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The City

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  • The meandering progression of a board game - The City September 11, 2012

    As I was preparing the most recent prototype for play testing this weekend, I began pulling out all of the old versions and thought it would be worth comparing them.  I've been working on The City for 9 months now.  One of the original concept has nearly been lost (developing intuition about electricity) and most of the parts and even rules have changed, but some key components remain and overall, it's a pretty darn good game.

    Evolution of The City board

    It's interesting to see what you thought would matter (like having a randomly generated board in version 1, furthest on the left), what actually matters, and what you didn't even think about.  The board being able to fold kind of took me by surprise - luckily I've got a nice and easy way to do it now!


    From breadboard to PCB, from janky to half decent

    The Power Poles took the longest - started with trying to build my own contactors - ended up just producing it all on a printed circuit board

    Though I was warned by many at the beginning about cost of making a board game with wires and PCBs, I tried anyway.  Cost remains the biggest hurdle, but removing the electric grid will take a lot out of the game.  However, it has helped me think and develop concepts which I'm now working with Sparkfun on (a game which focuses on the electronic piece), so it's definitely been worth it!

    The most recent version - pretty sexy, right?

    The newest version is pretty cool looking - I've got all of the designs in Eagle (printed circuit board design software), and can print them myself on demand using the PCB etcher at Maker Works.  Overall, it takes me about a day to make a game, start to finish.  If I did it a lot, I could probably get it down to half a day.

    Looking forward to play tests this weekend at Great Oak Game Day - I made some fairly significant rule changes that I hope at least don't break the game, and at best address some of the final remaining gameplay issues.   Also, next month I'll be at the Meaningful Play conference at MSU showing off this game, and also giving a brief talk about ways we can incorporate developing intuition about the physical world into gameplay.



  • The City at Ann Arbor mini Maker Faire! May 29, 2012

    After 4 play tests, it's time to take The City out into the world and see what non-board game geeks think - that is, the robot-making nerds.

    The Ann Arbor mini Maker Faire is coming up on Saturday, June 2nd (this weekend!), and I'll be there showing off this game as well as a few others.  I'm also going to play some crowd-based games with passerby's so stop by the Austic Labs table and check it out.

    A friend took some nice pictures of the most recent play test (which went really well) at Great Oak Game Day (run by my neighbor Eric McGlohon).  Also, Matt Arnold was there play testing a game of his WHICH WAS AWESOME, I can't wait to see the next version.  It's really fascinating to see how different people approach game design.

    The pictures below were taken after we finished playing the game, while the power poles had been installed and electricity was on.  We're still working on finishing the art for the board surface (now it's just paper glued on to a piece of laser cut wood), but that should really make it look cool.  The play testing sessions were incredibly valuable, I learned a lot of lessons and have integrated them into the newest version of the game (v0.4).  I don't have a lot of time this week, so I'm just throwing up a bunch of pictures (eww... throw up).   The Thank You cards are a form of victory points that you earn by delivering electricity or by being City Manager.  The City Manager position has probably been the single biggest change in the last week - it added several alternative strategic paths, a really cool mechanic, and a fun component to the narrative.  After the last 2 play tests, I feel pretty confident that this game is fun, unique, and interesting.  The game took 20 minutes to explain and 90 minutes to play.  My goal is to get that down to 15 minutes to explain and 70 minutes to play (it's timed, so it literally has to take 70 minutes).  I've got a ways to go, but I'm much less nervous and much more excited.



    Hmmm... it seems to me these are saying @#%* You, not Thank You :)

    mmm... sweet sweet laser cutter (drool)

    The board all wired up after playing (we added two extra solar panels and capacitors after the fact)

    Ahhh, the City Manager pin. Once you put it on, you don't want to take it off, even if that means you spend all your time doing nice things so you can keep it... at least until you say "screw it" and steal everyone's resources.


    Next time

    More artwork, updates from the Maker Faire, hopefully I get a chance to play test of a new game and more play tests of The City, PLUS we're making some low temperature, low cost conductive ink and we're going to test it out.

