Saturday, November 3, 2012

2012 After-Essen Party highlights

Michael and I hosting our 6th annual party in the Spielwiese.

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #57: The Two Sides of Essen

I finally had a few minutes to finish my report from my second Essen boardgame fair.  In it, I describe what it's like to be a game designer at the fair, squeezing through the crowds with a carry-on suitcase full of prototypes and meeting publishers in little temporary cubicles behind their convention stands.

I did get to look at a few of the new games, and even played a few.  Read more about the two sides of Essen on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Games for the Visually Impaired

Game forums and reviews often mention color blindness and how that should affect the graphic design of a particular game, but not much has been written about designing games that can also be played by people who cannot see at all.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

6th Annual After Essen Party!

Six years ago, my friend Michael from the Spielwiese gaming cafe agreed to help me bring a little bit of SPIEL back from Essen and celebrate in his cafe with all the great new games released there--many of them from Berlin designers.

The photo galleries on my After Essen Party page show some of the fun from the past five years.  As you can see, it has been a great mix of games and guests from around the world, and we can even claim that Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) award winner Qwirkle was discovered here!

As always, the 6th Annual After Essen Party is open to the public, athough space is limited and it is best to come early.  Visiting designers are welcome to show their newly released games as well (please, no prototypes, however).  Feel free to contact me or Michael at the Spielwiese in advance (especially if you are a game designer or publisher).  The party is on the Tuesday after SPIEL, beginning at 7 p.m.  Hope to see you at SPIEL and at the party in Berlin afterwards!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Learning From Sport

One of the big debates in the world of sport recently was on the fallibility of referees, especially in soccer. Missed calls, goals being allowed that were clearly not goals, and goals being disallowed that clearly should have counted are often game-changers in a sport with traditionally low scoring games.  But while many other sports have adopted high-tech solutions to supplement human referees, FIFA, the world governing body of soccer has stubbornly resisted.

But they are not alone. When reading an Op-Ed piece in the sports section of a local newspaper, I was surprised to read one writer's argument that it is actually the numerous referee mistakes that give soccer so much of its drama.  Furthermore, he reasoned that to reduce that human error would somehow be robbing the sport of one of its most popular aspects.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Prototype2Publisher: NIEUW AMSTERDAM

It's difficult to believe that a city as renowned throughout the modern world as New York City started out with a completely different name. All the changes that the original colony – New Amsterdam – went through to become the iconic American metropolis is actually an accurate metaphor for the evolution of a board game design that looks very different from the first prototype I pitched to publishers. Following is a logbook of my own voyage of discovery.

Inspiration in the Old World

It was 2007, and I finally had my foot in the door with several German publishers, anxiously awaiting my first game releases scheduled for the following year. I had a flood of other ideas I was working at developing, but I was distracted by the interesting new dice mechanisms appearing in European strategy games (and I was testing my own dice game, to be released later as Alea Iacta Est). Then I read about Andreas Seyfarth's new game Airships and was intrigued by yet another unconventional use of dice. It challenged me to think about other ways dice could be used in creative ways.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Everything is an Auction

For my 2012 game, Nieuw Amsterdam, soon to be released through White Goblin Games, I returned to one of the staple mechanisms of modern board games: the auction.  The mechanism was a central part of so many games of the past two decades, and the most prolific designers of that time produced many of the classics of the genre that we still play today.  Reiner Knizia, in particular, used variations of the mechanism again and again with Modern Art, Medici, Ra, Amun Re, Money, and many more.  Even a look at the father of modern board games, Monopoly, reveals that auctions are central to the rules—when played correctly, of course.

The mechanism is so engrained in the language of game design, in fact, that auction games are being created without being recognized as such—even by their creators.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Theme and Mechanics in Party Planning

Last weekend, we experienced, for the first and last time, the Einschulung of our chidren (who happen to be twin sons). This is an enormous celebration for German children who are beginning elementary school. There is a ceremony at the school and parties for family and friends afterwards. The children receive paper cones filled with sweets and school supplies, along with gigantic backpacks that are so boxy and top-heavy, they resemble something the astronauts take with them on space walks.

The day for the Einschulung of our sons also happened to fall on their birthday, so we were celebrating two beginning-of-school parties (there really isn't any equivalent in the United States) and two birthdays at the same time, although we saved the birthday party for their Kindergarten friends for this Sunday.

