Noirlandia: Changing the Central Question


The Question

Over the course of its development, Noirlandia has changed in a thousand ways. I want to talk about just one of those changes, a change that had a small impact on the rules but a big impact on the game’s tone.

Noirlandia’s setting changes from game to game. The mystery takes place in a player-designed city; sometimes existing in a far-off future, sometimes Medieval or Victorian, sometimes featuring people very unlike us. The common thread between all these possibilities is the city’s corruption. In all timelines, in all varieties of people, you can rely on the city having a rotten core.

In our city, we play a cast of characters all fighting for answers about a convoluted murder case. Each character is defined by their profession, where they live in the city, and one central question. That question used to be, “What are you haunted by?” Now, it’s “What principle guides you?” After I made that change, Noirlandia became a whole different game.

Side Effects

When I first starting designing this game, and thinking about the characters I know from noir film and literature, a consistent image appeared – one of people broken, weighed down by their past. Chinatown’s Jake Gittes, for example, who is haunted by the memory of his police work in Chinatown. Or Sunset Bouelevard’s Norma Desmond, haunted by her Hollywood decline. “What are you haunted by?” became my central question posed to each character, and I wrote possible answers like “the case that was never solved” or “the memories of loved ones.”

I’ve changed the question, but not because the first was broken. In fact, it successfully helped to create memorable characters and stories. We’ve had games that followed a retired detective, haunted by the spectre of addiction. Or a wealthy heiress, haunted by an insidious conspiracy. The stories around these characters developed a certain theme – characters who faced their past, and sometimes found absolution.

There were a couple side effects of this focus on the past. For one thing, it gave us a lot of side stories. We weren’t just focused on the murder at hand; we were looking into 3-5 backstories, which were all competing for time in the spotlight. Another effect was changing the balance of setting and characters. Once we designed our city, we didn’t have much time to explore and expand it, because the narratives were so personal. I was receiving consistent feedback that the setting we created felt abandoned once the mystery was underway.

Jake Gittes
Jake Gittes – is he defined by his past, or by his principles?

A New Theme

I revisited some noir source material. As I watched Jake Gittes get slashed and shot at in his search for answers, I realized that this wasn’t just the story of a man weighed down by the past. It was the story of man who was driven by his principles, despite the cost. Holding to his principles makes him an enemy to his city’s corruption. The city itself is the villain of the story.

I made a list of principles that could drive the game’s characters. My goal was to make principles that would be hard to keep, and dramatic to break. Since making the change, I’ve seen an assassin who has sworn to never harm another, an investigative journalist who refuses to tell a lie, and a police officer who has vowed to never betray his own.

These characters brought a new theme to the mystery – principles versus corruption. Some characters broke, some stayed true, but they all helped tell a story of desperate idealism in an amoral world.

Having this new theme brought a torrent of design questions – what happens when you break your word? How can the world tempt you? Once broken, what can you do to redeem yourself? Answering these questions has narrowed the game’s scope and sharpened its story. In the end, I feel like it came down to letting go of some of the surface qualities of noir – the grim, haunted protagonists – and finding the core conflict beneath the surface.

I was anxious about making such a big change in the game this late into development, but the reward has been creating an internal consistency. The game’s city, characters, and mystery are all supporting the same story. I believe Noirlandia is a better game because of it.

A Guide to Awesome Playtests

Wooden game pieces and cards on a table, with out-of-focus person in the background.

What makes for an all-around great playtest?

Inspired by our Metatopia critique panel (co-run with Joshua A.C. Newman and Rachel E.S. Walton), I’ve compiled some thoughts about playtesting below. The first section is about how to be an awesome playtester. The second section is about how to run an awesome playtest.

I hope these guidelines will serve as a useful jumping-off point in your future games!

How to Be an Awesome Playtester!

1. Bring your best self.
Before the playtest, assess whether you’re physically and emotionally up for the task. If you’re hungry, tired, sick, or having a bad day, try to fulfill your own needs before coming to the table. If you need to skip the playtest, skip it!

2. Ask what kind of feedback would be helpful.
If you don’t know what type of feedback a designer is looking for, just ask! Once you have that answer, cater your feedback accordingly. If a designer is just hoping to playtest mechanics, avoid giving feedback about tone. If a designer wants to know if the game feels scary enough, limit your feedback to the spook factor.

3. Monitor your mood.
Remember that playtests can be mentally demanding, and they’re not always fun. If you’re feeling tense or impatient, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this isn’t a finished game. If this really isn’t the game for you, it’s okay to leave.

4. Save feedback until the end.
Take notes as you play, and wait until the end of the game to share your feedback. It’s important to play through the whole game to get a sense of scope, and stopping every few minutes for critique will ruin the flow.

