Laboratory Mayhem is like Magic: The Gathering, except it’s accessible to everyone and fighting capitalism

Four months ago, a friend of mine sent me a message that said, “Worker cooperative + card game. This is right up your nerd alley.” My friend apparently knows me well, because I was immediately excited by Lixivium Games and their new card game, Laboratory Mayhem.

The first thing that struck me about Lixivium is that they are a worker-owned cooperative: this means each worker has one equal share in the ownership of the business, and the workers govern the company democratically. Make Big Things is also a worker cooperative, and so it was amazing to find another burgeoning game company that shares our principles and structure. And Lixivium’s flagship project, Laboratory Mayhem, was a game after my own heart – a collectible card game like Magic: The Gathering, but more accessible in terms of game play and affordability.

Now, after years of work, the creators are bringing Laboratory Mayhem to Kickstarter. (Join me in backing it – there’s 48 hours left to go! It ends on Thursday, March 2, at 11:40 EST). Several of the worker-owners were also kind enough to sit down with me and chat about why they chose to form as a cooperative as well as their design process for their game.

A Laboratory Mayhem prototype: credit to Laboratory Mayhem’s Facebook.

Brian: So why did Lixivium Games decide to be a worker cooperative?

David: I think workers should always own their work (the normal relationship of owner and employee is exploitation). I also believe democratic processes tend to produce better decisions than autocratic ones, and thus should be applied in the economic sphere as well as in the political sphere.

Greg: We were friends before we were coworkers, so we wanted all of us to be treated fairly. Same for everyone else who contributed to making the game later on. Giving everyone who contributed a say, and compensating everyone proportional to their effort, seemed like a no-brainer.

Brian: Do you think the fact that you are a cooperative has shaped the design of the game at all?

David: In so many ways. Many things from our game name to the number and types of alchemy available were subjected to lengthy discussion, rather than just having one person decide how it should be. Also, very importantly, game play is partly determined by the monetization plan. We were all on the same page to make a broadly accessible game, rather than maximizing profit (the typical decision in a capitalist-owned corporation).

Greg: Absolutely. To add to what’s been said, it’s been a huge factor in bringing in contributors besides us original five. Because we’re self-funded, company ownership is our primary compensation. A lot of our artists appreciate our intent and the spirit behind the game, even if it means they’re not getting sizeable up-front payment.

Myles: We’ve had a lot of practice on our communication skills over the years. When everyone has the right to weigh in, you have to be conscious about your design decisions and willing to defend them.

A prototype of Laboratory Mayhem being played at Victory Point Cafe in Berkeley, CA. Credit to Laboratory Mayhem’s Facebook.

Brian: I can’t wait to get my copy of Laboratory Mayhem. One thing that really appealed to me is how you worked to ensure every card had multiple uses so there are no wasted turns. What drove you to do this, and what’s been players reactions?

David: In any game where you draw cards, there will probably be some element of randomness, and our game still has some. But we really wanted to avoid situations where straight out of the gate you can’t do anything but wait, because you lack the cards or resources to make your first moves. This is a horrible feeling (essentially the game is decided/ruined before it starts) that all of us have experienced at some point playing lots of other games, and that’s why we knew we absolutely wanted to avoid it.

Greg: Games should be fun. But a lot of strategy card games have moments of helplessness, by no fault of the player, and that’s anti-fun. Being able to use any card three ways means you can always do something meaningful to advance your position, so no more feeling helpless, and a lot more feeling fun.

Andrew: Players have consistently given positive responses to being able to play the cards three different ways. I love watching new players realize that they can still play cards as rooms in the endgame – finding uses for cards in their hand even though assembling the card wouldn’t be useful in that situation. And when that extra room suddenly changes the endgame combat math, it’s even more dramatic and exciting!

Cards from Laboratory Mayhem. Credit to Laboratory Mayhem’s Kickstarter.

