As I finished up the rules overview to send to Pat, the last thing I had to do was figure out what the theme and name was going to be. The concepts of shifting power structures and secret allegiances brought to mind a world of political machinations and hushed deals in council chambers. This, of course, evoked a Game of Thrones style world to me. As a huge Game of Thrones fan (well, before those last two seasons at least), I was instantly enamored with crafting my own George R. R. Martin style world of bitter House rivalries and Machiavellian backstabbing. I immediately began to write down some ideas for various medieval Houses/families, trying to come up with things like their names, sigils and brief biographies.
But you know that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine starts hanging out with a Bizarro version of the group? And then George makes a last-minute plea to join the Bizarro gang as Elaine chooses them over the real characters? Elaine’s response is “We already have a George.” That’s how I felt about this theme. We already have a George and we already have a Game of Thrones. Why bother trying to out George R. R. Martin the author himself when I could just try something different and perhaps something more unique?
The obvious next step in this theme’s evolution? Bugs. Yes, bugs. Why did I choose bugs? Great question! I have no clue. My brain suddenly spat out this idea of anthropomorphic bugs in a Game of Thrones style world and I was instantly smitten. I began to draft the rules in a way that supported this new theme, replacing all references to various Houses with bug types. The bugs I chose – ants, flies, cockroaches, bees, and mosquitos – were mostly placeholders and the ones I came up with off the top of my head, but they just kind of stuck throughout the entire process. So, they’re still here, as the official suits in the game! Congrats to all the bugs who made it this far! Except for the mosquitos, I will never congratulate a mosquito on anything.
Next came the game title. When going with the more typical Game of Thrones theme, I was thinking of calling the game something like ‘Houses of <whatever name I came up with for the fictional game world>’. Now that the idea of medieval Houses was gone, replaced with bug species I was referring to as ‘Factions’ within the rule book, it obviously didn’t fit right. So, I went to the next idea, which was to draw off the fact that I had named the mancala area the ‘Council’ and tried playing around with the title of ‘Council of <whatever name I came up with for the fictional game world>’. But this felt too generic and didn’t quite capture the all-important fact that this is a game where bugs are the stars.
So, how did I subtly hint that this game is about bugs?? By adding the word ‘Bug’ in front of ‘Council.’ Hey, I never claimed to be clever or smart.
So, there we had it: Bug Council. I almost left it there as the title but, again, it didn’t have the panache that I wanted. I went back to the idea of ‘Bug Council of <whatever name I came up with for the fictional game world>’ but that required having a name for the fictional realm these bugs would inhabit. I pondered for a bit…Bugtopia? Nah, felt like that’s been used before. Bugopolis? Ehh, still didn’t feel creative enough. Then I began thinking about how bugs are found in a backyard and before I knew it my fingers typed out the name ‘Backyardia’.
And so it was born: Bug Council of Backyardia.
That’ll conclude Part Two! In Part Three, I’ll go into how we managed to playtest the game and how that first iteration felt. See you then!
Hello! Welcome to my Designer Diary series for Bug Council of Backyardia! Bug Council of Backyardia (which will henceforth be called BCoB, to preserve my typing fingers) is a game I codesigned and it’s going to be launching on Kickstarter on August 3rd. If at the time of reading this it’s live, check it out here!: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/engrogames/bug-council-of-backyardia
I figured it might be fun to peel back the curtain a bit and recount the history of the game. I couldn’t find a film crew in time to make a feature length documentary, so I figured I’d write some designer diaries. Oh well, maybe next Kickstarter.
In this first post, I’ll be going over the genesis of the game’s initial ideas and the various inspirations I drew from to create the game’s foundation. Grab your picnic blanket and citronella candles and let’s dive in!
The idea to BCoB came to me while I was doing what I love most: sleeping. I was awoken by my girlfriend early one morning as she was leaving for work and as I drifted back into my slumber, I saw it through the groggy haze: a trick taking game with a mancala mechanism. I envisioned tiles with cubes, representing how strong the suits were and the mancala would dynamically shift those cubes and suit strengths around. A voice in my head screamed at me to not forget this idea and I pinned it to the back of my brain as I fell back asleep for good.
(Fun fact: Keith Richards came up with the riff to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in his sleep. He immediately picked up a guitar and recorded it so he wouldn’t forget before promptly falling back sleep. So, I guess my point is the next time you have a choice between waking up and sleeping in, always sleep in. You never know what you’ll come up with.)
