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.
I’ve had an interesting relationship with trick taking games over my first four years in the hobby. Though unlike most of my relationships, which decay and wither away into shriveled husks of bitterness and resentment over enough time, this one actually improved!
You see, when I first discovered the idea of a trick taking game, my mind was filled with boring looking card games played with a standard 52 card deck. Games that you’d play as a kid with your grandparents to pass the time because they had no clue what a Sega Genesis was. As I played so many new hobby games, experiencing cool mechanics like worker placement and deck building for the first time, the last thing I wanted to do was play a game that was just playing cards, like I was some kind of peasant.
Turns out, I was a moron. Actually, I am a moron, but that’s besides the point. The key here is that I’ve grown to love trick taking games and it’s because I actually went ahead and played some of them. Who’d have thought that experiencing something instead of making uninformed judgments is actually fairly beneficial??
To be fair, I am still wary of playing straight, no frills trick taking games. What I like in my trick taking games are unique twists or cool themes, something that makes them pop when put up against their normal run of the mill card game grandparents, like Pinochle or Hearts. While Pinochle and Hearts are wasting away in their retirement homes, I’m playing hip, young games like The Fox in the Forest and Tournament at Camelot. The Fox in the Forest is a sublime 2 player only trick taking game that is driven by a unique scoring mechanism that makes every card played a nail biting affair. Meanwhile, Tournament at Camelot takes trick taking and turns it into an Arthurian slugfest, like Super Smash Bros meets Medieval Times. It’s a raucous game that revels in chaos thanks to game breaking special powers.
But while those games are amazing, let’s discuss another trick taking game. I’m talking about the star of this very review: Tricky Tides. Designed by Steve Aramini (he of Sprawlopolis and Circle the Wagons fame) and published by Gold Seal Games, Tricky Tides is a game of seafaring merchants in the Age of Sail, trying to make the most gold by delivering goods to certain islands to fulfill rewarding contracts. Players sail around a grid of island cards which all have a certain number of good cubes splayed out on it them. It takes the long standing mechanic of trick taking and combines it with…(checks notes)….pick up and deliver?? Yep, pick up and deliver. And guess what? Not only does it work, but the end result is my favorite trick taking game I’ve ever played.
Before I go into why I love Tricky Tides so much, I should probably describe trick taking to all the normal people out there who don’t have BoardGameGeek set as their internet browser’s home page. Trick taking is a mechanic/type of game whereby cards are played in rounds called ‘tricks’. Generally, the cards are suited and a major hook of trick taking is that when the lead player plays a certain suit, you MUST play a card of the same suit, assuming you have it present in your hand.
The trick taking aspect of Tricky Tides is mostly as described: rounds are played through a series of tricks in which one person plays a card and the other players must follow suit if able. To fall in line with the game’s maritime theme, the suits are various sea monsters. There’s the octopus, whale, shark and…sea dragon? I missed that day in marine biology class, I guess. Anyway, the suits offer the first wrinkle in Tricky Tides devilishly clever design. You see, in Tricky Tides the player who plays the highest on suit card wins the trick, as in pretty much every trick taking game ever, but the person who plays the lowest on suit card gets to trigger a special ability. What’s cooler? These special abilities are the sea monsters themselves.
That’s right, if you ever had the fantasy of being a shark, hoisting yourself on land to eat some tobacco or spice (and let’s face it, who hasn’t), then Tricky Tides is about to fulfill your saltwater drenched dreams. The sea monsters which represent the suits aren’t just there for some old timey nautical window dressing, like some pathetic pirate statue standing outside a novelty restaurant on a New Jersey boardwalk. No, the monsters are actually on the board, represented by little cardboard figures as they roam around, manipulating goods to the whims of the players, like they’re mischievous little elves reorganizing your cupboards or whatever the hell elves do. The player who plays the lowest on suit card gets to activate the sea monster of the suit played, moving them to an adjacent island and firing off their power.
The powers all involve the goods on the islands, which are represented by different colored cubes and play a big part in the pick up and delivery aspect of the game (which I’ll get to in a bit). The shark gobbles up a cube of the island it’s on, transporting it to your own ship through some sort of nautical blood magic that I have no interest in delving into any further. The sea dragon uses its magic breath to transform one type of cube on an island into an entirely different type of cube. Really wishing I had been in marine biology class that day, that thing sounds badass. Meanwhile, the octopus uses its tentacles to either grab a cube from an adjacent island or throw a cube to an adjacent island. Finally, the whale sneezes and blows three cubes out of its blowhole, adding them in a straight line to the islands of the player’s choice. As a bonus, the whale looks incredibly stoned while doing this.
