Balancing components with game play time

Can a light and casual game playable in 10 minutes have some “extra” components?

Our mint tin game has to be social – you have to be able to carry on a conversation in an environment that could have distractions (like family cooking at home or ordering burritos at lunch). *yum!* =p

To keep it around the 10 minute mark and easy to keep track of what’s going on, I’ve resisted having too many components (unlike my overly complex Zombalamba that will be years in the making!). =D

Driven by the pirate theme, I wanted a tad more complexity, something more than tokens (pirates), cards (attacks), and dice (randomness for attacks).

But not at the expense of adding time or adding something difficult to keep track of.

I added a pirate ghost to address the possibility of a “runaway leader” like a Eurogame might do. To help offset the time the ghost adds, you play with 3 cards instead of the normal 5.

A pirate ghost might be wicked cool, but probably not as robust as non-ghost pirates. =)

The game also needed something for rolling doubles, since those are somewhat rare, and snake eyes certainly has to be part of any pirate game using dice!

A quick shout out via Twitter to my fave game reviewer Erin from The Geeky Gimp was all it took to add gold!  =)

She suggested looking at the game budget and I found MeeepleSource cubes at 6 cents each, so adding one cube is possible (darn, it’s not real gold! maybe a Kickstarter stretch goal? a centimeter cube of gold would be about $800 – hmm, from a $12 game to $1200!).  o_O

A roll of doubles claims the gold and gives that player an extra card.

The extra card means more chances to attack which then speeds up the game just enough to negate the added time of the Pirate Ghost!

Funny how stuff kind of works out.  Thanks Erin! =)

2014-05-23 09.10
The yellow cylinder will be replaced by a “gold” cube – oh noes! the Pirate Ghost is going for the gold!


Help! Using spreadsheets for game design?

posted in: games, Mint Tin Pirates | 0

Mint Tin Pirates is a light casual game with the goal of being short and social. It should be easy to carry on a conversation while waiting for lunch and passing the time.

It’s been good at achieving these goals, but inner nagging says it can be a better game.

By game, I mean that there’s some science behind what we, as humans, find appealing about games – specifically about decision making.

I read a research paper (pdf) about choices written by Sheena Iyengar. When customers were presented with 24 flavours of jam, 60% would check them out but less than 2% would buy. When 6 flavours were presented, 40% stopped and 12% bought. For 100 customers, the large selection results in selling to 1.8 customers and the small selection sells to 7.2 customers.

Four times more sales with one quarter of the choices! Less is more.

Too many choices result in fewer decisions – we get overwhelmed and, rather than make a poor decision, we put it off.

That also holds true for games. Except that for casual games, it means the difference between playing a game once and playing it many times.

For Mint Tin Pirates, the first version didn’t have enough choices and the next had too many. So what’s the “right” number?

Well, that’s the million dollar question! =)

In addition to the research above, there’s also something called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (wiki) and the magical number 4.

How to go about finding that number?

Spreadsheets are not uncommon for game design and I’d like to apply that here. I’m not sure how and Googling it makes my head spin! =D

The game mechanics are simple – there are a specific number of cards that affect tokens (the meeple pirates on each player’s ship) and the success or failure of a pair of cards is determined by the roll of dice.

Most cards and rolls remove an opponent’s token. A few cards transfer a token and a few recover a lost token.

These are all definable outcomes.

I’m just not enough of a spreadsheet whiz to wrap my head around it.  If you have suggestions, please let me know here or via Twitter.

Thanks! =)

2014-05-20 12.55

Why I like a pair of dice in Mint Tin Pirates

posted in: dice, games, Mint Tin Pirates | 0

When Steve and I decided to do a challenge of creating mint tin pirate games, the only guidelines were that they fit in a mint tin and be playable in 10 minutes or less.

We’ve both play tested the games and will be bringing them to a game design meetup tonight.

Both have mini cards and mini Meeples, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Steve’s is hand-to-hand combat (literally). Both players throw down an attack simultaneously. If they are tied, they can each add to their attack. Two swords against two swords can be won by throwing down another sword or adding a pair of cannons. It’s fun and fast paced.

His game makes it feel like you’re dueling and can defend yourself – it fits the pirate meme.

With my version, players take turns and attack only with pairs. You roll two dice to see if your attack is successful. In my mind, a cannon could miss the opponent when the ship rocks in a wave, a knife throw could also miss or the targeted pirate could duck, and a swinging swashbuckler on a rope could totally miss. The dice act as those random factors.

