Thursday, September 25, 2008

Prototype2Publisher: DOWN UNDER

You could say that Günter Cornett is the veteran of our group, having twenty published games to his credit over the last 13 years. Many of these have been through his own publishing company, Bambus Spieleverlag. The history of his new title,
Down Under, goes hand in hand with the history of Bambus. I will allow him to tell the story. - Jeff

Catalyst for a New Publishing House

The original game,
Schlangennest (Snake Pit), started out as a pure abstract idea. The theme of tangled snakes was the obvious choice at the time. This game was the reason Bambus Spieleverlag was founded. The publishing house was created together with Gerhard Schech in 1995, and he gave the thumbs up to the project. Gerhard belonged to our game desigers’ playtesting group and also had two prototypes. Like me, however, he did not yet have a published game to his credit, so we decided to bite the bullet and publish it ourselves.

We were both convinced that
Schlangennest was a good game and were willing to risk a few 1000 Deutsch Marks for its production. We were 100% game designers, which meant that we did not pay much attention to the graphics, but rather focused solely on the game’s rules. For this reason we selected the name “Bambus” for our publishing company: the appearance of bamboo is rather simple, but the material is actually very versatile. That was 13 years ago, and we have learned a lot since then.

Back then the printer, Hans Demand, received only a few sketches from us, but he was kind enough to make a simple graphic out of it for us. The black game box was received well, the game was satisfying from a rules standpoint, but it still took many years before the first 500 copies were sold.

From the rules standpoint,
Schlangennest is a more simplistic Down Under. There were no special points and no "billabong" in the original. The absence of the billabong meant that there were rare cases when a player was not allowed to play a tile. Although this did not occur very often, it was still unpleasant.

Bambus would probably not have survived, had we not released
Flaschenteufel (The Bottle Imp) at the same time. The first printing of that game also had very basic graphics, but the combination of theme and game mechanics were impressive enough that Bambus could continue. After the 500 copies of Schlangennest were sold within ten years, I considered developing a new edition, this time with better graphics. I was still pleased with the game and thought it deserved a better fate. However there was feedback from test rounds that something was missing.

New Edition with a New Theme

As I was searching for a new theme for the new edition, I was working a lot with labyrinths, then tried using paths in a park. On the neutral paths were icons that rewarded players with bonus points. For example, a combination of the visitor icon with the bench and tree icons on the same path awarded 5 bonus points, while garbage on the path was -2 points (unless, of course, the path had at least one garbage can). A fountain provided the special rules (which later became the billibong).

Then Elke Meinert asked me if I could make a game that would advertise Australia. Elke advises and cares for students from and in Australia (see: for information from Elke about attending school, language courses, other study, practical courses or to arrange a working-holiday visa in Australia and New Zealand). We considered making a big game, but then opted to re-theme the redeveloped Schlangennest. The trees, visitors and benches became the emu, kangeroo and platypus. The garbage transformed into rabbits and the garbage cans into a dingo. I read a lot about Australia—more than really necessarily, but I enjoyed it very much. During the development of another game, Nanuuk!, I read many books about the arctic, and for the game Kanaloa I studied the world of Hawaiian gods.

Adding Professional Graphics

The Japanese graphic artist Ro Sato, who had already produced the graphics for my last game,
Greentown, did a beautiful job with the new Down Under design. The wonderful graphics are a real plus and have received much praise. As a designer, it makes me happy, although I must admit to being a little jealous that this part of the work sometimes receives more attention than my own part of the game design. But with good games nowadays, everything must be correct, and for that matter, I am just as proud of Ro Sato’s graphics as I am of the rules.