With that said, it’s important to ask for clarification when something is unclear. Questions like, “Wait, what am I supposed to do during this turn?” or “How do I decide which card to put down?” are valuable to a designer.

5. Play the game, but don’t try to design it.
Do not give rule suggestions unless asked for them. Your design solution may be something the designer has already tried, and even if it isn’t, these conversations can quickly slow a playtest to a halt. It’s okay to say that a certain mechanic felt clunky or confusing to you, but leave it to the designer to fix it.

6. Play the game as it’s meant to be played.
Don’t try to root out the edge cases, fractures, and loopholes. Don’t act adversarial or obtuse in order to test the game. Play it straight.

Let yourself get swept away! A designer needs to see when and where you’re having fun just as much as they need to see when and where you’re struggling. Your sincere engagement with the game will be enormously helpful to the designer.

7. Start and end with something positive.
After the game ends, begin your feedback with something positive. This sets a good tone for the entire table and shows the designer you appreciate their efforts. Don’t let broken mechanics get in the way of your appreciation of the game’s goals, themes, presentation, or setting.

8. Speak to your own experience.
After the game, say what you thought was awesome, what felt like it needed work, and what you found confusing. Speak for yourself, and never argue against someone else’s experience of the game.

Don’t speak to the experience of an imagined player, meaning don’t try to find rules that might be confusing, or that someone might find boring. If they worked for you, that’s what the designer needs to see.

9. Be specific.
Specific, qualitative feedback is always more useful than general feedback. “The rules are good but still need work” isn’t very actionable. Try to figure out exactly what was working or not working for you. Did character creation feel too slow to you? At what point did it feel slow? What were your expectations about the speed? What happened as a result of the slowdown?

10. Be considerate.
Make sure to ask about what’s okay to photograph and what isn’t, and make sure everyone’s okay with where you’ll be sharing photos. This goes for audio and video recording as well. If you can, silence your phone and keep it stashed away.

Be good to the people around you, don’t interrupt, and remember that someone has put a lot of time and hard work into this game.

How to Run an Awesome Playtest!

1. Bring your best self.
Are you stressed? Tired? Anxious from staying up all night rewriting rules? Playtesters will be looking to you to set the tone, so muster up your enthusiasm! If you’re sick or exhausted, you’re not going to get what you need out of this playtest. Reschedule and try again soon!

Disparaging your own work is a surefire way to set the wrong tone. Remember that this is a playtest; it’s not a glossy, finished product and the people at the table are here to offer you support. Players need to feel like you’re up to the task and able to accept critique, so present your game with confidence!

2. Offer snacks and breaks.
If you can, bring sustaining snacks and water. A grumpy playtester is sometimes just a hungry playtester. If you know who’s coming to the game, ask about dietary needs in advance. If you’re playing with strangers, avoid bringing major allergens (like peanuts) into a small room.

Even if you’re on a tight schedule, everyone needs stretch breaks and pee breaks. Let playtesters know you’ll be breaking at the 1 or 2 hour mark, and make sure folks feel comfortable leaving the room if they need a break in-between.

3. Say what kind of feedback would be helpful.
Think ahead about the type of feedback you’re looking for and write down some questions for playtesters. It’s okay to ask for as much or as little as you want in the way of brainstorming, critique, or suggestions. If you’re not ready for heavy critique, you can say, “Just tell me what’s working!” If you want to test a specific mechanic, make sure playtesters know that that’s the focus.

You don’t have to use every bit of feedback, and some feedback might be wrong for your game. If someone says your horror game should be played for laughs, you can thank them for the suggestion and move on. You don’t need to defend your game or entertain conversations you don’t want to have.

4. Observe reactions.
Watch what players are doing, the choices they’re making, and how they’re responding to the rules. Carefully observing where people are laughing and delighted, or where they’re bored or uncertain, is some of the most valuable feedback you can get.

In-depth, analytical feedback is great, but if you’re paying close attention, you can get a lot of what you need from observation.

5. Keep the game flowing.
It’s okay to accept questions when things are confusing, but save longer feedback conversations until the end. Feel free to redirect the focus if you see a quick question turning into a critique.

6. Recognize overlapping feedback.
It can be overwhelming to run a playtest for the first time. You’ll get hit with a wall of feedback, and you may wonder how you’re possibly going to incorporate it all into the game. The answer? DON’T! It’s important to playtest multiple times to learn where feedback overlaps, and to find themes in the type of feedback you’re getting. If ten different playtesters loved the ridiculous monsters, you don’t want to throw them out for the one person who thought they were too over the top.

There’s no such thing as a universal audience, so don’t try to make a game that will be universally adored.

7. Monitor your responses.
In general, it’s best not to respond to critique. Just say “thank you” and write it down to consider later. Don’t let yourself get defensive about your game. You don’t need to explain your intentions.

