Category Archives: Design

Last Thanksgiving

A few months back I made available a small game titled Last Thanksgiving. It was a personal project, and proof of concept, but it also stuck with me. I’ve been sort of stalled on my latest design project. Nothing was coming together in the way I wanted it to. What I’ve come to realize is that, in designing a bare-bones game, Last Thanksgiving, what I was actually doing was subconsciously working past my designer’s block. You see, I’m a theme first type of guy. Hero’s Banner didn’t come into focus until I had a theme. Same with Mars Colony and 39 Dark. Every single time I come up with an interesting mechanic or provocative setting first, I start designing — but end up designing myself into a corner because the game has no soul. It’s not until I get a strong handle on what I want to say with a game that I can really make progress. For my latest project, that theme is becoming clear, and that theme is memory.

Specifically, something that has been on my mind of late is the notion of memory loss. (And now we’re getting personal, watch out!) My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease before passing away. I watched my two grandmothers suffer from memory loss in their old age as well. At the same time, as I age, the notion of reliving past events through memory is becoming more relevant while at the same time more fraught. Not all the memories are good ones, and, good or bad, I wonder if I can really trust those memories as “accurate.” This is tied up with my study of memoirs (see especially Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), and the way an author fixes a memory in time by writing it down in a particular way as a story. Hell, I’m sure even Roy Batty’s last words in Bladerunner are serving as inspiration.

memoryloss

My point is that all these thoughts about the value and peril of memory are rattling around in my brain, and I’m looking for a way to say something about it all. Enter my latest project. Both Last Thanksgiving (now revised) and the brand new extension, Lost Thanksgiving, tackle the theme of memory in a hyper-focused, two-player format. The players are presented with a limited situation that seems simple at first, but hopefully expands into something larger. This isn’t a “big” game, but it is a personal game (both for me and for anyone who plays it). The main character could be an elderly grandparent in a contemporary drama or a young protagonist in a sci-fi/horror story. The choice is yours, but the theme remains: how does memory betray us, and what power does memory have over us?

The first and base game, Last Thanksgiving, is simple in its presentation, but leaves room to take the story in whatever direction you please. The extension, by comparison, is optional, but highly recommended. It ups the ante and the elements of horror such that memories become corrupted and even malevolent.

I hope you enjoy them, and I’d love to hear your feedback. Neither is a “finished” game in the sense that I’m ready to put out a commercial production, but they are complete and fun to play. I have ideas for at least two additional extensions, and if they work out, this whole thing could see a professional production in a year or two, complete with artwork, examples, etc.

Download Last Thanksgiving (the base game).

Download Lost Thanksgiving (the first extension).

Fringe Cards

I was surprised at just how difficult it was to come up with 32 different fringe groups for the 39 Dark Kickstarter reward. It wasn’t that there was a lack of groups. Rather it was difficult to choose 32 groups that, as a whole, represented a sufficiently multi-national swath. I also wanted to amass a collection of groups that represented both the right and left, extremist and peaceful side of protest. I’m sure I’ve failed on at least one front, but I’m nonetheless happy with the collection. What I realized was that it’s impossible to capture the spirit of protest around the world in a simple deck of cards. But I also realized that I can make some pretty darn interesting combinations from the deck I did create. Available now for purchase.

Fringe Group Cards

“Pssst… Saving the Colony isn’t Actually the Point”

I just found this short comment about Mars Colony, by the user SevenSidedDie. I think it’s worth sharing here:

Mars Colony doesn’t have a reward cycle. You either save the colony, leave a false saviour, or leave in shame. Only your character’s fiction changes — status, emotions, personal relationships — none of which is reflected in the mechanics.

Arguably this is the point of the game. The mechanics are about the successes, failures, and moral compromises the saviour can make trying to save the Colony. The mechanics stay away from how the saviour might be changed by their struggle, leaving it up to the players to answer how their actions and moral compromises trying to save Mars Colony should change them.