Different Production Versions

Unfortunately there were delays with production, so that
Down Under could not be released until one month after the Essen game fair. For the fair, I made an emergency edition of 100 copies in ziploc bags, which Jan Frank of the Thüringer Spielwerk produced within a short time but with good quality. By Friday of the fair, they were already sold out. Since I did not know whether or not they would be ready by the next fair in November (Expolingua in Berlin), I had Jan do another print run, this time in DVD-boxes. This allowed me to produce Down Under in a numbered special edition, with the possibility for customers to request the type of cover they wanted for the game.
-Günter Cornett

All images courtesy Günter Cornett and Bambus Spielverlag.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Prototype2Publisher: KING OF SIAM

Although Peer Sylvester often tested prototypes with Bernd Eisenstein from my game group, I did not really get to know him until we both went to Goettingen for the annual Game Designer's Convention a few years ago. It was there that I was first exposed to his prototype, King of Siam, which had not yet found a publisher. I'm glad it did--after playing a 30-minute game in Goettingen, I could not beleive the tension it created in such a short span of time. For someone who enjoys tough decisions throughout--but likes the game to be short enough to have an immediate rematch, King of Siam is one of my favorites.

Now Peer is part of our group of game designers and playtesters, and we always enjoy the wide range of prototypes he brings to the table. Following is the design process for
King of Siam, in his words. -Jeff

Teaching in Thailand

Everything began in Thailand: I was employed there in 2003 as a teacher and was naturally interested in its history. But that wasn't easy, since the International schools where I was working did not teach Thai or Asian history, but only European history. Thus, there were no books for me to read and no teachers for me to question. However, what information I was able to gather fascinated me. Especially intriguing was the fact that Siam was successful in averting colonization. By the start of the 20th century, all of Southeast Asia was colonized except for Siam. How did the Siamese accomplish that?

From this interest, the first idea developed: I wanted to make a game about the struggle for power between the different political factions of Siam. And since there was no actual civil war, it should involve only a battle for influence. An area-majority game became the obvious mechanic for this theme.

With area-majority games, it is always important to decide how ties in a region are broken: should the points be divided, or is there a tiebreaker? I found that the threat of colonization could be expressed best if the British would take over a province in the case of a tie in that province. In other words, “If you are not united, we will take advantage and attack!” Siam should demonstrate unity against invaders, and accordingly, all players should then lose the game if the British win half of the provinces.

At this point, however, the idea still had little in common with the finished
King of Siam. Each player had his own color (faction), and the player with the majority in a province received one of three goods. The goods were also used to bid for control of the provinces, and only one could be used for each province. In other words, when one player started the bidding with one elephant, any other players who wanted to bid on the province could only use elephants. But I was not really convinced by all of this. In particular, it had a clear „runaway leader” problem, so I put the idea on ice.

The Game Comes Together in Berlin

About one year later after moving to Berlin, I played an unusual prototype of Bernd Eisenstein. It was an area-majority game in which all units were on the board at the beginning and each round players were required to remove some of their own units. Through this came the breakthrough idea for my game: instead of players having their own colors, they gain influence in the different factions by taking pieces in those colors from the board.

As I wrote out the idea the following day, I discovered another mechanic that fit well: that players take actions using cards that are no longer available to them, once used. That fit well, because the map was small and too many actions would have produced too much arbitrariness. I drew a free hand game board and tried it out a little bit. Originally the three political factions had three different special actions, but I soon realized that it was not at all necessary. After some more playing around, the game almost took the form that it has in its published version.

On the next day, I tried it out with three players and was excited to see how everything fit together. Unfortunately it did not function very well with four players. No one had much influence and there were too many ties. Since I love partner games, however, I devised a partnership variant and the problem was not only solved, but a very interesting four-player game developed from it. What did not function very well, however, were the three actions cards in the faction colors (Malay, Lao, Thai).

At this time, there were not yet capital territories for each faction on the map, and so whoever played a a card in a faction’s color before that faction had won a territory ended up discarding the card without any action taking place. The result was that players often discarded cards at the beginning of the game for the factions they did not want to support. That was unsatisfactory, therefore I introduced the rule that one may only play these cards after the corresponding faction had won a province.

Finding a Publisher

That was about what the game looked like when Histogame became interesting in it. Before that, two other publishers had rejected it—one because the game was too unforgiving, and the other one, because of the need to play as partners with four players. Richard Stubenvoll took the prototype with him and tested it frequently and, after it became clear that he would not have a successor to
Friedrich in 2007, decided to publish it.