    Oh, and I'm going to GenCon later this summer and I'll be bringing this game so if you will be there (or nearby) and want to play please contact me.  I can't make Origins which sucks, but it is what it is.

    From games to the lab and back again - ZOOOOOOOOM!

  • Finished first play test for The City May 16, 2012

    Well, it certainly took a while but I finally finished The City prototype enough to play test it.  Walter and Bob sat down with me for about an hour on Sunday at Maker Works and shot my poor game to pieces :) .  Actually, it was really productive and I've now got lots of work to do to prepare the next version.


    Images from the first play test

    After playing a bit

    Here's some key elements that we quickly learned:

    Shared versus Private property

    One of the purposes of the game is to create lots of player interaction through limited, shared resources.  During the first play test players literally shared everything except the power poles (the black and colored objects with LEDs on them).  So if I built the land, you could build a house on it, and then the next player could pull a character into the house.  Walter didn't like this much stating "It's my damn house, not yours - you can't use it!".  Next time, we'll have player controlled houses, but land will stay communal.  If you go to completely privately owned stuff, then there's little player interaction unless you create a new level of interaction (like the competition for spaces in Carcasonne, or competition in commodity markets like Power Grid, etc.).  I want to avoid those, so I'm hoping to get that player interaction by forcing players through repeated prisoner's dilemmas where they develop respect naturally (or screw each other until the game ends and everyone loses :) ...

    Building community through repeat prisoner's dilemmas

    Initially, I created a "respect" type card which is provided to players who do some kind of nice thing for other players - "respect" could then be traded like any other commodity, and acted as a component of victory points.  While this is effective, it's also a very blunt game tool - it would be much better to in fact build real respect among players and allow that actual feeling impact game play.  I feel this occurs in games like Bohnanza and Settlers of Catan, where by the end of the game you'll see trades which, strictly speaking, may not be logical but occur anyway because respect or repoire has been built between players.  One of the ways I want to build this type of in-game repoire and mores is by having repeated prisoner dilemma type interactions (if you don't know what prisoners dilemma is - see the wiki article) with food and lumber.  Food is  commodity which needs to be cycled through "farm" and "compost" to be replenished.  If I leave you with no food in the kitchen, then it's much more costly for you to replenish it.  Lumber is in very limited supply, but is replenished by players using their work - but if it gets below a certain threshold, again it becomes much more costly to replenish.  In this ways, players (hopefully) will develop mores for when and how different resources will be replenished, and players who screw other people will likely be punished themselves for breaking these mores.

    Some other ideas for building community / in-game mores are to have random negative events which impact everyone (think Pandemic) like tornadoes and floods and stuff.  Still thinking about this one, or combining it with other things.

    Designing in more strategy, randomness or both

    I was disappointed to realize over the course of the play test that the game lacked in lots of strategic decisions.  Even though we didn't even finish the game, it was becoming clear that decisions felt too static, obvious, or somewhat predetermined.  In that first iteration, there were very few random elements, and most of the random elements which existed tended to have distributed positive outcomes instead of just helping one player.  In Catan, for example, basically the randomness of the board combined with the randomness of the resource draws (dice rolls) makes the game.  I think I need to add additional randomness to shake up those first 10 player turns more so that people head down different production paths and specialize.  I'd also like to try to identify some elements to increase strategic decisions in other ways, but haven't figured that out yet.

