5 Pitching Lessons from Tabletop Deathmatch (so far)


I've been watching season two of Tabletop Deathmatch with avid interest. The production values, presentation, and overall organization is light-years past season one. (And season one was pretty good!) To recap: Tabletop Deathmatch is a reality show competition held by Cards Against Humanity and its business partners to find the next great tabletop game.

The first eight episodes this season focused on introducing and teaching each game in the contest. No judging, just tutorial. This bit was fun to watch for general interest, but I was much more eager to see the subsequent evaluation by a team of top industry judges. So far only four of these judging episodes have been released, but each has offered extremely useful advice for any beginning designer.

Here are five lessons I've pulled out so far, in no particular order.


Present the game you have on the table right now. 
Not the game it could be or the game it used to be. If you've worked on a game a while, it's no doubt gone through dozens of iterations and you've considered a hundreds more future revisions. Regardless, mentioning all of those while teaching, let alone pitching, just muddies the presentation.

Know your game's weight and set accurate expectations.
 Despite easy rules, there may still be emergent analysis paralysis. I run into this problem too frequently. Because I avoid violent or horror themes in my games, I tend to use nature or cute animals, which in turn seems to imply far lighter games than I typically design. Don't pitch "a light social casual game" when you really have a quiet, contemplative strategy game.

Listen, learn, but remember you know your game better than they do. 
It's easy to get intimidated pitching to a veteran games-person, especially if they start calling out mechanics they recognize from other games. That intimidation can turn into defensiveness and perhaps even combativeness. That's no fun for anybody involved. Just remember a 2-minute pitch isn't an ideal presentation scenario for many great games, and even industry vets struggle to explain their games succinctly and accurately.

Public information slows down decisions. Decisions slow down a pitch. 
This is more of a general rule of thumb when you're trying to present a game very quickly. Everyone has their own cognitive horizon past which they won't bother analyzing. However, visible information tempts many competitive players to push against their horizon so they can make the "right" decision. Even in a demo! Try framing your pitch so you minimize the decision-time. Spend that time actually explaining the game, rather than waiting for a newcomer to make an informed choice.

"Failure" in a game should make you excited to play again. 
At no point should a "fail" state mean that someone doesn't get to actually play the game. "Lose a turn" is basically a cardinal sin in game design. Look at "success" and "failure" as forks in a road, not a traffic light. Either outcome should push the game forward.


Those are just a few little tidbits I've pulled from the show so far. What have you learned?

Kigi will be published in Japan!


Big news! Kigi will be officially translated and published in Japan by Gamefield! In Kigi, players "paint" a tree by placing cards along branching organic paths. It's a very easy game to learn, but presents interesting spatial puzzles and lots of replay value. This game has been a huge hit with families with varying play experience. Get the English edition here!

Here's a video tutorial:


Here are some photos of the original edition.








The release date and final packaging isn't determined yet, but I'll keep you posted!

Brainstorming a Legacy-Style Trick-Taking Card Game


I've long felt that the persistence mechanics from Risk: Legacy would translate well to a card game and be a natural fit for the print-on-demand market. (Check out this old post from 2012 breaking down my early thoughts on what it takes to "legacy" an existing game.) I just couldn't figure out a good theme for the game.

Well, this morning I had a quick brainstorm over twitter with Quinn Murphy, and he really unlocked a juicy premise: The theme is a generational family drama, like Downton Abbey. The fallout from each game represents the shifting fortunes and relationships between each of the characters.

Let's assume you could add legacy mechanics to a trick-taking game. Each card has potential relationships with any other card in the deck, waiting to be filled in after several games. In time, you'd have a complex web of relationships between any two cards. For example:

Indebted to...
This card cannot win a trick if ____ is also in play.

Married to...
If ____ is also in play and either wins the trick, split it evenly between both players. (Discard any remainder.)

Secretly loves...
If ___ is also in play and you win a trick, give your winnings to that player.
Rival to...
If ___ is also in play, neither card may win the trick.

Business partners with...
If you possess this card and ___ at the end of the round, earn (insert bonus points of some kind here).

Employed by...
If you possess ____ and play this card, choose a card already played during this trick and return it to the player's hand.

Best friends with...
If ____ is in play or possessed by another player, add it to your collected cards.

That's all just a very fast brainstorm. Any relationship mechanics come to mind for you?

