Designer’s Diary: Dead & Breakfast

Hi, my name is Rodrigo Rego and it’s been 0 days since I last dabbled in game design.

Since 2013, I’ve dedicated almost all my spare time to creating board games. Some might think it’s an obsession, but as a result I’ve created some games that I’m very proud of, like Papertown, Copacabana, and of course, Dead & Breakfast.

Let me tell you the story of how Dead & Breakfast came to life.

The inspiration

The inspiration for what eventually became Dead & Breakfast happened around June 2016, while playing a game called The Little Prince – Make me a planet. In this game, each player makes his own planet, using tiles with roses, baobab trees, animals and many other things.

The fun of the game for me was not knowing at first how your planet would score. The scoring tiles, that are also part of the planets, show up during the game, so to begin with you want a bit of everything. The trick is, the most abundant tiles are also the most risky, as they can be taken away from the planet.

Your planet at the end of Little Prince – Make me a Planet

The idea of a game in which you start building something without knowing how it will score got stuck in my head.

So far so good – the ideas are flowing. A few of them keep recurring, and each time they do, they bring a new mechanic that might work well together, or a theme that might serve as a good metaphor.

The ideas build up until you have no alternative but to start cutting up paper and putting it into practice.

The philosophy

Before I go further, let me tell you about my game design philosophy.

I’m mostly a light gamer. I like games that are easy to learn. That’s why I put a lot of effort into making simple, intuitive games. Clarity (a lack of ambiguities and rule exceptions) and fluidity (ensuring every action progresses the game in some way) are as important for me as strategic depth and balance.

Those were the principles that guided the creation of Dead & Breakfast.

The idea

The initial idea was: players will create a building seen from the front, in a 5×5 square. Each player starts with a lobby, and each turn places a double tile made of 2 windows. Each window had different objects – in the original game, they were teapots, birds and pies etc.

Each time you complete a floor (a row of 5) you invite a dweller and place it on a window. It’s these that determine how you score. Some give you points for pies on the same floor as them, others for birds in the same column.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it didn’t work.

Problem 1: different conditions for scoring

But that was expected. Never have I had an idea for a game that worked first try. Actually, I believe that people who think that their idea work well the first time are not looking close enough.

The first problem I found is that the game scoring was a little one-dimensional. The only thing you had to consider when selecting and placing a tile was how to align the objects to maximize the dwellers’ scoring. The game needed another way of scoring, one that the players had to consider simultaneously.

After many tries, the best option was to create an ivy that would grow on the building’s walls. Each tile now had a branch of ivy connecting 2 of its sides, and on each branch there were flowers of various colors.

Each player’s lobby scored points for 2 different colors of flowers in your building, as long as they were connected to the lobby by the ivy.

It worked very well, mechanically and thematically. Now the players had to consider in each turn not only how to align their objects but also how best to connect their ivy. That made every decision much more interesting.

An old version of Dead & Breakfast: 5×5 square building filled with objects, guests and ivy.

Problem 2: the drafting mechanics

I tried many different ways that players could draft tiles, from the classic Suburbia treadmill to blind auctions.

After all, what worked best was the simplest idea, as it often happens: 6 open tiles in a circle and a pawn on top of one of them. On your turn, you must take only one of the first three following the pawn, and advance the pawn to the tile you took.

This mechanic fit perfectly for Dead & Breakfast because:

  1. It allows for planning: with 6 open tiles, you can think 2 turns ahead
  2. It allows for indirect interaction: depending on how much you advance the pawn, you may deny the next player the tile he needed
  3. The game would not need a currency

Problems 3, 4, 5… of course there were way more than 2 problems in Dead & Breakfast’s creation process. Creating games means not only find the best way around them, but also, being able to find them. Watch people play and spot the moments of struggle, doubt and detachment, and try to remove them.

But now we’re getting into the next phase, which is…

The balance

Once the general principles of the game are set, it’s time to play with numbers to guarantee everything will work perfectly.