Sanding off the Remaining Rough Edges

There were still some things that needed refining. The supporting cards, for example, could only be played after the corresponding faction successfully took control of a region. This had an accumulating effect. In particular, if a faction could not win a province until late in the game, it was very limiting to the players. In addition, the cards matching that faction would then be played by all players at the same time—that was unsatisfactory.

Another issue was to make sure that the game would not end in a draw. And there was a “kingmaker” problem in the 3-player game. If the player with the last action could not win, he often had to choose which of the other two players would win.

Richard solved the first problem with the capitol regions for each faction. We solved the other two together with the idea that in case of a draw, the last action does not count. Thus, a player can no longer force a draw with the last action. It’s the other way around with the British, as it is not as easy to produce a British victory and that should be rewarded.

Graphic Design

The rules were now finished, and it was time to design the components. That was naturally the publisher’s primary responsibility, but I was allowed to help in designing the game board. For my prototypes, I used a rectangular game board, and the scoring track was laid out beside the board. When we placed the scoring track on the right side of the Siam map on the board, the country was no longer centered and it did not look good. We pushed everything back and forth and after one hour (!) we came upon the idea to simply place the scoring track to the left of the map. So simple and yet so efficient! Now Siam was where it should be.

But one problem remained: Siam is a very long country, and the game board was square. All possibilities which we discussed had disadvantages: if Siam was to be seen in its entirety, the provinces become too small for the cubes. When we zoomed in to far, everything fit but Siam could no longer be recognized.

We called it a day. Then a friend of Richard’s who is actually a cartographer suggested breaking the frame around the board to accommodate Siam’s shape. It fit well, looked good, and we were all content. And at Essen 2007 we were able to harvest the fruits of our labor!
-Peer Sylvester

Box cover image courtesy Histogames.  Prototype and final photos courtesy Peer Sylvester.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Prototype2Publisher: ZACK UND PACK

I met Bernd Eisenstein at our original gaming/playtesting group soon after he moved to Berlin several years ago. He had won the Hippodice design competition and his prize-winning design was subsequently published by Abacus as Maya. We enjoyed testing each others prototypes and often chatted about unfinished game ideas we both had. Finally, we met outside our normal group to brainstorm ideas we might like to do together. We poured prototype materials out onto the café table and brainstormed game ideas over a couple of Weizenbiers.

Then Bernd dumped a bunch of colored blocks onto the table from his bag. They were educational blocks he had picked up in a flea market, used to teach the idea of “units” in measurement (there were white blocks that were the base unit, then yellow that were twice as big, i.e. two units, red blocks that were 3 units in length, etc. up to the 6-unit blocks). He told me of his initial ideas for the blocks—that they could be distributed randomly to the players and then loaded onto trucks, and he asked me if I had any ideas how it could come together.

I was never able to give him any good suggestions, although that evening did begin a partnership on another game. But I was happy to see his finished prototype a few months later, and even happier to be able to demo the game for
TM-Spiele/Kosmos at the Goettingen Game Designer’s Convention, since he could not attend himself. They liked it right away, and I congratulate Bernd on his second published game! What follows is his development process for Zack und Pack, from initial idea to final published version, in his own words. - Jeff

The 10-Minute Shower Idea

The first idea for the game came quickly, very much a “10-minute shower-idea.” These kinds of ideas usually result in something ingenious or an absolute disaster. The idea was for players to roll dice that determined the number and size of blocks they would receive for that round, and then they would choose the best-sized truck in which to pack them. Too much “air” in the truck (unused space) or blocks that would not fit into the truck would penalize that player. Finding the right truck needed to have a “speed” element, but I did not want the entire game to be dominated by this mechanic.

What's In a Name?

It was more difficult to find a suitable name than expected.
Packesel (Pack Donkey) was already taken, and so I used the working title, Packesel mit Herz (Pack Donkey with Heart) in a nod to the shipping company. During a gaming week in Oberof, a test-player had the idea of naming it Speedition. The other players found the title perfect for describing the speed element of the game as well as its theme.

