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.

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!

The Re-emergence of Interactive Fiction Games: An Interview With Game Designer Rebecca Slitt

Psy High Cover Art
The Cover Art for Psy High, an interactive Fiction game by Rebecca Slitt

The internet and mobile platforms have given rise to many new kinds of games. At the same time, they’ve also helped older types of games find new life, thanks to the creativity of game designers and the enthusiasm of players. And interactive fiction (IF) is one of those more classical types of games currently going through a renaissance. Like me, you might remember the choose-your-own adventure Goosebumps and Animorphs books from your youth; but I can promise you that just like me, interactive fiction is now all grown up. (Although I don’t think interactive fiction has rent to pay…) Of course, there has actually always been people across age ranges playing interactive fiction games, it’s just that now the digital age has helped these gamers develop a new voice and a new community, appealing to people on desktop, web browser, and mobile platforms across the globe.

So we sat down with Rebecca Slitt to find out more about this intriguing and addicting game genre. Rebecca is an academic-turned-game-designer and longtime tabletop RPG player, who is currently working as a writer and editor for Choice of Games, a publisher of interactive fiction and text-based games. She’s contributed to the forthcoming game TimeWatch as well as Make Big Thing’s forthcoming RPG Noirlandia, and uses her degree in medieval history to make sure that her dragon-vs-dragon combat obeys the rules of chivalry. You can find her game Psy High, an interactive teen supernatural romance novel, here.

Brian: What are text-based and interactive fiction games? And how did you get into them?

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Rebecca Slitt on Halloween

Rebecca: Text-based games, aka interactive fiction, are digital games built around words. Which is a hugely general description, because there’s a huge variety of text-based games out there!

Some are word-based puzzle games, where your goal is to find the right combination of commands to solve a problem. That’s the style of text-based games that’s been around the longest, but there are a lot of other styles out there now. Some are essentially novels where the reader plays the main character, deciding how to react to events and characters and choosing where the story goes next. Some are immersive and impressionistic, where the experience of interacting with words on the screen creates an emotional experience.

I found my way into text-based games through – appropriately enough – several paths. One was through choose-a-path books, which I devoured as a kid. My favorites were the Time Machine series – they fed my love of history as well as my love of immersive stories. I also played in some old-school text-based online RPGs – MUDs, MOOs, that sort of thing. Some were freeform text-based roleplay; others were basically multiplayer versions of the earliest IF games in which you you’d type commands like ‘go north’ and ‘get torch’ to navigate your way through the game.

As for my entry into writing and editing text-based IF professionally, that was a very happy coincidence. Choice of Games was founded by two of my friends from college, Dan Fabulich and Adam Strong-Morse. I’d been playing and enjoying their games for years – and then they happened to be looking for a new editor at the same time that I was looking for a new job. That was in the summer of 2013, and I’ve worked for them ever since.

Brian: It seems as if text-based games and interactive fiction have been going through a reemergence. Why is that? Did they ever go away?

Rebecca:They never went away! For a long time, there has been a small but continuous and very dedicated community of people who play, write, and love IF games.

But you’re totally right that the last few years have seen a lot of growth and expansion in the IF community. It’s partly due to the increased ease of communication that social media has brought: it’s now easier than ever before for IF players to find each other, and for IF writers to spread awareness of their work. It’s also partly due to the development of new tools for writing IF, like ChoiceScript and Twine, that are free and very simple to learn. So people who want to make games in general find that the easiest path into that is to write text-based interactive fiction: there’s a relatively low learning curve, and no need to learn (or pay for!) complicated graphics rendering software. People who never had the opportunity to create games before are now able to, and that’s a wonderful thing for everyone concerned.

Plus, there have been a few really prominent IF titles in the last few years – 80 Days probably being the biggest – that have drawn new players and writers into the field.

So now there are more opportunities for people to write games, which means that there are many more kinds of IF being written, which means that there’s a higher chance that any given person can find a game that they’ll love to play.

Mainstream videogames have also recognized that a lot of players like a really strong story to their game, and choices that really matter. The popularity of Telltale’s games, for instance, shows that there’s a hunger for a player-driven narrative.

