Following the North Star
3 key lessons learned designing my first board game and how they could apply to yours October 21 2021, 0 Comments
I’m Ben Goldman, designer of Paint the Roses. I’ve been developing board games at NorthStar for 6 years, working on Climate, Most Wanted, and Oceans but this was the first time I’d had nearly complete creative control over the design and I learned a lot through the process.
After years in the making, Paint the Roses launched on Kickstarter, being selected by the platform as a “Project We Love” and reaching its funding goal in just 30 minutes. This article will discuss some of the challenges faced in turning my original idea into the version of Paint the Roses we see today.
For the sake of your sanity (and mine) I’m going to focus on 3 key areas; theme, feedback, and fun. Let me start by pitching you Paint the Roses as it is now:
Set in the puzzling world of Alice in Wonderland, you and your friends are the newly appointed Royal Gardeners working for the notoriously demanding boss, the Queen of Hearts. Paint the Roses is a cooperative deduction puzzle game that automatically adapts to your skill level during play. You'll need strategy, logic and teamwork to stay one step ahead of the Queen, otherwise the last thing you hear will be, "Off With Their Heads!".
Build understanding through theme
When I first designed Paint the Roses it didn’t have a name or a theme. The design featured patterned and colored squares placed on a grid with the logic sat on the surface and that was it. I hadn’t come up with a clear way of describing it so my early game pitches really weren’t great. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’d say:
“In this game you place tiles on a grid, those tiles have 2 variables. Each of those variables has 6 states, making a 6 by 6 matrix of possible tiles. When you place those tiles next to other tiles you mark how many times a variable relationship on your card was created, and that information is used by the team to correctly deduce what is on your card, and thereby be able to score more points with each tile placement.”
Before the theme was added my design was a pure score chaser, with no way to lose. Theme opened the door to another change with the introduction of an antagonist, the Queen of Hearts. If players made too many mistakes the Queen would demand an execution, signalling the end of the game. This change added feelings of tension, relief and even celebration in a way a simple token wouldn’t.
These changes also meant the design, now titled Paint the Roses, could be described in a more thematic and engaging way. Rather than saying “place tiles on a grid“ I now said “place shrubs in a garden”. The “variables” and “states” became “Shrub tiles” showing card suits and rose colours. The reason for tile placement changed from trying to show the “relationship on your card” to trying to solve “the whims of the maniacal Queen of Hearts”.
I used to see themes and mechanics as two discrete things. In creating Paint the Roses I learned that the theme and mechanics can be unified, supporting each other. Theme helped change a fairly abstract puzzle into a more immersive experience that we can see ourselves within. After all, who hasn’t felt the pressure of a boss, teacher or parent watching their every move?
Finding the fun
If I’m being honest with myself, the early versions of Paint the Roses were interesting but arguably weren't very fun. Wanting a design to be fun seems like an obvious goal, but identifying and optimizing for this isn’t always that straight forward.
Not every game automatically creates laughter at the table but fun comes in all forms. Screaming in terror on a rollercoaster or quietly reading a book on a rainy day look nothing alike, but depending on who you ask both might be described as a fun activity.
So what did optimizing for fun mean when designing Paint the Roses?
Two things. The first was to have the players ratio of fun to not fun time be as far skewed towards the former as I could make it. In Paint the Roses the fun is the solving of the puzzles, the conversation at the table and things like longshot guesses that end up being correct. The ‘not-fun’ part is placing the cubes, or the frustration of not being able to solve a puzzle. Part of my design work was ensuring I increased the fun aspects, whilst keeping play as streamlined as possible to outweigh the ‘not-so-fun’.
The second thing I focused on in Paint the Roses was to align the win condition with the fun directly. In the alpha version of the game, the one with the colored and patterned square tiles, winning was based on cube placement. Deducing other players' turns was still part of design, but was secondary to a scoring mechanism largely revolving around counting.
Optimizing for fun needs to be at the front of the mind throughout development, otherwise it can get lost in the weeds. In Paint the Roses, by changing the win condition to solving other players cards, the game became dramatically more fun. By streamlining the rest of the game, I let the mundane aspects fade into the background and brought fun right into focus.
Feedback doesn't have to hurt
You love your game. You crafted it. You spent countless late nights fine tuning the intricate systems that make it tick. So it can be really hard to have someone come along and tell you how they think it could be better. Your natural instinct might be to get defensive. You need to learn to fight it.
My design truly benefited from feedback so let me highlight a few key examples.
Paint the Roses includes notepads to help you track the game information, but originally notetaking was forbidden. I was very reluctant to include it, but after it was suggested I came to see how memory could be a barrier to fun and allowing notes reduced this aspect allowing the focus to go back onto play.
When Dominic first suggested introducing a theme to my design I was unfairly disparaging of the concept and more resistant than I should have been. Once I found a theme that clicked, Alice in Wonderland, I realized just how wrong I’d been.
The introduction of the theme led to Scott Rencher (NorthStar Co-President) suggesting adding the Queen of Hearts to the scoretrack, and this changed the game from a pure score chaser, to one with a loss mechanic and palpable tension in play. Based on further feedback the White Rabbit was added to the game, giving a thematic way to signal the increasing speed of the Queen on the scoretrack.
In hindsight, Paint the Roses without the Queen is a perfectly interesting score-chasing logical puzzle, but she is what makes everything in the game into a gesamtkunstwerk.
Had I been too arrogant in my own core design I would have dismissed some of these changes as too large for a game that already worked. Without taking to heart the feedback from others and simply designing in the insular world of my mind the end result would have led to a worse game.
Of course not all feedback is made equal, and as a designer you still need to determine what will improve a game and then how to properly implement it. Although difficult, figuring out how to listen openly and honestly can allow your design to unlock the potential it always had inside.