Interview on Inquisitive Meeple


The Inquisitive Meeple just posted a very long interview with me over here. We cover a LOT of territory there, including graphic design, getting started in the game design craft, and the false binary choice of print-on-demand vs. traditional publishing. Here's a snippet:

When you talk about elegant games or game design – what do you mean?
Daniel: Smarter people than me have talked about this at length, but these days I prefer the term “eloquent” over “elegant.” The past few years, “elegant” has become synonymous with “minimalist,” but that is not always the case.
Elegance is simply a ratio of the complexity at the start of the game to its complexity in the middle-to-late game. A game can have a relatively high learning curve, but if it opens up into a constellation of even more interesting choices, then it’s still elegant. A game can have a very shallow learning curve, but not open up at all, so it’s not elegant.
Meanwhile, I like “eloquence” because it implies you’re choosing a game mechanism not because you fetishize a particular design aesthetic, but because it is the right mechanism for the job.

On your blog, you talk a lot about layout. Could you share some tips on how to properly layout prototype (or final version) cards to? What should we be keeping in mind?

Daniel: This is a big question! I’m actually covering a lot of this subject in a presentation for Unpub 5, which I hope will be recorded on video. Generally, for a prototype, your goal is feedback on the game. But people are visual creatures and you’ll get just as many comments on presentation as you will the actual gameplay. The three things to keep in mind for a prototype are clarity for the player, ease of iteration, and an accurate sense of completeness.
On the first point, clarity for the player means having clear text that is easy to read at the expected distance. It also means using visual cues like icons, placeholder art, or colors to make learning and playing the game as easy as possible. Finally, it means using components that fit your gameplay well. With all these things, hopefully players will slide easily down your learning curve and give you constructive feedback on the game itself.
On the second point, I iterate my games very rapidly so I’ve learned some techniques to make that process as simple as possible. Using black and white graphics with minimal ink coverage makes a prototype much more affordable for playtesters to print or re-print. The DataMerge feature in InDesign lets me take a spreadsheet and rapidly export a fully designed deck of cards in minutes.
Third, you never want your prototype to look more finished than your game. My years in graphic design business really urge me to make a game look 100% polished, but I learned that this leads to unfair expectations. The feedback I get for a good-looking but unfinished game is less constructive because playtesters assume the process is too far-gone for fundamental changes to the game. That is not the impression you want to give if your game is going to improve.

Boy, I sure do ramble. Go read the rest!

Seeking Playtesters for Trickster Fantasy


Howdy folks! I'm happy to announce an open playtest period for Trickster: Fantasy, the first in a series of light card games, featuring new art and mechanical twists in each deck theme. You saw an early draft of this game last week, but after some rapid iteration it's ready for public playtests!

This game is suitable for big group gatherings where you want an "icebreaker" that gets everyone to the table for a few minutes. I want to make sure the core game is 100% solid before adding the "fantasy" twists, which is where you come in! Check out the link below and share your thoughts!

--> Download the PDF here

A Trick-Taking Game without Numbers


[UPDATE MARCH 17, 2015: The draft below is saved for posterity. If you want to playtest the current iteration of Trickster: Fantasy, check out this post for details.]

Here's a quick outline of a trick-taking game using cards that have no numbers. This takes a bit of mechanical inspiration from Niya, Set, Iota, Little Devils, and an old military drinking game. Many thanks to Stephanie Straw for kicking the cobwebs off this old idea. It's been clunking around in the back-burner for a while and it will finally reach the testing table soon.


Trick-Taking Game without Numbers
3-7 players

The Deck: 49 cards with 7 different foregrounds and 7 different backgrounds. Each card is a unique combination of foreground and background.

Setup: Each player drafts a hand of 7 cards using the pick-and-pass method from 7 Wonders or Sushi Go. Remaining cards are set aside and won't be used during the game. The owner of the game takes the first turn in the first round. Turns proceed clockwise around the table.

Goal: Own the fewest cards by the time any player has emptied their hand.

Playing Rounds:
The start player of the round may play any card from his hand.

The next player may play any card from her hand.

The third and any subsequent players must follow the same pattern that the second player established with her card:

  • Same background. For example, Daniel plays a Bard foreground and Red background.  Stephanie plays Mage foreground and Red background. You would have to play a card with Red background.
  • Same foreground. For example, Daniel plays a Bard foreground and Red background.  Stephanie plays Bard foreground and Black background. You would have to play a card with a Bard foreground.
  • All different. For example, Daniel plays a Bard foreground and Red background.  Stephanie plays Mage foreground and Black background. You would have to play a card with a unique foreground and background.