And, finally, the rise of transmedia and augmented reality games plays into the resurgence of IF as well – games like Lifeline where the player’s text-based communication is the game. It’s all part of the same impulse to put the player at the center of a very complex story.

Brian: On the Choice of Games website, there’s a lot of discussion of interactive fiction in the video game era. Do you also see any similarities between text-based games and tabletop RPGs?

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A screenshot of Rebecca’s game, Psy High, on mobile

Rebecca: Absolutely! GMing a tabletop RPG turned out to be my best preparation for writing IF. It got me used to thinking about stories that didn’t necessarily proceed in a linear fashion and could have multiple different endings based on other people’s actions. And what’s more, it taught me that I love telling that kind of story. I love that in both tabletop RPGs and text-based IF (at least, in the kind of text-based IF that I’m writing in ChoiceScript) the full story doesn’t even exist until the author and player cooperate to create it.

It also got me used to thinking about creating a story with only words – the kind of audacity of narrative that you need to create an exciting game. Unlike LARP or theater or conventional video games, in a tabletop RPG and text-based IF, you’re not limited by any technical constraints in what you can depict. Do you want a thousand-person crowd scene, or a giant spaceship battle, or a main character who can shapeshift? You can have it; all you need to do is describe it. It’s wonderfully liberating as a creator to have that kind of flexibility.

Brian: Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in getting into text-based games for the first time?

Rebecca: Play a lot of different kinds of games! As with tabletop RPGs or board games, IF can’t be defined as a single thing anymore – which is wonderful! It’s great for players, makers, and the genre as a whole.

So, play some ChoiceScript, some Twine, some parser, some inkle, some Storynexus. Each format will feel very different from the others, and each format will have a lot of variation within it. If you love puzzles, you’ll find them; if you love games with more atmosphere than plot, you’ll find them; if you love complex stories, you’ll find them. If you only have a few minutes to play you can find short games; if you want to lose yourself in a game for hours on end you can find long complex games. Whatever genre you enjoy reading – sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, horror, literary fiction – you’ll find that in IF too.

Brian: What’s the writing, editing, and playtesting process like for your games?

Rebecca: The production process for Choice of Games is a cross between writing a novel and developing a videogame.

It takes about 12-18 months for a game to go from concept to release. We start with a detailed outline that covers both story and game mechanics: what stats the game will track, how the story proceeds differently depending on different player choices, what all the possible endings can be.

That double vision continues throughout the writing process: we constantly pay attention to both narrative and logistics. First, we have to make sure that each potential path through the story makes sense both logically and emotionally. Do the scenes show up in the right order? Does any important information get skipped if the player chooses Option X instead of Option Y? Does each plot progress in a way that makes sense? What is the logical end point of each potential path that the player can take through the story? Do all of those endings feel satisfying?

At the same time, we have to think about mechanics. A core aspect of Choice of Games’ design philosophy is that there are no “right” or “wrong” options. Rather, all options should be equally interesting, and even if the character fails to achieve their goal, the failure should be just as interesting as the success. So we have to make sure that no path through the story is easier or harder than the others, and that no option gives disproportionate benefits or penalties.

Each author has a different method for keeping track of all of the possibilities and contingencies. Some use spreadsheets to make sure that they’re keeping all of the stats balanced; some make flowcharts to track each potential path through the plot. Some make extensive outlines – Max Gladstone, author of Choice of the Deathless, is also a novelist, and he has a great essay about his outlining process for writing a ChoiceScript game and how it differs from and informs his writing process for linear novels.

Once the first draft of a game is done, we have at least a month of beta and continuity testing. We’ve got a crew of regular testers who have exceptional eyes for detail. Every game has dozens if not hundreds of choices, so every playthrough reveals a different combinations of scenes and choices. We have to make sure that every playthrough makes narrative sense. On top of that, we have to make sure that all the code works: not just that there are no bugs, but that all of the stat tests are calibrated properly so that the game isn’t too easy or too hard. We work really hard to make sure that the story flows properly and the game’s responses feel natural.