These three concepts; Theme, Fun and Feedback are what allowed Paint the Roses to become a fully formed game that makes me unabashedly proud, something I’ll admit I rarely am about my own work. I know I will take what I’ve learned on Paint the Roses with me to all my future projects, and hopefully, you can take something from my experience on your own journey.
Reimagining the art in Alice in Wonderland October 07 2021, 0 Comments
Our latest title, Paint the Roses, is a brand new cooperative puzzle board game headed to Kickstarter on Oct 12th. Set in the world of Alice in Wonderland the game features brand new art and illustrations reimagining its characters.
Today I’m joined by Jacqui Davis the illustrator of Paint the Roses. Jacqui is both a book and board game illustrator and has worked on a wide array of tabletop releases such as Ex Libris, Cubitos and Viticulture.
Hi Jacqui, thanks for joining us. For those unfamiliar with your work could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi! I’m Jacqui, I was born in South Africa and lived there until I was 10 (yes I do miss the sun) and I’m an illustrator living in the UK. When I’m not illustrating my favorite hobby is writing, followed shortly by a good, leafy, amble. My house is filled with plants and many stacks of books that I plan to read, but haven’t gotten round to just yet.
How did you first get started as a professional illustrator?
Originally I hadn’t planned on being a board game illustrator. I went to University for 2D animation in 2009 but learnt quickly that you need a sense of rhythm to be a great animator, something I sadly lack. I can’t dance either, which is sad for my mom who was a ballet dancer.
What I really loved about animation was the character design and pre-vis side of things, so on graduating in 2012 that’s what I thought I’d get into. In the interim there was no harm in taking a few small freelance jobs for some money while I looked for a studio job.
These were Formula-E, Belle of the Ball and a copy artist on Viticulture all in quick succession. After that I found the creative outlet in board games that I loved in animation - designing characters, worlds and styles - all while staying near friends and family that I loved. I didn’t look back.
Are board game mechanics important when deciding on how to illustrate a game world?
Usually for me what’s most important for a game is the theme. I like to know who the game is for, and what sort of vibe the client wants it to give off. Sometimes we’ll have a discussion about the mechanics and I’ll watch a play through or have a look at a prototype. All of it is helpful, not so much for me to know how the game works but it lets me know better what the client has in their mind.
This isn’t the first time you’ve created art based on a pre-existing IP, having worked on games based around famous characters like Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and Ghostbusters. Do you approach these projects differently than your usual work?
It depends on the IP. Sometimes with games like Ghostbusters the IP has an art direction and characters established and the client needs you to follow the pre-existing look as closely as possible. I’ve found this a lot in my copy-artist work in children’s publishing too. In cases like these you’ll often get a folder with plenty of references and style guides to look at and in some ways it’s pretty simple, as long as you follow ‘the rules’
In others like 'Purrrlock Holmes' and 'Neverland Rescue' there was a fair bit more leeway for me to put my spin on things. Usually this is with classic stories and fairytales; everyone has an idea who Peter Pan or Sherlock is, and there have been so many prior versions, that the scope tends to be a bit more forgiving.
When working on Paint the Roses, where did you start?
With Paint the Roses we started on the characters. Always my favorite place. The White Rabbit to be exact.
I already had a general idea of the story and characters, I’m pretty sure the same amount most people would have on hearing ‘Alice in Wonderland’. I’d seen the 2D Disney movie as a kid, watched Tim Burton’s version as a teen, read Jabberwocky in secondary school and just picked up bits and bobs through cultural osmosis. When I started this project I found a copy of the book my Nana had given me - though I must admit I hadn’t read it until then.
I used that for looking up some character descriptions when I could. The tricky bit was actually forgetting about the film versions, I didn’t want to accidentally reference them if I could help it. In this case I suppose it’s lucky neither film was ever my favorite growing up.
What are some of the challenges of illustrating distinctive characters like those of Wonderland and what did you focus on to help guide your reimagined versions?
From the start what led to the look of the characters was the desire from the team not to be as uncanny as the Burton version, but not too kiddy either. ‘Whimsy’ was a word I think that was used.
So we started with the White Rabbit, as I mentioned and the Cheshire Cat, once we had these two down we could use them as a basis for all the others to follow. The awesome team over at Quillsilver and I went through several rounds of sketches to get the look of these two right. It’s really fun to work in a team this way, bouncing ideas off of one another. You would not believe how many faces you can give a cat.
In terms of rendering, initially I was tempted to lean more into a brushy, loose look since it was Paint the Roses, but in the end it proved a bit too simple. Then Dominic (NorthStar Founder) sent a portfolio piece of mine to give me an example of the mood they liked. This was night time and quite dark, which I didn’t think quite worked for the game - but I tried to give everything that golden hour, twilight feel from then on when it came to colors.
The characters in Wonderland are larger than life. How do you look to convey that sense of presence and personality within the art?
Oof! This is really tricky for me to answer. I’m sure there are clever answers out there, I’m just not sure what. Don’t pose the character straight on, I suppose? ¾ views are always more lively. Vary shapes. Little on big. Square and round etc. Color can give away personality. An artist I really love once said a character's hands can give them away.
For me though, I tend to give the character a personality in my head before I start, and when I’m sketching I play around until I manage to put some of that down on paper. The technical bits I’ve learnt over the years, and I’m sure the info is kicking around somewhere in my head, but it’s not actively what I’m thinking about when, for example, I’m asked to sketch an old-man rabbit who’s in a hurry.
Finally, what is some advice you would have for someone looking to work on a well known IP, either as an illustrator or as a publisher?
I always ask for this if I can. But I think it’s a good idea to get references and as much of a detailed brief as your client can give. I like to know what work they like (of mine and of the IP) so I can get an idea of what we’re aiming for. It also helps to know what they don’t like, and don’t want to see. Anything really that makes reading minds a little easier. This also goes with any project. Communication and information really make things go a lot smoother.
