Once upon a time a huge foot crushed my home. It was connected to a fachan – that mythological monster which has one of everything (one eye, one arm, etc.). I had been tinkering with a game design, but now that it was crushed, I decided to make a new one based on the Fachan.
I couldn’t really be upset at the fachan. After all, everything is one for him. That meant there can only be one fachan in the world. It makes sense, right? Furthering this line of thought, it’s long been my supposition that the fachan is very lonely, and wanders the world looking for another of his kind. Just like The Monster in Bride of Frankenstein, he recognizes that he is not like a human. He is different, singular and single, and completely alone in the wide world.
When I told all this to my brother Grant, he supposed that he’d probably go looking for one of his kind everywhere, including settled lands, which means he’d bother villagers all the time, inquiring, but also just being a monster – sometimes eating them or causing havoc generally. Something about this struck me as unique for a game.
Grant and I tinkered with some basic mechanics involving buildings that the fachan crushed, and the idea of a fake bride came swiftly, wherein each player uses this to destroy rivals. The game went through plenty of early stages – it was a grid of squares before moving to hexagons, for example. And there was an “anger” track that ramped up each time he found that a potential mate was fake. The purpose of this was to note how many buildings he could destroy (the angrier he was, the stronger, like Hulk, I guess). This mechanic didn’t make it in the final game for a variety of reasons, but I always thought it was neat.
Eventually, the game sat around, unfinished, as I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to design a game between all my actual duties at Petersen Games (design is not among them). At some point we were approached by Zoran Dobrijevic who showed us Potions & Profits, a fun little game that we decided to buy from him in order to publish. I showed him Marry the Monster, he liked it, and suggested some rules tweaks – and then more of them. He was hired to develop it further into the form you see now.
Although the theme is convoluted (you trick the fachan into thinking there’s a bride for him, but it’s false, and draw him towards you where he’ll trample your rivals’ buildings), it actually matches the gameplay precisely. That’s because I took to heart a mantra I’ve heard my father, Sandy Petersen, repeat about game design – that theme and gameplay must be married* tightly.
*That was shrodinger’s pun; both intended and not intended until you read it.
This game is weird. But it is also weirdly fun. I thoroughly enjoyed designing it, and I hope you enjoy playing it!
In the Spring of 2020 our factories in China (and pretty much everyone all over the world) were on a temporary lockdown with major restrictions of movement. By early summer most of these were lightened and most of our factories indicated to us they were back to work at full capacity. Then in July there was a surprise outbreak in China – not in the province our factories are located, however. This didn’t seem to directly affect things, luckily.
When I wrote a series of updates in the Summer regarding these events – particularly that there’s a new outbreak – there was quite a bit of flack I received with many comments on Kickstarter and in forums echoing some form of “other KS projects are no longer delayed with the lockdowns in China lifted, why are yours still going slowly?” A summary of my response to that continues to be: I don’t know. I am not privy to anything going on with any projects but ours.
So what gives? Factories have been at “full capacity” for months now. Why are things still delayed after the big “pause” in the Spring?
The answer isn’t complicated, but it’s not easy to condense into a single sentence. The first thing to know is that the delays created by a pause of four months don’t equate to simply “four months” once operations resume. I.e., things don’t simply pick up exactly where they left off the day right before the pause with no other effects on the schedule. Let me walk you through why that is. I’ll have to use some arbitrary numbers to explain, but all will make sense.
Let’s suppose that a factory who regularly makes big, plastics-heavy games takes, on average, 10 months to make each game. Suppose it can handle a capacity of 30 such projects being worked on in a given month. Based on this, if it’s typically at full capacity, we can determine that the factory can only take on 3 new projects in any given month; if it ever took on more than 3 in one month, it would be at 31 projects, an over-capacity.
If a factory is given a project when it’s at capacity, it builds a backlog, rather than turn clients or jobs away. For example, if in May there are four new projects from clients, and it doesn’t want to turn them away, it takes on three of them, and the fourth is begun in June instead, when the next set of three projects leaves. Note, I’ve never heard of a factory declining to take on a project no matter what is going on – even during the lockdowns (they just say they can’t start until later, naturally). I get quotes from a dozen factories, usually, for any project we look to do – all of them always want to take everything on.
So far so good?
Now, what if the factory is shut down for four months, say between March and June? A few things.
First, publishers still bring games to the factory as new projects, building up a backlog of new projects (if they normally take on 3 per month, there could be as many as 12 new projects waiting to start in July). Perhaps fewer than 12 were built up, because publishers were also less active during the pandemic. But I can tell you that Petersen Games sent several (smaller) projects to factories last summer – notably Cthulhu Wars: Duel which was manufactured in late Summer 2020, and the files were provided to the factory when the factory was essentially “paused.” Also, Evacuate, Potions and Profits, and Invasion of the Brood.
In July, once operations resume, the factory has to resume the thirty active projects it had before the lockdowns. But it also has a new backlog of 12. That means it has 42 projects, which is over capacity.
