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Introducing The New Science

As I continue to make my way through my second Dark Souls playthrough (review coming this week but if you don’t already have this game then there’s just no hope for you) I have a special announcement today as Conquistador Games has launched a Kickstarter campaign for The New Science (TNS).

Before I get into what TNS is all about, I promise that we are not just making boardgames set in the 17th century.

Anyway this is a worker placement/area control game set during the Scientific Revolution.Whereas Road to Enlightenment is this big, somewhat sprawling combination of deck building and Diplomacy, The New Science is a quicker play designed to take about 60-90 minutes for 2-5 players. Well, technically, 2 to 5. Ideally this is a game that is best played with 3 to 5 players.

I had more of a hand in developing this one, and had a much larger role in the rulebook editing so if this rulebook is an issue…you can yell at me. I may yell BACK but you are free to yell.

Speaking of which if you’d like to read the rulebook in PDF form you can do so here at BGG.

OK, here’s what the game is about:

You control one of five famous scientists from the era (Newton, Galileo, etc.), each of which has slightly different “stats” in researching, experimenting, and publishing. The game is played on what is essentially a large tech tree full of important discoveries from the era. Each player attempts to earn prestige (victory points) by first researching, then successfully experimenting on, and finally publishing their works on a specific discovery. The trick here is that when you do decide to publish, every other player can take your findings and build on them, racing up that part of the tech tree (in this case they literally read your book) so deciding when to publish is a key part of the game.

There’s more going on as well with “happening” cards that throw a monkey in the wrench and other areas in which you can spend your limited energy each turn. You are only allowed three actions per turn so deciding where to use them is a big part of the game.

So take a look, see what you think, ask me any questions either here or at my CQ email address

Back the project so my family doesn’t starve. Think of the children.

Cracked LCD- Rules Writing Matters

I’ve finally had to a chance to play Dirk Knemeyer’s Road to Enlightenment, and the good news is that all told it’s a pretty darn good game. It wouldn’t be proper for me to formally review it since Conquistador Games’ Director of Operations is none other than Bill Abner. You might could say that I’m in cahoots with him. He used to technically be my boss. There are all kinds of impropriety that would be bound up in my reviewing the game, which just shipped to Kickstarter bankrollers or whatever they’re called. I thought this game looked good enough to support, and the good news is that it’s not a disappointment.

But I am going to make an example out of the game to illustrate a larger point. Road to Enlightenment has one of the worst rulebooks I’ve read in recent memory. After reading through them one time, I had no idea what the core mechanic of the game was and it wasn’t even apparent that it was fundamentally a deckbuilding game. Basic game functions and processes were poorly explained to the point where it’s not clear how to play Vermeer, Newton, and Cromwell into one of the game-driving action stacks. Objectives were not clear. How to pay costs for cards wasn’t immediately evident and issues of timing were vague at best. Really important rules were crammed in an appendix of terms, stuck into call-out boxes, or hidden deep in paragraphs. Oh…so I can’t use the politics points on a Catholic card if I’m anti-Catholic? You mean there’s really not a turn marker, even though there’s a turn track or did I just miss something? Examples of play were sparse, and I came out of the rules scratching my head over them. Looking online for answers, I found rules questions and FAQs picking up the slack.

The trouble extended to actually playing the game with a table of five other seasoned game players. I had enough of an idea of how it would operate to get us going, but after literally going page by page through the rules and hitting the most significant points they all looked at me with that “what the hell are we supposed to do” thousand yard stare. That’s before they got dealt ten cards with a bunch of esoteric icons, numbers and text rules on them that they had never seen before. It was definitely a learning game to say the least, with questions and rules consultations at every turn foreclosing on anyone getting into the more interesting parts of the game. There are only about five pages of rules, which suggests both that there are about five too few. The game simply was not explained adequately by its rulebook.

Having read hundreds and hundreds of rulebooks in my time, I’ve seen more than a fair share of terribly written, formatted, organized, and explained rules. Road to Enlightenment isn’t nearly as bad as some of the rules I recall reading in the early 1990s, where designers and publishers seemed to be ephemerally suggesting how you should use the components in the box. It’s also a far cry from the confusing and complicated rulebooks that Nexus tucked into the first edition of War of the Ring and Marvel Heroes. It’s nowhere near the atrocity that was Return of the Heroes’ rulebook, presented as a conversation between characters. And we’re obviously not talking about an issue like with Magic Realm or Up Front, where it’s a very complex and detailed game that virtually requires you to learn how to play in stages.

But it is an example of why concise, clear, and well-organized writing is essential and why badly written rules are frustrating- especially when the design is good. When you’re writing a set of rules, you’re writing something that is going to be sent out into the wild and used to re-enact your game as it is intended to be played. More significantly, it is a document that game players are going to use to effectively complete the alchemical cycle of game creation by completing the design through play. With this in mind, there is no excuse for the rules to be the chief stumbling block or barrier to entry for players to experience the design. Card FAQs in a game like this should be expected, but FAQs practically required to comprehend the game at a basic level should not be.