    Successful design of the electrical system

    It took an inordinate amount of time to get the electrical system right.  The goal is to allow either hand crank generator or solar panels to distribute power to the power poles (LEDs) which indicate which houses have power and which don't.  Powering houses is one way to win the game.  The hard part was sizing all of the components, not only to ensure that nothing would burn up (the hand crank generates about 8V at 2A but distributes power to LEDs which run at 1.8V and 0.001A!), but also to ensure that the LED timing worked well from a gameplay standpoint.  After testing, one hand crank of 6 seconds in length (we'll call that a "standard crank") results in 1 LED remaining on for almost 8 minutes.  A solar panel with sufficient light (100W bulb at 15 - 20 inches) can keep about 5 LEDs on permanently, but not 15.  These felt like good starting points for gameplay testing.  Also, I had a build a connector to place the LED at the house (the black Ts with LEDs on them below) which made good, consistent, low friction contact to the wires.  In the end it was George Albercook (of Rocks and Robots) who came up with the idea of integrating the breadboard jumpers (see picture below) into the acrylic itself.  These are designed to make good, consistent contact and after lots of testing and tweaking, it worked great!

    Final successful iteration with solar and hand crank connections

    What a breadboard looks like on the inside

    Previous iteration which failed for many reasons

    Artwork and Narrative

    Rachel's been working hard on the artwork and I've been writing the storyline/narrative (Rachel's a local Ann Arbor artist who is great - you can see more of her work here).  So far, we've got over half of the characters done, and the entire narrative (except once character) is finished.  Once that's done as a draft I'll post it to get additional thoughts.  Here's the current basic design for the box cover:

    "Ok, I got my solar power hooked up... next step - fusion... now where can I find small scale open source plans for nuclear power ?"

    And here's some of the characters cards that we have so far (not a big fan of Abdul and Tom, but I generally like the rest) -

    A lot of adjustments until the next play test which hopefully will be next week.  If you're interested in play testing this game and you live in Ann Arbor, shoot me an email.  I'll be showing off a version of this game (and at least one other game) at the Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire on June 2nd at the Washtenaw Fair Grounds and the Detroit Maker Faire on July 28 - 29th.  I'm also hoping to take it to Protospiel and see if anyone will want to play at GenCon in Indianapolis in August.  More posts to come (more often, I promise!).


  • Power delivery system February 27, 2012


    Two posts ago we discussed how solar panels work, and how they might integrate into the game function of delivering power to a set of LEDs (houses).  This time we'll talk about a more complete, fleshed out design for a power delivery system which includes both solar cells and a hand crank generator.

    The Goals

    Up until now, the goals of this system have not been absolutely fixed, because I'm in the process of understanding what can physically be done, and connecting reality with the game concepts itself.  It kind of forms a constantly interacting triangle of aggravation shown so innocently here.

    However, I think we can now have some more defined goals for this power system:

    1) To power the LEDs in the houses (needed to win the game), players must spend resources to purchase solar cells (which produce a constant, fixed trickle charge) or operate the hand crank generator for a fixed amount of time (which produces a one time, large input of energy.  Later, other voltage sources may be added to the game (wind generator, pico-hydro (???), etc.).  An energy storage device (a capacitor) is used to store the energy produced by the hand crank and solar cell and distribute it to the LEDs.

    2.possiblity1) Each player's power generation and distribution systems are independent from one another.

    2.possibility2) All players operate on a unified power generation distribution system.  Each time I charge the capacitor, we all benefit (all our lights stay on).  This options requires a lot more player interaction and has a variety of variations within it.

    Design Description


    (sorry, this picture is too small - click on it to get larger picture and zoom in)

    The design above does not include absolutely all elements (there are some additional diodes and other things needed), but does cover the most critical elements of the circuit.

    Design Considerations an Detail

    1) We must have a way for players to generate "additional power" to the system - This could be implemented in several ways.  For example, it's possible that a player's power plant can light up 3 LEDs, but at 4 LEDs the power is insufficient and the lights turn off.  This meas the player needs to "upgrade" their power plant to achieve 4 LEDs (this is similar to Power Grid in function).  Another method is to add Joules (or, in other units, amp hours) to a capacitor using the hand crank generator by cranking the generator for a fixed amount of time (5 or 10 seconds).  In this way, the same charged capacitor will supply 1 LED for 10 minutes, 2 LEDs for 5 minutes, 3 LEDs for 2.5 minutes, etc because it has a fixed supply of energy supplied by the hand crank.  Now we have a time element in the game, which really adds a different dynamic.   The system above allows both options: the hand crank generator provides a fixed amount of Joules to the capacitor, while the solar panel supplies a constant voltage to the capacitor which may be enough to continuously operate 1 LED depending on the light level, but not many LEDs (3 or 4).

