Trouble with Robots by Geoffrey White – which is not on Tablet but certainly should be. It is a customizable card game, you choose 5-10 cards for your deck and can play them to summon fantasy units – or cast spells. The units fight robots in real time. Normally with this description I would be skeptical for a number of reasons. One is that the real time aspect of real time games tend to dominate the ‘customization’. Not here – the creatures all fight for themselves – almost all you do is choose when and which spell to cast and occasionally target that spell Another reason for skepticism is that customizable games are usually super complex and it takes a lot of work to start getting enjoyment out of the customization. Not here – the customization is easy – and fun right from the start. There are plenty of combos that help make deck construction fun and make you excited by every additional spell added to your arsenal.

The free demo is perfectly representative of the play – it begins off super easy, but comes with a challenge mode which should make you work pretty hard to master. If you don’t like it after that point you probably won’t like it, but if you are like me you won’t be able to wait to go further.

More description from people who actually include visuals in their blog posts:

And the  game webpage:

Have fun!


Kickstarter: Proceed with Caution

Recently I have enjoyed several games that began their life as Kickstarter projects. I have also failed to enjoy a number of these games. The idea of bypassing the publishing arm of an industry and going straight to the people is seductive, but not without its costs.

In an industry with a few monolithic publishers the ability to work around them can bring a large benefit – it will likely invigorate the industry as creators who want something new bypass the publishers who like the status quo. The game industry isn’t really like that however, there are many publishers; small and large – and many of them are willing to take chances on something new.

So why do I blame these poor experiences I have had on a lack of publisher? A publisher often provides a sanity check for the games quality. It is notoriously hard to tell if a game is fun – if the group that is testing it is playing a particular way and they are enjoying each others company they will have fun, while a group that hasn’t been told how to play can find themselves having an ‘unfun’ experience with the exact same game. The games from Kickstarter that work feel fresh and new, untainted by a standards that don’t fit the creator’s vision. The ones that don’t work look fine (they have to look fine to pull funding from Kickstarter), but while they feel technically solid they are missing a fun factor. They feel like they have been tested by too few people with too narrow a perspective, like the creator’s friends or perhaps a hardcore playtest group centered around board game geek.

So for designers, I advise you to go the extra mile and really get a diverse set of independent playtesters. Be aware that even feedback from people you don’t view as being in the target market can positively influence your game. Consider submitting to a publisher if only to hear their feedback and consider it. The publishers feedback is more often valid than not – even though their solutions are often not as informed as solutions the designer can come up with.

For people backing Kickstarter encourage projects that strike your fancy to broaden their playtesting where possible. I would be wary of games without broad diverse playtesting, and incredulous if the game hadn’t been designed yet.

I will say the best exception to this rule might be a designer like James Ernest, who IS a publisher. His Kickstarter project is sure to offer what it promises if it interests you:


Inoki – The Poison Word Game

On a trip recently I came up with a simple game that takes no equipment. It is designed as a two player game, though the addition of extra players seems pretty straight forward – and I will take a stab at this after describing the basic version.

Players agree on a poison word or phrase. Choose a player to be the maker. Subsequent games the winner becomes the maker. The maker is responsible for choosing the poison word. After a word is agreed upon the game begins. There are two ways to win a round of Inoki, either say the poison word so that your opponent hears it but doesn’t notice, or notice when your opponent says the poison word. The game may end in minutes or it may take days to complete. An integral part of play is the players being off guard – and therefore susceptible to the opponent slipping the word into conversation unnoticed, or tricked into saying the word. When claiming victory a player says “Inoki!”

A few examples of play will make it clear:

Orange is the poison word.

Player A: Can you peel an orange for me?
Player B: (Not Noticing) Sure!
Player A: Inoki! (Winning)


Player A: What fruit do we have?
Player B: (off guard) Two apples and an orange.
Player A: Inoki! (Winning)


Player A: Do you see that orange cat over there?
Player B: (Noticing) Inoki! (Winning)


The choice of word will have a large impact on how the game is played. You can choose common or uncommon words, and each has its’ own charm – though you will likely want to avoid super common words like ‘the‘. It is possible with tricky words and cautious players that no one makes a move for an unacceptably long time – in which case players can agree to end the current game and choose a new poison word.