I have now 8 games in various stages of development. Not one demanded more work to balance than Dead & Breakfast.

It’s 6 different objects on the windows. 4 colors of flower. 6 possible exits for the ivy, which might or might not have bifurcations. All this must be properly confined to 54 tiles creating a whole mathematically balanced.

Besides that, it was necessary to calibrate the game’s difficulty – place it in that exact point on the complexity curve that doesn’t make it too frustrating nor too easy.

At each change in the balance of the game – more flowers, less ivy exits, less victory points per object, I needed to recalculate each of the 54 tiles. This was by far the longest phase of the development of Dead & Breakfast.

The publisher and the theme

But why would a game about creating an apartment building with birds and pies be called Dead & Breakfast, you ask? That’s where the publisher comes in.

As soon as they took an interest for the game, Braincrack Games suggested the theme change: instead of creating a building, why not a hotel? And not only a hotel, but a haunted hotel? Filled with ghosts, zombies, bats and voodoo dolls, that’s how Dead & Breakfast was born.

Besides the theme, Lewis was a great editor, seeing the potential of the game and helping me test, balance and close many loose ends.

Then he found Louis Durant, who used his cartoony style of illustration to make a hotel that was at the same time terrifying and cute, exactly how it needed to be.

Cute and scary – the new art by Louis Durrant

Now, Dead & Breakfast is available on Kickstarter.

I hope you think that it can be a great addition to your collection: a game that is at the same time cute and creepy. Easy to explain but full of hard decisions. Good for non-gamers, but very strategic.

Farsight & the Art of War: Blitzkrieg

by Farsight designer Jamie Jolly

Throughout history there have been many military doctrines that link theory, historical knowledge, and often just experimentation into practicable principles of engagement. In Farsight, which is set in the near-distant future, players control conflicting corporations, each of which has assembled an army of both Battlefield units and hidden ‘Specialist’ units, to crush their opponent.

But despite its sci-fi setting, Farsight’s versatility can make a study of historical warfare useful. In this series of blogs we are going to look back at some of the most effective and intriguing tactics used throughout history, and how they can be applied to a game of Farsight.

Blitzkrieg was, in typical Nazi fashion, an unsubtle but brutally effective tactic employed by the Germans during their expansion throughout France and Poland during World War II. The principle was simple: a highly mobile armoured force forms a speartip that is driven through the enemy’s frontline, reinforced by aerial and artillery support. The armoured force’s primary objective is not to inflict maximum damage, but to penetrate the line, allowing the armour to follow through and attack support forces like artillery, and cut off reinforcements.

This strategy was effective at unbalancing the enemy, as the previously unified fronts found themselves split into separate encircled groups now harried on two fronts.

But rather than linger and harass the divided fronts, the armour avoided lengthy engagements in favour of moving swiftly from objective to objective. The key to pulling off this tactic lied in the blinding speed with which it was executed, and the apparent irrationality of it. This forced the enemy to take a reactive stance, creating an ever shifting battle-line which kept the allies on the back foot for much of the campaign.

In Farsight these types of maneuvers can be put to good use as an opening to your campaign.

Two units in particular lend themselves to the lightning war, the Prototype and the Assault mech units, both of which are ‘Fast’ units allowing them to move one extra square per turn. They have high attack values and can destroy individual units very quickly. In the early game, when Supply Lines are still forming and defenses are developing, the units you choose to bring on first can have a big impact.

By bringing a highly mobile force and concentrating that threat into a small space, the spear can penetrate the line destroying one unit and quickly moving on into the enemy’s back line where artillery can be hunted and objectives gained quickly.

This leaves your units with a valuable ability to flank or rear-charge the enemy, and support weaker units as they keep the enemy busy. The enemy here may attempt to react to the armoured assault, but if the assaulting player can keep the distance whilst picking off prime targets, the speartip can dismantle the enemies plans.