This extra little twist to the trick taking formula feels like a fresh ocean breeze sprinkling a mist into my face. A good trick taking game offers tough hand management choices, forcing you to decide when to use your best cards or when to throw away your low cards and surrender the trick. In Tricky Tides, that hand management is made all the tougher by the tantalizing prospect of controlling sea monsters like Poseidon running a puppet show. Suddenly, these low cards in your hand aren’t just useless flotsam to toss overboard. They have actual use and you’re going to want to make the most of them. Quite often I saw players throw down low cards, expecting to get control of the sea monster only to have it robbed of them by someone playing something even lower, causing the winner of the trick to win with little effort as everyone else basically used their lowest cards for no good reason. In this game, you’re tying to constantly balance winning tricks and activating the sea monsters so that you have the most control over the board state.
What’s so important about winning tricks, you ask? Well to answer that, I need to get to the other big mechanic in Tricky Tides: pick up and deliver.
To those unaware of pick up and deliver, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You pick up things and deliver them. If that sounds a lot like Errands: The Board Game, well, I can’t argue that it’s not the most thrilling sounding thing in the world. People see board gamers and think we’re taking on the roles of knights or warriors or space marines and turns out we’re often just glorified Fed Ex drivers. BUT when done right, pick up and deliver can be just as much fun and satisfying as any other mechanic in board games.
In Tricky Tides, the pick up and deliver comes from going around to islands, picking up cubes and then spending them at other islands to fulfill contracts. The brilliant thing about the game is that how you move is dictated by the card you played in the trick. The cards don’t just have suits on them; they also have a compass. The compass emblazoned in the center of the card has certain directions highlighted which shows you in what direction you can move that turn. Turn order, however, is dictated by who won the trick. Winner of the trick goes first, then the person who played the next highest card then next highest and so on. This means the person who wins the trick gets first dibs on the goods and contracts within their movement range and that can be a HUGE advantage. The amount of times I had a contract or batch of goods sniped out from under me had me cursing like a sailor, which is just another wonderful thematic touch that this game was able to provide me and my game group.
The importance of going first and trying to move in certain directions further enhances that hand management I was talking about. Now you’re not just worried about suit and value like in other trick taking games; now you need to think about how the card is going to make you move. There are times where you really need to get to a certain island for a contract, but you only have one card in your hand that’s pointing in that island’s direction and it’s a card on the lower end value wise. Knowing you will probably be lower in turn order means the chance of having that contract removed by the time you’re supposed to set sail makes you think twice about playing the card. But then again, maybe if it’s a low enough card you can get control of the sea monster and use that to your advantage. Or maybe you just forgo that contract and use a better, higher value card to get somewhere else earlier than the others and try and get some points that way. You are constantly checking your hand, the goods you have, and the contracts you can potentially grab while making sure to pay attention to where your opponents are and what they can potentially grab as well. It is in this way that the Frankenstein fusion of trick taking and pick up and deliver shines. It creates multiple layers of tactics, often subtle but incredibly rich and rewarding.
So the gameplay is an engrossing blend of crafty hand management and efficient movement, but I’ll finish off by saying one of the really BIG things I love about this game is the aesthetics and art. As mentioned more than a few times, the game is set in the Age of Sail and as such sports a very 1600s nautical look. The art, done by Naomi Ferrall, perfectly complements the salty sea dog feel of this game. Her style has an old-fashioned sketchbook look to it, thanks to an art technique known as ‘stippling’ (yep, I had to look that up too). The end result means it’s like you’re looking at illustrations ripped straight from a sailor’s journal. It’s not only beautiful but immersive and I really can’t say enough about it. As someone who has a huge soft spot for anything maritime or nautical, especially of that time period, I am obsessed with how this game looks. It’s so authentic looking, I burst into sea shanties the moment it hits the table.
I’ll end this review by repeating what I said in the beginning. Tricky Tides is my new favorite trick taking game. In a market where trick taking games are seeing a bit of a resurgence, that is quite the feat. Its innovative gameplay and gorgeous art combine to make a captivating package that you should definitely check out.