One final detail, you probably want to allow the non-maker to be able to give feedback or even veto the maker’s word. This is a casual game and all players should buy in to the poison word. The game doesn’t officially start until the non-maker says ‘begin’. This prevents you from losing a series of games like I did where my opponent mumbled the poison word, then when I asked for clarification repeated the word then claimed Inoki moments later. Such trickery!

The thing that interests me most about this game is the way it bleeds into real life, things that happen to you and around you, conversations you take part in – they are all part of the battlefield on which you are playing. In this small way it reminds me of the game Assassin.

To play with more than 2 players, I would make it so that the maker must get buy in from all other players, who each must say “begin” before the game starts. When a player says the poison word so that any player can hear but doesn’t notice, they can call Inoki, and win the round. If any player notices and calls Inoki first all players other than the player who used the poison word wins the round. On subsequent rounds, the player who called Inoki is the maker. This could be unsatisfying, particularly with larger groups of players, since a particular player may lose or win the game while not even being around, but for small groups in reasonably close quarters – a car trip or a dinner party for example, it should work fine.

I think sharing the victory when catching a player saying the poison word (intentionally or otherwise) will keep it from becoming a speed game. The alternative, of course, is to rule that the first player to call Inoki wins – and that will probably be better for some groups.





Eleven+ is a game I made on a car trip. It requires no equipment, and so is easy to play on car trips, or in bars or restaurants. It is probably best with 3-5 players.

Eleven+ was inspired by the game Bartok: In Bartok and related games players add rules to the game as it progresses, making it become more and more ornate over time. One of the charms of the game is that it becomes less and less about playing the game and more and more about your capability of following the rules without making a mistake. When Eleven+ was created I thought it might be fun to attach that principle to a simpler game, so I used the game “Eleven” which is a nim-style game. I was surprised that the simplicity and the determinism of the game made it more enjoyable, since the game was more focussed on the unique and fun elements of Bartok; navigating complex rules and adding new rules to the game.

Eleven: Players count from one to eleven, the player that hits eleven is eliminated – and the player to the eliminated player’s left starts the next game. Players can add one two, or three numbers to the count. Each game of Eleven has a loser, when only one player is left that player has won the round.

For example:
Alice: “1, 2″
Bill: “3″
Charlie: “4,5,6″
Alice: “7,8″
Bill: “9,10″
Charlie: “11″
Now Charlie is eliminated and it is Alice’s turn, with only Alice and Bill left.

Eleven+: Play eleven, and after each round the winner adds a new rule. Players are encouraged to identify problems that might come up during play because of the rule at this time; this feedback may lead to the rule maker clarifying the rule or ditching it in favor of another. The winner also begins the next game. In addition to being eliminated for saying “11″ a player is also eliminated for failing to follow the rules.

To illustrate the game I recorded the rules we used in a 4 person game on a recent car trip:

  • Once each game a player can halve an even number as a move (for example: “6, 3, 4″ would be legal provided no other player had used the half rule in the current game.)
  • Numbers on the licence plate in front of the car don’t exist (for example, if the car in front was license 348 YUY a legal move might be “2,5,6″.)
  • Start at 11 and go down to 1, the player that says “zero” loses.
  • Five doesn’t exist.
  • An animal is substituted for “10″. The animal must be different than one used by any player on the car trip.
  • You never say “11″, instead you say any other number that exists.
  • If a player makes only one move the next player must use more than one move.
  • Players must say “Tea for Two” rather than “2″.
  • All players use a second language for numbers.
  • If a player uses 3 moves the next player must say “slow down” before taking his or her turn.
  • If a player uses the “halving” special move listed above, the direction of play reverses. The direction is reset to normal in the next game.
  • If a player has to say “zero” he or she can instead read a word off a road sign. This restarts the current game, but this rule cannot be used in the restarted game.
  • Instead of saying “3″ a player must clap three times.
  • Instead of saying “1″ a player must use the color of the car in front. If there is no car in front “invisible” must be used.

I won’t even attempt to illustrate the above game being played, but rest assured that by the end few games were ending because a player reached 0!