German publisher Pegasus Spiele debuted Ludovic Gimet's drawing-based party game NObjects at Origins Game Fair 2019, and this design presents a new take on the genre by having the drawing be something that you can see only while it happens.
In more detail, the active player rolls a die and draws a card to determine what the other players need to guess, then they "draw" a picture on the table using only their fingers. Everyone can guess what the object being drawn is as many times as they wish, but of course you face the standard party game dilemma of possibly giving clues to the clueless thanks to your guesses. When someone correctly guesses the object — whether within the time limit or before the artist gives the effort up as hopeless — then both the artist and the guesser score a point. Whoever scores six points first wins!
That's it! NObjects is simplicity itself, running counter to the trend of fancy components to give you a game that you can't photograph in a meaningful way. I've played twice on a copy that will await attendees of BGG's Hot Games Room at Gen Con 2019 — once with five players and once with three — and the game lives or dies based on who's at the table. If folks guess only occasionally, you feel like you're dancing on a stage to crowd of none. I'm making an effort here! You should try, too! At other times, the guesses rain upon you fruitlessly, with no one catching on to perfectly clear drawing with which you've presented them. How could they be so dense?!
Greetings all. At Gen Con 2019, Osprey Games will release Undaunted: Normandy. I thought it would be a good idea to post a design diary to show off some of the background info, design decisions, art, and more.
The Initial Concept
In 2014, I moved from the U.S. to the UK. Just before the move, I started brainstorming the idea of combining elements of deck-building card games with the spatial elements of a board game. I knew I wanted the game to be a skirmish-level game, with the cards tied directly to counters on the board, but I wasn't sure what the exact theme would be. While I was working through some of the initial mechanical concepts, I went on my first vacation after the move — a visit to Normandy. My first stop was Omaha Beach, where my grandfather landed on D-Day +4 with the 30th Infantry Division.
Instantly I had my theme. The game would focus on the exploits of individual rifle platoons within the 30th Infantry Division as they made their way through France.
My son and me at Omaha Beach
As SPIEL 2014 neared, I shared some of the initial design concepts for Undaunted on BGG. A user there — Eddy Sterckx — noticed the game and suggested Osprey would be a good fit for the design. Eddy reached out to Duncan Molloy at Osprey and set up a virtual introduction. I met Duncan in Essen and pitched the game to him. At the time, Duncan was just getting things going with Osprey's fledging board game division. He liked the design, but it was a while before he had the bandwidth to take the game on. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until SPIEL 2017 that we made the formal agreement.
Regardless, when I headed home from SPIEL 2014, I had a good feeling about the design. I had already conceived the campaign arc for the game — the 30th ID's actions in France following D-Day — and I had also sketched out some ideas for the first few scenarios, but to properly develop the scenarios and ensure the game was solid, I needed two things: a dedicated blind playtest community, and someone to help me develop the scenarios.
Calling in Reinforcements
The blind playtest community emerged primarily from two places: BoardGameGeek and a dedicated playtest page that I created on my website. Blind playtest reports began pouring in. Although some contained feedback on the core of the game, most of the reports provided invaluable insight about the scenarios that were being developed.
At the same time, I reached out to Trevor Benjamin. He and I had collaborated on other projects and developed a great relationship. It also helped that we were both part of a game designer and playtest group in Cambridge. While I thought the majority of our effort would be solely dedicated to scenario development, Trevor brought with him a fresh perspective and fantastic ideas for improvements to the core of the game.
Trevor and I playtest Undaunted: Normandy at UK Game Expo 2015
Gameplay vs. Simulation
One challenge we had throughout the design process was the balance we wanted to strike between gameplay elegance and simulationism. We knew we wanted the game to be quick playing, and we wanted to rely on the overall deck-building mechanism and the multi-use cards to drive the action, while representing concepts like command and control and fog of war.
We debated more than once whether there should be terrain effects to include impact on line of sight. Ultimately we decided that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. For example, if we said that river tiles prevented or hindered movement, what about woods or hills? Depending on the river's depth or width, it could actually be easier to cross than a hill would be to climb. If we introduced line of sight, we'd have to determine how it was drawn, add edge cases, etc. It was a slippery slope, with every one of these elements taking us further from what we wanted: an elegant design that centered on players' control of their platoons through the management of their decks, abstracting their command and control over the platoon.
The components for Undaunted: Normandy
From Design to Development
Trevor and I turned over the design to Osprey in 2017. At that point, Duncan Molloy and Filip Hartelius (who has served as the lead designer for the game) began putting the game through its paces. Although there were few changes to the core rules, Filip and Duncan pushed us to improve some elements and polish the edges.
More than anything, though, they challenged us on some of the scenarios. They wanted to make sure that each and every scenario was as good as it could possibly be. Ultimately we had to strip out a few of the weaker scenarios, we improved many that we had already designed, and we added a few new ones.