But sometimes bugs can creep in. For example, my own game, Psy High, had a lot of complicated teen-romance shenanigans, so the continuity was really difficult to iron out. Just one true/false flag getting set wrong in one place could result in confusion for the rest of the game, and hilariously sad error messages from users during beta testing: “I told Alison I loved her, but then on the way to the prom she said that we were just friends! What did I do wrong?”

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A decision you’ll need to make in Psy High

Brian: Where do you see text-based and interactive fiction games going in the next five years?

Rebecca: I think that the transmedia/augmented reality trend will continue to grow in popularity, as new types of technology get developed and incorporated into games, and as game creators find new ways to use existing technology to tell new kinds of stories. There will be more multiplayer and massively multiplayer IF games, both cooperative and competitive, that will likewise take advantage of new devices.

Relatedly, I think that the lines between game genres will blur even more. Some mainstream videogames will incorporate more aspects of text-based IF: they will strengthen their storylines, make their plots more choice-driven, and increase the amount of text and dialogue that the player sees. Conversely, IF will, thanks to the development of new tools, incorporate more non-text elements such as sound and video.

If there’s anything that the past few years have shown, it’s that people are hungry for games that have a strong story. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next few years will bring to help them find those stories.

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Don’t Make A Mess of Things: How To Professionally Edit Your Game

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As game creators, we want as many people as possible to roll the dice and take a chance with our game. And as game players, we know that terrible feeling of sitting down with a rulebook and scrunching up our foreheads in frustration as the words on the page refuse to make sense.

So I sat down with Joshua Yearsley, an editor specializing in games and scientific literature, to discuss best practices for writing your rulebook – as well as finding and working with a professional editor to help make your game shine. Joshua’s roleplaying game credits include most of the Fate Worlds of Adventure line by Evil Hat Productions, as well as Vow of Honor and Hunt the Wicked by Sigil Stone Publishing. A couple board games he’s worked on are Lagoon: Land of the Druids by 3 Hares Games and Space Cadets: Away Missions by Stronghold Games. At Make Big Things, we also had the pleasure of working with Joshua on our game 14 Days.

Brian: Let’s start with the basics. How would you describe the role and importance of a game editor in making a polished version of a product that’s ready for sale?

Joshua Yearsley
Joshua Yearsley

Joshua: Ever read a bad rulebook? That’s what happens without an editor.

To be a little less brash, what an editor offers is a fresh, professional set of eyes. If you’ve been designing a game for months or years, revising the text all the while, it’ll be really difficult for you to look at it through your players’ eyes, which makes it hard to write clear rules. This is what Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, calls “The Curse of Knowledge.”

Editors don’t just look for typos and grammar errors. We also make sure your rules text is as clear, concise, and unambiguous as possible. This has many benefits: it reduces your players’ frustration when learning and referencing rules, it makes sure your players are actually playing the game you intended, and it makes your game more accessible and more marketable to new players who might be new to the gaming world.

Even better, editing can save you money. Graphic design is expensive, often much more expensive than editing, and time spent on editing reduces time spent on graphic design. For especially large games, editing might even reduce your word count enough to reduce the number of pages you need to print, reducing your manufacturing costs.

Brian: What should someone look for when they want to find an editor for their game?

Joshua: First, look in their credits for the rulebooks they’ve edited and download them. If you like what you see, chances are you’ve found someone worth your while. This isn’t always reliable, because the editor doesn’t have absolute control of the end result, but it’s a start.

Once you’ve found some options, ask them what specific services they offer, such as structural editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. If they’re cagey about any of it, they probably don’t know what they’re doing. A good editor should be able to explain those types of editing and how they do or don’t integrate them into their editing process.

Brian: What should independent game designers do to make working with their editor a positive experience?

Joshua: Get a good idea of what your editor is responsible for. If you want your editor to do proofreading, make sure they’ll do proofreading. If you want copy editing, make sure they’ll do copy editing. Editing is a broad profession that covers all kinds of services. There’s a great summary of the various types of editing here.