Brian: One comparison for Laboratory Mayhem seems to be Magic: The Gathering.  I used to be an avid Magic player, but in the last year I’ve somewhat given it up because I couldn’t keep up with always having to buy new cards that were coming out. Your Kickstarter says that all the cards needed to play the game will come in one box in order to make it accessible. Why was this so important to you?

David: For exactly that reason. We don’t want to squeeze uncomfortable amounts of money out of our customers. We want people to spend 30-100$ dollars per year on our game, rather than hundreds or thousands. It seems a fair price for the entertainment they will receive, and a fair price for the work we’ve put in. It should also eventually allow more people to play the game.

Greg: In addition to general good-will, we know a lot of our players will be folks who play Magic or other wallet-hungry CCGs. We don’t want to make anyone choose between our games, so by offering a complete set for a fixed cost, it’s easy to play both.

Brian: What can we look for in the future from your cooperative?

David: I think a second set of cards for Lab Mayhem would be a lot of fun: we’ve scratched the surface of our design space, but as designers, we can all see a lot of unexplored territory, and it beckons to us. Every one of the five founders also has more ideas for other games, so we might also try to put some of those out.

Myles: In the immediate future, watch for our upcoming stretch goals! We’ll also be reviewing the first set for possible tweaks before backers receive their rewards. Most of it will be wording cleanup and small changes, but there’s a chance longtime players will be surprised by a few new cards. (And if you want to be part of that redesign, check the new Kickstarter tier we just added.)

Thanks to Lixivium Games for taking the time to speak with us about worker cooperatives and their game, Laboratory Mayhem! You can back the game on Kickstarter here until Thursday morning, March 2.

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This Board Game Cafe Wants to Make Gaming Fun, Safe, and Inclusive

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Board games are a great way to have fun with friends. They’re also an amazing way to get to know other people. Sometimes, though, they can also be an awful way to get to know other people.

Recently, I found out about Bonus Round: Chicago’s first board game cafe on Kickstarter. (Hooray! They passed their funding goal and now they’re trying to reach their stretch goals.) What struck me about Bonus Round was not just that they wanted to make a space in Chicago for board game players and board game designers, but that they were dedicated to forging a space that would reach people who have been traditionally excluded and/or burned by board gaming culture. I reached out to Bonus Round to hear more about their story, and they agreed to an interview. I’m excited about the work they’re doing, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting them on Kickstarter, whether you’re in Chicago or another city!

Your Kickstarter seems to really focus around building a welcoming board game community. Can you tell us a little more about what this means for Bonus Round?

Building a community and making sure it is a welcoming one are definitely two of our biggest focuses. Board gaming is a group activity and what we’re creating revolves 100% about building a space where people can come together to enjoy games regardless of their level of experience or background. Unfortunately there are a lot of brick and mortar game stores around the country that don’t have the most welcoming environments to outsiders (particularly women) and so part of what we’re trying to do is encourage people who don’t normally play boardgames for whatever reason to take a chance on them. We want to introduce new people to board games.

The Bonus Round Kickstarter video.

I love that your Kickstarter states that Bonus Round will have “a safe and welcoming environment with a posted and enforced anti-harassment policy.” Can you tell us more about why this is important for your vision for Bonus Round?

Yeah! So for me this is pretty simple and it seems like our policies ought to just be common sense for a lot of society. In a nutshell it comes down to “Don’t be a jerk to others.” & “Your enjoyment of the space and what we’re doing shouldn’t infringe on what anyone else is doing.” Some folks have been burned before, and we want to do everything we can to prevent that from happening at our cafe. Having a posted policy on the wall shows people that we’re serious about it and that if someone is causing problems that we’re gonna be there to stop it. Incidents are gonna happen and tensions can get heated during an intense game but at the end of the day we want to make sure that everyone is being given the same amount of respect.

Your Kickstarter says that you want “to be a corner stone meeting place for Chicago’s game development community,” somewhere that game designers can playtest with the public, build relationships, and exchange ideas with each other. As a game designer, I love this! What gave you this idea? And how do you see this idea coming to fruition?