The Game Comes to Life
By early 2019, the design and development was complete. We began seeing Roland MacDonald's beautiful artwork, which really made the game come to life. When our preview copies arrived in June, we could hardly believe that the game had become a reality.
So that's the story of how Undaunted: Normandy came to be. You can take a look at the rules in this video from Watch it Played, and over the next couple of weeks we'll add more articles to the BGG game page about how we modeled the rifle platoon in the game and how we based the game's scenarios on real world battles.
Horrified is for 1-5 players, with a playing time of 45-60 minutes. You represent a hero in the town, and to win you must defeat 2-4 monsters based on the difficulty level of the game. To set up, you choose the monsters or draw them at random, place them on the board in their designated starting locations, choose a hero character for each player and place them on their designated starting locations, then get going.
On a turn, you take 3-5 actions depending on your character — moving on the board, picking up items, sharing items with one another, escorting clueless villagers to safety so the monsters don't kill them, taking steps to defeat each monster, and using your special ability — then you draw a card from the monster deck. Each such card directs you to place 0-3 items on the game board, has a special event — typically a monster attack or the arrival of a villager at one of the town buildings — then certain monsters move toward the humans on the board and attack them if possible.
The game includes six monster cards (with Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein being paired on one card, and yes, we all know that's not the monster's name), and each monster has unique guidelines for how to defeat it: With the Wolfman, for example, you need to discard six blue items in the appropriate values at the laboratory, then take the lycanthropy cure to the Wolfman's space where you'll discard a bunch of red items to defeat him. With Frank. and B. of F., you need to discard blue items to the former and yellow items to the latter to humanize them, and each time you do so, you can move those monsters on the board — which you want to do as the only thing these two want to do is meet, at which time they cause terror in the town.
You also want to move them (and move away from other monsters) because if you're in a monster's space when it attacks, you need to discard an item to prevent damage or else head to the hospital — but each trip to the hospital increases the terror level, and if that level hits 7, you lose the game. You also lose if you run through the monster deck, so you have only 31 turns in which to get everything done.
Horrified replicates the classic style of the Universal monster movies, starting with what you see when you open the box. As for the gameplay, you need to figure out how to use all the items in play to work toward eliminating the monsters, while also combining the hero abilities to break the rules in your favor.
I've played four times on a review copy from Ravensburger, with 1-3 players in those games and 2-3 monsters trying to take us out. We've won all four games, with only the solitaire game providing a significant challenge, but we've also had a number of lucky breaks, with a valuable red item dropping into my hands in one game that let us bypass the multi-turn plan we had to win quickly and with several multi-die rolls turning up all blanks, which let us continue with our plans instead of taking detours to the hospital or dumping needed items.
I can see the difficulty of Horrified escalating with four or five players, similar to how Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle — designed by Forrest-Pruzan Creative, the precursor of Prospero Hall — works, with players having the same number of positive actions on their own turns, while facing an increasing number of negative effects for each person added to the game. Still need to discover whether that's true in future plays, which won't happen until after Gen Con 2019, so for now I can only offer these thoughts on four games with a lower player count:
Just One is a quick-playing co-operative party game in which all players but one see a word, then everyone writes down a one-word clue to show to the guesser — but if players write the same clue word, then that word isn't shown to the guesser, making it harder for them to guess. The game lasts thirteen rounds, and you need to guess correctly in all rounds for a perfect game.
I give an overview of Just One in this video from August 2018:
I've yet to play Wingspan, so I must crib a description from the BGG page for this space: In the card-driven, engine-building board game Wingspan, you are bird enthusiasts — researchers, bird watchers, ornithologists, and collectors — seeking to discover and attract the best birds to your network of wildlife preserves. Each bird extends a chain of powerful combinations in one of your habitats (actions). These habitats focus on several key aspects of growth: gaining food tokens via custom dice, laying eggs, and drawing from hundreds of unique bird cards.
For those who want to know more about the game, Rodney Smith from Watch It Played has produced a detailed rules overview of Wingspan:
Every board game is a story, no matter how grand or small the game might be. Sometimes it's told through pages of text, sometimes through dazzling artwork, and sometimes through the apps that provide sound effects and atmospheric music. Regardless of which other methods are used, the story in a board game is also told through the gameplay itself.
When I started working on this game, I wanted to tell a story of growth and discovery, of seizing opportunities and facing adversity. I wanted for the gameplay to be fun, varied, and engaging, yet also simple and accessible. I decided to use a setting from real life, one that players will be familiar with without the need for a lengthy introduction and one that would ring true to the mechanisms of the game.