When you’re ready to start editing, make sure the rulebook is completely done before you hand it off to the editor. The more changes you have to make after the rulebook gets edited, the less useful your editor is going to be. Also, if you already have a graphic designer lined up, connect them with your editor so the editor can discuss how they can help make the designer’s job easier in their editing.

Brian: What are some key tips for writing good game rules?

Joshua: First, don’t be too specific. This may sound counterintuitive, but consider the following statement: “If no other players placed tokens this turn, leave your token in the same region, on the same town.” The explanation “in the same region, on the same town…” sounds exact, but it takes more effort to digest and, if you leave out any other specifics relevant to the token, might confuse your reader. Better would be to just state “…leave your token in its place.” or “…leave your token where it is.” Say exactly what you mean; no more, no less.

Second, use concrete language. If you’re introducing a part of the board, for example, talk about what it is physically. This is bad: Rivers are impassible. This is better: Rivers, the blue lines separating regions, are impassible. If it’s appropriate, supplement that text with an image nearby showing what you’re talking about.

A screen cap of edits Joshua made to our game 14 Days.
A screen cap of edits Joshua made to our game 14 Days.

Brian: What are some of the most common “big” mistakes you encounter?

Joshua: Bad rulebooks seem to be the result of many small mistakes rather than a few big ones. That’s why good rulebooks are so hard to make. That said, there are a few big problems to look out for.

A big rulebook needs a workable index. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Many editors, but not all, will be able to make one.

Also, it’s really easy to overuse text styling such as italics and bolding. A bold term might draw your reader’s eye, but if you bold half of the things on the page, it turns into a liability. And yes, I’ve seen rulebooks that have half the page bolded.

Brian: Has the rise of Kickstarter-backed games impacted the game editing industry at all?

Joshua: Absolutely. In fact, at least in the board game world, it didn’t exist in any real sense before crowdfunding. You had the big, big publishers like Hasbro or Wizards of the Coast, who would have editors on staff, while small, independent publishers often didn’t have the pre-publishing resources to sink into hiring an editor. Now there’s some money to go around that smaller teams can use to make games with a lot of polish.

Brian: How does your experience being a game-player impact how you edit games?

Joshua: What an interesting question! I’m not sure that being a game-player changes how I edit games too much, but what does is my experience in teaching games to people and in reading lots and lots of rulebooks. Some of my editing habits are influenced by what I’ve seen to work in teaching games aloud: show what you’re talking about, explain early about how to win, use examples, be sparing in specificities at the beginning, and many other things. Many things, big and small.

***

If you want to find out more about Joshua’s work, check out his website.

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Interview with Game Designer Joshua A.C. Newman

Interview with Game Designer Joshua A.C. Newman

j_newmanIn the debut interview for Make Big Things, I talk with Joshua A.C. Newman of the glyphpress, a small press publishing roleplaying games, ancient poetry, mystical allegories, and experimental content.

Joshua is the creator of sci-fi roleplaying games Shock: Social Science Fiction (2006) and Shock: Human Contact (2010). His first game, Under the Bed (2005), is a card-based roleplaying game about the fears and competing affections of childhood.

Joshua’s last project, Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack, was a huge undertaking. The Mobile Frame Zero Kickstarter campaign had a fundraising goal of $9,000. In just over a month’s time, the project raised over $82,000, exceeding that goal by more than 800%.

Today, I talk with Joshua about game design, good design, and the challenges of unexpected success.


Q: Hi Joshua! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I thought you’d be a great first interview for Make Big Things because your creative work, and more importantly your creative outlook, are right in line with the mission of this site. I’ve been looking back over the Mobile Frame Zero Kickstarter, which closed with more than 2,600 backers. Did you encounter any unexpected challenges trying to manage a Kickstarter project of that size?

A: Man, yeah, it’s hard. The cheap joke is that this kind of thing is a high class problem. Which is true, but it’s still a problem, complete with all the cascade of issues. I never want to sound ungrateful to the backers who were so amazingly supportive, both emotionally and creatively, but with that volume of people came responsibilities that I simply didn’t know how to discharge.

