Given my surprise to harsh reactions over my design decisions in Findorff, I decided to write short explanations of my games before the Essen game fair starts.
With Findorff, people complained about all of the cards having a fixed amount of 50 VPs. Some even called that decision a result of “laziness”.
However, initially the game design was only about building these cards, and in the first prototype you got five cards, and whoever built them first won. That turned out not to be suitable for this design, but I prefer race-style games to VP-optimizing games and wanted to focus the game strategy on building these cards. I hate that in almost all modern VP games that my focus while gaming is directed to micro-optimizing points. I think the idea that all games have to be balanced to death is a trap for modern game design, and a result of this goal is that often no matter what you do, you will still be fighting for victory in the end.
This might sound satisfying as a design goal for a game, but on the other hand, what are the consequences of this? No big (emotional) events in a game are possible because no one can make a giant leap; you get points for everything — even breathing, it seems — and in the end the person who does micro-VP calculations best wins because everything else is so balanced that it is unimportant.
I took a different approach in Findorff. If you manage to build more cards than the others, you win.
I want to design games I like to play, and in Findorff I can focus only on big points to win — and if somebody plays as well as I do, then we have to fight for small points because we’ve equaled out our big points.
But let me stop lamenting about last year. Another year has passed, so let’s look at other choices I’ve made in designing my games.
Fancy Feathers doesn’t have the highest BGG rating — not a surprise for a filler game — but it sold well and was easy to expand because the concept already has you using only some of the sets of cards included in the game. Now you have more sets from which to choose.
Also, Fancy Feathers won the 2023 Austrian “Spiel der Spiele” award for card games, and a successful game needs an expansion!
Faiyum is my second-best game, based on the average rating at BGG, and I already said in the rules that I planned to do an expansion — but even successful games receive complaints, and when complaining about Faiyum, gamers think the game is too long, that it has too many cards, especially for two players. A lot of people just cut out a number of random cards from the beginning and seem to be happy with this. We had this discussion in the prototype times, and I agreed with one of my testers that the game needs this length to build up the strategy, but tastes differ.
I wanted to make this expansion, but had in mind that the game already has more than enough cards in it, so it took me some time to think about how to add more cards without making the game longer. It was a paradox, but while thinking about the situation, I had the idea of introducing privileges: cards that do not enter a player’s hand.
If these cards are added to the game, the pile of cards will be bigger, yes, and the number of turns in which you buy cards will be higher, yes, so the number of turns in the game will rise, yes! — but the turns in which you buy cards are the fastest in the game, and if you buy an instant card and use it right away, it’s done and gone, so that’s not much longer.
On top of that, if you buy a card that stays on the table and gives you discounts or more resources, you can have better turns, and more importantly you can get rid of the least powerful cards in your hand earlier in the game, so the cards from the starting deck will not played as many times as before, so you’ll end up taking fewer turns overall, which sounds weird but is true.
In the end, the game is nearly as long as it was without the expansion, but now you have more different options, so what’s not to like…
Freaky Frogs From Outaspace is a solo game, one of several I’ve made.
Some people tell me that Friday is the best pure solo game ever. We’ve sold over 100,000 copies, so it is a huge success. Finished! is not such a big success, but I play it every single day, and (if I look in the daily high scores on the app) about a hundred other people play it that often. Finished! is a game that you dislike or become addicted to. I often meet these addicted gamers, and they tell me that they play it very often. I only play the app now because I’ve worn out fifteen physical copies of the game. (I try to have single-player modes for my other games, but I do not like to play against bots, so I try to make version without bots.)
Freaky Frogs From Outaspace is a pinball machine game for one player. I had really looked forward to playing Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade, but when I played it the first time, I was disappointed because it does not simulate a pinball machine. It is just a very well done roll-and-write VP-optimizing game with a well-matching theme, but not pinball as a game. Pinball has to be a game in which you can theoretically play endlessly. (It’s not very probable, of course, but it is possible.)
So I started to design a pinball-machine card game. In Freaky Frogs From Outaspace, you will start to be happy to go over 10K points, but the more you play, the better you get, and my actual high score is over 350K. (It took me over an hour real time playing it that was long and exhausting, but great.)