My original title for this game was "Margrave", and it was set in the late Middle Ages Europe. Margraves were nobles ruling over border regions of their kingdoms. They were tasked with securing the borders, so they had more extensive rights compared to other nobles, such as the right to a larger personal army, more independent rule, and tax exemptions. Often times margraves would conquer adjacent foreign lands and grow their holdings to rival those of the very rulers to which they were subjects. In my game, players started with a castle and a couple of random buildings in their province. Players then used dice drafting to add more lands and buildings to their province or to activate their provinces to produce goods and score victory points.
After playtesting "Margrave" for a few months, I felt that it was ready to be shown to a publisher. Gen Con 2017 was coming up, and I decided to enter this design into a publisher speed-dating event there. For those not familiar with it, the publisher speed-dating format gives you five minutes to pitch your game to a publisher — then you repeat this 15-20 times depending on how many publishers are in attendance. It was essential to have a game that you could present and explain in a short time, and I decided that "Margrave" fit the bill.
I met the Tasty Minstrel Games crew at this event and pitched this game to them as well as about a dozen other teams. Afterwards Seth Jaffee, head of TMG development, invited me to play a full game with them. I ended up leaving Gen Con with high hopes that TMG would want to publish this game. I left my prototype with Seth so that he could play around with it more before they made their final decision. One of the questions I was asked was whether I was willing to change "Margrave" to an Old West theme. I was very happy to agree to that as it was not lost on me that building a town in the old west was not unlike building up a medieval province. The western setting would make this game fit in the universe with Pioneer Days, a new game that TMG was publishing at that time.
In order to prepare myself for re-theming this game, I picked up a couple of history books at the library and watched Ken Burns' excellent documentary "The West" on Netflix. I suggested the name Old West Empresario as the new title since empresarios were the land agents contracted to aid a settlement of Texas in the mid- to late 1800s.
Part 2. Evolution
I'd like to welcome you to the Old West circa late 1800. It's the time when new railroads are bringing thousands of settlers from the east. Towns boom around newly discovered mineral deposits, and ranching and agriculture are transforming the landscape. Land speculators, businessmen, miners, and builders flock westward where opportunities are seemingly limitless.
Those people did not see themselves as participants in some abstract historical westward expansion but rather had very personal goals and motivations. So what motivates players in Old West Empresario? There are several attractive options available: accumulating wealth, attracting new settlers to your town, completing important projects, and creating a glorious town to name just a few.
Let's talk about game mechanisms for a bit. The game is a competitive one at heart in which the adversity comes from the other players who are all too eager to impede your progress and steal your opportunities. For that, a drafting mechanism is perfect in my opinion. The basic act of choosing the best option for you while also blocking your opponents is very satisfying. I added dice to the mix to represent luck but also gave players the ability to manipulate these dice to reward planning. I also wanted to make sure that the tiles players use are varied and easy to understand. We have mines bringing in wealth, railways, and inns for faster growth; churches and saloons to cater to your citizens' needs; and much more. I wanted players to experience through gameplay the joy of starting with a couple of buildings and watching them grow into a unique and believable town.
Even though the core game play did not change, many other changes had to be made during the thematic transition. Farms, castles, taverns, and ports turned into gold mines, town halls, and train stations. Some of the more fiddly aspects of the game were streamlined as well, such as moving coins from tile to tile to represent resource conversions until they could become victory points.
With this new theme, I also felt there was an opportunity to add more tableau-building decisions to the game in the form of "stock symbols" printed on the tiles. Initially I opted to have a "stock track" on which players advanced a token whenever a tile with a matching stock was added. The more of that symbol players added to their towns, the more points that stock would be worth. About halfway through the game, the "stock track" would freeze so that players would know what value certain stocks would have during endgame scoring, while still having the opportunity to hunt for the most valuable tiles. In practice, this system proved to be a little too much for this game. Players already had to keep track of their town layouts, special goal cards, and activation strategies. The TMG team simplified this stock system into a more straightforward method based on adjacency and majority of the symbols with no extra components or additional rules necessary.
With the rules finalized, the game moved into that stage in which the publisher moves on to the questions of production, manufacturing, and shipping. All the designer can do is wait patiently for the game to come out. Fast forward to July 2019, almost two years later, and I'm holding a finished copy of Old West Empresario. I'm thrilled and excited for this game to be released on August 1, 2019 at Gen Con. My sincere hope is that many people enjoy this game and the story which it tells.
Gen Con 2019 opens in less than two weeks, and one of the last things that happens before that show opens is the crowning of the winner of the Diana Jones Award.
This year marks the 19th presentation of the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming, and as noted on its website, "It is presented annually to the person, product, company, event, movement or any other thing that has, in the opinion of its committee, best demonstrated the quality of 'excellence' in the world of hobby-gaming in the previous year." (Disclosure: BGG won the Diana Jones Award in 2010.)