For instance, in my initial spreadsheet, I had expected between 300 backers (the number I got for Human Contact, which was a lot at the time) and 600. It seemed possible that I’d get double, right? And I thought, OK, what happens if I got, like, 900? Triple the number of my last project — the project that went so well that Kickstarter contacted me and asked me to speak on a panel at PAX East with Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity and Andrew Plotkin of The Hadean Lands? The one that had exceeded my goal of $2400 by over 200%?

What I didn’t expect was that I would get so many backers that I wouldn’t be able to even fit the books in my house.

I thought about what I was and wasn’t willing to do. For instance, signing books had been enormously challenging. There was no reasonable workflow, and it took me months to sign and mail the books. So I decided not to sign any. I thought I was being pretty clever.

What I didn’t expect was that I would get so many backers that I wouldn’t be able to even fit the books in my house. That I would have a print run eight times that of my largest print run ever. That the printers I’d been using for years would literally tell me that they couldn’t handle the volume. And that I couldn’t possibly hope to correctly address that many packages.

So I had to shop out to a fulfiller who would make errors at a much lower rate than I would. Shopping it out meant it would cost me about $2 a book, shirt, and decal set. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it represents some $6,000 of expenses for which I had not initially budgeted. Furthermore, during my campaign, our House of Representatives, operated without compromise by the Republican Party, suddenly took an interest in the pensions of mailmen and gave the USPS a mandate to back their workers for 75 years, forcing a huge increase in shipping costs and adding an additional $6,000. My $6,000 budget had been tripled to $18,000 to favor private couriers.

That increase in scale, as welcome and unexpected as it was panic-inducing, has meant that I still have a handful of custom high-level backer rewards that I haven’t fulfilled.

Mobile Frame Zero game in action.
Mobile Frame Zero game in action.

Q: There were a number of people involved in the making of Mobile Frame Zero. Can you describe your role in the project? How did you end up getting involved?

A: I wrote a good amount of the book, co-designed the rules and setting, managed the project of eight people, designed the book, managed the print run, negotiated with suppliers of the various rewards, did promotion, shot and edited the (terrible) video while my computer died, managed the repair of my computer, did the brand design, and managed the Kickstarter campaign.

And that’s a lot of work! But Vincent designs better rules than I do. Soren designs better LEGO robots than I do and designs excellent settings. Thor brings skill and experience in editing both technical and game books. Rich draws really solid robots. Emilee draws sympathetic, kinetic people. Wordman can design and render completely lucid LEGO instructions. These are all parts that, if they’d been done by me, would have been much, much worse. I’m just not as good at those things, and if the book and game were to be as good as I wanted them to be, I was going to have to ask for help.

It even started as someone else’s project. Vincent first published Mechaton some 12 years ago now. I had some creative input at the time, but it was Vincent who resolved all of the challenges I’d wanted solved with the game. It was only when he got a cease and desist letter challenging his right to the trademark that he started to give up. He could tell that the game had legs but that the amount of work would be colossal. After I insisted that we work on developing it in a new direction (probably for a year or more), he offered me the license.

He was right about the amount of work, though.

Q: What were some of the benefits of working on this project with other creators? What were some of the struggles?

A: The benefits are that everyone does what they do best. The struggles are that, when everyone wants to do a great job, your visions of how to do that can clash. Where the division of responsibilities got vague, we wound up with conflicts.

Q: You also self-publish games through your own small press, the glyphpress. What inspired you to start your own publishing company?

A: The first publication of the glyphpress, was an edition of two, called Homunculand. I completed it in April, 1999 as my thesis project for college. I’d always been interested in the medium of books, having illuminated a handwritten history of an interstellar society in 1994 and an Audubon-style zoölogical survey of the Jovian moon Europa in 1998 or so. The codex is an amazing technology and I love finding ways that it excels and exceeds, for instance, electronic publishing.

A publishing company is how I get to make books! It’s that straightforward. If I could, I’d do letterpress, handsewn game books, comics, liner notes, and notebooks, too.

A publishing company is how I get to make books! It’s that straightforward.

