Designing a tabletop wargame: update!

The wheels turn slowly, my friends. But they do turn. We’re making glacial headway on the tabletop game we’ve been talking about for a couple of years now – but in recent days, some exciting things have been happening!

If you’re a visitor, welcome! I’ve got a gift for you. Download the basic ruleset for an introduction and overview, to get some cool ideas on how this bad-boy will start cranking once it’s up and running to tell some gosh-a-mighty, romping, stomping tales of science fictiony goodness.

Proofs of the deluxe version of the Core Rules And Sourcebook have come in, and we weren’t happy with the color and print quality. The cover looked great, but some of the textured pages were a bit muddy. We’re also including two starter decks and some papercraft terrain you can pull out and play with immediately – those need to pop in clarity and brightness more than we were seeing with the proofs. So we’ve beefed up to a higher print quality standard and are waiting on the second round of proofs on that.

The game is played with tremendous flexibility, including different War Marshal decks you can begin with, and customize from there. Those guys needed their own tuck boxes. We approved the first design, and the proof arrives any day. This guy here:

We also got a head start on the quarterly (hopefully quarterly!) digital magazine which will serve as sounding board and announcement central for upcoming products (like the terrain tile deck we started working on and can hopefully be ready before year-end). Here’s a draft for the potential cover of issue one – let us know what you think!

I started writing the feature story for the first ish, with a scheme of introducing some of the key characters and framing out a narrative scenario you could immediately set up and play after you read it…to see how you’d handle the situation. Could be in two-player mode or solo. We’ve gotten some great feedback on the playtesting for solo play, which we refer to as Wolfpack Mode. It seems even after quarantines have mostly lifted, people are super interested in solo play these days. That’s great, and hopefully we can make that as shifting and challenging as the regular one-on-one version.

Man, I wish this was a full time gig and we could just sit around writing stories and dreaming up worlds for a living! But bills to pay, and kids to raise, my friends. If you’d like to volunteer to help out, or submit any stories or art for consideration, feel free to reach out either here or emailing me directly (brian (at) grailrunner.com). We’d love to grow the family.

I hope you’re doing well, guys. Shoot me any questions or suggestions you have. Happy to connect. Till next time,

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Addictive Entertainment Products: What Can We Learn?

I know, man. Anybody trying to figure out what Grailrunner Publishing is all about must get dizzy skimming through these eclectic articles ranging from wargames to popular fiction and movie reviews, and begging for graphic design advice. But check out the nametag – we simply seek to inspire.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

That’s the point of us…giving people building blocks and inspiration to escape everyday life and politics and digital propaganda and to just be happy and dream. So today it’s a psychological model analyzing how they make certain products addictive. Crazy, right? Our hope is you dig this book and its HOOKed model, see how it might help you design something you’re building or thinking about, and that you thrive in that. But use your new powers for good, not evil. Cool?

For us, we’re putting out science fiction books and a tabletop wargame line with a branded merchandise line. It will help to have something concrete to think about as we learn this model from Nir Eyal, as described in Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products. What this model offers is a way of thinking about WHY we engage with products at all, what triggers us throughout our day or week to go back to those products, and why we keep going back…or frightfully, why we might NOT return to those products.

1 & 2: Internal & External Triggers

Check out the diagram at the top of this article. It’s a loop – hopefully you see that. Starts at 1, with an internal trigger. One clear example Eyal gives is a fitness app where the designers latched onto that awkward moment when you might step into a gym or workout room and not really know what to do…which machine to go to. If you’re uncomfortable enough, you might even connect that ‘dumb’ or ‘confused’ feeling with the act of going to the gym and just stop going. That’s an internal trigger – the feeling of wanting to know what to do.

A buddy of mine told me once the hardest part for him in quitting smoking wasn’t the nicotine or taste, it was the social aspect of going out to the smoke pad at the top of the hour and networking with people…hearing all the gossip from all levels of the company. For him, the internal trigger was the top of the hour and that itch to talk to some people.

When I think about the Salt Mystic wargame we’ve been designing for a few years now, the internal trigger we’re targeting is the desire to escape into a science fiction world…the itch to laugh and talk trash with friends over a tabletop without complicated rules and lore getting in the way. More simply – the desire to dream up a story.