Paint the Roses, a cooperative game of logic, deduction and discussion launches on Kickstarter Oct 12 sign up before launch to get a free Cheshire Kitten promo.
From board game photography to scuba diving, get to know our new marketing manager Ross! August 05 2021, 0 Comments
Dominic - You might have noticed a few little changes beginning to occur around our social media and website. We've got big plans for the future so I’m very excited about our new hire, Ross Connell, who joins the NorthStar team as our Community and Marketing manager. His passion for board games, photography, and community led him to create a popular website (www.MoreGamesPlease.com) that brings attention to the artists and graphic designers behind the board games we love.
He has also been hired to photograph games like Root, Kingdomino, Isle of Cats, The Mind, Ticket to Ride and many others. With a degree in film, an eye for beauty, and a passion for interacting with the community, Ross is going to help our company through the transition I talked about in our previous blog post. Let’s get to know him better!
Hi Ross, could you tell everyone a little bit about yourself?
Hi folks! Unlike NorthStar I’m not actually based in the US but live in England about 2 hours north of London. As well as working at North Star I run a freelance photography business, and a website called More Games Please that now has over 20k followers on social media.
It’s been a fun challenge to juggle these side projects around a day job and I’m largely driven by a fascination with the industry mixed with a love of community.
I grew up running around an idyllic little village in the countryside with no shops and more sheep than people! The above photo was taken about 20 minutes from my childhood home where my parents still live in a part of England called the Lake District.
When it comes to board games, I consider myself an omnigamer as I love trying a little bit of everything. This is also my philosophy for life and I have a love of new experiences.
What first got you into games?
When I was young my mother and grandmother always seemed to have a game or puzzle within arms reach. It was just a normal part of life. I’ve also got two older sisters, who were more than happy to play games with me, mainly because I was younger and much easier to beat!
We played all the classics, like Chess, Yahtzee, Clue, Monopoly, Rummy and more. We’ve actually still got my mothers original 1950s/60s edition of Cluedo (Clue) at home and I love that I can get nostalgic about my childhood gaming, in the same way that my mother can by looking at this one game box.
What made you go from playing games to posting about them online?
My friends enjoyed playing games, but I was thinking about them all the time. I started my Instagram account MoreGamesPlease just to find more people who shared my enthusiasm. I didn’t have a regular game group back then, so social media made me feel connected to the community in a way I didn’t really realise I was searching for at the time.
These days I mainly post the board games I’m playing but sometimes I get to post cool photos like this one in Carcassonne, a popular board game based on a gorgeous medieval citadel in France.
Speaking of art, you created a website focused on the art in board games.
I started my site because although there were countless articles about game design, previews and reviews there were no real spaces focusing on the art in games. I thought this work deserved more attention and looked to build a cultural archive to share artists' stories. The site features interviews with over 50 of the best creatives in the industry, and I’ve hosted public votes on the best art of the year which thousands of people have participated in.
Sometimes illustrators email me to let me know about new projects they’ve got because of being featured on my site, or even ask if they can add me into their game.. thanks Andrew Bosley! (Everdell, Tapestry, Citadels). Since my site launched I’ve seen a real sea change in how much attention is given to artists in the industry, and although I can’t claim credit for that I’m glad I helped to throw a spotlight on their work in some small way.
You mentioned you’re a freelance board game photographer, how did you get started?
I was contacted by Osprey Games to see if I was interested in photography work. At that time my day job was at a university, so I had to weigh up if I could fit this into my week. I’m glad I did, as I’ve continued to work with Osprey (photographing titles like Wildlands, Undaunted and Merv) and a growing selection of publishers across the tabletop industry.
I've now photographed Kickstarter projects raising over $4 million, with my work appearing in social media campaigns, web stores and magazines. So much passion, talent and hard work goes into creating games it’s a pleasure to get to help show that.
Have you always collected your own board games?
I never really had my own collection until my late 20s. I was lucky enough to have friends who did and they constantly introduced me to games I had never seen or even heard of. It was an amazing experience and really opened my eyes to the hobby.
I spent a few years travelling and when I got back to England some of these friends had moved away so I decided to start my own collection. I currently have about 300 games, approximately as many as my small house can handle.
You’ve described yourself as an omnigamer, but what are you playing at the moment?
I usually host a weekly game night, but since it’s been harder to bring people together I’ve been re-examining my own collection. I previously only really played games with friends, but this past year I’ve jumped into solo gaming and have been loving it.
I’ve tried around 100 solo modes now and my favorites range from quick roll-and-writes like Ganz Schon Clever, to deeper experiences like Arkham Horror the Card Game. A while back I was thinking how I could share my game nights with others, and at the end of 2019 began streaming games on Twitch. I’m looking forward to hosting my game nights again in person and can’t wait to continue playing my Gloomhaven campaign with a friend.
What gave you the idea to stream board games on Twitch?
Asmodee invited me to be part of their live show during Essen Spiel 2019 and I had a blast. I realised it was something I wanted to do more often so I did some research and got the equipment I needed to get started. I didn’t really know what to expect but I’ve found the Twitch community to be incredibly supportive and I’ve made some amazing new friends because of it.
Since starting I’ve streamed during digital events like Spiel Digital and UK Games Expo Virtually Expo and it blows my mind that the Twitch community have collectively watched over 14,000 hours of conversation and play all from my dining room. Week after week, the same names are there in chat, and I enjoy their company and conversation as much as I hope they enjoy mine.
When did you first learn about North Star Games?
I’d played friends copies of both Evolution and then later Evolution Climate, which I loved. In my own collection I’ve got North Star published titles such as Happy Salmon, Quacks of Quedlinburg and Oceans, which is actually pretty reflective of my tastes in the hobby.