Being a watering hole for local designers, publishers and developers of games has always been something that we wanted to aim for with Bonus Round, but we always figured it would be something a bit further down the line. We’ve been doing pop-up events for a solid year and a half now, and somewhere along there designers started hitting us up to see whether they could bring their games out to show off or playtest. People don’t seem to realize just how many board game industry folks live in or around Chicago, and it blows me away how much support they’ve shown for Bonus Round! In the future once we have our doors open we want to have monthly gatherings at the cafe where insiders can get together to share war stories and ideas. Additionally we want to have regular nights at the cafe where developers & publishers have a chance to get their games playtested with the public. Playtesting can be a really long and drawn out process (not to mention costly). The funny thing is that the public are usually pretty enthusiastic to try something new and give feedback, but outside of conventions there isn’t much of a place to bring everything together. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out here to Ben at Argyle Games as well as Jeff & Andrew with Road To Infamy Games, they’ve all been really supportive of what we’re doing.

When did you decide to take your dream of a board game cafe and make it a reality? And why did you decide to turn to Kickstarter?

Okay so the moment that Courtney & I decided that this was what we were going to pour ourselves into was probably about 4 years ago. I was managing a record store in California at the time, which was a great experience that I learned a lot from, I was enjoying working there but ambition was getting the best of me and for the longest time I had wanted to create something myself. So that was all going through my head and a year or two prior to that even we’d gone to Toronto on our honeymoon and visited Snakes & Lattes, who have been at the forefront of this board game cafe movement. Eventually it all came together and we knew we had the skill sets to do this already; we just needed to put in the work and get all the money together. It hasn’t been easy for a moment, and it has been really trying at times, but we’re not far off from being able to break ground and get our doors open. We’ve always been pretty active on Kickstarter and done what we can to help fund projects which we care about and want to see come to life, it made sense that once we got to the point which we’re at now that we’d turn things around and create a campaign of our own. I feel like I could write a book about everything that has happened so far with the cafe, our trials and tribulations, but I couldn’t be more proud of where we are and those struggles have definitely helped me appreciate it.

You say that your staff will be trained to help customers learn the board games you have at your cafe. I think that’s fantastic. Why’s that important for your vision of Bonus Round?

Internally teaching board games is perhaps the one topic we talk about the most, there are so many finer details that don’t even surface until you really start thinking about it from a variety of perspectives. There are two big reasons (among many) why I think teaching and doing it well are important for a board game cafe:
a) Our target audience consists of a lot of people that have NEVER played a modern board game, the last thing they might have played is probably Monopoly or Clue at a gathering with extended family. The thing is board games have come such a long way from that and are an incredible way to enjoy some genuine social time with others. So with all that said we’ve got a lot of newcomers coming out to our pop-ups and when you’re learning something new, whether it is rocket science or board gaming, you’re in this space where you might feel like everyone but you knows what’s going on. A few laughs and some encouragement go a long way towards getting people to open up. I’m getting a little rambly here but one of the reasons teaching is important is if you do it well then people can’t wait to join in.

b) The second reason is way more straightforward. Nobody wants to sit down with their friends and have to scramble through a rule book for 30 minutes before they can even start enjoying the game. We cut that whole process out and get people right to the fun part by figuring out what the “teach” is for a game, what are the essentials that people need to know before they can take their first turn or roll some dice? In many cases some rules of the game can be introduced after everyone has had a turn with almost no impact on how the game was played up until that point. Each game has its own approach but we take the time and figure it out so that our customers can just focus on having a good time.

Has your Kickstarter campaign allowed you to reach new audiences?