The external trigger piece Eyal identifies, labeled as 2 in the diagram, is how the user actually gets to the product. With the fitness app, maybe it notes your GPS location as being in a gym and flags you with a suggestion. Maybe your GPS watch notes that you haven’t moved in a while and flags you to do so, or connects you with friends through a Garmin app who encourage you to go for a run because it’s been a while. The point to remember here is the product is trying to establish a link between that internal itch the potential user feels to do something, tied to a core drive or interest, and an access point to the product.

In our case, we have no intention of building a digital tool to intrude on your life. That actually drives me crazy when my iPhone puts up those irritating red notifications on various apps. It stresses me out, so all that noise is turned off and I’ll look at the phone when I feel like it. However we’ve been spending time thinking about how to connect a desire to escape from the daily grind and dip into fun sci-fi weirdness to our Salt Mystic offerings versus all your other options. We feel like unique and striking aesthetics, memorable and relatable characters, and certain easily understood anchor points in the main storyline will help. I’m specifically thinking about the difference in lore between what you might see with Magic: The Gathering and Warmachine (complicated, confusing, not terribly relatable) and the wild success of Game Workshop’s Warhammer 40k Black Library where every single book begins with the one-page synopsis explaining the world of 40k, the Emperor Of Mankind, and the key point all of this pivots around. It gives you an easy anchor to orient yourself in the world of the game.

In fact, this very point decided it for us that there HAD to be a sourcebook and not just a rulebook to illustrate the key building blocks of the Salt Mystic world. That stuff was designed to be memorable and different, immediately recognizable as a science fiction backdrop with a western feel. We also leveraged this idea of an external trigger to decide there HAD to be a digital version of Salt Mystic available in Steam’s Tabletop Simulator, to make the game as accessible as possible. External triggers in Steam, social media, or on sites like Drivethru RPG when you’re trolling for something to do with your friends would hopefully catch you with the aesthetics and cool technology, if not the description of the game mechanics.

3: Action

I’m talking high level now about just getting someone to play the game, though there are applications within the game mechanics where we’ve also considered this point Eyal makes in step 3 – taking the simplest possible action expecting a reward. As an explanation of what this is driving at, consider the fitness app example we talked about before. The simplest action the user might take is to just click on the recommended workout the app suggested, much like you might click on a recommended video in Youtube. Doesn’t take a lot of thought or consideration, and there isn’t much at stake here given that you either ignore the workout suggestion or skip to another video. Still, it’s a simple action the user can take in hopes of getting something in return.

What are they hoping to get in return?

It’s to scratch the itch from step 1 of this model: the internal trigger. But it can’t be annoying with tons of setup and fiddly bits and long complicated rulebooks, twenty different tie-in stories you need to know, and a bookshelf full of expensive codex books needed to really play properly. A simple action, man….trying to scratch the itch.

4: Variable Reward

I’m fascinated right now with a show called Gold Rush: Whitewater that does an amazing job illustrating Eyal’s overall point behind step 4 – the variable reward. Think of the creepy old lady at the casino tied up to a slot machine looking for that adrenalin rush of the blinky lights and tink-tink of the coins dropping. Think of an exciting poker game where sometimes you draw a great hand and run the table, and sometimes it’s just a losing hand. In the Gold Rush show, those poor guys have terrible days where they get absolutely nothing done but jerry-rig some redneck equipment they should have planned and purchased beforehand, and some days they draw gold out of the water like it’s M&M’s. It’s a dopamine rush, hoping to see what comes up.

Social media has entirely nailed this, haven’t they? You troll through a feed on your favorite app, and you might be bored for a few posts, but quickly scroll to something striking that the almighty algorithm has decided you’ll love. They’re lighting off your dopamine every time you see something interesting or sexy or funny or that scares you or that pisses you off. It’s a variable reward because you never know what you’re going to get.

In the game environment, we knew we needed to have the players draw their characters rather than set them up like traditional wargames for this very reason. Drawing a card each hand is exciting. It’s variable. Sometimes you draw well. Often you don’t. And it matters to some extent how well you play, but there’s also a luck component. In that event, you’d better think on your feet! We went nuts with this variable reward element in designing the solo version of the game and the solo dungeon crawler we included in the Sourcebook.