I got to meet Dominic (North Star Founder & Co-President) for the first time back in 2018 at a convention where I got to try a prototype of Team Wits and Wagers (Super Wits) and got to share a lot of laughs. I’ve always loved getting to see those sneak previews of upcoming titles, or catch a glimpse behind the curtain of development through playtesting. Now I’m at North Star I can’t wait to share more of these moments with you, starting with our next game Paint the Roses.
Finally, what’s a fun non-board game fact that people might not know about you?
This one is a bit Oceans board game adjacent, as I’ve been able to go diving in a number of countries, and have a PADI advanced open water certificate, which is a series of courses you can do to help better equip you for deeper and longer diving trips.
Highlights have been swimming with ocean life such as (reef) sharks, dodging jellyfish, seeing the calmness of sea turtles, heading through caves, sunken ships and more. I always knew there was a lot of life beneath the ocean's surface but the sheer amount I’ve been able to see has been absolutely breathtaking.
Ross is now in charge of our social media accounts, so if you’ve enjoyed this article be sure to follow us and post a comment online, he’d love to hear from you.
Press and content creators can now get in touch via this page.
North Star Games is Transforming in a Big Way April 23 2021, 13 Comments
We're Becoming Laser Focused
We used to create games for several vastly different types of customers; for moms & dads too busy to read rules while trying to raising kids, for families with tweens, and for hobby gamers who want an immersive experience. The needs of each of these segments are completely different.
We used to service four different sales channels. This meant juggling between four different sets of reviewers, sales contacts, marketing tools, and messages. It was too much. I love all types of games, but we were too small to be everything to everyone - we were a modern day tower of Babel story.
Customer Centric instead of Product Centric
When I started North Star Games, I thought of us as a company that crafted premium board games for all sorts of people. Board games is what united the company vision. The focus was on crafting premium games, not on the relationship with our customers. This was a mistake.
What is Changing?
We used to service three different set of customers through four different sales channels:
- Mass market
- Toy & Specialty
- Hobby Game Stores
- Digital (Steam, iOS, Android, and Switch)
No longer! We've sold the Happy Planet brand designed for Toy & Specialty, and we're working on a licensing deal for the worldwide rights to Wits & Wagers and Say Anything (sold in Mass). This means we can focus entirely on board games (cardboard and digital) for hobby gamers. Hopefully this means you! These changes will allow us to build a more interactive relationship with our fans.
What Games Excite You?
Let us know what games excited you by taking this poll, and you'll be entered into a raffle for any game on our website.
Want to Get More Involved?
Click on the link below to apply to become an official NorthStar playtester. We're currently looking for people to playtest a solo version of Oceans, and afterwards, a "secret" game in the pipeline.
Paint the Roses is a self-balancing cooperative deduction game set in the world of Alice in Wonderland. Self-balancing? Yes. The system is designed to make every game delightfully challenging regardless of your team's skill level, without having to modify the setup. The goal is to decorate the royal garden according to the changing whims of the Queen without getting beheaded. The Kickstarter campaign is expected to go live in late summer.
Product Centric Marketing
One benefit of choosing hobby gamers as our core customer is a large part of our marketing becomes releasing new products. This means I will be able to spend more time designing games - and that's exactly the reason I started North Star Games nearly 2 decades ago. I can't wait!
~ Dominic Crapuchettes
Here's to a beautiful future!
Oceans: Legends of the Deep November 17 2020, 1 CommentOceans is a journey into the unknown, where you discover powerful traits that hardly seem possible in the realm of biology, and yet they turn out to be real. But coming next summer, you will be able to discover things beyond the realm of science...
Memorial to Satish Pillalamarri November 03 2020, 12 CommentsMy business partner of 17 years, Satish Pillalamarri, recently lost a battle to cancer. His passing has left a big hole in my life. This is a photo memorial to him.
Diversity Statement - mentorship details coming soon July 01 2020, 0 Comments
North Star Games strongly supports the voice of black people, who have been systematically targeted by our police, the judicial system, and continually short-thrifted in all aspects of our socio-political system. On May 25th, George Floyd was murdered by a policeman while 3 other officers stood by. This type of event happens with sickening regularity and has been happening in our country for our entire lives. Things need to change, and they need to change in a dramatic way.
Posting our support is a nice step, but it is not enough. The time for action is long past due.
North Star Games is committed to making a difference, however small, by adhering to the following. We will continue to depict diverse characters in all our published games. We will actively look for minority illustrators and designers; people of color, women, or from other underrepresented segments of the population. We have not considered this in the past, and that needs to change. We will increase our commitment to hire a diverse workforce. We have not gone far enough with the endeavor. And finally, we will create a mentorship program to help local underrepresented people get better at designing games, starting with a black designer. We will post the details shortly.
Our lateness in posting a message does not come from a lack of resolve. To the contrary, we have been considering how to have a lasting impact, with a lack of means. Black lives matter. Justice and opportunity must be dispensed equally, and proof of a job well done should be measured by economic prosperity across all segments of society. While we don't have much financial or political weight to throw around, we want to do what we can to promote the amplification of POC creators' voice and art.
~ The NorthStar Team
Two key factors that allowed me to become a game designer with a career in the board game industry (Paint the Roses #6) November 19 2019, 0 Comments
This is the sixth post in a series about our upcoming game Paint the Roses, written by the game’s designer, Ben Goldman.
I went to art school for graphic design, where I spent as much time designing board games as graphics. Games were how I slacked off.
It turned out to be productive slacking, as I now work full-time in the game industry and North Star Games is about to publish a product of that slacking: a game called Paint the Roses.
(It’s a cooperative game where you’re a gardener for the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. You’re trying to plant her rose garden right so she doesn’t behead you. Problem: she’ll only give you partial information about how she wants it planted. So you and your teammates must deduce her wishes or lose your heads.)