When I awoke, I thankfully had the idea still implanted in my mind. I immediately started to draft up a Word document with the basic ideas that I half dreamt as well as new ones I was creating to supplement those. As I wrote the document, I began to see various inspirations bubbling to the top: the ever changing suit hierarchy reminded me of Maskmen, one of my favorite Oink games; a mechanism in which you gained points for a card you kept at the end of the round brought to mind Startups, (another Oink game) and Nokosu Dice, two games in which unplayed cards/dice provide bonuses; being able to activate the mancala by playing the lowest on suit card had shades of Tricky Tides, a unique trick taking and pick up deliver game in which playing the lowest on suit card allows you to control a sea monster.
Whether these inspirations were purposeful or had come to me on a subconcious level, I wasn’t quite sure. But what I did know was that they were creating a Frankenstein monster of mechanisms in a way that got me more excited for this prospective design than I had ever been for one of my own game ideas. I knew I just had to send this idea to my buddy Patrick Engro, one of my best friends who had been my main board gaming partner before he moved from the States to Japan.
Little did I know the journey this would begin.
That’ll do it for Part One of this Designer Diary! In Part Two, I’ll answer the burning question on everybody’s mind: why the hell did I choose bugs??
It’s not often (read: never) I get asked to do a Kickstarter preview so when it does happen, you better believe I’ll take up on it. Patrick Engro of Engro Games reached out to me to preview a game for his first ever Kickstarter, a little micro card game called Okazaki. It’s being Kickstarted along with another game called Reach and while I haven’t had the chance to play that one, I did get to play Okazaki a handful of times. So, what do I think of it?
Full disclosure before I get into my thoughts on the game. I’m actually close friends with Pat in real life. We went to college together and we stayed in touch afterwards. Pat is actually the person I entered the hobby with and he was my primary gaming buddy before he moved to Japan early last year. So, if you want to take what I say with a grain of salt for that reason, you’re more than free to do so. I am simply doing this preview because he asked and because it helps give Okazaki and his Kickstarter a little more exposure. Besides, it’s not like it’s a paid preview, since we all know the furor that sort of thing gets.
Now that the boring administrative stuff is out of the way, let’s get back to Okazaki. Okazaki is a two player only trick taking game in which you’re trying to replicate a sequence of cards that sits in the table between you and your opponent. The first unique thing you’ll notice about this game is that the cards are all identical. They’re double sided cards with two halves on each, separated by a helix which helps add to the whole DNA replication theme that the game is portraying. The point of the game is to manipulate these cards and get them into their proper orientation. It’s a real clever use of identical cards and the game never feels restricted by what you would assume is a fairly restrictive conceit.
The gameplay itself has a quasi trick taker feel to it. Anyone reading the top 100 on my blog knows that I love a good trick taker, so this excited me going in. It’s important to note, though, that this isn’t a TRUE trick taker in the common sense. There are no suits and thus no following of suits, but players play a card from their hand and whoever plays the higher card wins the trick. This allows them to get first dibs at drafting a card from the play area, of which there are three (the two cards played by the player as well as a common card that sits in the middle between them). This can be hugely important as it allows you to get a card you may desperately need for your hand or your sequence while also depriving your opponent of something tasty.
Luckily, losing a trick is not the end of the world. Smartly, Okazaki has a mechanism called mutation abilities, which are activated by the person who lost the trick. These mutation abilities are the key to getting cards orientated the way you need them to be and often results in players losing tricks on purpose so that they can change a card around. It’s nice to get a consolation prize for losing a trick, especially when that prize can play such a big role in winning the game.
The best way to describe Okazaki is puzzle-y. I love a good puzzle in my games, where you have to twist knobs and press buttons in your brain to try and figure out the solution. When this mental safecracking results in a successful play or move, there are few things as satisfying in gaming. Okazaki is right in this wheelhouse, featuring lots of maneuvers and manipulation to get the cards you need in your sequence.
As fun as this puzzle is to solve, I do have a few quibbles with Okazaki that are worth mentioning. The first criticism kind of goes along with what I just discussed. It’s a very puzzle-y game, which I love, but it’s more strategic puzzle than a tactical one. I much prefer tactical puzzles, where the board state is constantly changing and you have to adapt and make plays based on what your opponents have done before you. Okazaki is not quite that. This is a game where you need to think several turns ahead, setting up plays that will eventually pay off like you’re stuffing mementos in a time capsule for Future You to find later. This is totally subjective, though. If you really like that long term planning over more reactive turn to turn decision making, Okazaki should be right up your alley.