5: Investment

This step 5 in Eyal’s model is the buildup of something the user can own that gets them to be invested, to add some switching costs so they’ll feel kind of bad if they leave. In the fitness app example, maybe you’ve added your workout data or your run times and pulse information. If you stop using that app, it’s gone and you’re starting over. With a game like Gloomhaven, you’re working through a campaign so there’s loot and additional abilities you’re picking up along the way that make it crazy to stop. Gamification researcher and speaker, Yu Kai Chou identifies something called “The Ikea Effect” whereby you value something because you’ve spent time on it. Gabe Zichermann identifies “The Endowment Effect” whereby you value something simply because it’s been given to YOU and no one else.

Quick anecdote on that Zichermann example:

Took my wife and kids to a Medieval Times restaurant and show once (reluctantly) and noticed how genius it was at the jousting tournament for them to randomly group the crowd into two sides and assign us our knights – one guy was blue and one green, or something like that. They called our knight “our guy” constantly. Some random dude whose face I couldn’t even see was assigned to me. And within moments, we were cheering like crazy for him to win. Because he was ours. That’s the Endowment Effect.

Anyway, the idea Eyal is presenting in this final step is pretty key. If the user isn’t invested, they’ll move on to other channels whereby they can scratch their itches. And that’s the reason we study this kind of thing. And to be honest, we’re still stuck on this point with our work. This is an opening for us in Salt Mystic – we know that. Maybe campaign books make sense, where you take your characters through scripted adventures and level up along the way. Maybe a sideboard mechanic makes sense, where a mystery deck is laid out alongside the battlefield with which you can level up. Maybe you have secret packages inside the War Marshal decks you only open up after you achieve certain milestones.

I don’t know, man. There’s a lot of ways to take that one. What do you think?

Anyway, that’s the model and some thoughts on application. Hopefully you find it interesting enough to go pick up Eyal’s book and read it for yourself. Fascinating stuff. If not, then just go watch Gold Rush: Whitewater. That’s entertainment.

Take care, guys. Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

How would you design a wargame box?

Ugh. Bad news. The artist I was trying to snag for the packaging for the upcoming Salt Mystic tabletop game is swamped. If you’re not up to date on what I’m talking about – catch up here. Everybody’s got a day job, and his is art director at a game publisher. I only found out he was taking occasional freelance work in the last few weeks and tried to pounce, with no dice. I’m a little bummed about that because he’s amazing, and his style would be perfect for the tuck boxes the game’s card decks will come in.

We agreed another time maybe. If things work out well, we can possibly bring him in for some premium cards in volume two or something. Stay tuned, I guess?

But now I need packaging designs for two card deck boxes that sizzle and pop, that highlight what the game is about and communicate its unique lore or technology and how it differs from Star Wars or Warhammer 40k or whatever. Needs to be clear about being science fiction, but feel kind of like a cowboy image…striking and adventurous, but at a glance clear what sort of game we’re talking about.

No pressure at all.

And the image needs to fit in this template:

If you download the Basic Rules and take a peek at pages four and five, those two dudes are the point of these decks: War Marshals. Tough guys, to be sure…devious and fast with their ball lightning carbines….but also tactical and strategic geniuses at commanding their factions. The two tuck boxes need to highlight their respective War Marshal very prominently. Then I’ll need space on one side for introductory game wording, some exciting blurb about the lore, and a little copyright and legal stuff.

Saw this packaging for an upcoming game based on The Witcher that really impressed me:

I suppose the thing that struck me most about it was I have had box designs for Magic: The Gathering decks in mind – with shades of blue and green and glowing eyes, hovering magical glyphs and whatnot. But none of that makes sense here, not from the aesthetics or elements of the Salt Mystic worldbuilding, not from the standpoint of looking different on the shelf, and also just to distance from other card games.

But these Witcher: Old World graphics pop big time for me. I like the coloring, the dramatic lighting and smoke, the sense of danger and action. It’s eye-catching and intriguing. So I took a stab at something like I thought my ideal artist might have come up with (the guy who’s too busy), and with this box in mind. That’s the image at the top of this article. Now I’m just kind of staring at it, letting it soak in to see whether I like it. I’d need to fade the edges and fade to black more at the bottom of the box, as well as include a dramatically dark field for the back of the box for the wording and logos.

So I would I rather be writing? Because that’s what started all this?

Yes, I would rather be writing. But none of this world will exist without the visuals and an exciting way to engage with the stories happening in it. Gotta do it, man. Gotta do it.

Looking for thoughts on packaging here – what do you think?

But until next time…

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.