Dale Yu from The Opinionated Gamers helped us on the English rules, got the game for playing, and had a similar experience. I met him earlier this year, and he came to me asking, “If I get the Multiball early in the game, I could play forever?!” I agreed and said that this was the purpose of the design. To be honest, it is like a game in which you roll a die and as long as you do not roll a “1”, you stay in the game. This is theoretically endless, yet in practice not — but I wanted to have that feeling.
In Freaky Frogs From Outaspace you have, of course, more decisions than only rolling a die, and there is a learning curve to get to know your card deck and the pinball machine better. Maura is a real pinball enthusiast, so the artwork is amazing.
Final pinball table
That said, I am a bit stressed because I know many people will not like it because this game can be absolutely unfair (like a real pinball machine). When my first physical copy arrived, I played my first game and got over 100K points, but the next four(!) games, I didn’t even score my final ball because they were all around 1K or 2K points. My sixth game, though, was over 170K, and this is the reason I love the design: If I lose, I do it quickly, but if it really goes well, I play longer and get into the flow and this is so satisfying.
FTW?! is one of these filler card games to play just for fun — sitting around a table, shuffling, dealing, playing a card, and looking at how the next player reacts.
I had very good games at the Gathering of Friends in Niagara Falls with a lot of different people, but a while later there were BGG ratings — not-so-good ratings, that is — from people I did not play with. Looking into what happened, I discovered that one player had put it on PlayingCards.io and the game could be played there. (I don’t recall anybody asking if it would be okay to put it on this platform.)
Personally I think a game is everything together: the physical copy, the players with me at the table, and the artwork. I think I would not like this game as much as I like it now if I had played it only as an abstract challenge online without the direct reactions of my fellow players. I hope this will not lower the game’s chances on the market.
The game is surprisingly good, and you have to play it at least two times. The rules are easy, and you can play it as a kind of climbing-number game. When you cannot or do not want to play a higher card, you still have to play a card, but you also take a card from the discard pile. The most interesting idea about this game is that it ends when one player has only one card left — you don’t have to get rid of all your cards — and you try to have one very high card left because you score positive points for your highest card and negative points for all other cards in hand. The first time you play FTW?!, you cannot imagine what will happen in this endgame. The second time you play it, you will change your strategy and see something new.
In the end, I think this game is for people who are sitting at a table (maybe with some drinks) and playing it. Playing it online is only a theoretically analytical challenge — not so much fun!
Schwarzer Freitag had one of the worst rulebooks ever made, and only pure fans managed to play it right and enjoy it. The game still has these fans, and some tried to influence Rio Grande Games into making it again. Additionally, in Asia stock-trading games are very popular, so our Asian partners were really happy that we wanted to republish it.
I still think it is one of the best stock-trading games and was happy to rework it. First, I did normal things like changing the values of the shares so that the higher numbers end only with a “0”, which means players can more easily calculate the money to pay or to get.
Second, the most important change was cutting out the loans. In the old version, you took loans only when you needed money, but with this theme you should be able to take as many loans as you are permitted to. However, some players don’t like having loans and always think they are bad. (In real life this might help your finances, but if you play a game with a finance shark, you should think differently.) These players lose the game only because they try to avoid loans, and this was not the intention of the designer.
To have a better game experience, every player now gets initial money and this works so much better. Putting the shares in the drawing bag and drawing them to change the stock prices and the built-in crisis is still the core mechanism of the game, but the passing action now has more strategic use, which is good for players who sold all their shares (in the endgame) to have some more decisions to make when passing.
I do my designs the way I like them and hope you all like them as well, but sometimes I feel so misunderstood. Every single design has this problem. I have to like the design and must get a feeling for it in order to put so much work and time into it, but in the end I also want to make games that the gamers like.
Even so, I’m still not convinced to work only for the market, and I like my design philosophy: “If I like the game, then there will be enough people out there who will like it as well!” Sometimes it works better like with Power Grid, sometimes not.
Another year, and I think: We made great games…again!