Countering a Blitzkrieg

Like in real warfare the primary danger to a lightning strike is the loss of momentum: should the enemy manage to wither the original impact, or bog down the armour by deploying with deep lines that allow for counter attack, the tip can quickly be blunted.

This is best done by having armour units form a rearguard to your force, close enough to reinforce each other should the enemy break through.

Additionally, by committing some of their most powerful and expensive units early, the assaulting player takes a lot of risk. Artillery is particularly effective at softening up valuable units: a concentrated shelling of the speartip can break the back of a charge, causing the enemy to retreat rather than risk losing the cream of their forces.

Off the battlefield, some well-placed saboteurs can cripple the movement of the units, stopping them in their tracks and making them even more vulnerable to shelling. For this reason the assaulting force should have a good understanding of the enemy’s specialists before attempting this maneuver: assassins should be used to locate and hunt down any saboteurs in the target area before the attack, and spies should reveal any hidden units that the speartip is aiming for.

Farsight is coming to Kickstarter this April. Like our Facebook page for updates, or sign up to our newsletter for a notification when it launches!


8 Years & Counting: How I Designed Farsight

In a guest blog, designer Jamie Jolly shares the lessons he learned whilst making Farsight.

After our last post, some of you asked about the difficulties of games design: the roadblocks we faced, and how to get around them.

It’s been 8 years since I began designing Farsight – it sounds unusually long but, on-and-off, it’s taken this long to get the game to where I’m happy for it to launch.

Today, I don’t want to do a huge sprawling encyclopedia of info, but share with you some big things that I found on the way.


The Idea

The idea for Farsight came from this idea of what a strategy game should look like, and not being satisfied with what I found in other games. Whether the game meets your ideal is not for me to say, but identifying what I wanted in a game was really helpful for generating ideas.

Do you want to be a pirate? Do you want to rule the world? Do you want to live in an underwater biodome? If you can find your yearning, play games that try to offer it, and come away disatisfied, you might have the creative fuel to create something truly new.

This works for mechanical design as well as theme. Do you want a trading system that really works, and makes you haggle with your fellow players? Do you want a combat system that feels visceral – that’s still challenging, but less abstract than the strategy games you’ve played? Do you love a game that feels five times more complicated than it should be and want to strip it down?

Those unfulfilled desires are a great catalyst for design, but remember to do your research first: if you find another game that already does something perfectly, it begs the question whether this new game needs to exist as well. There’s a fine difference between ‘I want to make a game that makes you feel like a pirate, exploring a new world,’ and ‘I’d like to design a game like Seafall.’

“Prototype” Mech Miniature for the final release!


£50 is what I told my wife I was spending on models for the first prototype.

Reader, I spent £250. (Hazel if you’re reading this I love you.)

About 5 people played that early version – that’s £50 per person, if you were wondering, and that’s not a very good fun:cost ratio. It had a 4 ft board, which I spent a day painting, and every time I tried to move it sand would scrape off it and cover my car. What I learnt from prototype overkill…

  1. Don’t spend lots on early prototypes – in fact, try and spend nothing – because they will change really quickly. Even that thing that you’re sure is going to make it into the final version.
  2. Target your design for the market at the early stages: if you’re breaking bank to create a game that will compete with £20 titles, you might be barking up the wrong tree.
  3. If you need 100 different models just to make it work, you’re stuffed. (Unless your mum works for CMON)
  4. If you need 300 pieces of unique art, you’re stuffed. (Unless your mum works for Fantasy Flight)


You know who your friends are when the prototypes come out and you ask “Who wants to play?”

The reality is, playing even a very good prototype game is not everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday afternoon, so to reduce tester fatigue as much as possible, play the game against yourself at least once before you give it to anyone else – even if the game technically doesn’t work with one player, you can highlight simple fixes just from running through some turns and moving the bits around. This way, you’ll avoid giving playtesters an obviously broken game, and keep them sweet for when their help is most needed.