In the interest of helping others find their way professionally, I want to share what I think are the 2 keys to my having ended up where I am.
Key #1: I combined graphic design with game design (talent stacking)
It’s not a stretch to say graphic design is as important to game sales as the games themselves, especially since Kickstarter became important. As a result, graphic design skills are in demand.
And while there are many incredible graphic designers, and many incredible game designers, few people do both things. If you can do both things, you have something.
This relates more generally to the cartoonist Scott Adams’ conception of the talent stack: the idea is you can combine multiple modest talents that become uniquely valuable by their combination. In Adams’ case, he wasn’t the funniest, or the best cartoonist, or the best businessman. But he was pretty good at all those things, and he could combine them uniquely to create the comic for which he’s now famous: Dilbert.
Even if you’re not good at graphic design, this general lesson applies: develop some skill that complements game design (or whatever it is you want to do for a living), and sell yourself on the strength of that combo.
Key #2: I gave myself weird design challenges
Teeming hordes of game designers pitch games to publishers every day. TEEMING. EVERY DAY. How do you design something that stands out enough to be published?
Turns out the way I slacked off doing game design in college was a good solution to this problem, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Each week I’d give myself an odd design challenge, then rapidly prototype a playable (but usually bad) game. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to the challenges, just whatever felt interesting. Some favorites:
- A game where the board is a Möbius strip.
- A game where eating the components is core to victory.
- A drinking game that is still fun for the designated driver.
- A game about lasagna.
- A positional strategy game with a limit of 9 spaces.
- A game where players make their own win conditions.
- A game that models having to do all the work in a group project.
- A player elimination game without player elimination.
- A cooperative deduction game that allows for lots of communication.
A Möbius strip racetrack in Mario Kart
Half the games I made doing this had no redeeming qualities. The other half were stinkers with embedded nuggets of intrigue. But that didn’t matter, because their oddness:
- kept me from getting stuck in conceptual ruts
- led to concepts other designers hadn’t considered. If you want to find gold, you have to go down unexplored paths. Weird design challenges are a great way to do that.
Those same weird restrictions also limited the design space I could explore for each challenge. That was helpful: like many (most?) novice game designers, my early designs tended to bloat. The restrictions limited the bloat.
One challenge that led to a nugget of intrigue was the last one above: "A cooperative deduction game that allows for lots of communication." That nugget is what eventually became Paint the Roses. The reaction to it so far is making me optimistic that it will sell well, and I'll get the chance to make more.
So there you have it: I have a career in games thanks to talent stacking and pursuing odd challenges. I recommend considering how you might employ both ideas in pursuit of your own aspirations.
Paint the Roses will launch on Kickstarter in 2020. To be alerted to new blog posts and the Kickstarter's launch via email, sign up here.
Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series
A new way to visualize game rules, as a network of ideas (Paint the Roses #5) November 12 2019, 4 Comments
This is the fifth post in a series about our upcoming game Paint the Roses, written by the game’s designer, Ben Goldman.
Nothing keeps people from playing games more than having to learn rules. Imagine how many fewer movies we’d watch if we had to read an instruction manual before watching a movie for the first time.
So it’s critical to minimize the frustrations of rules, which is hard, because rulebooks are tricky puzzles of information architecture.
I’ve been working on new ways to understand and shape that architecture. To that end, I present to you a new visualization tool I call the Context Stack.
Imagine a set of rules as a tower of information. The tower’s base contains rules requiring no special knowledge; then up the tower, the rules stack on top of each other such that each rule makes sense if you know the rules below it.
Here are example rules that would appear at different levels in the stack:
- Start the game with 7 Coins.
- Coins can be spent to upgrade land.
- Certain upgrades earn more coins.
- One kind of upgrade is a castle, which protects your land.
- You can spend 45 coins to purchase a castle.
Most people will understand the first rule without prior information, so it goes at the bottom of the stack. Each subsequent rule is easier to understand, or begs fewer questions, if you already know the rules lower down the stack.
Real rules are more complicated than this example, because they’re non-linear. They branch, each rule interacting with multiple others, sometimes in roundabout ways. That’s why rules are hard to write.
Wouldn’t it be nice, then, if we could visualize that network of rules? It might help us more easily see how to simplify and clarify them. That’s the Context Stack:
The graph above is the Context Stack for all the rules about “Whim Cards” in a cooperative deduction game I’ve designed called the Paint the Roses (you can read all our articles about the game here, and you can read the current rules-draft here).
In the graph:
- Each dot represents a rule pertaining to Whim Cards in the rulebook
- Each dot’s position represents where that rule appears in the rulebook. The further apart two dots are, the more stuff there is between them in the rulebook.
- The arrows show you which rules you need to know to understand the rules they point to.
The arrows are the meat of the system. If you look at them, you can immediately see you should avoid two things:
- Long arrows: the longer an arrow is, the longer a reader must remember a rule before applying it to understand another rule.
- Arrows pointing left: A left-pointing arrow means you’ll read a rule before you have all the context you need to understand it.
Most games are complex enough that you can’t completely eliminate these problems. However, you can minimize them. Graphing rules in this way helps you:
- ...see which rules might need moving.
- ...understand the consequences of moving them. Moving any rule can change the length and direction of a lot of arrows. The graph makes it easier to avoid inadvertently creating new problems.
- ...get clear on why you put certain rules in certain places. For example, I have two left-pointing arrows in my rules graph. I need to either eliminate them, or justify their existence. In this case, I arranged the rules this way for the sake of repetition: I mention a central rule multiple times to cement it in the reader’s mind: the two nodes marked “1” are the same rule repeated. The node marked “2” is that rule again but fully explained now that we have all the context to explain it.