My second criticism is that sometimes I felt like I was spinning my wheels, trying to achieve something but constantly having it undone. In order to get a card into your sequence, you need to link it up with the common card in a specific fashion and that can be tough depending on the board state. A game between me and my friend took twice as long as it probably should have because we both got stuck into a rut where we just were having trouble accomplishing anything. Is this simply because we’re trash at the game and just hadn’t gotten a hold of the nuances and subtle strategy required to be successful? That’s more than likely, yes, but it still created moments of frustration that I felt needed to be admitted here.
Outside of these two things, Okazaki is a good, fresh feeling micro game. It’s a fun puzzle that is addictive and sharp and certainly deserves checking out. It launches on February 18th and you can find it here.
Anybody who has read even a few reviews on this blog knows that I love Button Shy. I feel like at this point I should be walking the streets in a Button Shy jumpsuit, like a NASCAR driver with a major sponsor. But what can I say? They make great, unique games and I will gladly take the opportunity to evangelize them whenever I can.
If you don’t know what Button Shy is,it’s an independent publisher who specialize in micro games that are released in actual, literal wallets and they have been on fire the past year. They’ve seen some of their most popular and beloved games released in 2018 and 2019. Games like the excellent Circle the Wagons, a two player tile laying game in the Wild West, Sprawlopolis, a cooperative city builder, and Stew, an amazing mix of push your luck, deduction and bluffing, are all proof that Button Shy is in their publishing prime.
As if those titles weren’t enough, Button Shy is also hot off the heels of their most successful Kickstarter project ever: Tussie Mussie. Designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, she of Wingspan fame, Tussie Mussie is an ‘I Cut, You Choose’ card game based around the Victorian era fad of communicating through flowers. Over 4,000 backers were part of the Tussie Mussie campaign, and I had the fortune to review it here on this blog. Check out my review here and, SPOILERS, the game was awesome.
Naturally, the next game in their Kickstarter line up has some massive shoes to fill. Button Shy’s latest offering is Seasons of Rice, a two player tile laying game set in the world of Cambodian rice farming. Just like with Tussie Mussie, I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Seasons of Rice sent to me, courtesy of Button Shy. Is Seasons of Rice another gleaming jewel in the ever-growing crown of Button Shy’s recent hits or is it a disappointing step back? Thankfully, it’s the former.
As I briefly touched upon, Seasons of Rice, designed by Corry Damy is a two player tile laying game and it’s all about trying to create the best rice paddy farms in Cambodia. Like all Button Shy games, it’s just a deck of 18 cards. The cards are double sided: on one side is an Ancestor which provide bonus points or special abilities while the other side is a landscape illustration that you’ll be building your rice paddies with, featuring things like paths, farmers, houses and roaming buffalo.
The game is played over two seasons: the Wet Season and the Dry Season. The Wet Season incorporates a play and pass card drafting mechanic in the style of Sushi Go or 7 Wonders while the Dry Season has players drafting cards from a display left over from the Wet Season.
First, let’s start with the Wet Season. The two players start with a hand of seven cards and on each turn, players simultaneously choose two cards to play. One of those cards go into the player’s personal landscape, which is what you’re trying to build and expand over the course of the game, while the other goes into a row of cards that will be drafted from during the Dry Season. After this is done, players exchange hands and do the same thing. Rinse and repeat till your hands are empty and you move onto the Dry Season, where players simply alternate taking one card from the display formed during the Wet Season.
This drafting system is one of the things I really like about this game. The fact that you must pick two cards, giving one to yourself and giving the other to a communal row for a later round is really unique. It reminds me of games like Biblios and Herbaceous, which feature similar wrinkles on card drafting. You’ll obviously want to take cards that help yourself, but what about the card you’re punting to the Dry Season? Do you choose a card that might come in handy for your landscape later or do you choose something that appears useful to your opponent to block them from using it during the Wet Season? This makes for some real interesting decision making and helps set the tone for the second half of the game.
Of course, the drafting is just small part of the game compared to the actual tile laying. Considering the building of your landscape is what actually nets you the points in the game, you need to be crafty and smart with how you build things out. The rules of placement are pretty typical of the genre. You have to place adjacently and features in one card have to match a feature in the other card. The cool thing about Season of Rice though, is that you can place cards partially adjacent to each other, as long as you’re connecting like features. This is not something I’ve seen before in the genre and it leads to some cool looking landscapes. Being able to stagger the cards also opens things up strategically, allowing you to really get creative with how you form the paddies. This is a very good thing, since I was concerned landscapes would look too similar game to game as a result of the small deck size. Button Shy once again proves that it’s not the size of your deck, but how you use it.