Realistically, any game where numbers or costs are present will involve maths. In addition, if you can get the maths nearly-right, your playtests will be able to focus less on balance and tweaks, and more on player experience.

I got around a lot of potential balancing issues by giving all players in Farsight access to the same units –  this type of design really helps balancing as it starts everyone off on an equal footing. With the custom armies feature, any unusually weak or strong armies would likely be the result of the player’s choice – not unlike a poorly built M:tG deck.

This left the internal balance between units, which did have to be answered in the maths and the testing, and a lot of ‘feeling’ the balance. Computer games have an advantage over board games when it comes to balance, as patching allows for compensation as the meta (i.e. The ‘fashion’ of strategy in multiplayer) shifts.

With board games, the box is relatively ‘sealed’ once it’s released, unless you have a distribution similar to a CCG – but even then, one unbalanced release can ruin the trust of your players.

If you’re designing a game with a points system, a good tip is to track more than just the score results from each game: jot down where each player – whether they won or lost – got their points, and map them in a spreadsheet. Later, if you want to adjust point values to create a tighter end-table of scores, you can adjust one column at a time, rather than play all those sessions again.


If you have a few thousand pounds/dollars, you can outsource your idea into a prototype board game of world-class quality. With it you could afford all the artists, sculptors, and graphic designers you need. However, I work in the charity sector, where there’s not a lot of money lying around, so I was on a tight budget.

I raided stock art sources: Shutterstock, RPGNow, etc. – theres a lot of good free stuff out there, but if you are prepared to pay even £5 an image you can get amazing deals.

Talk to Artists: you’ll be surprised how many people will respond to you and be prepared to support your project with existing art at a much lower rate than commissioning. Be prepared to share royalties. This is especially helpful when your game already fits into a set genre in which artists might be practicing.

Learn Photoshop: This is an investment in time, but for £9 a month you can have a powerful tool with a wealth of good quality tutorials available online. Some art, textures, icons and basic photoshop skills can give you market-quality game components if you have the time.


Without having a passion for the game, no independent games designer would ever finish a project. It’s why I think there’s a lot of great games waiting in the wings away from large publishers who don’t take submissions.

I don’t know how many hours Farsight has taken – several thousand I’m sure – but it’s been time well spent. Not in terms of cash flow, mind you – the game hasn’t even gone on sale yet – and you regret it at 2am when you’re trying to work out how to undelete something’s head in Photoshop, but at the end there’s a feeling of completion. There’s no better feeling than having made something good.

Farsight launches on Kickstarter in April. Sign up here for updates!

“Somewhere between chess and Warhammer” – Why I Designed Farsight

In a guest blog, Farsight designer Jamie Jolly shares his experiences of strategic wargaming, and reveals why he spent eight years designing something new.

I’m not sure if this is true of more well-rounded individuals, but I’ve always wanted to feel like a General.

Sure, I might not be quite cut out for an actual real-life conflict, but the idea of preparing a battle-plan and deploying my forces, deceiving the enemy with cunning maneuvers and feints, leveraging the advantage and closing the trap, appeals to me. And if you’re reading this, it might just appeal to you to.

I’ve designed this game, Farsight, over the last 8 years. It’s a project borne from this unfulfilled dream of being a general on a battlefield: something simple and easy to grasp that allows you to use your strategic creativity, but doesn’t require years spent working up the ranks in the military.

I’ve been a war-gamer all my life and played just about every strategy game worth playing, but was almost always left with a sense that there is something more on the horizon. Abstract strategies like Go or Chess are incredible arenas for manoeuvring, and zone control, but are detached from any sense of reality. There’s no new or visceral experiences, no characters, no terrain, no unexpected influences like weather or illnesses, and all the information you need to win is right in front of you (not necessarily a bad thing, but there is a certain allure to spending time gaining important intel.)