We’re not using Kickstarter just for the money, Kickstarter helps build a community around your project from day one. Since everything else we’re doing is so community oriented it makes sense that we’d go to Kickstarter. It has definitely helped us garner some more attention, but for me the most exhilarating part of all this has been how much people have come out of the woodwork to share what we’re doing with their friends and family. People that might’ve only ever come out to one or two pop-up game nights have taken the time to say how thrilled they are for us. That said, I want to see that audience grow even more and I can’t wait for us to finally have our doors open!

Bonus Round on Kickstarter

Image via Bonus Round Kickstarter page.

Good Dog, Bad Zombie Progress Report: We Need More Zombies

Early good dog, bad zombie prototype playtest.

Good Dog, Bad Zombie is a cooperative game for three to five players. It can be described as Homeward Bound meets The Walking Dead. It’s a game about doing everything you can to build a place to call home. It’s a game about dogs rescuing humans. It’s a game about sticking together, through thick and thin. It’s a game about dogs fighting zombies. It’s adorable and horrifying, all at once.

As I develop the game, I’ll be making periodic updates about the game design process to share. I feel comfortable starting this effort now, as the core mechanics of the game have stabilized (hopefully, fingers crossed), though there will still be plenty of small and medium sized changes to make.

Gameplay Overview

In Good Dog, Bad Zombie (GDBZ), players are chasing away zombies in twelve different locations (ranging from “the Kennel” to “the Spooky Swamp”) in order to save humans, and then bring them back to their home territory. (Kind of like Lassie, but with zombies instead of wells.) Each player is playing as one dog in the pack, and if the dogs bring home ten humans, the humans are able to build a new home – and the players win! However, if too many dogs and humans die (or “go to the farm,” as it’s called in GDBZ) and if there are too many zombie outbreaks, then the feral tracker will reach 10. Once this happens, the pack of dogs becomes feral and wild, and they no longer care about rescuing humans – and so the players lose.

In addition, players must interact with events. Some are good, like “SQUIRREL!”, while others are bad, like “A really, really loud thunderstorm.” These either have immediate effects or present decisions players must make as a team or individual. (There are some occasional longer story-prompt events as well that tell the overall story of the zombie apocalypse.)

Recently, I play tested the sixth iteration of Good Dog, Bad Zombie. Overall, it went really well. (The playtesters even asked to play another round after we finished the first one, which I feel is pretty much the best game design compliment possible.) At the same time, there was still room for considerable improvement. Here’s what I learned about what worked and what needed work.

What Worked

  • The flavor. People really seemed to enjoy the cards in the game, and the temporary “art” that is being used until custom art is produced. There’s a lot of humor in the game. The juxtaposition of adorableness and horror also played off each other nicely. There was a lot of laughter, awwws, and groans. People were pretty frequently shouting “YES!”, which felt good
  • Dogs getting adopted. There’s a mechanic in the game where after your dog rescues a human, the human adopts your dog. You discard your current dog and take a new one. People thought this was cute and also allowed them to see more dogs. (Seeing more dogs had been a request from a previous playtester.) But because most dogs have different abilities, it also made sure the game didn’t become stagnate.
  • Call of the pack. This is a mechanic that I came up with to try to emphasize participation even if it’s not your turn, while also de-emphasizing quarterbacking (one person telling everyone else what they should do). That’s a general thing that many cooperative games struggle with, and so I wanted GDBZ to address it head on. With call of the pack, if a player plays a card with a dog symbol on it that matches a card with a dog symbol you have, you can play that card with the matching symbol even if it’s not your turn. So basically the current player starts a call of the pack when they play a card, and any player with a matching symbol may respond to the call if they have a card with the matching symbol. This also allows for some fun combos. In previous playtests, I had players say this was an aspect that really kept them attentive and focused the whole game, and they liked being able to contribute on other player’s turns.
Sample good dog bad zombie cards
The symbols at the top of the card are the symbols used in Call of the Pack. Right now, I’m using bad clip art/random pictures from the internet until our art and graphic design team can start making these look pretty. (A skill I don’t have.)
  • Helping each other. In GDBZ, there are some features that don’t give you the choice between helping yourself and helping everyone – you just have to help everyone. For example, there’s a mechanic called “Sniff” – it allows not only you to draw a new card, but all players to draw a new card. This emphasizes interactivity even when it’s not your turn.
  • Core System. Even though there were plenty of rough patches and things to fix, people commented that the gameplay was fairly smooth and easy enough to pick up, and that the core system of the game is solid. That’s a relief.
  • Chasing Away Zombies. In order to chase away zombies, you roll a custom “dog die.” Four sides have a paw. If you successfully roll a paw, you remove a zombie token from your area. However, one side of the die has a HIT, and another side has a DOUBLE HIT. If you roll a hit, your dog takes one wound and you don’t remove the zombie. If you roll a double hit, it’s the same but your dog takes two wounds. This means that the attempt to chase off a zombie is likely to go your way, but there’s the possibility that a zombie could harm you instead and you’ve lost one of the precious actions you get on your turn (measured by “sleepy tokens”). This can ruin the best laid plans. This balance seemed to go well and was fun.
This is what you want to see when you roll the die to chase away zombies.
This is what you want to see when you roll the die to chase away zombies.