Now what? How are things prioritized? Obviously, “first in, first out” is a great policy in theory. But does it hold up in practice? Yes and no. It’s entirely possible that a particular mix of older and new projects makes the most efficient workflow for which of the 30 projects they’ll want to work on when operations resume. After all, games are not uniform. Suppose one of the new projects has only 5 molds and one of the old projects from before the pause has 20 molds. Those two projects could form an efficient combination together if the factory had 25 injection machines. Furthermore, how many miniatures are being made per mold? Perhaps the project with 5 molds has lots more minis per mold than the one with 20 molds, meaning those 5 injection machines will be used for longer. The factory will work out which project is best to fit in with those 20 machines after that project is done. And so forth.
My point is that “first in, first out” may be less efficient overall from the factory’s perspective which seeks to maximize its total output and total revenue it can get from clients. And that might mean, sometimes, that older projects are not “first” to resume even when operations resume.
While we have a good relationship with all the factories we use (and we use several), I am not privy to the ways they prioritize every project, and there’s only so much influence I can wield in very unusual circumstances such as this. I’m sure every client was simultaneously asking when things will be ready and how long the delay is, and if there’s can be put to the head of the line, etc. (And if any factory would be accepting more money to be earlier in line, that’s not something we can afford right now for any of our projects – and it feels ethically dubious to do so, anyway, which makes me averse to the idea).
One way I have helped influence things is by physically visiting the factory floor in China. By going to the factory, the management wants to show me their progress and give me very concrete details on everything. Because I’m there in person. I’ve seen this help move our projects along several times in the past – for a few years in a row I went at least twice per year. But I haven’t been to any factory since November 2019. This 14 month gap is the longest I’ve been away since I first went to a factory in 2014. This pandemic sucks for lots of reasons, and this is one of them.
Not everything of ours has been affected. For example, our Hastur Rising project did not experience very long of a pause (it did have a brief one). We sent the 3D files during the height of the pandemic, but because of the nature of the project – with one miniature – it was judged something that can basically continue with very little additional delays once normal operations resumed in the summer. This no doubt pushed back projects of other clients of that particular factory. Sorry guys!
My ultimate point is not to describe all the actual logistics of a factory – after all, I don’t mention Chinese New Year, a regular major pause in operations, and projects are of various sizes so having a uniform “30” capacity in a given month is totally bogus – as is the idea that only exactly 3 new projects can start, and 3 projects leave every month like clockwork. Clearly this all depends on each project individually.
My point is that there IS a capacity, and ever since the lockdown all factories we work with have been at overcapacity while seeking to get things back to normal. Remember, just because operations have “resumed” as long ago as six months doesn’t mean that everything was only delayed by the amount of time of the “pause” itself.
Oh, and we’re STILL sending new projects to them. I have all the files ready for the follow up to Cthulhu Wars: Duel, for example. And they say nothing on this can start until after Chinese New Year, even though that’s still weeks away.
Also Shipping. Major backlog there. Check out this piece from my friend, Tony Mastrangeli.
Although things may not be pretty, at least now you know. Which is half the battle, I’m told.
UPDATE January 19th:
Six temporary hospitals have already sprung up again – one built in 5 days – in response to the resurgence of Covid-19 in China.
When I was 13 years old, I invented an alien race to rule the star empire I pretended to control in my fun pretend games with my pals. All my friends invented alien nations too. Mine were the broodmasters – hideous black hulks without any sensory organs except telepathy. They spawn small arachnid-like broodlings from their bodies to act as workers, soldiers, and everything else. While the broodmaster itself hid in an underground burrow or a fortress, the broodlings swarmed over the landscape building a civilization, all under direct control of their ruling broodmaster’s immense mind. Over the years I kept refining these aliens until I understood almost all the details of their grim society, rapacious personalities, and strange biology. Then I turned 16, found out about girls, and that was that for the broodmasters.
In 1991, I designed the games Lightspeed and Hyperspeed for MicroProse Software, and I needed a bunch of aliens. Naturally, with the Broodmasters already pre-designed so to speak, I put them into this game series:
In 2018, I designed the tabletop game Hyperspace, and once again I needed a bunch of alien civilizations. Naturally, I pulled the broodmasters out of my back pocket. Again. And this time I made them a key feature of the game – one of the four core civilizations. In February 2019 we crowdfunded Hyperspace to reasonable success. Presumably they wouldn’t show up again. I mean, why would they?
But in March 2019, I had an extremely detailed dream. In this dream, I was designing a game in which a broodmaster was attacking the modern Earth. It was launching baby broodmasters onto the planet surface, molting them into adults, spawning broodlings, seizing control of human military units and leaders, and so forth. It was quite detailed. It was a two-player game – one as the broodmaster, the other as the human resistance. I don’t know how long the dream went on – time & dreams are hard to reconcile, and I have absolutely fallen asleep, had a long involved dream, awakened and seen that it was only 20 minutes later. Go figure.