On July 16, 2019, the shortlist for the 2019 DJA was announced, with the items on it consisting of:
When I make games, I typically start from a feeling or big moment I want people to experience: What kind of emotional reactions do I want during play, and what do I want them to be thinking about afterward?
For a long time, I've been fascinated by how people could be faced with the same thing and have vastly different opinions and views on it, both small things, like which TV show is the best of all time (Arrested Development, Seasons 1-3 — we don't speak of the others), but also big things like politics, God, or which humans we should treat like humans.
There have been so many ways to help understand this, from giant philosophy arguments to the comic of two people arguing over whether the number is a 9 or a 6, so when faced with the issue of depth of human communication and diversity of thought, the only logical choice to me was to make a 15-minute co-op game using foam blocks.
Because I'm a game designer, so I work with what I know.
The reason you need lines under numbers
In Mental Blocks, you're working as a team to build a single 3D structure in the center of the table under a time limit. Each player has only one perspective on the final solution, and each has restrictions about what they can do — and all the while one player MIGHT actually be working in bad faith against the team, trying to get them to lose.
Piles of blocks left over from previous client's game projectThe original version of this design (affectionately known as "The Giant Block Game") was more of an experience than a game as it was fully co-op with only a single puzzle. As a fun bonus, it used giant foot-long foam blocks (leftover material from a work project) that I cut into shapes with a bread knife.
It was fun and got people talking about their perspectives and how to better understand one another. I loved the idea that while everyone's view could be correct, no one's view was complete; I loved how there was a right answer, but that it was impossible to figure it out without listening to others, learning about what they thought, then working together. I considered "The Giant Block Game" a success — then life got busy and I put it in my pile of "neat things I should work on more someday".
Sometime later, I got a call from a friend at work needing me to come in the next morning and brainstorm a game for a client of ours. During the meeting, it was clear that something like "The Giant Block Game" could actually help them figure out some things, so with permission from work, I decided to pitch it to the client as an option for the project. They LOVED it! Well, parts of it. To make it work for them, I pulled out the restrictions on actions, simplified the perspectives, and made it a little less "gamey".
Meanwhile, I was also weekly-ish attending a local game designer meet-up called the Northwest Ohio Game Designers who have been kind enough to play many of my work games. We played "The Giant Block Game" (Work Edition), and they all really got into it and were excited about what it could be for a hobby game. After the game, one of the designers — and I'm pretty sure it was Jonathan Gilmour of Dead of Winter and Dinosaur Island fame — mentioned, "Whoa, what if you added a betrayer to this?" and suddenly things started clicking in my head. And since he is awesome, we decided to start working on the design together.
Early playtest, including a cut-in-half Jonathan
Adding "The Betrayer" took a very fun co-op game and added an entire new element to it. It became this crazy real-time social deduction game in which you watched everyone and tried to figure out who might be sabotaging the team. At that point, internally, we started calling it "Foam of Winter", but that name didn't stick for obvious reasons.
I started bringing it more often, making more puzzles, testing player counts, and trying different team and betrayer ideas.
Prototype version, with the old ugly colors
The game first really felt like a success when I took it to a local con to get early feedback. I talked to the con organizers and got permission to set up on an open table, but after an hour or so, no one had stopped by yet...which was less than encouraging. I figured I'd hang out for another hour or two, then take off for the weekend. Bored, I decided to pile the blocks as high as I could and post a sign on the top: "1 minute to learn, 10 minutes to play". About five minutes later, I had my first group ask to try it. About fifty minutes and five games after that, I had to ask them to stop playing...because there was a line.
Apparently, there is something very attractive about a group of nine people frantically trying to build with blocks while yelling at each other and accusing one and all of being the betrayer. It was freaking hilarious to watch.
I called my wife and pulled her in to help manage it all, get puzzles ready for the next group, run games, etc. It was amazing and validating.
One of the first BashCon groups to try the game
Around the time of BashCon, Jonathan showed the design to Pandasaurus Games, which decided that "The Giant Block Game" was maybe not the most marketable name. They pitched the name "Mental Blocks", which I must agree is a significantly better name in every conceivable way.
Moving into official build mode, our first goal was around forty puzzles, which was a decent amount. All our playtests had shown that groups can play the same puzzles multiple times without even realizing it due to how the information is split up. Unfortunately, we heard from manufactures that if we went over thirty puzzles (which would be 270 cards!), then our costs for the game were not viable.
My wife, remaking my badly handwritten original sign at BashCon
Ultimately, we realized that most of our print-and-play testers were printing only single-sided cards and that approach worked great for them, so we decided to get rid of the back art and create double-sided puzzle cards, placing the easy level on one side and the challenge level on the other, which let us jump the number of puzzles up to a solid sixty.