What Needed Work and Possible Solutions To Try Out

  • Problem – too many dice. There were too many dice in this version of the game. The primary culprit was the fact that at the end of your turn, you had to roll two dice: one was to determine if you were drawing an event card or adding zombies to the board, and the other was determining what places you were adding zombies to if you were adding zombies. Two sides of this die said E (draw an event), three sides said Z1 (add one zombie to each place you’re adding zombies to), and one said Z2 (add two zombies to the places). Besides having too many dice to roll and pass around, that’s just a clunky and un-intuitive and confusing way of doing things. Solution to try out: Eliminate the zombie/event die, and just roll the number die at the end of your turn, and always just add one zombie to each Place that has the corresponding number. This means drawing event cards needs to be triggered by something else. (More on that below.)
  • Problem – Scaling of the game was a bit off, it needed more zombies! Once the players got the upper hand on the zombies, the game was pretty much on lockdown. And while it was still fun to play, their wasn’t much tension. This even happened when we played a second time, at a harder level setting. Solutions to try out: I actually think the above solution with altering the dice will help out with this problem too, as it’ll ensure that zombies are added to the board every turn, no matter what, instead of there being a 1 in 3 chance that it’ll happen. But also, I think reducing the number of zombies there are allowed to be on a space from four to three will be a big factor. Once a place is maxed out with zombies, any human on that place gets eaten, and there’s a zombie stampede – which means zombies spread out to all adjacent places. Only a couple stampedes happened in the last version of the game. With this new model, I think we’re more likely to see the spread of zombies. In addition, I’m scaling back some of the power of some of the dog’s cards, which will make it harder to remove zombies.
  • Problem – Ambushes, a boring and clunky mechanic/gameplay feature from an old version of the game. In the very first version of Good Dog, Bad Zombie, the whole game was based around ambushes. You went into a place, you found a human that needed to be rescued, then you were ambushed – maybe by zombies, maybe by evil humans, maybe by a colony of feral cats, a zombie with no legs, and so on. This was a completely different game. But this mechanic was so important that dogs even had special stats based around ambushes. Slowly, as the game adapted, ambushes became less important, and they were even folded into the events deck. But still, they were there, and the dogs stats based around them were still there. But eventually this feature got stripped down so much that the ambushes just became boring cards that made you roll the dice a whole bunch of extra times. The difficult thing about just deleting the ambushes, though, was that they did serve one important role: giving dogs extra wounds and making it so you had to occasionally discard rescued humans you had (and send them to the farm). Solutions to try out: Delete the ambushes entirely, and then increase the difficulty of the event cards themselves, thereby transferring the role the ambushes served into the events. Also delete the Dog Stats that had to do with ambushes, therefore making the dog cards simpler, too (another pro!)
  • Problem – when to draw events. As mentioned above, drawing events was previously a part of rolling a zombie/event die at the end of the turn, which was way too clunky. It also turned out to be unreliable. Sometimes we were drawing way too many events and not adding enough zombies, sometimes we weren’t drawing enough events at all (and sometimes, too many of those events were ambushes, which wasn’t fun). Solutions to try out: Instead of rolling the die to see if you’re drawing an event, incorporate the events into the Places. A few places had “clearing this place of zombie” effects – namely, drawing a Reward card, healing all dogs (like at The Vet), and so on. So in dialogue with my playtesters, we determined that it’d be fun to actually make you draw event cards after you clear places of zombies. I did have to do some tweeking of the rules to make sure players couldn’t just avoid clearing spaces and therefore drawing events. But hopefully this will now turn into a strategic decision: do we unnecessarily leave zombies on the board, which is a risk, or do we draw an event, which is a different risk?