The game could be played with a single d6 dice and it would save on the cost of the game but here’s why I like a pair of dice:

A pair of dice seem more fair.

Here’s the probability for each number with a single six sided dice:


And here’s a pair of dice:


The single dice has the same probability for every number in every roll and the pair of dice has a classic bell curve for it’s probabilities – some outcomes are more likely than others – rolling a 7 has the highest probability.

In Mint Tin Pirates, the 5 minute game uses a roll of 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 as a successful attack. Statistically, that means you have a 66.7% chance of winning each throw.

But you can also have a 66.7% chance of winning with a single dice if you say that a roll of 3, 4, 5, or 6 is a successful attack.

So if you have the same percentage for success with one dice versus two dice, why use two?

It’s all about what feels more “right”.

That sense of feeling right is important for a game to be fun to play. You have to feel that you have a chance to win (thus Las Vegas – the casinos win more than they lose, but despite this being obvious with their fancy hotels, extravagant fountains, and cheap food and drinks, people still love to gamble).

The bell curve of a pair of dice makes it feels like you have more chances to win even though the probability can be the same with a single dice. The number of combinations, 36, makes it feel more exciting than just the 1 in 6 of a single dice.

So, that’s why I like two dice. =)

charts from AnyDice – an easy to use online dice probability calculator

Game POD vs. Book POD

I’m new to game design and that’s what some of these blog posts are – my journey in becoming a “publisher”.

What’s that mean anyway?

Publishing, in my simple terms, is about putting out something in a way that others can use.

Books are easy to understand – a book’s written, printed, and distributed. Today, many books are distributed digitally (with Amazon Kindle Express upload a Word or Open Office document and it’s available to the world within 48 hours).

Publishing also covers songs, software (like our Sim-on-a-Stick), online games, apps, and many non-printed forms of media.

If you blog, heck even if you tweet, you’re publishing your work to share with others.

Print on demand (POD) for paperback books is nearly identical to printing with a “real” publisher like Penguin or Bloomsbury. Lightning Source is the largest book printer in the US and they are the exact same quality as the majority of real books from real publishers (because they print their books too). o_O

And the cost is low – a 106 page book is $2.52.

You can set up a book title for about $79 with Lightning Source (file submission and proof fees) and it’s available to every brick and mortar store in the US plus Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Setting up a book in Amazon is even cheaper – about $35 – and it will be listed at Barnes & Noble too. Brick and mortar stores don’t like writing checks to their biggest competitor, so unless your book is a huge hit, you’ll never see it on a store bookshelf (that’s another post).

Game Publishing – is it as easy as books?


There are very few places that act in a similar way to Lightning Source and Amazon. The Game Crafter is one such example. You can publish your game via them and they can print single copies of it. The cost is reasonable considering their volume (they aren’t an nor do they print 2 million a month like Lightning Source).

However, games don’t have a set format. Books have standard sizes and use ink on paper. Games can be many sizes and have custom components. With The Game Crafter, you’re limited to what they have available. There’s nothing wrong with that but it means that your POD game has to be partially defined by that constraint. I want to publish a game called ZOMBALAMBA but it has hex tiles larger than The Game Crafter carries so that’s not an option (plus custom dice too).

There isn’t a true POD solution for custom games. Not for single copies. And this doesn’t even start to consider shipping a game internationally and meeting consumer safety laws with potentially huge fines . . . =(

There are groups like Panda Game Manufacturing to make your game or Game Salute that can publish your game.

As a little guy, I can’t afford to pay for a minimum print run of 3 or 5 thousand games with Panda.  And Game Salute has to approve your game, they are a gatekeeper much like publishing houses are (don’t you know that the publishers who turned away J. K. Rowling kick themselves daily!).

For now, truly independent game creators are either constrained with what components are available or have to source it all themselves (or have a decent amount of money up front – Kickstarter? that’s yet anther post!).  =D

Fortunately, Maker Culture, or Kitchen Table Industrialism, is starting to support the small independent game designer.

That’ll be another post, the lessons I’m learning from designing Min Tin Pirates as a self-published and US-sourced game. Thanks for reading and please add your insight – all comments are welcomed. =)

received last night – mint tins for the reviewer’s prototypes – looks like these will work! =)

Mint Tin Pirates – dialing in the cards

posted in: games, Mint Tin Pirates | 1

This is a light, quick-to-play, and simple game. Simple in that it’s cards and dice.

There’s minimal need to explain what a card or dice is and their mechanics have been explored in a zillion games for thousands of years.

In keeping this game as text-free as possible, for universal play, the cards could actually be normal playing cards – two decks of playing cards could be paired down to end up with similar game play.