Once we had the puzzles down, we moved into mass playtesting. Jonathan and Pandasaurus have a great network of vetted playtesters that allowed us to send tons of copies and get real-time feedback through forms and a private Reddit. We had the game in mass playtesting for four months, intentionally at the end of the year so that players would take the game to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's to try it with their non-gaming friends and family, in addition to their regular gaming groups. We asked for fifteen plays per group and had multiple groups that went way over that. One group reported 104 plays!
To help with the groups that were getting pretty skilled at the game, we introduced difficulty levels and the optional "Glitch" cards, which change how the game plays and add crazy table restrictions, e.g., "No one can talk; use only hand gestures," or "Two people must be touching each block to move it."
Ugly prototype Glitch cards
Some of the most rewarding feedback came through these forms, quotes like, "My family all had a good time. They didn't complain about me trying to get them to play one of those 'board games' I have. They all loved it, which was great for people that almost never play games." Or "This was my best gaming experience of the year." Or "It's so great to have a co-op game where we can work as a team, but it's impossible to have one person quarterback it all, so we can all play." Or "I tried this with several groups from heavy gamers and RPGers to family and friends who don't play games. Everyone enjoyed it and it is [a] super simple teach." All these quotes were really great to hear.
The feedback also told us where we messed up, where the rules were not clear, which puzzles could be broken, and where we had bad ideas. At one point, we had a "Win / Lose" tracker that added a legacy-style feel, the idea being that as you won, the game would get harder, and as you lost, the game would self-correct and get easier. In practice, it made "The Betrayer" feel like an outcast and worked against the quick pick-up-and-play nature of the game, so we ditched it.
The first version of the quick-play mat
To make rules as fast and clear as possible, I made a quick start sheet. Basically, you set out a puzzle on a sheet and that one image teaches the whole game.
The best thing we saw was that with the two modes — fully co-operative and potential betrayer — the game could fit with all types of players. Since the game took only a minute or two to teach, that meant pretty much any group was willing to try it, and then once they tried it, they wanted more. The groups that wanted a more causal party-style game could play fully co-op, while the groups that wanted to be more intense could up the challenge level or add the potential traitor. It was becoming the rare game that could introduce new people to modern board games, but still be fun for more experienced gamers.
Mental Blocks came a long way from a personal "art game" to something that hundreds of playtesters have played and loved — but when I think about my original goal, this feedback quote is my favorite of all: "[She] loved seeing her family work together and listen ([Which is] good for things outside of gaming). It also gives perspective that we all see things differently, and we could all be correct (she sorta got teary-eyed at this point) — Thanksgiving, gotta love emotional holiday time!"
Which means hey, it can be fun AND still make a point!
I'm excited to see Mental Blocks come out at Gen Con 2019 in August, so stop by the Pandasaurus Games booth (#1441) to try it. After all, it takes only a minute to learn and ten to play!
In February 2019, pop-culture giant Funko acquired Seattle-based game design studio Forrest-Pruzan Creative, which releases most of its designs these days under the pseudonym Prospero Hall. (You might recognize the name from recent coverage of JAWS, Villainous: Evil Comes Prepared, Horrified, and several other titles.)
In my write-up of that purchase, I wrote: "In recent years, FPC has been responsible for pop-culture-driven games such as Villainous, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, and Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger, which makes it seem like an ideal fit within the Funko brand." And in a comment on that post, I wrote: "I can imagine Funko releasing a deluxe version of Villainous for $100-ish that contains large figures of all six characters, perhaps custom versions of those characters specific to that game. It's a gift, it's a game — it's two things in one!"
At San Diego Comic-Con 2019, Funko has officially announced the formation of Funko Games as well as its debut line of games: the Funkoverse Strategy Game. From the press release:
The first wave of Funkoverse includes six collectible strategy board games based on some of the world's most beloved pop culture icons: Harry Potter, Rick & Morty, DC Comics, and The Golden Girls. The games incorporate Pop! into the flagship game with brand new three-inch figurines. The strategic game offers innovative gameplay and a fresh experience for both new and seasoned gamers. Funkoverse will be available at most major retailers this coming October.
"There's no better place to introduce Funko fanatics to Funko Games than at this year's San Diego Comic Con," said Jay Wheatley, General Manager of Funko Games. "Adults and children over 10 can now create a powerful team of characters from their favorite fandoms and face off in exciting table-top gameplay."
I appreciate the incorporation of the suggested age range in that quote, although it carries the feeling that nine-year-olds should go sit in a closet. In any case, here's a longer description of gameplay:
Face off in the ultimate Pop! battle
In the Funkoverse Strategy Game, you combine your favorite characters and go head-to-head in four exciting game scenarios. Use your characters' unique abilities to gain points and achieve victory!