A few Areas in GDBZ
An example of a few areas in Good Dog, Bad Zombie, with the added Clearing Effect to draw events.
  • Problem – Dog Stats. Certain dogs were overpowered or underpowered. Certain dogs had too many abilities or not enough. And if one dog had two abilities, and the same number of actions as every other dog, well that the player playing as that dog was just going to have a lot more to do. Solutions to try out: Diversify the dogs a bit more. If one dog has a lot of abilities, scale down how many wounds they can have and the number of sleepy tokens (actions per turn) they can have.
    Problem – Too many humans: The inverse of the zombies problem was the humans. Once you rescued a human, you rolled the die and added two new humans to the board. And remember, you need to save 10 humans to win the game. While this had a multiplying effect, I figured it’d actually make the game harder, because there would be more humans to be eaten by zombies, which would cause the zombies to spread and the feral tracker to move up. But because the zombies weren’t totally working out, there were just a ton of humans and it was way too easy to win. Solutions to try out: Make the game have more zombies (see above), and limit the number of humans there can be on the board at a time to five. Also, only make a Place able to have one human at a time. This means if another human would be added to, say, The Old Downtown Now Covered in Wreckage, but there’s a human already there, you just don’t add the human to that Place.
  • Problem – a lack of balance between abilities. There were way too many cards that allowed you to heal dogs (which made it so people never lost a dog), and not enough cards that allowed you to do some of the other game mechanics (like bark, bite, sniff, etc.). Some players ended up with just a huge amount of healing cards in their hands, which didn’t feel great. Solutions to try out: Pretty simple, just try to redistribute the number of abilities between the different cards and see if it feels any better gameplay wise.
  • Problem – discarding didn’t feel very fun. Even though players didn’t mind it, I didn’t like Events that made players discard cards. It just felt non-interactive; I don’t like taking away players opportunities to do things. The game should be able to punish players, but just like the mechanic of “skipping turns” – which is probably one of my least favorite of all time – I don’t like making the game harder by making it less playable.

Well, those are the highlights of many of the things that went well, in addition to the problems and the solutions I’ve brainstormed. Hopefully these work out! Find out next time on… Good Dog, Bad Zombie progress report!

It’s the final countdown: 32 hours left for Noirlandia’s Kickstarter!

Thank you!

As of writing this blog post, Noirlandia has 677 backers on Kickstarter. (Whoops, make that 678!) We’re simply blown away by the support and enthusiasm our friends and the larger indie gaming community have shown for our creation.

There’s 32 hours left to go for Noirlandia’s Kickstarter, and we just got past our stretch goal to include amazing casebooks with every level that gets a physical copy of Noirlandia. Now, we’re on to our final stretch goal: at $22,500, we’ll produce these amazing custom Noirlandia playing cards for the Private Eye ($75) level and above.
660f784ae43f606ff97684330b0cfd56_originalWhile we’d love to create these playing cards, our main goal is get Noirlandia into the hands of as many people as possible. We’d deeply appreciate it if you helped us spread the word to anyone you think would like the game, as well as on your social media platforms of choice.