As you build your landscape, you’re working to close paddies up on your farm. Closing paddies means you have a continuous, closed path cordoning off a set of squares in your landscape. You score based on the amount of squares and houses in the paddy as well getting bonuses from the number of farmers and buffaloes toiling away inside of it.
This means that it’s not simply about building the biggest paddy. A paddy with just two squares but a buffalo and a farmer in it can net you more points than a paddy with three empty squares. Not only that, but players score one point for every closed paddy they have in their landscape at the end of the game. So that means the player who small balls their way through the game, closing lots of small paddies and getting short bursts of points, will also find themselves with a bigger bonus at the end of the game than the person who patiently waited to complete just a few, large paddies. Of course, a well-built large paddy can net you double digit points and can help overcome the fact that you may end the game with just a mere three or four closed paddies. As like any great game, it’s a tight balancing act and the player who more shrewdly builds their farm with the cards available will end up winning.
The last thing I’ll praise about this game is the Ancestors. I very briefly mentioned them earlier as the opposite side of the landscape cards. At the beginning of the game, players have a choice of two Ancestors. Whichever one they choose will give them some sort of scoring condition or bonus ability to be exploited throughout the game. These Ancestors all provide a nice distinct feel to each game and help formulate the type of rice paddies you’ll want to construct. For example, there is Sovannarith, who gives you 4 points at the end of the game if you have more farmers in your landscape than your opponent, promoting a farmer heavy strategy. Then there is Vivadh, who allows you to increase the amount of points gained from buffaloes when they’re combined with farmers in the same paddy. With 18 possible Ancestors to be randomly selected from every game, chances are good you’ll end up with a different one, making Seasons of Rice very replayable for its diminutive size.
Unfortunately, every review needs to point out some negatives and this is no exception. I think my biggest issue with the game is that it can be tough to parse and visualize how certain cards can fit in your landscape. The game has lots of angles and zig zags and it isn’t quite as easy to see how things will line up and set up for future turns as, say, the roads in Carcassonne or the different types of colored areas in Kingdomino. In pretty much every playthrough I had of this, there was a lot of taking cards and physically lining them up, apologizing to the other player for taking so long as you tried to figure out how exactly the cards can best be used. It’s entirely possible I’m just dumb, but I do feel like the spatial aspect is a bit trickier and not as intuitive as other tile laying games I’ve played.
If you don’t mind a bit of a learning curve with the spatial puzzle of the game, Seasons of Rice is an enjoyable tile laying game with a wonderful and unique drafting system. At just 10-15 minutes per play, you’ll definitely find yourself playing games of this back to back to back. The Kickstarter for Seasons of Rice launches July 9th and if you want to experience first hand why Button Shy is one of the hottest independent publishers in the industry, I highly suggest you check it out.
It’s that time again, everyone. It’s time for me to gush about yet another Button Shy game.
I’ve sang the praises about Button Shy on this blog before. I’ve reviewed both Stew and Sprawlopolis, two games in their extensive library of micro games that I dearly love. If you haven’t read either of those reviews and are unfamiliar with Button Shy, allow me to spread the gospel. They specialize in micro games, games that are small enough to fit in a wallet. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way, they literally come in wallets.
The latest in this line of wallet games is Tussie Mussie, an ‘I Split, You Choose’ card game from Elizabeth Hargrave. If you don’t know who Elizabeth Hargrave is, you probably should. Hargrave is the designer of the recent smash hit Wingspan. Wingspan is essentially the board game equivalent of a piece of toast with an imprint of the Virgin Mary on it because a copy of it recently sold on eBay for over $1,000. If your game sells for 1,000 of anything, you’re probably doing something right.
While I haven’t had a chance to play Wingspan, Hargrave’s name is one of the biggest reasons I was excited to play Tussie Mussie. A collaboration between one of my favorite publishers and one of the industry’s hottest designers? Where do I sign up?? Button Shy was kind enough to send me a review copy and I must say, Tussie Mussie does not disappoint.
Tussie Mussie is about the Victorian era fad of giving and receiving flowers to express feelings. You see, back in Victorian times people didn’t have memes and gifs like we do today, so they had to communicate in other ways. A popular method was by giving bouquets of flowers, or tussie mussies, to each other. The flowers all had different meanings assigned to them, which allowed the giver to communicate certain things. One of Tussie Mussie‘s more subtle but delightful features is that it actually has flavor text on the bottom of each card, displaying the meaning behind that flower. For example, the orchid meant “You are beautiful”, the carnation meant “I do not agree” (which I’m sure led to many a passive aggressive end to arguments), and the hyacinth meant “Please forgive me”.