As my wife and I were planning it, I realized partway through that we were both approaching it from different angles--in game design terms. My wife was looking at the mechanics of the party: what kinds of games, food and other fun elements we could incorporate, and what the schedule could look like.

I also participated in the brainstorming, however I soon found myself wondering aloud what the theme of the party could be.

"That doesn't really matter at this point."

"Yes it does"

"We first need to figure out what kinds of things we are going to do."

"Yes, but sometimes the theme can give me ideas on other things we can do."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #22: Home Sick and Krankgeschrieben

By Jeffrey D. Allers 

Editor's note:  this was originally posted on December 1, 2007, on the now-defunct Boardgamenews website.  I am publishing the article again because it was during this time that the design for my forthcoming game, Nieuw Amsterdam, was born.

I apologize if this article sounds a bit nasal, but I’m home sick and, frankly, lucky to get in a complete sentence between sneezes. “Gesundheit!” you may say, as the Germans do without ever skipping a beat. The word actually means “health,” a subject my Berlin friends take quite seriously. In fact, most seem to have studied medicine, as they are never afraid to disagree with my doctor’s diagnosis and offer their own alternative treatment program.

I think that I’ve now received about all the health advice they can give me, as my 15-month-old twin sons have been sick for most of the past two months. My wife and I are averaging three trips to the clinic each week, in about every conceivable combination: Mom with son, Dad with other son, Mom alone, or the whole family. Our doctor is a wonderful person and all, but we wouldn’t mind seeing less of her.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Game is Kaput

Kaput is one of those few German words that I did not need to learn after I arrived in Germany. Like Gesundheit, kaput has a firm place in the American vocabulary, although I remember it being used with children more than in serious, "adult" situations  ("Awe, your toy is kaput" rather than, "Yes, sir, I think that it's the alternator that is kaput").

In gaming groups and hobby forums, the word's English equivalent seems to be popular in describing many new games:  broken.  Apparently, if we are to believe public opinion, a good portion of new releases just do not work.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #56: Lecturing on Game Design at the Technical University

I've finally finished translating my guest lecture from last October at Berlin's Technical University for it's first year architecture students.  I've posted the lecture, along with photos from the presentation and from the student's work, as my latest Postcard From Berlin on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Oscars....for Board Games?

Germany's prestigious Game of the Year award was announced today in Berlin.  The international buzz surrounding the event demonstrates that Germany is still the axis around which the gaming world turns, even when innovation in board game design has spread to other countries--including the Czech Republic and Finland.  In fact, a German game designer has not won the main award since 2008.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Based on a True Story

Historical themes have been a part of games for some time.  They run the gamut from detailed simulations to themes that are "pasted-on" superficially in order to make the rules more memorable.

It is interesting, once again, to compare the medium to the film industry, where historical themes also turn up in a variety of ways.  In movie theaters, we can, for example, watch a documentary that is often very true to life.  Then there are the films that are based on a true story.  And finally, there are those that  can only claim to be "inspired by a true story."

In board game design, war games have the most similarity to documentaries.  Their main purpose is to reenact a particular battle or war, and the details are important, even if it means pages of rules to remember.

Then there are Euro games which try to capture the flavor of a particular historical setting, such as building up the island of Puerto Rico or the routes of Germany's early horse-drawn postal service.  Most Euros, however, abstract the theme to such a degree, that the historical content would fall into the "inspired by a true story" category.

Is this such a bad thing?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #55: Reflections on the Most Beautiful--and Broken--Game

My latest article in the series, Postcards From Berlin, is up on the Opinionated Gamers.  In it, I take time out from watching the European Championships in football/soccer, in order to reflect on the sport from a boardgamer's perspective.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pala available in Europe!

Being a small publisher, Cambridge Games Factory could only offer me 50 copies of the game as royalties for the first printing of Pala.  After giving away 10 copies to my playtesters, friend Bernd Eisenstein agreed to sell the remaining copies through his Irongames online shop.

The games cost 11 Euro each, and all proceeds (minus the Paypal fee) for this sale go to the designer.  If  you enjoy trick-taking games and are looking for something new in the genre, I can heartily recommend the game. "Thank you for your support!"