We can’t wait to share the final product with you, and hear all about the mysterious cities and murder mysteries you dream up. Thank you so much once again.

Best,
The Make Big Things Team

Hacking One RPG to Make Another RPG: An Interview with Evan Rowland, Designer of Noirlandia

Earlier this year, Make Big Things launched an interview series to strike conversations with indie game insiders, discussing their process, hopes, and work. For this installment of the series, we decided to sit down with one of our own: Evan Rowland. Currently, we’re running a Kickstarter for the game that Evan is the lead designer and artist for: Noirlandia. We thought this presented a great opportunity for Evan to share his insights on how to create a roleplaying game.

Brian: What inspired you to create Noirlandia?

Evan Rowland
Evan Rowland

Evan: Noirlandia was, in part, inspired by a single mechanic present in the earliest drafts of Questlandia.

This is how it worked: When creating the main characters of the game, the rules had you use some tables and randomizers to generate as many people are there were players at the table – plus one. Everybody chose their favorite, and then there’d be one extra character left behind. In Questlandia’s final ruleset, that character is just cleared away. But in the early draft, that character was killed. The death of this character would kick off your story.

We eventually decided that we didn’t want every game of Questlandia to be a murder mystery. But the seed was planted…

Much later, Hannah and I decided to simultaneously create two hacks of Questlandia for an upcoming convention. Having recently rewatched Chinatown, I felt ready to do a full-fledged murder mystery conversion of the system!

Brian: What was your biggest challenge designing Noirlandia, and how did you eventually overcome it?

Evan: From the start I wanted the game to center around the creation of a crime board – a corkboard with polaroids and newspaper clippings all pinned up and strung together with yarn.

Getting this to mesh with the rules and work properly was a long process. I started with a sort of absurd, prescriptive system: First, you find a connection, then you’ll find a clue, which then allows you to pin up a lead, which finally supplies you with an answer. You’d repeat the process four times, once for each district of the city. It was a bad system. I made bad rules.

But I playtested them anyway, and modified them, and playtested some more. I’m lucky to have many resilient and open-minded friends who were willing to try the game over and over as I iterated through rulesets.

As they stand now, I’m finally happy with the corkboard rules – they feel quick and intuitive to me. The boards actually end up looking like the tangled, paranoid boards you see in films. It’s gratifying!

A figure in a coat overlooking a valley of skeletons.
Brian: What do you hope people feel after they finish a game of Noirlandia?

Evan: I hope they feel like, somehow, all the clues and mishaps of the case have somehow, miraculously, become understandable. The best games I’ve played have taken complicated crimes and puzzled out a convincing solution. And those solutions, more often than not, have been indictments of large-scale societal structures – systems of poverty, oppression, or consolidation.

I don’t know the word for that feeling. A sort of hopeless defiance. “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.”

Brian: What’s something you learned about game design while creating Noirlandia?

Evan: In roleplaying games, you don’t make a closed system of rules. You have an additional input – the imagination of the people at the table. Your rules have to make space for the players to add their own ingenuity to the scene. And you can shape the space – it’s like drawing with negative space. This is a part of all the rules in Noirlandia, but in particular, I grappled with this concept when designing connections.

Connections, in the game, are when two different leads on your board are tied together with string. You learn how they’re related – for instance, maybe the ivory eagle was hidden away in Ms. Beuville’s attic. This is an ideal place for player input – human brains are fantastically talented at making connections. But the task actually gets tricky when it’s in the context of a larger mystery – what connection fits the information we’ve learned so far? What connection will progress the investigation?

So the task has to be opened up again to give the player some freedom in choosing the best connection to make. Normally, when this comes up in a game, there are 3 or 4 pairs of leads to choose from, which seems to give enough freedom to make a relevant choice, without being overwhelmed with options or too tightly constrained. Creating the right constraints for those moments took a lot of trial and error!