    2) Supplying a safe, constant voltage and amperage to the LEDs - A big problem is that none of our voltage sources output a fixed voltage.  Look at the V - I curve for the hand crank and solar panel and you'll find that the voltage produced CHANGES depending on what the current flow is.  This is not like a normal battery, or you AC outlet, which always produce a constant voltage, regardless of what is hooked up to them (ie a 9V battery always produces exactly 9V - or at least very very close until it's almost completely discharged).  Because our goal is to drive LEDs which must operate over a very narrow voltage range (like ~1.8V for red LEDs) or else they will burn out, we need to convert these variable voltage sources into a constant voltage source.  This is done using the voltage regulator, which converts an input voltage into a fixed output voltage.  Let's assume we want a constant 1.8V output for our LEDs.  There are two options for the voltage regulator design: we can supply the voltage regulator a high voltage (higher than 1.8V) and it can drop the voltage to 1.8.  That's called a "buck" configuration.  Or, we can supply the voltage regulator a lower voltage (lower than 1.8V) and it can increase the voltage to 1.8V.  That's called the "boost" configuration.  For a variety of reasons, it's not yet quite clear which configuration is the right way to go, but clearly it's critical to equipment sizing (our voltage sources, capacitor, and voltage regulator will be quite different in the two cases!)

    3) Cost should be minimized - For board games, even small costs have a huge impact on the final price - lower cost = better, so long as we're not sacrificing the game concept itself.

    I used the open source circuit design program called gEDA (GPL Electronic Design Automation) which combines a schematics drawing tool with a PCB editor in one pretty good package (see for more details).  There are several configurations and resulting drawings, but the below is one example.  A printed circuit board (PCB) is required to place the voltage regulator, capacitor, connectors, diode, and push button and voltage display on.  In this example, there is one single PCB which all player's circuits are placed, but the circuits themselves operate independently (each person has their own capacitor, solar panel, LEDs etc.).  It's not perfect (believe me, I know) and it's a work in progress, but not a bad start.

    (sorry, this picture is too small - click on it to get larger picture and zoom in)

    Next Steps

    The major components and then the entire circuit need to be tested.  Most of the components have been ordered and many are already in (thanks Digikey), and should have a chance to prototype them this week.  This will be important to see if there are any glaring errors and if our expected values match actual values.  I have a strong feeling that a buck configuration will be necessary, which will require a redesign of the crank generator which is no small feat.  Once I have a more finalized configuration, I'll also put up the gEDA schematic and parts list.

    Unrelated but still fun...

    Thanks Thingiverse!

    And look at what else my friend and I made on the laser cutter this week - a Shoji tea candle lamp!  See for details.  As always the first one took a while, but I bet once you get the hang of it you could crank these puppies out.  Still waiting to put on the paper and clean off the soot left by the laser, but it's going to look nice when all done.

  • The City Illustrations, part 1 February 19, 2012

    I put an add on craigslist a little over a month ago seeking an illustrator.  I received lots and lots of responses (by the way, graphic design/illustrator folks - if you don't have your work put together in a sharp, online portfolio that's easy to see, you're pretty much out of the game).  I also looked at some sites like, which has quite a few very good illustrators and nice examples of their work.   Finally, I asked around in Ann Arbor to see about local illustrators.

    As is often the case, the personal networking payed off - I found Rachel McGuffin through a friend.  She's a fantastic, young local illustrator / graphic artist who was excited about the project and concept from the get go.  She has a great site (several, actually) where she has posts her work - .  The cool looking pictures below are hers - the crappy ones are mine :)

    And so our collaboration begins.  Our outline for the next few months is:

    1) Define a style and color scheme - We're iterating a single character design in a variety of ways to identify a style that fits.  The narrative behind The City is primarily about community.  Community is actually a tough thing to express artistically.  For example, if you want a wild west theme, like the game BANG! does, it's pretty easy - you put bullet holes in the card borders and give a dusty appearance to the card background and viola! it looks 1875!  How do you do the same thing to express an abstract concept like community?  Our initial test character, an Appalachian mountain boy named Forrest, is shown here in a variety of iterations and color schemes.