The type and number of cards for Mint Tin Pirates determines the speed of play.

I like how fast Ticket to Ride is played; player turns can go quickly and create a rhythm like a train clanking down the tracks (when we play Ticket to Ride, we pull up long YouTube vids of train sounds for an ambient background).

We wanted to have similar pacing for Pirates, both to make sure it can be played in a short amount of time (5 to 10 minutes) and to “replicate” what a pirate scuffle should feel like – fast and action-packed (based on extensive, first hand experience with pirate movies). =p

The first set of cards only had three types of events – sword, cannon, and captain – but that played too fast and had zero strategy (plus it had too many wild cards and “filler” cards which were just junk cards).

The next set had too many events – sword, knife, cannon, pistolet, hand bomb, mutiny, and Davy Jones Locker – but this led to too many hands before you could launch an attack. Frustrating for sure. =(

While play testing, and keeping track in a notebook, we used past prototype decks (just paper cut outs) and started swapping out cards and playing with the number of each. Within a few hands, it was clear what was working and what was not.

This wasn’t any sign of game design knowledge but rather that what would normally have been tossed into recycling turned out to be helpful. =)

bottom right is an older deck used to dial in the game play, including the “filler” cards (sea creature, grapnel hook)

Board game people are great – call for Min Tin Pirate reviewers

posted in: games, Mint Tin Pirates | 1

A few weeks back, I was at lunch with a friend and I had some meeples and dice in my pocket. I tossed them onto the table while we waited for our burritos.

We talk all the time about making games and in a few minutes we thought of making a fast playing and light game that could be played anywhere (lunch, airport, work breaks, outdoors, etc).

We came up with a theme – pirates – and decided to challenge each other in making games in a short amount of time. Fast forward and we’ve done play testing and I’ve sourced my components – mint tin, labels, dice, meeples, and mini cards – and even researched labeling requirements, shipping, and all that non-fun stuff involved in selling a game. =/

After a second game design meetup (June 19th), we’ll do any changes for review copies and then each do a 3 week Kickstarter in August. The Kickstarter funding will decide who wins this challenge. (bolded added May 12th).

But what about game reviews?

Dang, a short development time is a fun challenge, but without game reviews, it’ll be hard to have a good Kickstarter campaign. All the big shot reviewers are booked out for months and months . . .

But hey, I’m a fledgling game designer and figured there must be fledgling game reviewers too. *ding, ding* =)

So two days ago I did a shout out on twitter for game reviewers . . .

Wow, I was humbled at the number of people willing to look at my game. I don’t mean that they agreed to review it, but they’re interested.

It’s a real time commitment to test and review a game and then write, video, and/or podcast about it. It’s easily a few to several hours of time per review.

Thus this blog post and explaining the game a bit.

Mint Tin Pirates – what is it?

A 5 of 10 minute game, you decide by deciding what dice rolls are used to win.

The game fits in an Altoid-sized mint tin and has 54 mini cards, 6 mini Meeples, and 2 dice (so far – this can change with meetup input as well as yours).

The play is simple and goes like this:

  • set up your ship and crew (mini Meeples!) =D
  • shuffle and deal 5 cards each
  • discard up to 3 cards and a pair launches an attack
  • roll the dice to see if you succeed
  • restock your hand and next player goes (avast!) =p
  • next hand, discard and pull up to 3 new cards, attack if you can
  • continue until triumphant!

A more in-depth look –

There are various attacks and various numbers of their cards, such as

  • knife throw (dice determine if you hit or miss)
  • swashbuckling swing (you could swing on a rope and miss all together)
  • pistolet (easily could miss with this)
  • cannon (could sail over your pirate enemy or even bounce off their galleon)
  • mutiny! (a persuasive pirate captain lures over a traitor)
  • Davy Jones locker (revive a fallen pirate from the watery depths! arr, why ye be so pruney matey?)

Then there are 4 gold doubloons which are wild cards. Should you save them to stretch out the mutiny or locker cards? Play them right away? o_O

And 2 dice means that the bell curve it creates allows for dialing in game play time and it also seems more fair. So far a dice roll of a 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 means about 5 minutes of play and a 6, 7,  or 8 equals about 10 minutes.

Oh, and your crew!

Captain’s Spade and Heart have 3 mini Meeples per ship – a Captain, a cannoneer, and a swashbuckler.

It’s easy to learn, slightly gateway and slightly Euro-style, and certainly a light game (both in time and size!).