SevenSidedDie’s conclusion is accurate. I tried to design a game that emphasized the personal struggle of a very public figure. People often tell me that they wish Fear Cards or Kelly’s Sympathy had a direct mechanical affect on the core conflict mechanic. But that wasn’t my design goal. The point of Fear Cards and Personal Scenes isn’t to feed into Progress Scenes. Rather it’s the other way around. Progress Scenes are meant to feed into Personal Scenes. Conflict and Deception are meant to inspire the use of future Fear Cards. In other words, a Progress Scene creates tension that the players are then able to explore on a personal level via the rest of the game’s mechanics.

Martian Landscapes

One of my favorite website is the Big Picture. It’s run by the Boston Globe and features photojournalistic series on a range of topics. One of the best parts about the blog is its dedication to large-scale photography. Rather than the small snapshots you see accompanying most newspaper articles online, the Big Pictures goes full-screen large. I love it.

And so you can imagine my excitement when I found one of their most recent entries on Martian landscapes. Do not be surprised if some of these photos make it into the print edition of Mars Colony. Because the images were produced by NASA, they are all in the public domain. If you are interested in Martian photography, I also recommend browsing the image archives at NASA’s website.

Hero’s Banner Rules Modifications

As a preview of some of the advise and suggestions I’ll be releasing for Hero’s Banner, I thought I’d post the major rules changes.

Passion Checks

Change 1. No player is allowed to make less than three passion checks until his character’s passion score reaches at least 50 points. As a result, no player may initially take less than the 30-point bonus when re-rolling a failed conflict check. This change serves to speed up play, but still allows for narrative control when it most matters: during endgame.

Change 2. Players are no longer required to bring in one of their connections when making less than three passion checks. In play, connections inevitably show up. Either the GM frames a connection into a scene directly, or the players include them naturally. Otherwise forcing a player to integrate his connection into a scene after the fact is a bit artificial.

Breakdowns

Under the standard rules, breakdowns occur whenever a player rolls doubles on a passion check. The player then immediately stops making passion checks. So if the player was supposed to make three passion checks and rolls doubles on the first, then he would ignore passion checks two and three. In play, this rule unnecessarily slowed the pace of the game.

Change 3. A breakdown still occurs on a roll of doubles, but the player should finish making the full series of passion checks before narrating the breakdown.

Endgame

Change 5. Players are no longer required to use the chart described on page 72 when narrating their epilogues. Instead, the narrating player should answer the following questions during endgame:

  1. Did the character have any regrets?
  2. Did the character live a fulfilling life?

When answering the questions, the players should take into consideration the number of connections he has under the “winning” influence, as well as the people he had to thrust aside to accomplish his goals.

The original chart sometimes imposed artificial restrictions. Endgame is more meaningful when the players address open-ended questions that get at the same meaning.

Mars Colony Ashcan Sales

The Mars Colony Ashcan Edition debuted at Gen Con ’09. In my opinion, it was a success! I put together 25 hand-made copies. The covers were “martian red,” adorned with nothing but white embossed lettering. The contrast made it stand out, and I sold 18 copies at the Forge Booth. An early playtest report generated enough buzz to move all but two of the remaining copies.

I’m quite pleased, and hope that it leads to some solid feedback. So far so good.

Hero’s Banner Update

I’ve been toying with a second edition to Hero’s Banner for some time now. However, I’ve never been able to justify the work it would take to revise an entire book — a book that generally stands up just fine in my opinion. Would I make some changes to it if I was starting from scratch? Yes. But the game is three years old now, and I am a big believer that, once released, art should stand on its own. (I’m looking at you George Lucas.)

So where does that leave things? Well, within the next day or two, I will be putting the final touches on a short document that updates Hero’s Banner as I play it now. This document will be free to everyone. What’s more, because it will be a short web release, I will be able to update it from here on out forever. I encourage everyone who is interested in Hero’s Banner to give the new guide a quick read-through and perhaps give the game another chance.