Graphing rules this way helps me to “untangle” my rule books. I’ll see long arrows and left-facing arrows, look at those rules, and see if it can be rearranged to be a better-looking graph.
(Note: there are programs allowing you to drag-and-drop objects with arrows attached to them, which makes it easy to visualize ways of reorganizing. Most flowchart programs for example, or Powerpoint.)
Of course, no method is foolproof, If you’d like to help us improve the current rules for Paint the Roses, check out the rules and leave your feedback in the comments.
Paint the Roses will launch on Kickstarter in 2020. To be alerted to new blog posts and the Kickstarter's launch via email, sign up here.
Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series
What can dictators teach us about game design? (Paint the Roses #4) November 05 2019, 1 Comment
This is the fourth post in a series about our upcoming Alice-in-Wonderland-themed game Paint the Roses.
The Dictator's Handbook, by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, has a simple proposition: a ruler’s position determines his behavior more than you’d think. What looks like bad behavior from the outside is often the only logical behavior.
Imagine you’re a despot. You’re well-off, but your people are poor and hungry. You have a budget to distribute. Do you:
- buy your generals expensive villas?
- build public schools and agricultural infrastructure?
- do a little of each?
Before you pick your answer, a hint: two of these answers end with your death at the hands of political rivals.
The only choice that keeps you alive is to fill the pockets of your generals, and keep everyone else poor and hungry:
- If you don't pay the generals, the military will install someone who will.
- You’re a despot, so your people would probably choose a different leader if they could. If they’re not weak, they’ll revolt.
In other words, you’re hostage to the system you’re in, despite your leadership role. This is why, for example, freedom fighters who overthrow oppressive regimes sometimes end up acting just as oppressively when they take over.
Most complex systems are like this: they incentivize emergent and unintended behaviors that can be hard to anticipate and understand from the outside.
Consider US elections: the electoral college wasn’t designed to incentivize candidates to ignore most states, but it does. It makes swing states the only ones that matter: two-thirds of campaign stops in the last election were in just 6 states.
Games, too, are complex systems that create unintended emergent behaviors. That’s why game designers have to playtest and iterate so much.
But it’s often even harder to understand the emergent incentives in games than in political battles. The reason: games are often played as low-stakes affairs, so players aren’t as hostage to a game’s incentives than they would be in a higher-stakes situation. As a result, they behave more randomly, and it can be harder to infer a game’s incentives from their behavior.
This causes lots of confusion about game design. For example, in a recent post about how I designed our upcoming game Paint the Roses to minimize quarterbacking, I claimed quarterbacking is a design flaw in most cooperative games. Many commenters said I was wrong, and that quarterbacking is a player problem.
Who’s right? If it’s true the low-stakes nature of games makes their incentives hard to see, maybe I can strengthen my argument by imagining how a high-stakes cooperative game will play out. Let’s do that:
Imagine you and your friends are going to play Pandemic, and you’ll each get $10,000 if you win. How would you play the game in that situation?
If one player is better at Pandemic than everyone else, unless you’re an idiot, you’ll have that player dictate every turn, while the other players watch.
This illustrates clearly that the incentive to quarterback is built into the game. It’s not a player-flaw.
You might object: if Pandemic is always played as a low-stakes affair, then none of this matters, because players will never face a situation where the game’s incentives so strongly drive their behavior. Here’s the problem: different players perceive the stakes of games differently. If you sit down with a player who cares a lot about winning, the problem emerges. Lots of players care about winning, and they're not wrong for caring. Games must accommodate the various common ways players approach them.
So there's a real problem, and cooperative games can be better than they are now if it's fixed. That's why it matters that our upcoming game does things differently.
A larger lesson for game design
Game designers should look for ways to conduct high-stakes tests, so emergent incentives are clear.
How? Some ideas:
- The cheapest (but most unreliable) way is to do the thought experiment: try to imagine what players would do if the game were high-stakes.
- Put your game on an online platform with lots of players like Board Game Arena. Watch how the best and most committed players play.
- Hold a tournament for your unpublished game, and pay close attention to how the finalists and semi-finalists behave. It’ll work even better if you can offer a desirable tournament prize.
Paint the Roses will launch on Kickstarter in 2020. To be alerted to new blog posts and the Kickstarter's launch via email, sign up here.
Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series
- Why I designed a logic game set in the illogical world of Alice in Wonderland.
- How to fix the biggest problem in cooperative games.
- Feedback wanted for a key component in our next game.
Feedback wanted for a key component in our next game (Paint the Roses #3) October 29 2019, 2 Comments
This is the third post in a series about our upcoming Alice-in-Wonderland-themed game Paint the Roses.
As we design components for Paint the Roses, we hope readers can help us get one key component right: a sculpted Queen of Hearts who spends the game trying to behead you. We want to make her wonderful. Here's what she currently looks like:
She's 2.5 inches tall, and gets taller as the game progresses, by stacking risers under her, so she gets more imposing:
Why is the Queen important?
Paint the Roses is a cooperative game where you try to deduce the Queen’s whims, so you can plant her roses correctly, so you can keep your head.
The board is a garden, where you place tiles representing rose bushes. Surrounding it is a scoring track, where you get points for planting those bushes. Here's what it looks like, with an older, standee version of the Queen:
The Queen spends the game on the scoring track, chasing your scoring markers. You lose if she catches up to them. As the game goes on and she gets taller, she accelerates, which represents her growing desire to behead you. So if you want to win, your scoring must accelerate too.
To help us make the Queen great, answer the following questions:
Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series
How to fix the biggest problem in cooperative games (Paint the Roses #2) October 22 2019, 4 Comments
This is the second post in a series about our upcoming game Paint the Roses, written by the game’s designer, Ben Goldman.
Ask any gamer what the biggest problem with cooperative games is, and they’ll tell you it’s quarterbacking.