Heck, it even has an airplane mode just like a tablet or phone! Just dump the mint tin contents into the included resealable bag and ta dah!

Ha! Digital games have nothing on analog games!

One last thing, this game is 100% sourced in the US and assembled in a basement in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. More power to the maker movement! =D

And more power to the awesome game people answering the tweet for help:



I don’t expect all of them to want to review this (but would be thrilled if they did) and I’m eager for anyone else who may be interested. You just need a couple of reviews posted online and be honest in your reviews (I don’t want any sugar coating because a basement filled with thousands of mini Meeples could spell trouble!).  =p

Getting these tweets of interest is wonderful encouragement and speaks volumes to how awesome the online board game community is! w00t!

What’s in it for your time as a reviewer?

Well the game of course, but also another copy if you run reader contests. Plus credit for being part of the development of this game, you’ll be listed on my domain’s Kickstarter backer page as a reviewer along with the game’s backers (hmm, should be a special category – like Scourge of the Seas, hmm, maybe something a bit more flattering . . .).  =)

UPDATE May 12th: thanks to Erin of The Geeky Gimp, a pirate ghost has been added to the prototype! Thanks Erin! =)

shuffling the prototype mini cards for Mint Tin Pirates
shuffling hand-cut paper cards blows (not that the martini helped!) =D
playing a round of Mint Tin Pirates with a stopwatch
yep, an evil digital device but we used it to time each game
more Mint Tin Parite game play - testing it over and over again
classy, the pug’s beach towel makes for a wonderful background and a true homemade endeavor =)
lots of play testing led to a nicely paced and social game
no! not that meeple too! we dialed in the game by messing with the quantities of each card and even additional attacks like a grenade, but finally got it right. we even turned it into a drinking game when you rolled a pair!

Becoming an Independent Author and Publisher

posted in: uncategorized | 2

I wrote most of a children’s book about 8 years ago and by “write”, I mean in pencil in a sketchbook.

The book is geared toward 7 to 9 year olds and is a transition, or chapter, book. It sat in a box after a move 7 years ago. I’ve always wanted to publish it and decided last year to create a five book series with this one being the last in the set.

I embarked on quite the journey and have learned that writing a book is a small part of being a “published author”.

I started by creating a limited liability company because this is recommended to create a Lightning Source account. Creating an LLC is easy and I used Legal Zoom, however I could have saved $150 by doing it myself – it’s straightforward and there are many examples how to online.

Lightning Source is the printing arm of Ingram Content Group, the largest distributor of printed books in the US (38,000 bookstores, libraries, and schools). Local bookstores order from Ingram and this is the only realistic way that a brick-and-mortar shop might carry an indie book (and that’s a long shot and must be discounted at least 55%).

Then I created a CreateSpace account which is Amazon’s self-publishing business. This was easier than Lightning Source where I needed a collection of paperwork and real human approval.

Amazon will list your Lightning Source book once you register your ISBN and Library of Congress Control Number, but they might not show immediate availability. With a CreateSpace version, your book always shows in stock.

As an indie author, Amazon is the best bet for selling your book (I strongly recommend APE by Guy Kawasaki – had I read it a year ago, it would have saved loads of research).

I then started to learn InDesign so that I could lay out the books myself. It’s a fairly easy program but it does take time and perseverance to learn it (and lots of Googling). On top of that, even for the same-sized book, there’s a slight difference between Lightning Source and CreateSpace – mainly with the covers.

While doing that, I started writing the other four books. The first one’s been to the developmental editor and I’ve laid in those changes, passed it off to the illustrator, and it will go to the content editor shortly. The second book is with the dev editor and should be back in two weeks or so. The third book is nearly written, the fourth has been started, and the fifth still needs to be transcribed!

Despite this activity (and having a family and full-time job), it will be months before the files are uploaded to Lightning Source and CreateSpace. Maybe in time for the winter holidays, but that seems ambitious at times, plus I’m working on a Kickstarter page for it (the project won’t launch until all books are illustrated).

All of this is a lot to do but it isn’t all consuming and I do take time for distractions (and daily walking). These distractions give me a break from the books and a chance to recharge. My main distraction is board game design.

Will these games ever take off?

Well, it’s not unlike the process to print a book except that there aren’t any true game printing equals. By that I mean that Lightning Source and CreateSpace print the exact same quality books that Grisham or Rowling print (paperback wise). There are game companies that can print-on-demand (POD) for limited pieces and parts which is okay for creating prototypes, but their costs are too high for commercial production.

There are a few game publishers that can do “small” runs of 1,000 to 3,000. But that’s quite a monetary commitment compared to book POD that can print a single book.