    2) Create the narrative and character backgrounds - We'll have 12 characters with distinct story lines and personalities.  The goal is for the players to be able to empathize with all of the characters (even ones who are very different than themselves), from a libertarian industrialist to a inner city anarchist.  For Rachel to get her artistic groove on, she needs some insight on who these characters are, what they do, where they came from, how they think, etc.  That's where I come in.  I'm not quite ready to share the character narratives yet, but I definitely will in the next few weeks.

    3) Create the drawings for the game cards (character cards, special cards, resource cards, etc.) - This will be a highly iterative process.  It's about Rachel and I being on the same page, and making sure that each card expresses exactly what we want.  Since I don't have the artistic technical language to express to Rachel what I'm looking for, I often scour the web for illustrations with similar concepts and say "similar to this", or "like this but..." or "here's what I don't like...".  Making a great game illustration is a tricky thing - you want each card to have an immediate impact / make an immediate connection with the viewer (funny, silly, evil, etc.).  However, game art is different than art in a gallery - people are going to see these cards over and over and over.  As a result, we need enough detail that even on the 100th view of a card people can find something new.  That may be a complex facial expression (think Mona Lisa), or small detail work that you just don't see on first glance (a cluttered room with lots of stuff in it, for example, has lots of separate objects to identify).  Finally, in our game we really want players to make an empathetic connection with all of the characters, so we need variety while avoiding certain traits which make empathy difficult (like pure evil, overt greediness, etc).  The illustration/graphic design requirements for the game are 12 character cards, 8 - 10 Community Meeting cards (special actions), 5 - 7 event cards, the land tile surface, the box, and some art in the instructions.

    Tree border - beware! non-artistic person (me) attempting to express artistic concepts!

    4) Create borders, fonts, card backs, etc. - Slapping a character drawing on a piece of card-stock paper unfortunately isn't good enough to make a game.  All card games have borders which help support the desired style and feel.  Again, BANG! is a good example -  My personal favorite cards are in the game Citadels -  Citadels does a great job of having the illustrations be front and center which is probably what we want for The City (unlike Magic cards or Dominion where the text or other information on the card take up a lot of real estate).  It's also important to note that some ideas for borders force a specific perspective on the illustration itself.  For example the picture to the left which uses a tree to border the card on the left side - interesting idea, but the character now has to be standing at least as far away from you as the tree - so no closeups!  That's very restrictive.





    Box cover or back of card concept - "thinking man" on roof of new community with moon rising behind. Again, this is definitely not Rachel's work, it's me.

    5) Create the game board surface and box art - The City will have land tiles similar to Settlers of Catan (but not hexagonal) and will look similar to the perspective in Where's Waldo or Carcassonne - top down but slightly to the side.  I would like to integrate some of the characters into the board surface itself (Where's Waldo style) and add other fun details and/or scenese.  We're so far away from creating the box art itself it's hard to think about (though I've got one concept sketch down), but obviously that's the first selling point of the game so it needs to be great!




    acrylic power pole for The City

    Next Time

    In addition to all this artistic work, I've made a ton of progress on the rules and the physical gameplay (how the electricity distribution system is going to work).  I think I've got a solid foundation for the electrical system which is doable which I hope to describe in detail (both concepts with some physical examples) next time.  So hand crank generators, solar panels, LEDs, and circuit boards here we come!

    Oh, and as we develop more finished concepts, we'll put them up on a wiki (pictures, narrative and character descriptions, as well as the game rules) which will be a more organized and easy to follow document as compared to these blog posts which are a bit more train of thought.


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