Designer Journal: Pioneers?

Recently, while listening the the Dicetower Podcast, I heard Tom and Eric discuss the lack of games on the market that use the “I split, you pick” mechanic. Essentially this is when one player takes a group of objects and divides them into groups as they see fit. However, the other player(s) get to pick a pile of objects before the the player that created them. This is a simple way to allocate objects to players in a balanced way. This mechanic encourages the player to divide objects evenly, because if they fail to do so, another player will simply take the better pile. I really liked the idea and my brain quickly went to work coming up with a slightly different mechanic.

themeideaWhat I came up with was a mechanic that is best described as “I split, let’s have an auction”. In this method the active player draws random objects (in the case of this design they are harvested resources) and divides them into pile equal to the number of players. The active player must then trigger the auction phase by either making a bid or passing. Once a player passes they may not reenter the auction. Players bid using workers (or pioneers). The auction runs clockwise until all players have passed. The auction is open, so all players see how many pioneers each other player is sending out to harvest. Once all players have passed, the player that bid the highest picks the pile of resources they want. The choosing of piles continues in order of number of pioneers bid until all piles are gone. Ties are resolved by giving the advantage to the player closest to the active player’s left.

This is just the core mechanic in the game, but it works really well. In fact, of all the playtests I have ever run, this was by far my most successful first playtest. But this is just the beginning of how the game works.

The resource tokens that players bid on now sit in front of the player. They must immediately make a choice after receiving new resources. Do they store them for the winter (to score victory points at the games end) OR do they use them to feed their pioneers? The resource tokens are double-sided you see, and on one side is the resource (carrots, fish, berries, etc) and on the other side in a pioneer (in some cases two pioneers). To feed a pioneer, the player simply flips the token to the pioneer side. These new pioneers will be used in future rounds for bidding. Once all players have either stored their resources or turned them into more pioneers, the turn ends, and the player to the left becomes the new active player.

IMG_2593Storing resources is how you score points and eventually win the game. So players must decide if it is better to store goods or create a bigger pool of pioneers so they can win more auctions.

Each player has a player board which represents their store house. There are seven resources in the wilderness and each player has seven slots in their store house. Players are strongly encouraged to store a variety of goods, because this was actually the custom in these days. Variety, especially in regards to fruits and vegetables, directly effected their health and helped fight off deadly diseases like scurvy. Each slot in the store house has a number and as goods are stored players must fill in the first slot first and work their way up the track. The trick is that when a player stores a good they already have, it is placed on top of that existing good. This is only limited by the total number of those resources in the wilderness. Here is the catch. You score increasingly more points as you move up the track. For example, the first good stored is worth 1vp. This means that ever time you store that specific type of good, it will be placed in that same slot and each one of those goods will only be worth 1vp at the end of the game. However, the seventh slot is worth 5vps and each good in the spot will be worth 5vps. This means that players should attempt to get a variety of goods to move up the track quickly.

The game ends after a certain number of rounds based on the number of players. Once over, players simply add up their scores.


This a look at the prototype Store House card that each player will have. It will be jumbo sized (5.5×3.5″). On the left is where the resources are stored, from bottom to top. To the right is a reference of the seven resources with a number indicating the number of each type in the game. 

Raccoons and Bears!!! To encourage players to create pioneers instead of simply storing everything they get, there are a couple of nasty tokens that can come into play. The Raccoon and Bear tokens are mixed in with the resources and are dived into piles by the active player. They can be mixed with resources if the active player so chooses. Both are not welcome and often cause players to bid a bit higher than normal in order to avoid them.

The Raccoon, if received, stays in front of the player. The Raccoon will eat the next resource the player gains. If the raccoon came in a pile containing a resource, it will eat that resource and be on his way. If the Raccoon is gained with more than one resource, the player gets to choose which resource to feed the raccoon. If the raccoon is gained by himself, it camps out in front of that player until the next round, when it will then eat the next resource that player gains.

The Bear is a bit nastier. When gained he eats one resource from the highest valued slot in your store house. Meany!

NOTE: The reason for the escalating values in the store house has to do with freshness (or rot). The linger an item was stored in pioneer days, the less fresh it would be, an in turn, the less valuable it would be for that family.

NOTE#2: I am not 100% set on the theme. I also have considered Native Americans, Vikings in Greenland, and Early Human Civilization. Essentially the mechanics work really well and feel quite organic for any hunting and gathering theme. So the theme could change, but I am really liking the idea of American Pioneers in the north woods.

Thanks for reading and more to come…

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The State of the Gnome Address

NEWGGGLOGO2As most of you may know, Grey Gnome Games is basically a one man operation and has been from day one. My goals for Grey Gnome from the beginning has been to design and publish my own games and it has served that function well. When I first opened Grey Gnome it was in the wake of the recession, when work slowed down in the construction field, the field I work in for my day job. Since then the economy has slowly picked up and I have been working steady for a few years now. Couple this with raising three kids and nurturing a sound marriage and my time has been completely consumed. This brings Grey Gnome to a crossroads.

Up until this point I have been running 2-3 Kickstarters a year. I have been handling all aspects of process from early playtesting, to development, to artwork and graphics, to securing manufacturing, and all the way to actually shipping every game to every backer. I am indeed a crazy man. This has meant that at any given moment during the past 5 years I have been developing a game, manufacturing another game, and likely shipping another, all at the same time. I am a bit burnt out.

z-promoBut there is light at the end of the tunnel. Soon I will be shipping out rewards from our last Kickstarter and I have no other games in manufacturing. I have a break! I certainly need the break and so does my family.

This got me to thinking about the future of Grey Gnome. I certainly do not want to close the doors, nor can I continue at this pace. A compromise is needed. My heart has always been into the designing aspect of the process and that is were I want to invest most of my time. Designing is flexible as far as time goes. I can spend an hour or two of free time working on a game and then walk away. The burden comes when I start the process of manufacturing and then the fulfillment. So I have a plan.

e7cbdc9f21b5beecf94f881daf0c7265_originalThere will be no more Kickstarters this year and moving forward Grey Gnome Games will only be running one Kickstarter a year for a single game. This will allow me to be completely focused on one game from start to finish. No more division of my time. I also plan on designing other games that I will either pitch to other publishers or that I will sell via The Game Crafter. Right now I am already selling Plague and Four Tribes on The Game Crafter as I love their service and their quality has vastly improved over the years.

In light of this big change and also due to the fact that we are approaching our sixth anniversary, I thought it was a cool idea to create a new logo for Grey Gnome Games! I came up with the design above. I mean, how could I go wrong with an actual grey gnome? So moving forward, all or games will be branded with this new logo.

logorenderI have also changed the site itself into more of a blog. You can still buy our games, but the focus now will be on my Designer’s Journals. This way people can follow the progress of my designs on a more personal level and can see how I make changes along the way. I also would love for people to subscribe and leave feedback and ideas.

I am very excited about the future of Grey Gnome Games. I think this extra focus on individual titles with equate to some fantastic games, so stay tuned and thanks for all of your support over the years and in the years to come.


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Designer Journal: The Hunt Below


As I was working on my design for UnderQuest, I stumbled upon a completely new design. Sometimes this happens. I quickly made a crude prototype (index cards, pen, and colored pencils) and the first playtest was a success. This is rarely the case with my designs. I am sure I am not the only one. I think the key to it being successful was that the core mechanics were well-tested and often used. This is not to say there is nothing new here, but the separate parts that make up the whole just seem to always work well. Let’s take a delve shall we?

0-render7The concept is that each player is in control of a small city in a fantasy world. Perhaps you are Barons or Mayors. I have not gotten that far yet, but you do have control over the five main guilds which are; The Thieves’ Guild, The Laborer’s Guild, The Merchant’s Guild, The Mage’s Guild, & The Knight’s Guild.

Each round of the game is made up of five bidding rounds in which cards from the Quest Deck are revealed equal to the number of players. Each player studies the available cards and must decide which Guild they want to send out. Each Guild has a set value (Thieves’ (1), Laborer’s (2), Merchant’s (3), Mage’s (4), & Knight’s (5)). The Thieves’ and laborer’s have some special powers that make up for their low status, but basically the player the blindly bids the highest valued Guild gets to pick a card first, and then the rest of the players take turns selecting cards in order of the value of the card they played.


Each player also starts off with a City Card which indicates the power of the city begins at twelve. What does this mean? We will address that in a moment. The card also gives all players the incentive to collect sets of each goods type in order to gain 5vp at the end of the game. There are many types of cards you can bid on but they all have a power value indicated in the red square. When a player gains a card they place it in front of them, and any additional cards may be added to previous cards on either side as you build a row of cards. You will always have two options for placing an additional card. At any point, after gaining a new card and before new cards are revealed for bidding, you may declare you are ending your quest. If you ever take a card that makes the sum of all your cards greater than that of your cities power, you bust. Think Black Jack.

0-render4The types of cards you can get fall into two distinct categories, cards you keep (buildings) and cards you discard (monsters and treasures). If you successfully end a quest before going bust, you deal with the cards in the following way.

Buildings are added to your city card, on side of your choice. It does not matter were. Buildings add to the power of your city, meaning that you can likely obtain more cards on future quests. Many of them also add demand for certain types of goods and this will give you an incentive to go after particular cards later in order to gain more points at the end of the game.

0-render5Monsters are the creatures the dwell in the places where the goods are residing. They also often are holding onto gold which is indicated in the yellow square on the card. At the bottom of the card you will see two halves of two goods. The card by itself will not gain the player any goods, but place it next to another card you have already gained, making the icons match up, and you will gain that good type, if you successfully end your quest.

0-render3Treasures gain the player gold. For every two gold the player has at the end of the game they gain one point. Whenever a Traveling Merchant Card is drawn from the Quest Deck, all players may buy goods with their gold for the indicated prices on the card.

After four rounds (20 total bidding rounds) the game ends. The player with the most points wins. More to come.

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Designer Journal: Four Tribes 2nd Edition.


Four Tribes is a game I designed a few years back for a design contest on the Game Crafter, where it went on to be a finalist. I made quite a few changes to the design after that contest and I ran a Kickstarter for it in January of 2014 where it raised over $30k and went on to become my highest rated design on Board Game Geek. Four Tribes has recently sold out and I have decided that instead of making a 2nd print run, that I would offer a new version on the Game Crafter.

00-cardrender7The Game Crafter is a Print-on-Demand service based out of Madison Wisconsin, which is just two hours from me. I know the staff there pretty well and I am a curator in their chat room. There is a great community of designers and indie publishers that are very active in the industry that call the Game Crafter home. It felt natural to bring Four Tribes back to the place it started and allow it to live on.

Bringing Four Tribes to the Game Crafter brought a few design challenges and most of them center around getting the game to fit into their “Small Pro Box” (which is by far my favorite box they offer). This box is of very good quality. All the rest of the components are the same as you would get from a larger printer. Their cards are very nice as well, and I upped the quality to include UV coating and a linen finish.

Let’s look at what has changed between the original and the newest version.

Card Count

00-cardrender3The original version had four suits with seven cards in each suit, for a total of 28 cards in each player deck. On top of those basic cards, there were also eight special cards with unique powers, which brought the card count to 36 cards per deck. Lastly, the Kickstarter unlocked an additional ten special cards that players were to choose four of to add to their deck. This brought the grand total to 46 cards per deck with each player only using 40 during a game.

I needed to reduce the card count in order to get everything in this smaller box, so the designer in me got busy trimming the fat. This was a very liberating experience as it allowed me to strip the game down to the basics of what makes it so fun. Once I did that, I was able to add some of the special cards back. So what do the card counts look like now and how does it effect game play?

In the new version each player deck still has the four suits, but this time around there are only five cards in suit. In the original the cards valued one or two in each suit were Dragon Cards which could be played on either side of a village during play. These were nasty cards to play on your opponent. With a reduced deck size only cards valued at one are now Dragon Cards.

00-cardrender8.jpgIn addition I have integrated the Solstice Expansion into the new version. Cards with the value of two now have a snow flake icon on them that allows a player to move and place the blizzard token on a village card, which essentially shuts down that village until the blizzard token is later moved.

I included four, instead of eight, of the basic special cards (Catapult, Guardian, Offering, & Sanctuary) in each player deck. During playtesting this seemed to work out very well. The ratio of special cards to provision cards (standard cards) remains close to the same, making the game feel much like the original, but you need to be a bit wiser with your timing.

Lastly, I chose four of my personal favorite bonus cards from the Kickstarter and added them to each deck . Players will secretly pick two of the four to round out their 26 card deck. This gives each player a bit of a unique deck that is personal.

Other Changes

00-cardrender6The trimming of total cards was the biggest adjustment in the game, but I also reduced the total number of houses to ten of each of the four colors (blue, green, red, & yellow) and two black houses. The original had twelve of each and two black houses, so I was able to drop eight houses and the game play remains the same.

There is also only one set of village cards for a total of six. The original had a bonus set. In addition, there is just one longhouse card to store the yet to be used village elder pawns. The number of village elder pawns remains at twelve and there will be a nice drawstring bag included.

How does all this effect play?

00-boxrender2I honestly find the new version a much tighter and cleaner experience. The smaller box makes it even easier to take with you places and the reduced card count makes you have to think just a bit more. The inclusion of the Solstice Expansion brings another layer of depth to the game that really makes it shine.

I feel that there is enough new stuff here to warrant a purchase if you own and enjoy the original. I personally love the new clean look of the artwork and graphics. You may notice that each deck has an army icon in the bottom right corner. This really helps when cleaning up a village during play, and when putting the game away at its conclusion.

Future Expansions?

I this this base game is a complete experience, but I know there is a nice core of fans out there that would like to see more cards that add variety to the game play. My plan is to release new versions of some of the other Kickstarter Special Cards and well as some new village decks to switch things up. I want this little expansions to be thematic as well and I look forward to putting these together.

Four Tribes 2nd Edition should be available this November at the Game Crafter. I will certainly let folks know in advance.


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The Dice Tower Reviews Trainmaker

Zee Garcia, from the Dice Tower, takes a look at Trainmaker.

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Protospiel Chicago


I will be at Protospiel Chicago tomorrow (Saturday the 10th) in Itasca IL. Protospiel is a playtesting event that is held a few times a year in different places across the Midwest. It is a great place to test out your own designs, check out designs from others, and of course hang out with friends and make new ones!

This will be the 6th Protospiel event I have attended and I absolutely love the intimate atmosphere. You DO NOT need to be a publisher or designer to attend. The event is open to the public. We love to see playtesters! You can get an opportunity to play games that may one day be on store shelves. You can be apart of the process and have a ton of fun doing so. As a publisher, I often add playtester’s names to game booklets of my publications.

Protospiel Chicago started today and runs through Sunday. For more info, click the link below.

Protospiel LINK


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Designer Journal: UnderQuest #3



Well, there has been a few changes since the last post. The biggest change has been to the character tiles. Actually, they are no longer character tiles. There are a few reasons I moved away from the tile format. One, I heard from a few fellow designers and friends that the tiles looked a bit too much like the tiles from Above and Below from Red Raven Games, and I obviously want to separate myself from that. I have instead decided to use a bridge-sized card. This brings my second reason into the light. Using cards allows me to implement a deck-building mechanic to deal with the characters.

00000gjgjgjWith tiles, players simply started the round with characters equal to the number they were able to rest. Injured characters were paced face-down until they were either healed or they waited an extra wound to rest them. With deck-building in the mix now, players will draw cards, at the beginning of the round, equal to the number of characters they are able to house (which is four to start the game). If characters are injured during questing, they are placed face-up and a token in placed on them to show they are hurt. Other spent characters simply go into a discard pile. Injured characters need to be healed to be placed into the discard pile.

One more nice thing about using cards is that they are about four times larger which leaves room for much larger artwork and some flavor text.

Okay, that is enough about the characters for now. I really wanted to touch on encounters and buildings.


000prormnronronOne of the actions that a player may take on their turn is to build a new building. Each player starts with one building which is a shelter that allows them to rest four characters and also lets them earn an income of one gold per round. Add more buildings and structures to your base, allows you to build and engine that will influence your characters, gain you more income, earn fame, and more.

The plan is to have about 40-50 building cards, with of them being unique. Some will simply be a wigwam that will allow you to rest an additional character (basically allowing you to draw an extra card per round). This will equate to a lot of one of a kind artwork. There will be very few duplicate images in this game.

One path to victory will be to focus on building a lot of buildings, but you will also have to do other things to have a shot at winning. Buildings will likely be the source of about 1/4 of your fame points at the end of the game. Yes, I am leaning towards using the term “fame points” instead of “victory points”. Time will tell if that term sticks…


000promo131313Another change is that I have dropped the term “Dungeon Deck” and am now using “Encounter Deck”. I have done this for a couple reasons. First of all, so many games use Dungeon Decks and it sort of pins me into a corner, by making all encounters occur in a dungeon. Secondly, I sort of want the questing/exploration to happen outside in a deep forest valley. Dungeons have been done to death.

Another big change is the monsters themselves. I am ditching the traditional enemies you see in most fantasy games like goblins, trolls, and dragons. Those do hold a place in my heart, but I wanted UnderQuest to take players someplace new. Someplace a bit darker, but also odd and strange. Maybe a hint of horror without scaring kids away from the table.

So I have decided to create all-new monsters for this game that are a bit abstract and out-of-this-world in appearance. Perhaps a bit alien in nature. I hope you like them.

Well that is it for this time around. I am hoping to be able to discuss the treasure deck and entertaining in the next entry. Thanks for reading!

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