Quarterbacking is when one player who knows the game well tells other players what to do on their turns, or even takes their turns for them.
That might sound jerky, but usually it's not. Rather, quarterbacking happens because it gives all players the best chance to win, and that’s what all the players want in a cooperative game. Cooperative games incentivize quarterbacking. Let us heed the wisdom of the ancient sage Ice-T: “Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.”
Quarterbacking is a problem for two reasons:
- When optimal play means players aren’t making decisions for themselves, it limits fun.
- If players don’t get a chance to be wrong, they don’t see what they could have done differently, so they don’t improve. Moreover, they’re not motivated to improve because their judgements don’t matter. This creates a vicious cycle where quarterbacking becomes entrenched, play after play, because the players don’t improve.
So how do you design a cooperative game to prevent quarterbacking? There are two general solutions:
Solution #1: Limit Communication
Here, the rules say you can only communicate in narrow, specified ways. A well-known example is Hanabi. In Hanabi, the only way you may communicate with another player is to give them a certain kind of clue. So, if you see another player biff, you can’t say anything about it.
I have two gripes with this solution:
- One of the greatest qualities of tabletop games is that they’re social. Strict communication limits make a game less social. They conflict with the medium.
- Many players struggle to honor strict communication limits. Facial expressions and body language communicate a lot of information, and many players have trouble controlling those things. So information slips out anyway. Sometimes you can prevent this by insisting players act like statues with poker faces, but that makes a game REALLY antisocial.
Thankfully, there’s another option:
Solution #2: Limit Information
Here, you limit what each player knows about the overall game state, by hiding lots of important information from them. An easy way to do this is to hide information in each player's private hand of cards. The more information each player is missing, the less effectively any player can quarterback, and the less you have to limit communication.
Great! If you do this, you can make a cooperative game social, but without lots of quarterbacking!
But most cooperation games don’t do this. Why not?
I don’t actually know. But I’m taking advantage: I’ve built a cooperative game called Paint the Roses around the principle of limiting information.
Paint the Roses
The first task was to figure out what kind of game it should be. What kind of game can work well when players lack information? Answer: a deduction game. The whole point of a deduction game is to challenge players to overcome ignorance.
So Paint the Roses would be a cooperative deduction game. Here’s how it works:
You’re a gardener who works for the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. The Queen wants to behead you, but she needs an excuse: she needs you to make a mistake. So, rather than tell you how to plant her rose garden, she gives you a small clue about how to do it. She gives similar clues to the other gardeners, your teammates.
But: the queen won’t let the gardeners share what they know with each other. So the only way to deduce your teammates’ clues is to watch which rose bushes they plant, and where they plant them.
How Paint the Roses prevents quarterbacking but allows more table talk
In Paint the Roses, each player has a secret card, and you give information about your card by planting rose bushes in the garden. Each turn has 2 phases:
During Tile Placement, you place garden tiles based on your secret card. This leaves little room for quarterbacking. If you place a tile in a bad spot, the other players don’t know it’s bad, because they don’t know what’s on your card.
examples of secret cards
During Card Guessing, your team tries to deduce what’s on your card based on how you planted.
In this phase, all players can talk, except you. Here it’s possible for one player to talk more than others. Does that lead to quarterbacking? Not really.
If you know the game better than other players, you can bring that knowledge to the conversation. However:
- You don't know all the other player's secret cards. Because they all have information you don't, you can't just tell them what to guess.
- You know when it’s your turn to place a tile, you won’t be able to help your teammates guess your card. Therefore, when it’s your turn to talk, you’re incentivized to teach your teammates how to reason about the game, rather than decide for them.
In other words (the point I’m about to make is the reason I'm writing this article):
This scheme replaces the incentive to quarterback with an incentive to help your teammates understand how to play well.
It creates vivid, healthy table talk where everyone learns together, and everyone feels their collective understanding grow.
I’m proud of this. I think this is a way to turn cooperative games’ weakness into a strength. I hope you feel the same when you play it.
The game will launch on Kickstarter in 2020. If you want to be alerted to new blog posts and Kickstarter launch via email, sign up here.
Previous posts in the Paint the Roses series
Why I designed a logic game set in the illogical world of Alice in Wonderland (Paint the Roses #1) October 15 2019, 5 Comments
Prototype box art for Paint the Roses
This is the first post in a series about our upcoming game Paint the Roses, written by the game’s designer, Ben Goldman.
Why has Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland endured? It was published in 1865, the year the American Civil War ended. But we’re still reading it, still making movies about it, still referencing it. It’s only 25,000 words long! The first (and shortest) Harry Potter Novel is three times that.
Yet this short, 150 year-old story still grabs the imagination. Why?
I think it has to do with the way it was written. It lacks detail. It’s so vague and dreamy, everyone who reads it imagines their own reality for it. Maybe you imagine a happy Disney wonderland, a creepy Tim Burton Wonderland, or an LSD-bender Jefferson Airplane Wonderland. We each get a custom experience.
But if I told you I designed a cooperative deduction game set in Wonderland, with the hard, not-at-all dreamy logic that implies? You might ask why I’d do that.
First, how dare you. Second, I direct your attention to the book’s author: Lewis Carroll. He’s most known for his literary works. But Lewis Carroll is a pen name. His real name was Charles Dodgson, and his day job was mathematics. He was good at it. He even authored a bunch of celebrated mathematics books, which he wrote concurrently with Alice’s story.
When Alice's Adventure found its way to Queen Victoria, she enjoyed it so much she wrote to Dodgson to request the first edition of his next book. She got it: “An Elementary Treatise on Determinants.” Probably not what she expected. Dodgson denied this happened and maybe it didn’t, but it illustrates his strange writing life. He simultaneously wrote books about logic and madness. As if they were related.