Anyway after I woke up, I realized that all the core systems for a Brood vs. Humanity game had been designed by my sleeping mind. It was like a free game design. I didn’t do much about it till September, when I finally felt impelled to actually create this game, which I then named Invasion of the Brood.
So I started. I had a working prototype by October, which I playtested, and even took to Europe to conventions. It was a fun fast game and of course highly asymmetrical – the two sides don’t even have the same turn sequence. Response by my testers was super-positive, and now at last it is being released – about 10 months after I finished all testing and writing. But my team had other projects to work on, so Invasion of the Brood was on a back burner for a while.
But now at least it appears – my dream game, literally. This has never happened to me at any other time. Yes I have dreams about game design, but usually these dreams are along the lines of putting together a single game map; creating a monster; going to a playtest only to realize I’m not wearing pants; or finding out that my game prototype closet is full of huge spiders (I hate that one).
This is the only dream I can remember in which I designed a whole project from start almost to finish while I slept, so naturally I think it’s a pretty unusual origin story for a game. Let me know what you think, on the various Petersen Games social media sites.
Evacuate came about because I thought, “What game wants the player to be in the middle of a pack? Not the first, but not the last.” In most games, you are racing to be the first, the one in the lead. So I had to think of a way to convince the player that they didn’t necessarily want to be in the lead. What if there was danger all around and you didn’t know what was around the next corner? Would you want to lead the pack? And if the danger is all around then you don’t want to be at the back of the pack either. You want to be protected like the president with people all around you.
Next, I wanted a game that everyone started equal and had the same opportunities to play cards. There is luck of the draw in most games or roll of the dice. Evacuate (basic game) gives the players the same set of cards in their hand. This allows the players be on equal footing, and pushes them to out think their opponents instead of hoping for a good draw. In Evacuate, players need to estimate what everyone else is going to do on a turn and play accordingly.
Deck building has been something that I really enjoy, but has been done many times in other games. I thought “What about everyone contributing to the deck that is built? That would be different.” So in Evacuate, if a player loses a miniature, then they get to decide what card is added to the Nomia Deck. The deck is built by the community of players during the game, of course it might start to segue in a certain direction trying to even the playing field.
Finally, randomness is a necessary evil in a game. I would prefer that their was not randomness or very little. I really think the key to randomness is that it is the same for all players. Meaning that all players have to deal with the same randomness, be it a die roll or a draw of a card. In Evacuate, their are two random events that happen. First, the community built Nomia Deck has a card drawn each turn. The card is random, but all players have knowledge of what cards are in the deck – giving them the ability to predict what card will be drawn next. The other randomness in the game is the corridor that the players are running on. The player that reaches the end of the current corridor gets to choose if the pack turns left or right – thus they draw two cards and choose one for the next corridor.
I hope that you find Evacuate as fun to play as I enjoyed designing it.
Potions and Profits came from the desire to build a game around imperfect information. There are many games about pushing your luck, value speculation, or just mitigating randomness but few built around giving players only general clues about the board state. A game with perfect information becomes one of low luck and high skill but this limits the enjoyment of many players. The game chess already exists and not everyone desires to play that game at every opportunity. On the other end of the spectrum are games that are high luck and low skill as the amount of information hidden from the players or random number generation makes it impossible to optimize play. I find that Potions and Profits sits in an interesting design space where it has some hidden information but every move a player takes grants imperfect information to every player, making every move engaging for everyone else at the table.
Potions and Profits intentionally uses multiple types of card backs. All players know if a player is playing “positive”, “negative”, or “weird” cards, but only the one holding the card knows how game changing the card is. As nearly all cards are played face down during games of Potions and Profits, all the players at the table can try to discern the reason a type of card was played at any given point. This creates the wonderful type of gameplay that can only be experienced with human players. It is the classic “I know that you know that I know that they know that I know…” situation. If there is a potion a specific player needs to win, everyone else may start throwing all their negative cards at it to try and make it no longer worth that player’s time. If that player then throws one of the “weird” cards face down on that potion, it creates a puzzle for everyone to mull over. Did that player just find a way to nullify all the negative cards or did they just throw in something useless to tempt someone else to take the still ruined potion? It is a much more interesting game scenario than face down cards with identical backs. Hidden information often leads to individual players trying to mitigate the randomness surrounding their own turns while imperfect information leads to interesting speculation around your and your opponent’s optimal play.
Players are unable to take an action in Potions and Profits without signaling to other players what their intent might be. Advanced players know that this applies to most every game but Potions and Profits puts that fact front and center for everyone to enjoy. Imperfect information gives the average gamer a taste of the high-level reading and bluffing that most games keep hidden away for only the veteran players to discover. Potions and Profits isn’t a game where players first memorize typical play sequences and then can later dedicate mental energy to reading other player’s actions. Reading other players and analyzing the board state is built into the game from the first time you open the box. When gamers start playing with the imperfect information of Potions and Profits, they may well learn how players present these clues in other games, without the need for differing card backs giving that away.
– Zoran Dobrijevic (Designer of Potions & Profits)