This world of flower sharing is explored through Tussie Mussie’s ‘I Split, You Choose’ mechanic. For those unfamiliar with this mechanic, it generally involves the active player grouping sets of things, presenting them to other players and then being the last person to get to choose which set they receive. It rewards players for grouping items in as fair a way as possible so that they don’t get left with meager scraps. It’s a mechanic that feels criminally underrepresented in the industry, with the most popular examples of it being the pizza themed set collection game New York Slice and the beautifully agonizing card game Hanamikoji.
The way Tussie Mussie incorporates this mechanic is wonderfully simple. On your turn, you draw two cards from the deck. These cards all represent different flowers, each with a unique scoring condition or power. You choose one of the flowers to put face up and the other to put face down and give them to the person either on your left or right (depending on what point in the round you’re at). That player chooses one of the cards and you receive the other. Once everybody has four cards in front of them, the round ends and everybody scores their flowers. After three rounds, whoever has the most points wins!
Simple, right? Yes, but don’t let that lull you into thinking you can just sleepwalk through all the decisions. One of the key rules in Tussie Mussie is that the person receiving the flowers can’t look at the face down card. They either take the known commodity of the face up card or try their luck with whatever the face down card is hiding. This transforms Tussie Mussie from a peaceful game of collecting flowers into a fiendish string of devious mind games.
For example, let’s say you have a Red Tulip, which gives you a point for every red card you have. You already have two red cards and your opponent entices you with another red card as their face up offering. What seems like an easy decision turns into a torturous one as every synapse in your brain is shouting, “WHAT ARE THEY HIDING, IT CAN’T POSSIBLY BE THIS SIMPLE”. Do you take the red card, helping to bolster the Red Tulip’s scoring condition? Or do you take the face down card, hoping that you deny something that the giver desperately wanted? It’s not any easier being the person who is doing the splitting, either. Do you hide cards that benefit you, fearing your opponent will take it to deny you? Or do you flaunt it as the face up card, just daring the receiver to ignore whatever bounty you put face down?
It instills a manic sense of paranoia that I never thought I could feel from flowers. I can now see why nobody ever smiled in pictures and paintings from Victorian times. The cruel meta that develops from repeated plays of this game with the same group becomes a game unto itself and as someone who loves that sort of thing, Tussie Mussie more than satisfied.
Another thing I absolutely love about this game is that every flower is different. Yes, many of their powers are similar (things like ‘score for every purple flower’ and ‘score for every red flower’), but it still feels like everybody is plucking flowers from a garden and crafting their own tailor made bouquet. By the end of the round, you feel proud of your beautiful tussie mussie if it nets you a solid chunk of points, while you can practically see the cards wilt and droop when you have a bad round of flowers that don’t synergize well. The unique flowers also means play doesn’t get stale and you’ll start to develop favorites (“An orchid? Why yes, I’d LOVE to have a flower that acts as any color”) and not-so-favorites (“DON’T YOU DARE GIVE ME THAT MARIGOLD”). It’s as if each flower has its own personality, helped by that flavor text I mentioned earlier.
The only plant I’d be worthy of receiving is poison ivy if I forgot to mention this game’s art. The art is done by none other than Beth Sobel, one of my favorite artists in the industry. Probably best known for Viticulture, Sobel’s warm, comforting style perfectly fits this game’s theme. Each flower has its own illustration and you can practically smell the different fragrances waft off the petals as you sift through the deck. I mean no disrespect to the other games in Button Shy’s library, but this is almost certainly their most eye pleasing one to date.
Is there a thorn on the stem of this beautiful rose of a game? I will admit there is one little issue I had with the game and that is with the scoring phase. The game is quick and breezy as players build their collection of flowers, but it grinds to a halt at the end of each round as everybody needs to score their sets. With each flower possessing its own effect that interacts with other flowers and their own effects, there is a lot of mumbling and poking at phone calculators at the end of each round which clogs an otherwise sublimely elegant game. It’s a minor thing and far from a deal breaker, but it did have enough of an effect that I felt it worth mentioning.
Tussie Mussie launches on Kickstarter on May 28th and I wholeheartedly recommend that you check it out. It’s a simple but deceptively tricky game that pops on the table despite being just a small deck of cards. If you have yet to try a Button Shy game, this is a fine place to start.