Each turn, you select one of your characters and perform two actions. Each character has access to basic actions like moving and challenges as well as several unique abilities that may be performed only by spending ability tokens. Funkoverse uses an innovative "cooldown" system — the more powerful the ability, the longer it will take for the ability token to become available again — so players have to spend their ability tokens wisely. Each character in Funkoverse is unique, so players are encouraged to try out different combinations of characters and items in order to discover their favorite synergies and powerful strategies for all four game scenarios.
As of launch, the Funkoverse Strategy Game consists of four-character sets and two-character sets. Every four-character and two-character set is playable as a standalone game and comes with exclusive Funko Pop! Figures that aren't available anywhere else, a double-sided board, tokens, cards, an item, and dice. Sets may be combined with one another, allowing players the freedom to play how they like!
Funko Games will have a presence at Gen Con 2019, so I would imagine that the games will be available for demo there ahead of their release in October 2019. (I need to double-check on this, but the Funko folks are a tad busy in San Diego.) We'll have individual listings for each title in the BGG database later, but for now I can share pics of the components in each of the six individual releases of the Funkoverse Strategy Game.
When Villainous — or to use its proper title Disney Villainous — debuted in the middle of 2018, people immediately asked, "Who else have you got?"
In the game, you represent a villain from one of the Disney animated films. You have a personalized deck containing allies, items, effects, and more from that film, and you must use these cards to complete your master plan, which is unique for each villain and which embodies that character's plan from their film. The original Villainous game includes six characters, but cries went up for more and in March 2019 designer Prospero Hall and publisher Ravensburger delivered more in the form of Villainous: Wicked to the Core, a standalone game with three new villains that could also be played against the characters in the original game.
With San Diego Comic-Con 2019 opening today, July 18, and announcements of new licensed items coming out left and right, Ravensburger has contributed to the buzz by announcing Villainous: Evil Comes Prepared, a new standalone expansion for 2-3 players that mirrors Wicked to the Core in format. The character line-up in this box is Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove, and Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective, and Scar from The Lion King — the new live-action version of which coincidentally opens this weekend. Absolutely a coincidence, I'm sure.
The basics of gameplay remain the same as in the earlier games:
On a turn, the active player moves their character to a different location on their player board, takes one or more of the actions visible on that space (often by playing cards from their hand), then refills their hand to four cards. Cards are allies, items, effects, and conditions. You need to use your cards to fulfill your unique win condition.
One of the actions allows you to choose another player, draw two cards from that player's fate deck, then play one of them on that player's board, covering two of the four action spaces on one of that player's locations. The fate deck contains heroes, items, and effects from that villain's movie, and these cards allow other players to mess with that particular villain.
Scar's winning condition is the most straightforward: Collect 15 points of strength in a succession pile, "collect" being a polite word for eliminate. You want to be king, after all, so your first challenge is to find and eliminate Mufasa, who is part of your fate deck. Opponents aren't likely to put Mufasa in play for you to kill, so you have effects cards in your deck — "Be Prepared" — to help place him in a position of vulnerability, after which you can use your hyena packs to bring him down. Once Mufasa falls, he counts as the start of the succession pile, giving you 6 of the 15 points you need for victory. Each hero that falls after that adds to your total, although opponents can sometimes pull them back from the pile or strengthen those heroes that remain on the plain to make life more difficult for you.
Ratigan needs to get the Robot Queen into play in his secret lair, then deliver it to Buckingham Palace — but the Robot Queen costs 15 power compared to the 0-3 power cost of everything else in your deck. Thankfully, you can place gears into play that lower the cost of items on a one-shot basis, and other cards will help you dig for the Queen, which you need to get into play before Basil shows up from your fate deck. If Basil comes into play while the Queen is out or can move onto its location, the Queen is discarded, which so enrages Ratigan that his goal transforms to the elimination of Basil. Thankfully you have Felicia in your deck to provide big hits...
The rules note that Yzma is the most difficult to play, and I can testify to that from my one playing of the game to date on a review copy from Ravensburger. Unlike all other Villainous characters, Yzma has her fate deck divided into four equal piles of four cards, with Kuzco hiding in one of those piles. Yzma needs to use her cards to find Kuzco's location, then place Kronk in that same location so that Kronk can take out Kuzco. Kronk doesn't really want to do this, of course, so each time you move Kronk to a new location, he collects power, and once he has three power, he switches sides, now acting as a hero against Yzma. She must then defeat him to return him to her deck so that she can employ him once again against Kuzco. Amongst the cards in her fate pile are two "Wrong Lever" cards, and if she reveals one, she loses half of her power. Why do they even have that lever?!
Villainous: Evil Comes Prepared is scheduled to debut as an exclusive with the Target retail chain in the U.S. on July 19, 2019, with a release on the broader retail market scheduled for September 2019.