That’s been the journey so far and it’s very much about becoming versus being an author.

Zombalamba play testing – good for my soul

posted in: books, zombalamba, zombalamba game | 0

Designing a board game has been a refreshing distraction while working on the ChuChu Chicken & Pedro the Goat stories.

Three of the five books are written with the first two being in the editor’s hands and the first with the illustrator.

For those times that I need a break from the PC, heading over to the game lab (the dining room table – hopefully without the oh-so-helpful Bella the cat) is a refreshing break. Playing with dice, paper, and scissors isn’t just a break from technology but also good for the soul.

The children’s books certainly tap into my inner child but the game and its pieces lets that inner child play with something tangible.

It’s also planted the seed that maybe I could make a ChuChu & Pedro board game for little ones!


Zombalamba game counters – another option

Zombalamba is in very early stages of development and it’s striving to be a Euro style game. As such, it has “halma” pawns for zombies and roly pawns for players.

The game has the concept of resources which are used to carry out running (player pawn movement) and attacks (zombie pawn capture). The number of resources that can be carried are limited to mimic real-world conditions of being on foot with a small backpack.

It was natural to think in terms of chipboard counters like many games use. They are economical to print and you can create whatever graphics seem best suited. In Zombalamba, these resources went through a few iterations and ended up being water, food, and medical supplies. A fourth resource indicated by a thumbs up graphic were luxury items like binoculars and flashlights, but these were dropped in favour of placing those items into an “event” card deck as a way to help players with low resources level up. This simplifies the play and acts as a balancing tool (a card with binoculars might be worth two of any resource, for example).

The challenge with the counters arose with the printing quality. I want this game to be 100% made in the USA and to be a home assembled game. People outside the self-published game industry react strongly to this with comments like

but what if you sell 10,000 in a year?

If that becomes the case (cue a daydreaming sequence), then that’s an excellent challenge to face! =)

One mainstream game printer only does card stock for counters which I find too thin to handle easily and the other custom game printer has far too much drift in their cutting and the paper on the edges wears away easily.

I looked at custom plastic chips but they are too expensive and then I looked at some other games and came up with a solution keeping in the Euro style and keeping with my desire to be text free in my pieces.

Dice! Humble dice!

They’re easy to handle and people understand what they are. A six sided dice (d6) has a built in limit of 6 as the max of a resource and this means fewer pieces for faster game setup!

Rather than having 108+ chipboard counters and a bank for them with subsequent passing back and forth, now I only need 18 dice (three per each of six players). The player turns the dice to increment their resources. This isn’t a new concept in games, but it was new to me and a seemingly good solution.

And to top it off, the dice come out to be less expensive at 16 cents each and lend a higher quality feel to the game. Time and lots of play testing will see how this pans out . . .

the round card stock counters are too thin, the chipboard counters aren’t cut well enough and the edges are already wearing off, but maybe the dice will work? (and be something to fidget with during others’ turns)

Convert a Raster Image to Vector with Adobe Creative Suite

posted in: games, zombalamba game | 0

I’ve used Flash since 1999 and thought it would be around forever. The power of ActionScript made so many things possible with Flash from making SCORM compliant quizzes to very intricate software simulations to dynamic apps. Oh well . . .

One neat thing that many people have used Flash for was to take raster images and convert them into vector by importing the image into Flash and then tracing the bitmap. The result is a vector graphic that you can mess with in Flash.

However, I’ve never exported the vector image out from Flash for use in Illustrator. I never had the need to do that until yesterday nor did I know it was possible.

Indeed, it is possible with CS5 or above!

Import your raster image into Flash, trace the bitmap (there are several settings that affect the precision and time it takes to do the tracing), and then export that image to the FXG format. The FXG format is an Adobe XML format that can be opened in Illustrator.

So what was the need for this? A custom dice for our fledgling game.

Years ago I had drawn a hand print for use as part of a graphic and it was a small raster image done at 72 dpi for internet use. I needed a much larger 300 dpi image and ended up making one that’s 7.5 inches square – about 30 times larger than the original raster!

I sent over the Illustrator vector file and shortly after had the excellent proof below.


Here are the specifics on the dice – this is from Chessex Dice who are considered the gold standard for gaming dice (both casino and home gaming). The art department is very nice to work with and the cost for one custom side (the “ones” side) comes out to 75 cents per dice for a quantity of three dozen and they can do as few as 10.

Chessex has many colours available and can do very fine detail on as many sides as needed and also on varying sided dice (dodecahedrons, etc).