Then of course, there are wargames: highly thematic, cool miniatures, and enough stuff to bankrupt even the deepest wallets. But, understandably enough, these big name game systems tend to be built around selling new miniature lines, hefty books and a design philosophy that says ‘the more complex it is the more strategy (and by extension, value for money) you will get out.’

In practice however I’ve found that what is being dressed as strategy often has the whiff of veiled resource management: each unit in a game like Warhammer is a complex set of numbers that, if invested into the right fight, will give good returns in value – much like choosing the right pension or building society.

In this designer’s opinion, choosing to shoot the tank-unit with the anti-tank-rocket-unit does not really constitute a rewarding strategy.

But above all, the complexity and time commitment can be a real stumbling block for those who just want to open a box, have fun, and use their intuition to win a fight rather than a pre-game hour of statistical analysis.

Somewhere between these two worlds I felt there was a game begging to be made – a ‘battle in a box’ – something that was easy to learn but represented the many faces of battle: the spies gathering intel to turn the tide, the rain beating down on armour, the decisive ambush and unstoppable advance. So I made Farsight.

If this has come off like a frenzied hatchet job of all existing war-games, then let me offer a brief step back: I’ve played a lot of war games of the years, and many of them offer great takes on the subject with different focal points and great game-play – but I wanted something different.

It’s a mammoth task to attempt to offer even a nearly-comprehensive war game that is still simple enough for players to learn, and Farsight is by no means perfect. But I hope that it is a step in the right direction, and more importantly, an enjoyable addition to this genre’s storied history.

To find out more about Farsight, click here. 

To get updated about Farsight’s release, click here.

Mined Out! Strategy Guide

Nothing sucks worse than being bad at the game you’ve just shown your friends, so we thought it might be good to give you guys the inside loop on how to build a winning strategy in Mined Out!

In the game, there are a lot of things to consider to win – and although players compete in their own individual mines, watching other players and forming a strategy that can be pulled off before they end the game is an important skill to have.

But we’ll look more at that later on – first, let’s look at the easiest way you can get points in Mined Out!


At the end of each game, you can earn two points for each card in your mine that hasn’t collapsed – essentially meaning that you can simply walk the length and breadth of your mine without mining anything and still get a nice 24 points at the end. If you pick up a few gems along the way, this can quickly boost – but unless you spend gems to get supports or upgrades, you might find that this is not enough to beat the competition.


Supports will help you get gems from the two cards that a single support is adjacent to – meaning that the potential haul from those cards is infinite, as long as nobody drops any dynamite on them. Each support costs two yellow gems – a potential of 4 points, which may seem like a lot, but is won back by securing two mine cards, and any gems that you pick up from those cards after the support is placed. And if an enemy chooses to throw dynamite at your card – well, you’ve lost 2 points, but so have they! And the support will still hold up the other adjacent card!


Gems are the bread and butter of Mined Out, and will give you a lot of the information that will help you make your decisions during the game. For instance – if you only see one green gem (one point) on a card, you might skip it, and choose to keep that card uncollapsed for two points. But the two biggest facets to understanding gems are knowing where they might be, and knowing when to use them:

There are gems of all types on every layer of the mine – i.e. if you’re lucky enough, you can find yellow and red gems on the top layer, and green gems at the bottom – but you might as well find only one or two gems on a card. Averages of each gem and gem density are distributed unevenly between layers, with each colour gem appearing more frequently on it’s own row, and gems generally becoming denser towards the bottom. Statistically speaking, you will always need to look around for the gems that you need, but will very rarely not be able to find the right ones anywhere.

In terms of spending gems on upgrades, the point return on an upgrade will always be one less than the gems spent – for example, if you spent the green and red gem required to buy a shovel (together worth 4 points) the shovel itself is only worth 3. Considering the action points required to buy an upgrade, this may sound like a bad deal, but each upgrade can give you a cutting edge towards winning the game.


The other thing to consider when buying upgrades is the order in which you buy them, as this can form one of the biggest parts of your strategy.