People started speculating what this announcement might entail for the future compatibility of base games and expansions, not to mention their availability. After seeing this new version listed on the Lautapelit.fi website — a listing removed almost immediately — I contacted Toni Niittymäki from Lautapelit.fi, who suggested that I contact lead publisher 999 Games, the representative of which gave me additional information while also suggesting that I contact Reiner Knizia himself, which is perhaps what I should have done in the first place since he's the one who kicked off this hullabaloo, so I did.
In this article, I might not answer all of your questions about this new edition, but I will address them as best as I can. As you'll see, though, answers might not come for a year or more — and in many cases, the answers will depend on you.
I've spoken with Knizia many times since I started covering the game industry full time in 2006, including an hour-long retrospective in 2015 of his thirty-year career as a game designer that remains my favorite interview to date. I've spoken of my love for Knizia designs many times, most recently in my video overview of LAMA, and aside from being a fan of his designs, I'm also a fan of his business practices. More than anyone else I've encountered, Knizia merges the art of design with the business of ensuring that those designs get into print and stay there, and that's where this story begins.
"The first challenge is to find a publisher interested in the game," says Knizia. "Ideally that would be a publisher who is willing and able to take the game and market it to its largest potential worldwide. No publisher can do that by themselves, but many publishers have built up networks that extend their reach. I would like to work with a publisher who can do that because I'd give the game to one publisher, deal only with them, then everyone would work from the same template, which leads to bigger co-publications, which is more cost effective."
Learning about a publisher's plans for a design before you sign a contract with them is crucial. After all, if a publisher doesn't have a network of licensees or doesn't plan to market your game to others, then you don't want to give away rights that you could sell to others — and even if a publisher does have such a network, Knizia says that his contracts for worldwide rights typically contain a clause that allows unused languages or territories to come back under his control. "Publishers might want to try to make something happen, and in two or three years, if it doesn't work, then we might want to give it a try ourselves."
Knizia and Ravensburger have worked together on dozens of releases over the past two decades, with their first such collaboration being in 1995 (as best as I can determine) on the classic auction game High Society. Regarding The Quest for El Dorado, Knizia says, "Ravensburger has contributed an enormous amount to the success of the game. They've put their heart into it, and the game wouldn't be where it is today without them. That is clear. There is no rift with Ravensburger."
Interestingly, Ravensburger initially had no plans to release expansions for The Quest for El Dorado, but if you look at the company's publication history, that decision wouldn't be a surprise given that almost no expansions have been released for any of its titles. (The alea brand stands apart here as many expansions exist for The Castles of Burgundy, Puerto Rico, and other titles in that line, but for Ravensburger proper, I'm aware only of expansions for Verflixxt, Asara, Abluxxen, and now The Quest for El Dorado. Instead of expansions, Ravensburger releases spin-off standalone games, as with its Labyrinth and Make 'n' Break game lines.) Says Knizia, "I was surprised by how much convincing it took to make expansions for a deck-building game, but the editorial department was on my side, and we finally convinced management that this was ideal."
Since the game's debut in 2017, Ravensburger has released versions of The Quest for El Dorado in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian — and that was it as far as the company was concerned. Says Knizia, "Ravensburger did not want to cover the other territories, which meant that I had all the other territories to cover myself. This game is too close to my heart, and if they didn't want to cover it, then I wanted to do it myself."
There was one complication to this plan, however: Ravensburger didn't want to allow its graphics for the game to be used by other publishers. Publishing partnerships exist in many different formats, and while you might have a straight co-publication — with publisher B paying publisher A a licensing fee to be part of the same print run with only the text translated into a different language — you might instead have publisher B paying solely for the use of the artwork owned by publisher A and handling the manufacturing on its own.
Sometimes publishers go their own way, of course, using a different theme or art from the original publication because they think it will be a better fit for their market or the game design itself. (When I brought up Lato z Komarami, Egmont Polska's edition of LAMA, as an example of this, Knizia said that actually the Egmont version of that game matches his prototype as he had called the game "Mosquito" to highlight the annoying nature of them being left in your hand at the end of a round. "For AMIGO, the mosquito wasn't the most sympathetic character", says Knizia, so that publisher swapped the mosquito for a llama. Given the Spiel des Jahres nomination for that game, AMIGO might have made the right call...)
Knizia emphasizes that Ravensburger is perfectly within its rights not to license its art for whatever resasons it wants, but this decision made things difficult for his licensing efforts given that Ravensburger was already covering the largest markets — North America and much of Europe — on its own. "For smaller publishers with smaller markets, they might have a harder time paying for new art and graphics given how much is needed for this game," he says.
As a result, says Knizia, "For the first time in my career, I've financed and commissioned artwork for a game. I decided to step in and make sure that we would have unifying graphics. It cost me a lot of time, but that's what I had to invest to ensure that the game would exist in many countries." That said, Knizia knows that despite all of his years in the industry, his expertise is not in publishing and game production, so he went looking for someone who could handle all of the artwork, graphic design, and pre-production work.