If a player can’t fit the pattern, he must collect all cards played so far this round. They're kept face-down in front of him.

If turns go all the way around back to the start player and all players have fit the pattern, then the second player must collect all cards played so far.

A new round begins with the collector from the prior round as the start player.

End of Game: Continue playing until one or more players end the round with an empty hand. Whoever has the fewest total cards in their collection and in hand is the winner.

Interview: Talking about "A La Kart" on The Dice Section podcast!


Thanks to all the playtesters who have joined in the March playtests for A La Kart so far! It's been wonderful seeing so many people take interest in this odd little idea for a card game series.

I paid a visit to The Dice Section podcast headquarters last week to talk about how the playtests are going. You can listen to that episode here. We talked about classic video games, playtesting with a large community, and just general geekery. It was a blast!

Also! This is just a reminder to sign up if you want to access the live rules doc, download print-and-play files, and join discussion about deck balance or card redesigns. Sign up today!

A Quick Introduction to Typography Grids in Graphic Design



Yesterday on BoardGameHour, the discussion focused on writing and formatting rulebooks. I'm no writer, as you might be able to tell from my rambling blog posts, but I can speak a little bit about the basics of how to organize images and text on a printed page. For that, we come to one of my favorite tools in graphic design, the grid.

You might be familiar with the idea of a grid being something like this, but in graphic design the grid is more like a waffle. Like syrup, your text and images fits into the cells while keeping the borders clear. The idea is that you do not see the borders of the grid, only the cells. Text and images span these cells vertically and horizontally, but the grid keeps things looking nice and organized instead of a jumbled mess.

Here's a quick overview of what grids do, some examples, and a downloadable template I made just for you!

What do grids do?
Wrangles lots of different elements onto a page. Grids let you organize body text, headers, diagrams, art, tables, and charts so they're all well-proportioned in relation to the page.

Keep your text columns from being too wide. If a line of text goes beyond about 2.5 alphabets in length, the eye starts to wander. A good grid keeps your columns nice and tight.

Make spacing consistent. When you space out images, columns, and other elements from each other, a grid gives you a consistent amount of clearance around each element.

Examples of Grids
Here are some examples from Josef Muller Brockmann's Grid Systems in Graphic Design.



You can use those grids to organize a LOT of content, which you see most often in magazines that pack in full-color photos into as many pages as possible. The example below is from Monocle magazine Issue 81.


In rulebooks, you can use grids to to organize really complicated and text and images that needs to flow logically from one block of information to another. Check out this double-page spread from a tutorial in the Krosmaster rulebook.



You also see grids in RPG books, where there is usually more text than images, but designers still have to integrate charts and tables into the mix. Check out this double-page spread from the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons.



Download the IDML file
And that's your quick introduction to typographic grids! Here's a simple three-page IDML file I've put together for your reference. Happy designing!

How to Play Kigi: The Card Game of Pretty Trees and Tricky Choices [Video]


Check out this video tutorial for how to play Kigi, my card game about pretty trees! It's a very simple game but I was surprised how much I had to prune in order to come under the 5 minute mark. Get it? Trees? Pruning? Hee.

Kigi (and the full rules) are available here!

Game Mechanics and Art Direction


While preparing for A La Kart's long-term development, I played or researched as many "Cards with Words" games as possible. That's CCGs, LCGs, deckbuilders, digital card games, and any tabletop games that happen to have a lot of cards. That research has been as much about graphic design as game design.


One pretty consistent rule of thumb has been that art goes at the top and text at the bottom, perhaps with a cartouche of important info on the top left. I wondered aloud on Twitter why that tradition had become the rule for so many games. Kevin Wilson dropped some wisdom from his years of experience in the field:



"Cards with words" games tend reward deeper familiarity with the text, especially if you build your own deck. Once you've memorized the text, then the art and other visual cues become the visual shorthand. In other words...

Card art is a mnemonic device for card text.

That jives with what just read Mark Rosewater's article about how he'd start Magic: the Gathering over from scratch. Apparently in the early days, art directors were too lax about depicting the card's effects accurately in the art. Creatures without "Flying" were shown in the air, and vice versa, which caused some confusion. It revealed the mechanical importance of art direction and its symbiotic relationship with gameplay.

I recommend reading the rest of that Twitter thread for some good info from smart folks.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.