Here are some of the things that people have been saying about Pala:

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Cleaning Out My Closet

Recently, I've been digging through my game shelves, purging the collection down to a manageable number.  In addition, I've also been cleaning out my prototype closet, and it has been interesting to rediscover several long lost game ideas that have been buried under the rubble of cardboard and laminated paper.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Salesman Against Unbridled Consumerism

The title of this post sounds contradictory, I know. But lately I've been feeling the contradiction as I've tried to sell my own game ideas to publishers, while at the same time, trying to cut back on my own tendencies towards consuming and accumulating stuff.

Maybe it's the whole Occupy... thing that is making me feel like an activist (although that is not necessarily the type of protest movement I would join, as it does not seem to have any clear direction). Or, perhaps, it's the proposed origins of the burgeoning boardgame market in the German protest movements of the 70's and 80's, as I wrote about earlier.  Now, Germany is the epicenter of the worldwide (albeit somewhat underground) gaming movement, and arguably the main reason that there are so many other boardgame publishers in other countries today. It's almost as ironic as George Lucas starting out as the most successful independent film maker of all time, only to become the very kind of corporation he had once loathed--not to mention becoming the catalyst for the current, soulless, Hollywood blockbuster mentality.

In the boardgame industry, publishers are currently flooding the market with many games that are increasingly similar. On one hand, it is a golden opportunity for beginning game designers, as the number of publishers to which they can pitch their ideas has multiplied. On the other hand, though, once a game is published, it is so much more quickly forgotten, and I've seen this even happen to the more innovative releases.

But what I am much more concerned about is avoiding a more personal dichotomy.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gaining an Appreciation by Doing

The next months will be filled with opportunities to watch big soccer  games on television (that's football, of course, to everyone outside the U.S.).  Tonight was the Tournament of Germany Championship, in a couple of weeks Bayern Munich will play for the European Club Championship, and next month, the national team will compete in the European Championships.

I've actually played quite a bit of Fußball the past two years, thanks to an informal neighborhood group of men who invited me to join them for a couple of hours every Sunday night.  I was even able to get a gym for us to play in during the winter months.  It has given me the chance to get better at a sport that probably would have been my favorite growing up, had I been given the opportunity.

And now that I've had the opportunity to play the game regularly, I can appreciate even more the skill and athleticism exhibited by the professionals I watch on television (although I still think they are sissies for flopping on the ground as much as they do). It's the same with just about any other sport or activity:  once you've attempted to do it yourself, it is much more interesting to watch it as a spectator.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

RESEARCH...or, playing through my collection

Just as it is important to be well-read if you wish to become a good writer, it is also important to play plenty of games if you want to become a good game designer.  When I was first exposed to the hobby--and before I tried designing my own games as an adult--this was not a problem.  There were many gaming groups in Berlin to give me the opportunities, my wife and I did not yet have children, and every game from the past twenty years was new to us.  I also found plenty of classic German games at department store clearance sales and in neighborhood flea markets, and wasted no time snatching them up for the chance to finally try them and catch up with the rest of the hobby.

While I now enjoy designing games just as much as playing them, it has reduced the amount of time I have had to actually play published games.  The collection I've amassed has unfortunately collected too much dust, as my focus has usually been testing prototypes and getting a few plays of a handful of new releases.  You can see all the games from my collection that I have not tried in my online BGG collection: they are marked with a "want to play" comment.

Last year, however, I decided to change that.  At the biweekly game night that I host, I made the resolution to play at least two older games from my collection that I have not yet been able to try.  It has worked out wonderfully, as I've often been able to get three or more of those games out in a single evening.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #54: Gathering Every Week

My latest article in the "Postcard From Berlin" series is up on the Opinionated Gamers website.  In it, I discuss how I am no longer jealous of week-long gaming binges, and quite content to pace myself...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #53: Elegance and Efficiency, or Hitting Two Flies with One Swat

My latest POSTCARD FROM BERLIN is posted on the Opinionated Gamers website.  In it, I discuss how I often prefer efficiency in life and in games.  It's kind of like riding a bicycle...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why We Design Games

There is a new blog asking various game designers to write essays on why they design games.  I was asked to contribute my post from several months ago on this blog, and you can read that and plenty of other interesting contributions here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finishing Well