Noirlanida being played on a corkboard.
Noirlandia being played on a corkboard.

Brian: What advice would you have to people looking to design their own roleplaying game?

Evan: Start playing the game as soon as possible. Get a playtest scheduled immediately. Then do everything you can to make the game playable by that point. Let your playtesters know they’re trying something incomplete. Play the game, take notes, what went well, what was broken. Then immediately schedule the next playtest.

Playing the game with other people is how you’ll find out what your game is about, what makes it special, and the bizarre consequences of your rules. Play it!

Teatime With Make Big Things: Solving Mysteries in Games

How do mysteries work in games – RPGs, board games, and video games alike? And how do these different types of games use their mediums to explore and eventually answer mysteries? Does the game have to know the answer to the mystery, or can the game leave that up to the players to determine? What happens when the point of the game is the mystery itself? And why, exactly, is Clue the best game ever? (Just kidding… or are we?)

Since we’re kickstarting Noirlandia, our newest game about solving fantastical mysteries in strange cities, these were questions we wanted to discuss! Luckily, several other people wanted to chat about them with us too during our second monthly Make Big Things teatime. Watch the video of our great conversation below!

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Games We’re Playing: Machi Koro and the Art of Simple Games

I’m a big fan of simple games. I know some gamers pride themselves on being able to play the most complicated and intricate games there are – and don’t get me wrong, I love those too – but sometimes I just want a game to be quick and easy to learn and play. I call these my “weekday games” or “zone-out games” or “I’m going to have a glass of wine with this game, games.” After a long hard day of working, the last thing I want to do is struggle with a game that’s going to use the same parts of my brain that have turned to mush and therefore further mush-ify them. No, I want to play a game that helps me relax. Generally speaking, though, I also like to play games with a wide variety of people, including those who aren’t big game players. Getting less experienced players into a game that takes five minutes to explain is going to make for a much better night than trying desperately to jam thirty minutes of rules into the brains of people whose eyes glaze over as soon as they see how many pieces there are. It’s important to make sure everyone’s having fun, and simple games are sometimes the best way to achieve that.

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Machi Koro was given to me by some friends for my birthday earlier this year. I don’t think it’s a game I normally would have picked up on my own, given its ultra-capitalism theme, so I was intrigued to give something I wouldn’t normally indulge a whirl. What I found was a game that was mostly fun, and definitely simple.

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Noirlandia is live on Kickstarter!

coverThe day’s finally here: we’ve launched Noirlandia on Kickstarter!

Noirlandia is a cooperative roleplaying game for 3-4 players about a desperate investigation in a fantastic city. Players work together to build the city as well as a murder mystery, which they then have to solve together… or lose their minds trying. Watch the video below to find out more!

We’ve been working hard for months to bring Noirlandia to Kickstarter, and we couldn’t be happier with the game we’ve completed and the campaign we’ve laid out. We want to thank everyone for their support thus far and their support in the future, too. Here are a couple of the awesome rewards you can get from backing Noirlandia on Kickstarter:

  • Noirlandia as a PDF or a softcover book
  • Your headshot turned into an illustration and used in the game and a glossy 8″ x 10″ print of the illustration.
  • Physical copies of all starter mysteries, including stretch goal mysteries, in sealed, custom-designed Noirlandia envelopes.
  • And more!

Here’s what people are saying about Noirlandia:

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We’d deeply appreciate it if you helped spread the word about the Noirlandia Kickstarter with your friends and networks! If it’s helpful, below are some sample posts for Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook:

Check out Noirlandia, the newest game from my friends at Make Big Things, and back it on Kickstarter! It’s a roleplaying game about a strange city and a dark murder mystery that you have to solve before it consumes you. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hannahshaffer/noirlandia

Twitter:
Check out #Noirlandia on Kickstarter, by @MakeBigThings: a great RPG about a strange city and a dark murder mystery https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hannahshaffer/noirlandia

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