Simpy put, there are three categories of upgrade, with the humble shovel falling into two of them:

Movement: The Shovel and Ladder upgrades have an emphasis on movement, helping you move down for 1 point instead of two, and allowing you to move upwards respectively. These two cards are good for two general strategies: getting to the bottom, where you’re more likely to find red gems, and giving yourself better access to the gems needed to buy upgrades, if you want to rush to the finish line.

Efficiency: The Shovel and Coffee both allow you to do things faster than usual or in less time (depending on how you look at it) meaning they’re great for both Rush-based and Exploration-based strategies. The Coffee is expensive, but if you can time it just right, it will allow you to get the most point-potential out of your mine whilst your competitors are still grinding away!

GEMZ: During the game, it’s a totally legitimate strategy to want to just hoard your gems forever – but if you want to do this, the Mine Cart is a wise investment, especially early on. Simply put, the Mine Cart allows you to hold 10 of each gem, rather than 6, meaning that if you can fill up your inventory (which is possible!) you can get – wait for it – 60 points worth of gems. Which is a LOT.


If there’s a double-edged sword in Mined Out, then dynamite is it – when you use dynamite on an opponent’s card, they will lose the two points that uncollapsed card will have gained them, but you will lose the two points that the dynamite will have given you. In addition, most games that use dynamite end in retaliation – which can be devastating unless your strategy is bulletproof.

However, timing your dynamite use can be important in stopping other players from getting a quick advantage on you. Maybe they’ve just uncovered a card with all three types of gem on it, or they’ve supported two cards with lots of valuable gems on them. Whether you’re using it to stop people stacking up too many gems, or finishing the game early, timing your dynamite use is crucial to making it effective.


Want to get a copy of Mined Out! Find us here, on Kickstarter!

Dev Blog: Refining Strategy in Mined Out!

I set out to make my new game, Mined Out, a game that was light on luck.

I’ve always found games with little to no luck more satisfying: even when I lose (which believe me, is often) it’s because my opponents bettered me, and not because of a single dice roll (although it’s true there are games where this can be part of the fun.)

Part of the reason for this was that my previous game, Downsize, had a lot of luck involved – yes, there is strategy in the game, but if everyone plays conservatively and doesn’t meddle in anyone else’s affairs, the cards can quickly decide who wins.

So, with the preconceptions that it would be a small box game about mining, I set out for the following goals with Mined Out:

  • Gameplay cannot be computated i.e. There is no dominant strategy and rarely an ‘obvious’ decision to be made.
  • Players would not be punished for trying something different – this is almost the ying to a dominant strategy yang. I personally believe that whilst players with developed strategies should be rewarded, creativity in pursuit of these strategies shouldn’t be a handicap in any given game.
  • The choices at any given time shouldn’t be overwhelming. Some games, such as Agricola, meter their complexity quite well by slowly advancing a players capabilities, and allow a fairly simple explanation to blossom into something more complex, and I wanted to cater to some players’ need for complexity without alienating more inexperienced players.

As I began designing the system, I found that removing luck altogether could prove difficult – especially given the theme: would everyone have the same access to the same gems in the same places? If so, would that be realistic? Additionally, providing the possibilities and structure for a no-luck game in such a small box can prove difficult, given that I wanted to keep the game itself language independent.


Eventually, I settled for a personal-mine approach, where every player starts the game with 12 Mine Cards, drawn randomly and separated between three levels, calculated so that each player would, in the vast majority of cases, have access to all three types of gem required. Where those gems would spawn and how long it would take to find them were down to how the player chose to play but the initial draw was the only truly random element that separated the players.

In this approach – inspired by procedural generation found in digital gaming – each mine was one of literally billions of potential layouts, with a very low statistical likelihood that any single mine could form a handicap. Similarly, it was important that the system prevented players who drew particularly well from having too much of an advantage.