You can’t assume anything about the reader. You have to understand that you’re giving the ingredients and the recipe for the cake but if it’s not clear if it calls for milk and pickles, then milk and pickles can and will find their way into what comes out of the oven. You’ve got respect the consumer and provide them with the best, most authoritative rules out of the box that they have purchased, not in an Internet fix-it-up file. By the time a table of six players plays the game and it bombs because of bad rules writing, it may be too late for the online FAQ. The rules are where players are introduced to a design and learn how to execute it, so don’t screw it up. That’s the TL;DR version and the moral of the story.

Like a lot of rules sets from first-time designers or smaller publishers, Road to Enlightenment feels like instructions that would make perfect, complete to sense to someone who has had the game explained to them or that has played it enough to fully comprehend its process and mechanics. But consumers purchasing this game are not those people, barring those who have had Mr. Knemeyer or our very own Bill Abner teach them how to play at the World Boardgaming Championship or elsewhere. This is why the rules FAQ is already available and growing, and it is something that could unfortunately jeopardize the success of the game in the marketplace as word gets around that the “rules are really bad”.

Getting the rules right- and I mean the writing part more than the design part- is obviously essential. But it’s also something that is a very tricky proposition that demands accessibility, proper formatting, examples, clarity, and completeness. Looking across the shelf at the rules writing at other companies provides some good examples. GMT’s often very complicated games have a uniformly impeccable, clean presentation using the traditional case-based numbering system that doesn’t necessarily make for good cover-to-cover reading, but the practicality of reference can’t be beat. And they usually include a more prose-oriented playbook with extended examples of play or a completely explained sample turn. All of the above can make their rules seem more difficult than they really are, so it’s sort of a trade-off.

Fantasy Flight Games used to have some of the worst rulebooks in the business. In recent years they’ve scaled back the text and improved their organization to the point where even their most complex games have concise rules, well-organized and thoroughly illustrated with an eye toward making it playable by someone who’s never picked up a hobby game before or a veteran. The problem with their rules is that they can’t seem to get QA issues and basic copyediting nailed down.

Mage Knight’s rules, although split between a play-through tutorial and a reference rulebook, serve the game well by making it actually quite easy to understand if you learn it as intended. I remember looking at the rules when I first got that game and thinking “oh no, this is going to be a burden”. But it wasn’t. Reading through the rules I was surprised at how well-written and executed they were, and how there was almost no confusion or vagary. The game needed this kind of entry point, and it contributed to my enjoyment of last year’s best release. If that game had a bad rulebook or if it weren’t so well-explained, I doubt it would have found the fanbase and acclaim that it has.

Road to Enlightenment presented me with a set of rules that gave me a feeling similar to what I get from reading a Phil Eklund game for the first time- complete confusion. But instead of feeling like the rules were over my head and rigorously academic, explaining a game with lots of very specific (and rationalized) detail, I felt like what should be a very easy game at a rules level was made much too difficult in the telling so to speak. Bad rules often portend bad things for a design, but there are also occasions when a little clean-up and some good old fashioned red pen editing are all that’s needed to tease out a great game buried beneath bad writing. A second edition rulebook- better written, better formatted, and better explained- is likely all Road to Enlightenment needs. Other games aren’t so lucky.

So, Now What?

This has been a rather surreal week.

Over a week ago, last Monday to be exact, I started my new job as Director of Conquistador Games, a company that develops and publishes boardgames. If you have been reading No High Scores for any length of time, you know we’re all boardgamers to some degree — from the fanatical to the Brandon. So the idea of running the day to day of a company that deals in boardgames…well that’s something I couldn’t pass up.

However over the past week or so, I have played precisely zero videogames. Well, that’s not entirely true: I am still playing my online Summoner Wars matches, but that’s it. I remain hooked on that game despite my ineptness. It’s very odd — these types of tactical games are normally right in the sweet spot of the bat for me, but I continue to lose a LOT. I think I’m 8-15? I’m a friend list target.

My Xbox hasn’t been turned on in two weeks. My PC has been used solely for Firefox, Adode InDesign, Word, and Email.

(Again I am technically lying as I continue to run our OOTP 13 baseball league.)

But for the first time since the Clinton years, I spent a week that I wasn’t on vacation not following the videogame industry in any way, shape or form. If anything went down last week — I missed it. I am somewhat grateful to the fact that it remains a downtime for new releases and Steam Sale aside, there isn’t a lot going on at the moment. That will certainly change in August.

Dark Souls on the PC. Enough said.

But what does the Director of a new game company actually do? Yeah, see, I wasn’t sure either. Turns out, so far at least, a little bit of everything.

Still, it was a bit strange not playing anything plugged into a wall.