There is another thoughtful post on BoardgameGeek News by editor W. Eric Martin on why it may not be important to finish games or score them.  Inspired by an article from a novelist who speaks of readers who enjoy books even though they do not always finish them, he adds that the same can be true for someone who plays games. Sometimes, a player may care more about the experience of the game than the final score.
Chris Farrell then rightly steered the ensuing conversion in the direction of game design. He writes: "The reasons why a lot of games and books have unsatisfactory endings is, in my opinion, no more complicated than the fact that ending things is hard. Coming up with a beginning and a middle, a premise and a twist, is not the hardest thing in the world, but bringing them all to a satisfactory conclusion is very difficult, at least judged by the amount of failure by even very good artists. You see it all over the place: popular music that resorts to the ultimate cop-out, the fade-out; novels that end abruptly or unsatisfactorily; or even worse, series of books that just keep on going with no apparent intention of ever finishing at all."

Awhile back, I wrote about how game designs are sometimes better when they "begin in the middle" of a story, where there is already tension present, rather than starting with a clean slate. The initial tension is an important first impression of the game that sets the tone for the whole experience.  And, of course, it needs to keep building from there.

How a game ends, however, is just as important. The story of the game experience and all its possible endings needs to finish on a high note.  In a saturated boardgame market that encourages one-and-done cult-of-the-new, how a game ends could determine whether or not it will ever get played again.  It could be the difference between crossing the new release off a checklist and inspiring every player to seek the game out for their respective collections.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Take That! (and I'll take this)

There seems to be a constant debate among gaming hobbyists about direct negative interaction and how much should generally be allowed in a game, if any.  The games that encourage it are labeled "Take That" games, as that is something your opponent might actually say to you when he gleefully slaps down a card to intentionally block you or otherwise impede your progress in the game. There are plenty of people who enjoy large doses of screwage in their games, but there are also those who will avoid such games at all costs, preferring what is often called "multi-player solitaire" games that allow each player to have his or her own "sandbox" that cannot be disturbed by opponents.  These often feel like racing games, as each player is trying to solve the game's "puzzle" (i.e. reach a certain number of points through optimization) before his or her opponents.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"I have an idea for a new game..."

It can be heard in just about every gaming group, on just about every evening.  Someone excitedly reports, "I have an idea for a new game!"  In fact, there are quite a bit of blog posts that begin this way on the Boardgame Designers' Forum and on Boardgamegeek's designers' forums.  Sometimes, the would-be game designer actually has worked on the idea for awhile, constructing prototypes, playing solo games to get the kinks out, and writing a basic, flow-chart-like set of rules.
Some of my ideas.

More often then not, however, that person will admit that they have simply been "tossing the ideas around in my head for awhile."  Perhaps he or she has not had the time to try to flesh the idea out.  Or perhaps it is simply too much of a risk to see if the ideas actually hold up to a playtest. As long as it is an "idea" that exists only in the imagination, it works (idea = ideal).

Monday, February 13, 2012

Recruiting Playtesters

Games are only as good as their playtesting sessions. Since a game is designed for interaction, there are elements of the design that can only be exposed and critiqued when the game is finally taken out for a “test drive.”

This is usually the most difficult part for any prospective game designer who has the discipline to get their ideas into a working prototype. Finding others who are willing to play an untested game—one that will undoubtedly have some rough edges and even, possibly, be “broken”—can be a real challenge. However, pitching the prototype to friends, acquaintances, and finally, “blind” playtesters (those who must learn the game from your written rules without you present), can also be good practice for eventually pitching to a publisher.

It is difficult enough for a wannabe designer to find those guinea pigs. After all, “beggers can’t be choosers”—they usually must accept whoever they can get. And it’s true that just about anyone can provide at least some helpful feedback, but some playtesters are truly better than others. A variety of playtesters and gaming groups is also important, as the game will play much differently each time. I always try to test my games, for example, with both my game designers’ group and at another gaming night, either at my home or the one I host at the community center where I work (and when I began, I had a weekly youth game night that enjoyed playing my prototypes).

Because playtesters are different, and each provides important feedback, I’ve compiled a list of the types of people I like to have at my gaming sessions to try out my new designs:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Making the Out-of-Date Playable Again

I grew up playing games.  These, however, were the typical mass-market offerings for children and families, such as Hi Ho the Cherry-O, Pay Day, Candy Land, Clue, Parcheesi, The Game of Life, Monopoly, and Risk.  After being exposed to the larger world of modern board games, even sentimentality cannot bring me to pull out those same classics with my own family.  There are too many games these days that are better designed and much more fun to play--for children and adults alike.