Flea Market Prototype

I looked into my box of materials and found wooden math blocks, which I had purchased once at a flea market. I found 6-sided dice in the same colors as the blocks, but I changed the values so that not every color went to 6 pips. There was plenty of math to do before the first test game, as all possible dice rolls needed to be calculated so that the loading space in the different trucks could cover the range of dice results. That was the most work… and all this before the first test!
For the truck tiles, I used a set a wooden children’s dominos, also bought at a flea market. The truck graphics, which included different-sized spaces for loading, were then pasted to the wood tiles, which were thick and easy to grasp.

To give the truck sizes more variance, a number was added to each truck showing how high the blocks could be stacked. Finally, I included numbered roulette chips to keep track of points, and the first prototype was finished (see prototype photos above).

The First Play-tests

The basic ideas were now manifested in a playable prototype, and the refinement of the design could begin with the first play-test results. At first I wanted to work with two different „ currencies “: one for unused space in the trucks and another for pieces of furniture which could not be loaded. But that was too complicated and inappropriate for this type of game. Of the proposals which I received, the variant I kept was that any remaining pieces of furniture counted double in minus points.

I wanted to specify the number of rounds so that the game would not be too long or too short. I varied it between 5 and 8. I first used a round indicator, and later simply placed a truck to the side each round.

Nothing has really changed in the basic structure of the game since the first play-test: Each player uncovers two truck tiles simultaneously, then he/she chooses one truck from those in front of the other players or a random one from the face-down pile, and finally he/she must load onto his/her truck the pieces of furniture he rolled. The slowest player in choosing a truck is required to draw one randomly, to prevent the players from counting their loading spaces exactly before deciding on a truck.

I was very satisfied and the game was finished, in my opinion.

Finding a Publisher

I sent the prototype to a publisher with whom I thought the game would fit, but it was turned down rather quickly. Kosmos was the next publisher to play-test it. I did not hear anything from them about it for almost one year, but that is not necessarily unusual. When I followed up, however, they promised me that they were definitely interested in the game. I was very happy, but not yet euphoric, since there was still too much that could happen. After two more months, I finally received my contract from the publisher. It was a giant step for me, a “small-time” designer who has only one other published game, and that from five years ago.

The Publisher Changes the Rules

Since the publishing house has many more play-test rounds with different people than the designer, certain preferences and/or dislikes are more easily noticeable. In their consultations with me, solutions were found: Each player was now given a number of points to start out with, which were reduced during the game. Thus, the number of rounds each game is variable. The best player of each round should be rewarded, so that the game has a more positive atmosphere.

Packaging Zack und Pack

The publishing house looked for alternative themes, but after many considerations, they kept the original theme. Since the game is targeted for families and children and needed to be whimsical in its packaging, the publisher decided on the name
Zack und Pack, since Speedition represents “anglicized” German too much. Great!

At first, they considered packaging the game in a tall box in the form of a truck. That is very original and funny, but the distributors were not too excited about the many problems in stacking and displaying them—much like playing a round of
Zack und Pack! So a standard format was used, but with whimsical graphic design.

--Bernd Eisenstein

Box and final game images courtesy Kosmos.  Prototype images courtesy Bernd Eisenstein.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Prototype2Publisher: CIRCUS MAXIMUS

Theme Came First

About 6 years ago, shortly after I first discovered the wonderful variety of German games, I was living briefly in Fresno, California and started to take notes on my own game ideas. I had not yet played many of the “new classics” of German boardgaming, but I was slowly discovering them through reviews on the internet: first, the Counter articles posted on, which then linked me to

One of my first thematic ideas involved a game in which players tried to make money scalping tickets. There were a lot of big-name concerts happening that summer and I had heard that some people were actually paid to camp out all night at the box office line to get tickets for scalpers who would then sell them for a profit. I had originally envisioned a modern city like Los Angeles as the setting, but then I thought ancient Rome might be more whimsical. And it provided a great name that, unfortunately, does not translate well into German:
Scalpus Maximus.