I certainly played a lot of stuff this week, though, all in cardboard and plastic form. Over the past week I have playtested The New Science (our latest game that is currently still in development), taught people how to play Lancaster (a brilliant worker placement Euro), lost a game of Olympos (got crushed actually), watched helplessly as my monster got trounced in King of Tokyo, and tried out the new Leaders expansion for 7 Wonders. I also traded Quarriors for yet another worker placement game called Fresco. Hooray! I have been in a serious Eurogame mode of late. It’s like Barnes and his JRPG thing. Hard to explain.

Oh, and I also taught myself how to play Macao.

So, a Director just plays boardgames all day!

OK, not really. There is much to be done and I have been exceedingly busy, which is why I haven’t been posting much.That WILL change once I start playing games again but in the meantime:

  • The CQ website needs an overhaul. I am starting to learn the CMS but there’s a lot of work to be done here from basic updating with our current designs to getting the store to work.
  • I have been editing The New Science manual, which is another high priority as the game nears completion. If CQ Games has bad instruction manuals, well, we can’t have that.
  • We’re also getting another Kickstarter campaign, this time for The New Science, prepared for the coming weeks.
  • We are also gearing up for WBC and getting the Kickstarter orders for Road to Enlightenment ready to go. This is going to be a long trip but I’m looking forward to it.
  • Speaking of — if you are in the Lancaster, PA area on August 3rd or 4th stop by the Academy Games booth. We are sharing their booth this year at the Con and I’ll be there in full Company Man mode, talking Road to Enlightenment and we may also be showing off Pocket Armies: Red Storm.

So a rather busy week. This does not include a trip to a chiropractor in yet another attempt to fix my neck/arm/hand nerve issues. That was wild. I have never heard my neck crack like that.

But I will close with puppies.

Jack and Monty came home last night and we have some great pictures of the little devils. They are full brothers and have been a blast so far. We have been visiting them for the past month so they already know us to some degree.

Little brown furballs of awesome.

Hooray Employment

For the first time in 16 years, I do not have a full time job in the videogame industry.

No more editing reviews, hustling for assignments or badgering PR for early review copies. Not that we are against getting review copies for NHS but I no longer care as much about meeting a deadline. It’s liberating — like being blasted in the face with ice water shot from a cannon. The fact that we have a great community here at NHS who come every day to read our stuff is now like icing on a cupcake. Not a real cake, we aren’t that big yet, but in this case a cupcake will do.

It’s crazy to think that I have made my living writing about games since I left college, but that’s the truth of it. I thought when I lost my job at GameShark back in May that I would scramble around trying to fill the void with yet another editor assignment but you know what? I’m done with that part of my life. I love games and always will but covering games in a certain way and working for another website holds absolutely zero interest to me.

You have NO IDEA how much I am looking forward to playing games just to play games. I miss that. A lot. Now I can fire up Crusader Kings 2 because that’s what I want to play. I’m sure I’ll play as much new stuff as I did before but the pressure of having to race through a game I’m not enjoying — it’s just not for me anymore. Writing about games at NHS needs to be fun, first and foremost, and as a result I’m going to write about what interests me. Period. I hope that you can all understand that.

As for my job, I have been hired as the new Straw Director of Conquistador Games. Taking the reigns of a shiny new boardgame company is an opportunity that I simply could not let pass by — and I’m being paid — that seems almost unfair. Conquistador is a brand new company and our first product, Road to Enlightenment, is about to ship and we have several prototypes in the hopper. I’m basically handling the day to day duties, some of it fun game stuff and some boring business stuff — but at the end of the day, I am steering the ship of a boardgame company which I have to tell you beats the shit out of worrying about if Game Company X sends us a review build on time.

I am excited, nervous, anxious, and so thrilled to be doing this that I can’t wait to get started. In fact I started on Monday which is why I haven’t been writing much here of late. I hope you understand — it’ s a new job in a field of gaming that I adore so I want to get off on the right foot.

What does this mean for me and NHS? I have every intention of writing for NHS for as long as they will have me. Short term, it means I’ll be writing less. The reason for this is that I will be traveling more for my job at CQ than I ever did for Gameshark because Gameshark rarely paid for me to travel (true story, ask Brandon and Todd). I will be heading out to Lancaster, PA for the WBC on August 1st to run the booth at the convention, then we’ll be going to GenCon, then BGG Con, and maybe even Essen. As the Director of the company — you kinda have to go to these things. So that means less time to write about viodeogames — at least for now. Once I get settled into things here I will get back on the writing horse, whether it’s a write up about an old game, some boardgame stuff, iOS, whatever.

But my life is about to change in a huge way.

I cannot wait.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #124

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This week on Jumping the Shark, the gang gathers round a fire to talk with Dirk Knemeyer of Conquistador Games about his first professionally published board game, Road to Enlightenment. As has been mentioned several times, Bill and Dirk are good friends and Bill’s been involved in the playtesting of this one for some time now, giving it his big honking seal of approval. After that, it’s all Diablo 3 and our preliminary thoughts on the new systems in play – what works, what doesn’t (like the servers), etc. Joins us once again for the show that never ends – well, at least not for an hour or so.

iTunes Link

Past Episodes
Edit Type: Skype
(The embedded feed is after the break.)