Once this was sorted, and I had run a few play tests, I started to build the scoring system that determined the winner. Along the way were a few issues with fairly obvious solutions (i.e. Pursuing this puts me at a disadvantage, give it a point value) until I had a fairly robust system – with one problem.

To avoid having to have 48 extra tokens in the box, I had built a ‘stability’ system for gaining gems: the first gem you mine from a card makes it ‘shaky’ (I.e. The card is turned 45 degrees) and if you gain a gem from a shaky card, the card collapses and it is lost forever. To prevent his from happening, players build supports at the edge of the card, giving them essentially infinite gems from those cards.

Initially, I attempted to balance this advantage by awarding points for ‘discovery’ – essentially, the more cards you uncover and don’t collapse, the more points you get, giving people a leg-up on players who were reliant on one or two cards. But still, the numbers weren’t adding up – using the supports trick was still a dominant strategy that gave you lots of gems for minimum effort.

At the same point, some players were complaining of too little player interaction, as everyone played in their own minds and at that point had no way of directly interfering with one another.

Adynamite-2s it transpired, both of these issues had the same solution: dynamite.

With each player given one stick of dynamite to use on anyone else’s mine – collapsing one card even if it was supported – this gave players an outlet to intervene if one player was abusing one or two cards, as well as a gateway to player interaction, in the form of spying on everyone else’s mines, and adding a ‘take that’ element that consistently gained strong reactions from players.

With these measures put in place, I put the game back in front of players, to find that attempted strategies became far more varied, and – with a bit of tweaking on the scoring system – usually close in their outcomes.

One great example of this was at Essen, where three players tried vastly different strategies (Explore everything, Try and save lots of gems, and Collapse everything to get lots of gems quickly and end the game fast) only to come very close together at the end – if memory serves, the scores were 42, 44 and 46.

This, in my mind at least, was proof that the system was working: there were enough tools for players to take distinctly different approaches, and none of these strategies were particularly punishing for the player or dominant within the game system.

Similarly, as the game involves each players mines slowly being revealed, the decision making isn’t overwhelming for new players: all of the potential actions are listed on the player card, and players are usually limited to one or two of these on any given turn.


It is a game made up of many small choices, rather than a few macro decisions, meaning that whilst there may be pinpoints where you felt your game changed, there aren’t big choices that you’ll have cause to regret later on – each of the upgrades, for example, may take a while to gain, but once you get there you have an advantage in one way or another, even if in retrospect you might have gone for a different upgrade.

What about you? What experience do you have of trying to balance strategies in games? Do you think a system should always reward people trying things differently, or do you think this can lead to games becoming too easy? Let me know in the comments!

Mined Out! is available on Kickstarter now.

Developer’s Blog: Pros and Icons

Put your hand up if you’ve ever had to check a rule-book to find out what an icon means. Okay, then everyone is aware that sometimes icons do not do their job.

When it comes to game design, icons are a double-edged sword. A well-placed icon can aid understanding, keep gameplay fast, remove the need for text that can bring language barriers, and make translations of a game far easier. But, at the same time, icons can be confusing, prompt frequent rule-checks, require tons of extra reference sheets that you wouldn’t need if you just wrote out the rule that they’re meant to denote, and – perhaps worst of all – look ugly.

Now, picking a good icon isn’t a challenge. There are plenty of resources like The Noun Project or Game Icons from which you can source good, simple icons. Once you’ve picked the ones you want, idiot-proofing them is as simple as showing them to people and asking ‘what does this say to you?’ or ‘what do you think this means?’

Easy, right? Wrong!

With the proliferation of good icon usage in mind, I’ve compiled some Do’s and Don’ts for you to consult when you reach for the icon search.

DON’T use an icon where a single word will work

mm-promo1The game Mice & Mystics, besides being adorable, is a great example of where icon over-usage has been dodged in favour of single words.