The main idea of the game even then was that players needed to get their hired scalpers in the front of the line at the box office to buy the best tickets, then send other scalpers to the different venues as early as possible to find the highest-paying patrons. It was clear that “scalper-management” was the key to a successful strategy in the game, but I was too inexperienced in game design to come up with an original treatment of this theme.

The First Prototypes

When I was back in Berlin, I started making prototypes of the game to try out, but the first ones were much too complicated with far too many bits for what the game was supposed to be. The idea then was that the scalpers would line up at each venue twice during the game: once to buy tickets at each venue’s box office, then to sell tickets to the people coming to the show who were looking for last-minute seats.

Several of the first prototypes were actually never playtested, because I realized during the process of making them that they were not what I wanted. The venues in the first prototypes were stacks of mixed tiles that would randomly determine the number of tickets and patrons available each round. There were piles of ticket counters and each player would have a mat and scalper cards of different values and costs to place. There were also money chips in the game to pay each scalper used, and to buy the tickets, and I had elaborate charts determining the amount each patron would pay for each kind of seat. There was also a second currency in the game, VIP Passes or Favors, that were used at Caesar’s Villa to sell more tickets to the patrons who attended his parties. But the parties did not take place every round—something also triggered randomly by the venue tiles.

Some might say it was a waste of time and materials to make prototypes that were never played, but it helped me see problems in the design that I would not have seen, had it stayed on my computer. Changes I made included using a single box office, for instance, and the venues were then only visited to sell the tickets. I was also often tempted during the process with using blind-bidding in placing the scalpers at the box office and venues, as I had been enjoying classics of that genre like For Sale, Adel Verpflichtet, and Die Mauer at the time. I even borrowed a tie-breaking mechanism from Zoo Sim, but in the end, I concluded that I was just being lazy and needed something different, so I put the idea on ice again.

During that time, I had joined a regular gaming group and was finally playing all the games I had read about, as well as just about every new release. We rarely played anything twice. And, although I soon realized that many of my initial ideas for original game themes had already been published, there was, to my knowledge, not yet a game about ticket scalping. My gaming group also happened to include several published Berlin designers, most notably Thorsten Gimmler, Andrea Meyer, and Hartmut Kommerell, and I learned much from them about the design process. Their critiques on other prototypes I brought to the group helped me land my first contract with a German publisher for a different game.

Becoming a Card Game: Less is More

As my confidence in designing grew, I decided to tackle
Scalpus Maximus one more time. I like challenges, and I like closure, so it is not surprising that I just couldn’t let this theme go. I was also motivated by an advertisement from an American game publisher looking for new submissions, and I thought that this theme fit well with their other games.

The design finally came together—mostly due to a little trick I’ve discovered that often works for me when I get stuck: if it’s a board game idea, I try to design the “card game version,” even though the board game hasn’t been completed. This helps simplify things and also provides a new perspective by imposing new limits. Once the idea starts to function as a game, those ideas can then be brought back into the board game design. As it turned out,
Circus Maximus stayed a card game--with a board game feel, of course.

The main innovation from previous prototypes was completely ridding the game of money chips. To do this, I had to focus on the profit margin rather than an elaborate system of selling/buying prices and labor costs. Instead of paying for scalpers, for instance, a player received a number of coins/points for NOT using a scalper. Tickets only showed how many coins would be gained as profit, and patrons did the same. This cut down much of the calculating that players would have had to do in the early prototypes. It also made the game feel more positive, as you were only gaining coins/points instead of battling to gain more money than you were losing.

Caesar’s Villa also became a permanent location, and, in good “Eurogame” fashion, the Favors one could obtain there became special actions that allowed a player to break the rules (or receive bonus coins at the end of the game).

And, of course, I found a more strategic way of placing the ranked scalpers that eliminated the guesswork and “Princess Bride” quandaries of blind bidding and also made the Starting Player Favor Card valuable, especially in the 5-player game.