Indeed, there’s a popular theory Wonderland is an allegory for trends in Mathematics in the late 19th century. Dodgson was a conservative mathematician, suspicious of new ideas then emerging, especially in logic. For example: imaginary numbers, which are the square roots of negative numbers. Imaginary numbers don’t exist on the number line. A number that’s not a number? How strange. And in Dodgson’s view, how distasteful.
As it turns out, Dodgson’s distaste was misplaced, as nearly every concept he objected to has since been accepted. But the legacy of Wonderland stays with us, and I still love it.
And since Wonderland may be a commentary on 19th century logic, it couldn’t be a more perfect setting for a deduction game. A logic game set in an allegorical world of logic. So I made one:
The game is called Paint the Roses. It tasks you and your teammates with planting the Queen of Hearts' garden. But each player knows only a little about how to do the planting, and must deduce the remaining planting rules from the way the other gardeners work. If you plant wrong, it's off with your head.
North Star Games will Kickstart Paint the Roses sometime in 2020. In the meantime, I’m writing a series of essays, which will cover different aspects of how the game works, why I designed it that way, and what I learned about design in the process. I’ll cover things like:
- How quarterbacking (AKA the alpha player problem) works in cooperative games, and how Paint the Roses makes it impossible.
- Scoring tracks: they can be used for more than just scoring!
- How Paint the Roses compares to its closest relative, Hanabi.
- An unusual graphical method to help make rulebooks clearer.
I’ll also ask for help, as we're still crafting the final product. For example: there will be a deluxe version. What should it contain?
So put on your big weird hat and pour yourself a tea. If you want to follow along and help us make Paint the Roses the best it can be, sign up to receive post notifications here.
We're giving away 1000 copies of our board game Evolution to celebrate the launch of Evolution: The Video Game February 12 2019, 5 Comments
Four years ago, we raised a bunch of money to make a video game version of our hit strategy game Evolution. Evolution is a super-thematic game where you evolve species by giving them traits, to help them adapt and survive in an ever-changing ecosystem:
We've had 5 people working full time on the video game for these last 4 years. That may sound like overkill, but there's a reason: our goal is to make the best digital board game on Earth. The project's a failure if we don't blow the doors off.
Wise readers will be (and should be) skeptical of such claims, because companies crow so much about how awesome they are, even when they aren't.
So, to induce you to see for yourself, we're giving away 1000 copies of the Evolution board game to people who try the video game ($40,000 of games).
How The 1000 Game Giveaway works:
Every day for the next 100 days, we'll randomly select 10 winners from everyone who played an online game that day. It's free to enter on iOS and Android. Just download Evolution (free-to-try in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store), make an in-game account with an email address, and play an online match each day. We'll select new winners daily from those who play an online match each day. Winners cover the cost of shipping. You'll find more details about the giveaway here.
It's available in English on PC and Mac via Steam for $14.99. It's also available as free-to-try on iOS and Android with a full version available for $9.99 as a one time purchase. Those who purchase the game in the first week will receive a 20% launch sale discount.
While Evolution’s digital adaptation is loyal to the original board game, it has also done some evolving of its own. Stunning new artwork, animated cards, lush environments, distinct enemy A.I. Bosses, and a new campaign mode are just a sample of the new features exclusive to the digital edition.
Playing against human opponents from around the world provides its own thrill in fast-paced games. Cross-platform multiplayer provides a deep pool of players to battle wits with, and skill-based matchmaking encourages healthy competition.Evolution’s digital form has been crafted to play as fast as possible, so matches generally last less than ten minutes.
Check out our launch day activities
We're streaming all day today on our Twitch channel. In conjunction, we're running a funding drive for Stack Up, a military charity that delivers care packages of video games and nerd stuff to deployed troops, military hospitals, and stateside bases. You'll find a donation link on our Twitch channel and you can read more about it here.
Thanks all. It's been a long journey and we couldn't have pulled this off without the enormous help many of you given during this project.
Oceans Playtesting Files Open to Everyone November 13 2018, 10 CommentsTwo weeks ago, we made a call to get playtesters for the next game in the Evolution series, Oceans. Our plan was to get 100 dedicated playtesters. To our surprise we received over 1,200 submissions!
Oceans: the next game in the award-winning Evolution series October 29 2018, 12 CommentsThe most massive project North Star Games has ever tackled is starting to surface. After going dark for nearly a year, the next stand-alone game in the Evolution series is finally coming up for air.
Got an interesting city idea for Most Wanted? October 02 2018, 0 Comments
Have an idea for a city we didn't include? Here are some tips on how to mix Action Cards. If you've come up with a unique combination of Action Cards that you enjoy playing with, share it with others by leaving a comment!
Has a new game genre formed under our noses? July 30 2018, 1 CommentThere was a time, let’s call it “the early 2000s”, when there was a sharp distinction between party games and strategy games. That's no longer true. A new kind of game has evolved that spans the gap.
We're turning our fans into reviewers, and you can get a game of ours months before it's published June 12 2018, 8 CommentsReviewers get to have all the fun, so we're turning our fans into reviewers. If you might want to get a pre-release game before it's published and review it, read on.
Most Wanted: a game that does for Poker what King of Tokyo does for Yahtzee April 11 2018, 1 CommentSometimes two old ideas can combine to make a brand new one. There’s a strange alchemical magic in it. A good example is King of Tokyo, which combines Yahtzee with Kaiju. Now we have a game like that. It's called Most Wanted, which combines Poker with Old West outlaw shenanigans.
dude - it's a game where you say dude March 20 2018, 10 Comments
We've come to appreciate the value of doofiness, and that, in turn, has inspired us to explore other doofy game ideas.
In the course of our exploration, we found a game of such profound, undiluted doofiness that we feel we have no choice but to publish it (possibly against our better judgement). I'm writing today with a sneak preview.