See where they’ve written Sharp/Melee, Warrior or Scamp or Archer? Think how easily they could have replaced those with icons. It might not have meant a huge amount – after all, these terms are used quite often throughout the game. But it removed an element of checking back and forth between cards to see if the little icons matched up.

A common argument for icons is translatability/readability to those who speak other languages. Some people might say ‘doesn’t this exclude people who don’t speak English?’ The answer is: not really. Matching single words is a task you can do even if you don’t speak the language, and in that scenario, having to check to see what an icon means doesn’t make this any more trans-lingual.

DO relate icons to tokens

Imperial Assault is a game guilty of breaking this rule. I remember reading, whilst I was learning the game, something along the lines of ‘add a strain token to your character sheet,’ which took me to the box contents page and then to the box, only to realise that the strain tokens are very simple icons which could have replaced nearly every mention of the word strain.

mice-and-mystics-15To use Mice & Mystics as an example again, this rule makes everything far easier. The game uses little more than six icons – four for the different skills, one for health, and one for cheese.

Remarkably, the health and cheese tokens look exactly like the icons that are universally used for them. Sure, if they were slightly different, it wouldn’t be a huge impediment to your understanding of the game, but it’s a design so straightforward that it makes sense almost as soon as you get it out the box. And who doesn’t want that?

DO replace common strings of text with icons

IMG_2760-ZF-3293-14457-1-011A game I’ve played a lot of recently is Chih-Fan Chen’s microdeckbuilder Flip City. Again, the game only uses about seven different icons. The game has no tokens, but what it does have are some fickle rule conditions that change from card to card.

These rule conditions had to be explained on each card to make the game playable, but there was limited space in which to do so. To aid this, there are four icons which denote the different conditions under which an effect happens – whether it happens when it’s played, when it’s flipped, when it’s recycled, or when you shuffle. All of these are explained in big and helpful letters on the rulesheet. Once you’re familiar with the game, you don’t even have to check.

Are there any I’ve missed? What board games use icons well? Which ones use them badly? Let me know in a comment!

Designer’s Blog: Calculating Colour

Without strong design, a game like Downsize – the core game of which consists only of 16 unique cards – is severely limited. The first bite is with the eyes, and for many people, even a game that is critically acclaimed will fall off their wishlist if they don’t like the look of it.

But of course, everyone knows this already. Nobody is standing up and shouting ‘Hey, I think design doesn’t matter!’

So the next question is how do you make this work?

In Downsize, colour was a huge aspect of the design. It was secondary to the mechanic – the game can still be played if you’re colourblind – but was nonetheless important for a number of reasons.

It needed to look cohesive when you had a bunch of random cards in your hand. In the initial prototypes, when deciding colours for a specialist I would merely say ‘what colour haven’t I used already?’ This resulted in a set of cards that looked randomly designed.

Secondly, I wanted the colours to roughly denote tactics, á-la Magic: The Gathering’s colour-pie. Reddy-yellow colours denoted aggressive, powerful tactics. Green colours were dedicated to earning and controlling money, pinkish colours maintained the flow of employees around the game, and blue facilitated all the surveying and adjusting that a fine-tuned tactician might need.

This was the end goal – in between the first prototypes and the end product were extensive sessions of messing around with colours, drinking coffee, and lightly screaming at photoshop.


Rather than designing each card over and over, I designed a colour table. Look familiar?

I grouped the cards together by their use, and little rectangles to simulate what the cards might look like if you super-scrunched your eyes. Then, I filled the squares over and over, until the mix looked right. It was a simple method, and when I felt like it looked right, I made up the cards and laid them out how you see them at the top of this article.

The response to the colours were great. Some people even messaged me to say that they had only backed the game because of this aspect.

It’s not an approach that will work for every type of game of course, but it harnesses the core elements of what makes a good development: constant, fast reiteration, until you have a good end-product.

Designers: what have you found challenging to get right in your designs? Gamers: what do you like in a design? Let me know in the comments!