Sometimes, however, we visit friends who are not familiar with anything outside this limited group of mass-market evergreens.  Many of them are open to learn one of "my games"--not necessarily one I've designed, but something I've brought with me.  But they also usually want to play one of their games, and I don't want to be a snob, so I usually take that as a good compromise.

As a designer, however, I'm always looking at the games I play with a critical eye, wondering whether a few tweaks could bring an old game into the 21st Century, or whether a mechanic or two could be salvaged from a poorer design.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #52: Getting it Wrong

It can be frustrating to learn that you have been getting a rule wrong for months--or even years.  I recently discovered this when riding the public buses in Berlin, and it's happened with games as well.  Enjoy my latest Postcard on Opinionated Gamers.  Hopefully, I'll have at least gotten that right...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Avoiding Common Criticisms

As I wrote in my last post, it is encouraging to get positive feedback from the games I have published.  Criticism can also help hone a designer's craft, and can be especially helpful in the playtest phase of a game's development.  Following is a list of common criticisms of games (both prototype and published).  It's a good excercise to ask yourself and and your playtesters if any of these apply to your prototype:

Friday, January 20, 2012

Reviews and Awards

It has been a little over 3 years since my first published game was released, and 5 others have followed since that time.  I am usually someone who is always looking ahead to the next challenge and the next project, but sometimes, it is helpful and encouraging to pause for a look back.

The encouraging part is the positive feedback the games have received around the world from a wide variety of players, gaming publications and reviewers.  To keep a record of those, I have added a Reviews page to this blog.

Not all of the games have been readily available in all markets, and so this page also serves as a reference for those publishers looking to license the game in their markets. Most of this goes through the current publisher who leases the rights to the games, of course, but three of my games no longer appear in the publisher's catalogue and, therefore, according to contract, the full rights to those games revert back to me.

Heartland (Eine Frage der Ähre) and Circus Maximus are two games that have been well-received although not widely available, and therefore have potential to sell well in markets outside Germany, where they were officially released.  In addition, I have been working on alternative versions and tweaks to make the games even better than when they were first published.  I suppose I can't resist the opportunity to do something different with the concepts rather than simply recycling an idea in its entirety!

Piece o' Cake (...aber bitte mit Sahne) has already been released in several markets and is well-known in gaming circles, having sold just over 10,000 copies, but I believe it has untapped mass-market potential.

If you are a publisher and are interested in any of these games, please feel free to contact me here or through

I would like to extend my thanks to all those who take the time to comment and review my games, even when those reviews have something critical to say.  I have respect for any intelligently written review, and I apply that feedback to my future projects.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Letter to Publishers: Act Professionally

Last year, I half-jokingly posted a list for aspiring game designers of Things Not to Say When Pitching to a Publisher.  It proved more popular than I could have imagined, and inspired a more serious follow-up of suggestions for pitching to a publisher.  Even though many game designers are hobbyists, I believe it is important that we act professionally when presenting our work.

This time, I’d like to turn the conversation towards the publishers, both big and small, who actively seek out new designs for their catalogues.  While most of my experiences have been positive ones, I have also experienced—or been privy to—some areas needing improvement from the publishing side.

Consider this an open letter to publishers—especially those starting out in publishing—to challenge them to be more professional in their interactions with game designers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Journeys, Destinations, and Serendipity

I have not written much lately, although it is not for a lack of ideas.  I have notes written down on a number of interesting, game-related topics that I'm planning on writing about in the near future, either on this blog or a Postcard From Berlin on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Most of my time is spent with work (my real job), my family (wife and two young, very active sons), and my studies (I'm working towards a masters degree).  When I do have time for my gaming hobby, which is very little these days, I must decide between playing the games in my collection (especially getting some of the unplayed ones to the table), writing about games and game design, or developing new game ideas I've had (written down as they come to me in the shower, in traffic, etc.).  In deciding how to spend my limited "action points", I experience the same kind of tension found in my favorite games--those in which you have so many things you want to do, but are unable to do them all.