Q: In the world of self-publishing, it’s not uncommon to see one person take on every part of a project alone—from writing to editing, artwork, and layout design. How do you recognize when outside help is needed?

A: If it’s at all possible for me to find someone who’s better than me at the parts I don’t like to do, I budget for them in the project. I love Ben Lehman’s writing, so he wrote fiction for Shock: I love Alessandro Alaia’s illustration, so he painted for me in Human Contact. I’m awful at logistics, so I find people who are good at tracking money and objects, rather than doing a terrible job myself.

Never add friends to a project just because you like them, because then you’re putting money between you and making less stuff.

Q: What advice would you give to creators who’d like to work with other people, but are operating on a shoestring budget?

A: Do all the parts you can do yourself by keeping it simple. If there are parts you can’t do that you must do, hire someone else to do them. Otherwise, encourage them to do their own project. Never add friends to a project just because you like them, because then you’re putting money between you and making less stuff.

In our game design coöp, we help and encourage each other, but we’re all working on our own projects. We work side by side and give assistance when necessary (or fun), but none of our projects are collectively owned. Because we like each other too much.

Q: Your background in graphic design really shines through in your games. Not all roleplaying games place such a big emphasis on design and composition. What graphic design principles have you found most useful in game design?

A: Like so many creators, I consider myself a total hack. I think John Harper and Daniel Solis are far better graphic designers than I am. To compensate, I fall back on principles:

Use a grid system. Make it obey a principle of proportion (any principle is better than none, but experiment to figure out which ones are better than the others for this purpose). Break it when you reach the punchline.

Use all the dimensions of a page. A book is not a list of letters. Maybe make multiple columns, or maybe use sidenotes and footnotes. Maybe pop boxes. Treat the page as a plane.

Recently, I’ve been trying to learn how to use the volume of a book, where I use the edges of the pages to convey things. I learned about this one from Chip Kidd, who’s done some neat stuff with legible edges.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who’s interested in designing a roleplaying game, but doesn’t know where to start?

A: Play games, then play other games than the ones you know, then play them with people you don’t know (yet). Don’t imagine that you know the spectrum of the medium until you’ve tried lots of things from lots of design communities.

Q: Are you working on any new projects right now that we should be keeping an eye out for?

A: I’m working on Mobile Frame Zero 002: Alpha Bandit right now, which is a set of rules for carrier-based space combat in the Solar Calendar of Mobile Frame Zero. My publication schedule has a couple of items after that, but I don’t want to make any promises! They’re Skiffy things, and only some of them have to do with giant robots.

Q: Last but not least—probing the source of your inspiration! List one book, one music album, and one film that has inspired your work!

A: My biggest literary inspiration is probably Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games. It’s imaginative, lets its protagonist make bad moral choices, and is simultaneously critical and loving of his own society. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is subtle while being aggressive and forthright in ways that really compel the reader to think, rather than feel satisfied at her answers. I consider the two a set that anyone who’s into social science should read.

Kraftwerk’s 1985 album, Electric Café is my go-to piece of music. I used to listen

Kraftwerk's album, Electric Café (1986)
Kraftwerk’s album, Electric Café (1986)

to it with my cousin while we built plastic Battledroids — the ones that became Battletech’s “Battlemechs” later — and it still drives me when I make stuff. Kraftwerk’s music is some of the best science fiction you’ll ever hear a robot play. Well, with the possible exception of Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis cycle.

Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World has had a lot of impact on me, with its speculation about the impact of search engines on privacy, written in 1992. But you can easily tell that my biggest film inspiration is Blade Runner, just because I use it as an example all the time. It perfectly crosses a real-world concern (dehumanization for the purposes of enslavement of other people) with speculative world change (artificial humanity). And then it goes and makes a world that we can very nearly recognize right now. We’ll have to check in on it in 6 years, when it takes place.


Joshua A.C. Newman lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he spends his days designing games and reading and writing science fiction. He’s a passionate creator—making sculpture, building bicycles, typesetting, and designing graphic interfaces and identities.

You can find him online at: