Do you like solo?

Testing a solo variant of Masterwork

While Masterwork was originally conceived as a game for 2-4 players, I’m now testing a version that will allow players to go it alone. [Setting aside the argument that a ‘solo game’ is not actually a game at all, but a puzzle.]

There seems to be an increased interest in solo gaming, and the benefits are obvious: your gaming needs might not be met by the availability of people to play with, or perhaps you like to rapidly try different play strategies. Solo gaming is obviously a different experience, so I’m wondering: what do you get from it? Does ‘winning’ feel the same as when playing with other players? Are you rewarded with a different type of satisfaction?

So, do you play board games solo? If so, which ones? And what are the best and worst parts of solo play? Please message me (or comment below) and share your experiences!


PDXAGE 2017 recap


Whew! What a whirlwind weekend of game testing at PDXAGE! After a multi-week sprint to get ready for the event, it’s nice to be able to take a brief break as I prep for the mad dash towards Kickstarter next month. For those interested about the game testing experience at the con, I through I’d share a few notes about the experience:

Testing frequency

I was fortunate to be able to run about fifteen play sessions over the weekend, which is pretty good for a 45-60 minute game. There were a few periods where I was looking for players, but overall steady throughout. More would have been better of course, but I’m super-excited about all the tests that I did get to do.

Learning to teach, teaching to learn

As part of running all those the tests, I got better at teaching other how to play Masterwork. A game convention isn’t an environment where you spend a ton of time reviewing the rules, so I had to learn how to quickly get players up-to-speed and having fun. It really is a skill. Showing the game over and over taught me which bits are essential elements before play, which ones need some explanation, and what can be introduced progressively over time.

Repetition… repetition… repetition…

Unless you’re running a marathon Pandemic Legacy game, it’s pretty uncommon to play the same game a dozen times in a weekend. Good thing I enjoy playing Masterwork or it would have gotten old, fast. I got a little fatigued by the end, but overall it was a great experience. If you’re making a game, expect to play it a lot.  A lot a lot!

Convention size matters

PDXAGE is a smaller con; perhaps 500 people playing, in one enormous room. Compared to GameStorm last month (which was 4-5x larger), this was at first a bit disappointing. However, despite the size I found plenty of players interested in trying the game. One huge benefit was that everyone could find the Masterwork table, so interested players could find it easily.

Quality feedback

The gameplay was proven solid (whew!) and I got some helpful ideas for tweaks that will make Masterwork play even better. My players were thoughtful, generous, and extremely positive in their feedback. The biggest post-convention change will be a layout update to the Artwork card; to make it easier to use during play and more accessible for color-blind players. Given that color elements are critical to the play experience, the importance of this color-blind feedback was huge! Masterwork is designed to be interesting for avid gamers while still having mainstream appeal… so it needs to be as widely accessible as possible.

Theme appeal

One of the core tenets of RonJohn Games is to cultivate interest in the humanities: the Visual Arts, Music, Philosophy, and Culture. I had some concerns that, because Masterwork didn’t feature zombies, cats, Cthulhu, or dungeons, I’d have trouble finding an audience. I needn’t worried. Nearly every tester expressed appreciation for these Renaissance masterpieces (and even more so about the prospect of playing with the Impressionists too (spoilers!)).

A couple of images of the action

A huge thanks to everyone who came out and gave the game a try. Your feedback made Masterwork better!


Masterwork prototypes are here… let the games begin!

It’s finally all in the box

Game prototypes have arrived at RonJohn Games HQ and the ‘pretty-much-final’ rulebooks are done… we’re ready to play at PDXAGE tomorrow!

Come join us for some game testing, light strategy, and beautiful renaissance artwork.


Box art reveal!

A hero image is worth a thousand words

Masterwork is design complete*! Woot! I’m excited to share with you this hero image of the box art for Masterwork. Getting to this milestone has been a long time coming and we’re getting very close to ‘Kickstarter ready’ (and print ready, for that matter). Hurray!

A huge thank you to everyone who has offered help, support, and positive words. Your well-wishes and positive vibes kept fuel in the tank to get all this graphic design done.

What I learned:
Don’t settle for your first pass at anything. While the older (temporary) box (see below) art was elegant, I was concerned that it didn’t offer enough shelf appeal and communicated very little about the game. ‘Apple-like’ – looked nice but a bit boring.

Older box art – clean but generic and a bit boring

The new art features the most famous painting of all time and shows some of the wood theme that is shared throughout all the game elements. On the final print packaging, it will look particularly good with a ‘Spot UV’ treatment, a transparent coating that makes the colors (especially the Gold ink) really vibrant and shiny and standout from the matte wood texture.

Soon I’ll be able to share actual photographs of the box art. Stay tuned!


*Except for the rules, which will be validated by game testing at PDXAge this coming weekend. 🙂

The fast train out of Shitsville

99.9% of the time, the first version of anything is usually shit. Did da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ spring complete from his brush in one breezy afternoon? Umm, yeah, no. Success comes from trying something, assessing what you’ve done, measuring the distance between what you have and what you want, and making the right choices to move you closer to your goal. The challenge is that this process can take a while. Depending on what you’re making, it can take a really long time. So much so, it’s easy to give up before you’re done. Seth Godin calls this “The Dip”. Creating something great takes tenacity more than brilliance. It’s just a lot of work.

Coming from a tech development background, one tool I’ve found that translates well to other arenas of life is Iterative Development. Iterative development states that it’s critical to get your product to a workable state, and from that state, start progressively improving it over time. This is particularly helpful when it’s difficult to know how your product functions without user input. People have a hard time giving feedback on an idea instead of a thing.

This working method is incredibly useful in game development. It’s hard to know if mechanics work, if emotional engagement is there, if the game is even fun… if you can’t actually play it. The key here is to find the minimal viable product (MVP) – how little effort can you expend before you can start testing your ideas? The less you build before you test saves time; you’re not building things that will eventually go in the trash. It’s been said many times before, but I’ll repeat it here: the key to success is failing quickly. Get all the bad ideas out of the way. Or as I like to call it, getting on the fast train outta Shitsville.

Get all the bad ideas out of the way. Or as I like to call it, getting on the fast train outta Shitsville.

You can increase your chances of success by failing faster. By lowering the investment to get bad ideas out of the way, it’s easier to surface the good ones. You’re less likely to waste time following tangents and pursuing useless features. You’ll more quickly learn which bits are actually important and which don’t make the game better. Or even worse, which bits make the game unnecessarily long, more complicated, or less accessible.

Back in the early days of my career I frequently said the phrase “Don’t kill my babies!” By this I meant, don’t judge an initial design as a final product; recognize that it is the foundation upon which the final product will be built and give feedback accordingly. Now I realize that I shouldn’t have shared products before they were minimally viable; once they were, the feedback I received would be useful. It’s important to share your project as soon as they’re viable, and protect them until then.

Ok, what’s minimally viable?

Different creative ventures have different standards upon what is deemed minimally viable. And you should keep in mind the specific questions you’re trying to answer. A certain stage of development can viable to answer one type of question but unsuitable for another. For example, while making Masterwork, a very early prototype was sufficient to validate that the game mechanics would work. But that same prototype was unable to answer questions like, “Does the pacing feel right? Is the turn length sufficiently short that I don’t have to give non-active player something to do? Is the deck size balanced for the correct card probability?” Those questions got answered in later versions… when the game got to the MVP state necessary to answer those questions.

The process is to playtest, take in feedback, make changes, and produce another prototype as quickly as possible and test again. Masterwork had eight versions before final. That’s seven structural and visual prototypes that were produced, tested, and ultimately discarded. Certainly a lot, but probably not as many as there could have been if I hadn’t iterated quickly and early.

In a future post, I’ll describe some of the tricks I learned to help makes prototypes quickly. I am by no means an expert at this but I’m getting better and I feel these are important tools for every game maker to learn. You can’t just create it whole in your brain – you have to put it in front of players as much as possible and measure feedback and iterate. That’s how you take the fast train out of Shitsville.