Be careful of questions from playtesters like “Why do you think we need another zombie game?” These can sidetrack the conversation and may leave other players in the room behind. It’s okay to redirect back to the kind of feedback that will be useful to you. These are conversations you can have one-on-one later if you’re interested, but they usually don’t belong in a playtest.

8. Invite a buddy.
If you’re feeling nervous about your playtest, invite a non-player buddy who can monitor the table, refill the snack bowl, and offer support as needed. If you want to focus on running the game instead of feverishly taking notes, ask your friend to write down player comments and reactions throughout the game.

9. Remember, you’re in control.
If a playtest is going in the wrong direction, you can pause the game and talk to players about refocusing or changing course. You also have the power to end the playtest early. It may feel disappointing, but there’s valuable information in watching things go wrong, and it’s okay to return to the drawing board.

10. Follow up.
If players are excited to try the next iteration of the game, get out your calendars and schedule the next playtest before anyone leaves the room. It’s much harder to schedule after the fact by phone or email, so strike while the iron is hot to ensure a second (or third!) playtest. Make sure people have a way to contact you if they have feedback they’d like to share later, or if they’d like to talk one-on-one.

And finally, remember to give your playtesters a big THANK YOU!

For other great playtest resources, check out:

Want a printer-friendly version of this guide to share at your next playtest? Here’s a link to a downloadable PDF (Dropbox).

Thanks to Evan Rowland, Moyra Turkington, Rebecca Slitt, Sarah Richardson, Rachel E.S. Walton, Joshua A.C. Newman, J Li, and Marshall Miller for awesome input and thoughtful suggestions.

Themes vs Mechanics: Starting a game over from scratch

I want to talk about taking a game approaching completion, burning it down, and starting over. This post contains pirates, historical gushing, and thoughts about the game design process.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with Brian Van Slyke on a cooperative board game about pirate culture in the early 1700’s. We’ve gone through multiple playtests and iterative improvements. But after our tests at Metatopia last weekend, we’ve decided start over from scratch.

enemyshipfront lootcardbackenemyshipback

All of our playtests, including the Metatopia games, have been a lot of fun. We’ve had frantic shouting between the crewmembers, dramatic ship-to-ship combat, and surprising encounters while sailing the Atlantic. But the themes we wanted to explore just weren’t there.

The lives of sailors in the Golden Age of Piracy were wretched. This was a time of incredibly powerful trading corporations, and a global economy based on the shipping of goods and slaves across the Atlantic. The sailor of the early 18th century had a miserable job, with low pay, months away from home, poor food, and vicious punishment for any kind of disobedience. But they had an unusual opportunity – the possibility of a life of piracy.

Would you become a pirate? It would mean becoming a criminal, and a death sentence should you ever be caught. You would have to leave your home behind, along with your job and hope of ever securing another. Most of the time, it would mean joining a ship of strangers with a murderous reputation. You would be giving up your nation, and if you were religious, an eternity of hellfire in the afterlife.

But compared to the life of an employed sailor, being on a pirate ship was heaven. Ships were run democratically – you had a vote and a say in who should be captain, what destination to sail towards, and whether to engage hostile ships. Treasure was split evenly between all crewmembers – a share for each person aboard. You could eat well and drink with abandon. Most ships you met surrendered without firing a shot, and provided a bounty of riches, supplies, and beaten-down sailors eager to join your crew. Many pirate vessels had a massive surplus of crew – where a merchant ship might have 16 sailors, a pirate ship might have 60-80! This meant far less labor for all aboard, and a life of relative ease. Pirate ships even offered healthcare for the injured, rewarding gold to those hurt during battles. The culture aboard a pirate ship was egalitarian, cooperative, and offered a life completely unlike what a poor man of that time period could expect anywhere else.

Bartholomew Roberts, a successful pirate captain, put it like this:

“In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour. In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two at choking? No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”

Pirate Logo draft

To me, the choice that pirates made and the stark contrast of their lives before are incredible. This was a self-made culture that reached such heights of power that the nations of the time waged a war of extermination in response. I want this game to be an exploration of the lives of not just famous pirate captains, but the ordinary men (and occasionally women) who abandoned their countries and cultures to live out a few short years or months of freedom.

So. After our games at Metatopia, it was clear that these themes weren’t in the game we had made. What we had, instead, was a sort of classic pirates game – adventure on the high seas, accumulation of vast wealth, dramatic ship-to-ship cannonfire and boarding. The lesser-known culture of piracy was largely relegated to flavor text.