I finally felt ready to playtest this version of the game, and it was received well by my new group, made up of published designers Bernd Eisenstein, Peer Sylvester and Günter Cornett. Their comments during playtesting did contribute to a few significant changes, however. One was moving Caesar’s Villa from the second phase to the first phase of the game, and the other was to add the Special Events so that the 3 rounds of the game were not identical. The extra tickets and patrons available in the later rounds also made it easier for players to catch up if they did poorly in the first round.

After a few playtesting sessions more, I sent the game to the American publisher, but they turned it down without really telling me why. I then took the game to the Game Designers Meeting in Goettingen to show prospective German publishers. Two different publishers took copies of the game with them, and Pegasus Spiele, who had given me my first contract with another game, emailed me a short time later with an offer to license this one.

Development by the Publisher

It was incredibly fun to see the clip art of my prototype finally transformed by a professional illustrator. I was happy to see that much of the humor was retained in the cards: the artist kept my idea for a Tourist Card, for example, that depicted an Egyptian, complete with Pharaoh-style headdress.

André Bronswijk from Pegasus also worked with me on more fine-tuning of the mechanics. Some Favor Cards were revalued or eliminated, and his suggestion of having one less ticket at each venue increases the tension of the game. He also convinced me to have the Caesar Card taken out of the basic rules and added instead as a “variant for experienced players.”

It was inevitable, however, that the name would be changed, as “scalping” is strictly an American expression. In fact, I even brought two versions of the prototype with me to Goettingen: the original Roman theme and a tournament of knights in the Middle Ages called “Ritter Markt” (to make a play on words with “Knight” and “Schwarzmarkt” which means “black market”).

It’s been a long road, but as a friend and fellow game inventor pointed out recently to me, the process is much more fun than the finished product. That’s certainly been true on this one, although I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my first published copy nevertheless. And I think it’s appropriate that, even though I had signed several other game contracts earlier for more recent designs, this game will be the first to hit the market. After all, it was one of my first ideas, one that I’ve been working on for the longest period of time. During the past 6 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many talented people, each of whom has contributed to
Circus Maximus in a significant way, and I hope our collaborative effort is appreciated by everyone who plays the game.

Photo of the box cover courtesy Pegasus Spiele GmbH

Thursday, September 4, 2008

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

I don't recall ever winning a game for several months after joining my first board game group in the now-defunct Berlin cafe "Alte Welt." The group would open one colorful box after another from the stacks that piled up on the ends of the tables. I would concentrate as best I could as they explained the rules in my second language. Every game was new to me, and most of the mechanics of the games were new to me. I was learning the vocabulary of game design just as I was expanding my German vocabulary.

But I was curious about a small group of gamers who would often be the first to take their places around the table. In fact, they were often already engaged in a game before others arrived. The games they were playing, however, did not come out of boxes with “Ravensburger” or “Hans im Glück” on them. And the materials were often ink-jet printed bits of paper. I soon discovered that this group-within-a-group was made up of game designers.

When something interests me, it does not take long for me to want to do it myself. I’ve even jotted down ideas for children’s stories, now that I’m reading Dr. Seuss to my twin sons daily. Needless to say, after many months of testing prototypes from such established designers as Andrea Meyer, Thorsten Gimmler and Hartmut Kommerell, I finally asked them to try out a prototype I had been working on. It wasn’t an instant success, but I found the feedback from the group and their own creative ideas intoxicating. My mind was filled with so many ideas, my pen could barely keep up, and soon I had files of game ideas, themes, and mechanics I wanted to try.

After the café closed, and the group-within-a-group decided to meet elsewhere, some newer designers and I began meeting in a newly-opened gaming café. Bernd Eisenstein, Peer Sylvester, established self-publisher Günter Cornett and I now meet Monday nights mainly to test our prototypes, although we enjoy a published game now and than. Others come to playtest the games or bring their own prototypes as well. The creative atmosphere is proving to be a productive one too—many of the games we’ve brought in to playtest there will be published in the coming years.

I’d like to use this blog to record the wonderful experiences we’ve had together as game designers and friends, and to promote the projects that have been produced and tested in this creative setting.