He found Vincent Dutrait.
"He had done my Medici for Grail Games, along with other titles for them, and he's very experienced in multiple areas," says Knizia. "When he told me that The Quest for El Dorado was his favorite game, we had a deal."
At this point, Knizia says they have the graphics, a working template of the game in the English language, and the ability to license the game in territories or language/territory combinations not covered by Ravensburger. When publishers want to join the project, they need only to replace the English in the master template with a translation of the text into the language(s) specified in their license with Knizia.
In a tweet on July 9, Knizia had stated that the game would appear in eleven languages not covered by Ravensburger, but following the publicity of his original announcement, a twelfth language edition has been signed. Those languages are Dutch (from 999 Games); Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish (from Lautapelit.fi); and (from publishers still to be announced) Chinese, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, and Russian. (The Lautapelit.fi edition will include components and rules in English, but it cannot be sold by the publisher outside of Finland and Scandinavia.)
Knizia declined to name the other publishers so that they could make announcements on their own schedule, although he chose to announce the existence of this edition himself in order to bring awareness of it to game markets worldwide because at this point he's still looking for a Baltic publisher, a publisher for a Portuguese edition, and a publisher able to cover New Zealand and Australia. During our call, he referenced a map with pins in countries around the world. Not every country has a pin, of course, so he's open to hearing from publishers in other areas as well...
In terms of the actual manufacturing of the game, that's another area outside of Knizia's expertise. Dutch publisher 999 Games is overseeing production of the base game — getting costs to licensees, ensuring that they submit translations for their part of the production line, etc. — for those publishers that want to sign up, which so far consists of 999 Games and Lautapelit.fi, as well as the publishers of the Hungarian, Japanese, and Korean versions. Eduard van Buggenum from 999 Games told me that "the coordinated production" of these games will allow for their release in early 2020.
Knizia notes that some of the licensees have their own production facilities, so they have decided to produce the game themselves with the new Dutrait graphics under the license with Knizia, and some of these versions will be on the market before the end of 2019.
The large cards in this edition are intended to highlight Dutrait's artwork
As for the aforementioned expansions, Knizia says, "Being able to control doing the graphics, it gives me freedom to do expansions myself for different territories. There are lots of expansion opportunities in El Dorado, and the advantage now is that I don't have to convince an individual publisher. I discuss it with Vincent, and we do it."
That said, this doesn't mean that expansions for The Quest for El Dorado will appear for this version of the base game right away. "It's a bit too early for us to talk about those", says van Buggenum. "Speaking for 999 Games, usually a board game first has to 'prove itself' in our market before we print an expansion. For now, the currently planned production of the Vincent Dutrait version is for the base game only."
Knizia says that Dutrait has completed artwork for the cards in the promo pack for The Quest for El Dorado that was released in Spielbox and at Gen Con 2018. (The "Binoculars" card in the Twitter image at top is from the promo pack.) "Some publishers will include this in the box, and some will give it away as a promotional item."
The hat serves as a first-player marker
"We have many ideas", continues Knizia. "They are in development, and it depends on individual publishers what we will do with them. For some publishers, it's important to have ideas of expansions, and others focus solely on the base game. The publishers will decide what they want to do. I will build the world, then the publishers can take one thing or another from it."
Admittedly, says Knizia, the situation is unusual compared to what existed before. "Now we have two arms, two different worlds: the Vohwinkel world and the Dutrait world. What is important to me is that Ravensburger has their market, their channels, and I'm now covering different channels, different markets. For many people in those markets, the game is brand new, which will create a drive for new expansions." Speaking of which, Knizia confirms that The Quest for El Dorado: The Golden Temples is on track for release from Ravensburger at SPIEL '19 in October.
As for what follows after that, it largely depends on the market — by which I mean "markets", specifically the seventeen language-based markets that currently exist or will exist within the next twelve months for The Quest for El Dorado. People might be frustrated that the new Dutrait version of the game won't be sold in their country or their language, but keep in mind that the Heroes & Hexes expansion from Ravensburger currently exists solely in a dual English/German edition. Perhaps French, Spanish, and Italian versions will exist in the future, and perhaps not.
Publishers produce games because they think they can sell them, so you can't be assured that a Dutrait version of Heroes & Hexes or The Golden Temples will ever exist until you see them announced — and if everyone holds off from buying the Dutrait base game because they want to know first whether they can get the "whole" line, then poor sales will doom any chances of that. That situation can be frustrating, yes, but the alternative would be for not even the base game to exist in these languages. Knizia thought he could do more with his creation, so he created his own opportunities to do more. As for what treasure we'll find next in this line of games, we'll all find out together in the years to come.