One aspect that we had designed into the game was an emphasis on democratic, cooperative decision-making. This was part of what made pirate culture so extraordinary – it empowered every person on board to be a part of the decisions that shaped their lives. And at the game table, people really were having the kind of discussions we hoped! They were cooperating, discussing the merits of various courses of action, and coming to a consensus whenever possible. But the significance of these conversations was completely lost. Because at the modern gaming table, this kind of discussion is the norm. Without being able to contrast these discussions to the complete disempowerment of a hired sailor’s life, the players didn’t see anything unusual about their democratic decision-making.

The takeaway is that on a deep level, the themes we hoped for didn’t exist in the game we made. So we’re starting over from scratch. It hurts to dismantle everything we’ve built up. But that feeling is balanced by the hope that we can take what we’ve learned and build a system that intrinsically expresses what this game is about. The discussions we’ve had since Metatopia have been bursting with ideas.

I can’t wait to fill you in on the progress we’ve made already! It won’t be long before we come back to the playtesters with a new take on the game.

If you’re interested in learning more about pirate culture, check out the books Villians of all Nations and The Republic of Pirates!

14 Days Illustrations

$125 Kickstarter backers will receive an art print of one of the three illustrations from the game. Illustrations shown below are near-complete drafts and will undergo a final round of polish before they ship. Thanks to Evan Rowland for his great work on these!

1. Father and Daughter in the Rain


2. Woman Reading in Bed


3. Woman with Cat on Desk


14 Days Is Live on Kickstarter!

Good news! After months of playtesting and heart-n-soul development, 14 Days is live on Kickstarter. The campaign will run for 28 days, and we’re already off to a strong start—with 30% funding on day one!

Thanks to everyone who has backed so far, and thanks to all who are considering supporting the project. Despite the tough subject matter, I’m so excited about this game, and very excited to connect with migraineur gamers around the world.

Check out the video below, read through the campaign page, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

WordPress: Adding New Custom Image Sizes to Media Library

*Work in progress post*

You’ll want to make these changes in your theme’s functions.php file. Use an external text editor when messing with PHP files, rather than the dashboard’s handy theme editor.

1. Choose a name for your new image size. In this case, I’m adding tiny game image thumbnails next to a long list of games. I called mine “game thumbnail.”

add_image_size( 'game-thumbnail', 120, 120, true );

Reserved image size names. Don’t use these:

thumb, thumbnail, medium, large, post-thumbnail

2. There may be a section in your functions.php file with a list of custom image sizes for your theme (the code begins with add_image_size). If you’re editing the theme’s core files (naughty!), then add your new code to the end of that list.

If you don’t see a list of custom image sizes in your functions.php file, that’s okay. Just plop the code below into the bottom of your functions.php file, before the closing PHP tag. Your functions.php file may not have a visible closing tag. If that’s the case, add the code to the last line of the file.

If you’re working with a child theme, you should be able to add the new image code anywhere in the child theme’s functions.php file, after the opening PHP tag.

add_image_size( 'game-thumbnail', 120, 120, true );
	add_filter( 'image_size_names_choose', 'my_custom_sizes' );

function my_custom_sizes( $sizes ) {
    return array_merge( $sizes, array(
        'game-thumbnail' => __( 'Game Thumbnail' ),
    ) );

3. I wanted tiny thumbnails, so I chose a size of 120 x 120. “True” gives you a hard crop with exact dimensions. “False” is a soft, proportional crop (more info). You can replace the dimensions, the true/false, and the thumbnail name with a name of your choice. Everything else should remain the same!

4. Test it out by adding an image! If the new thumbnail size doesn’t appear as a dropdown option, use the regenerate thumbnails plugin to give it a little nudge. I had to regen thumbnails to get it to work.


5. BAM! That should do it!

A Jolly Winter Game Design Update

A Jolly Winter Game Design Update

Questlandia Winter News

The Questlandia October sale was a lot of fun. It was a neat little experiment, and it was nice to send copies of the book and PDF to folks who may have previously been on the fence. Thanks for your support! I hope you enjoy the game.

If you’re still on the fence and you’d like a little incentive, the Questlandia PDF is available as part of an Epimas holiday bundle from now ’til December 24th. Give the gift of gaming and receive a bundle of the same games—all for yourself!

Click the image below to get Questlandia as part of the Winter Wonderlands bundle, and make sure to check out all of the other great bundles on the main page!


Winter Wonderlands Bundle. Clickity click.

Of course, if you’re a person who appreciates a more tactile gaming experience, you can visit any time to grab a physical copy of the book.

New Game

I’m hard at work on my new game, a surrealist storytelling game that saw an alpha playtest at this year’s Metatopia.

I’m really looking forward to this one. It’s smaller in scope than Questlandia, has a shorter run time, and should be friendly to a wide age range and a wide variety of players. I’ll be creating the game with Evan Rowland (the artist and co-designer of Questlandia), who’s currently working on an awesome video game of his own.

Health and happiness into the New Year! I’ll be at Dreamation 2015, and I look forward to gaming with you!