Today, the first boxed copy of v12 arrived on my doorstep. I continue to be joyed when I see my ideas made solid. Not overjoyed, but properly joyed.
Notice the slick new box art? The professionally printed rulebook? Cool beans.
This week, I returned to the FnF website to do some writing. The goal was to sort through curriculum standards, find the high-profile standards that are addressed by FnF, and then describe the connections between the game and the standards in reasonable detail. It’s a big job, as there are a goodly number of state and national standards, and I’m chock-full of ideas.
Way back in the fall, several teachers had suggested that I do this – describe the connections between standards and FnF. While I’d started on the job, I had to put it on hold when more pressing issues came up. Now, with Kickstarter so close, my priority is on creating and distributing information about the game, and so I’m back to working through the standards. It’s still slow going, and I’ll get it done, but the end result will probably be a bit lengthy, simply because I may not have the time to make it shorter.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
- Mark Twain
Paul “Yosemitebear” Vasquez, of Double Rainbow fame, has kindly helped me to redesign the Double Rainbow event card in FnF. He’s allowed me to use one of his photos in the game, and helped me to write the flavor text on the card. I think this is awesome.
While FnF has had a Double Rainbow for months, it’s always been disappointing to me: a pretty picture, but no substance. Now, it’s a pretty picture with substance, and that substance comes from it’s connection to a real place and a real person.
While I talk a lot about wanting to help people connect with nature, my own connection has grown pretty tenuous. Connecting with someone like Bear, who is so intimately involved with the natural world, helps me to keep my own connection to the natural world. I think Bear gets razzed for being outside the mainstream, but I’m glad that he is who he is. It’s a good thing for all of us.
You can connect with him on YouTube and Twitter:
I’ve finished the edits for v12, and the noticeable changes fall into three groups: buildings, biggun’s, and blocks. The first two groups mostly address UI and balance issues, and only the third is really significant in terms of gameplay. Here’s the summary:
Up to now, all land cards have been treated the same, even though there were two distinct types of cards. Some cards were open spaces (which could support plants), while other cards were buildings (which provided useful abilities, but which could not support plants). In v12, I’ve made this distinction official. Every land card is labeled as being either a parcel (= open space) or a building. I’ve also tweaked the rules so that buildings may only be build upon parcels. Thus, building cards are now played on top of parcel cards in the same way that plant cards are played on top of parcel cards.
In v11, the size of a plant had no effect on it’s point value. Thus, a small Sagebrush gave the same number of points as a big Sagebrush. This is no longer true. Instead, big plants are now worth more points than small plants. I think this will be a more realistic and balanced scoring scheme, and that it will also create a more interesting game.
For some time now, there’s been a potential problem in the late game. Specifically, there were often big swings in point totals, as players collected and played large numbers of resource cards in each turn. Most people enjoyed having epic turns, but then disliked waiting around for other players to take their own epic turns. This balanced out in different ways for different people, such that some folks enjoyed this part of the game, while others did not.
In v12, I’ve added an additional ability to most of the resource cards, allowing players to use some cards to block the effect of other cards (e.g. Water blocks Fire). This should dampen the swings in the late game, and smooth out the growth curve. However, it will also lengthen the gameplay time by a little to a lot, depending the contrariness of the personalities in the game. So I’m not yet sure if the addition of blocks/counters will be a good thing or not. We’ll see.
For a detailed list of changes in v12, check out the changelog here.
After much time, effort, brainstorming, and tearing of hair, I have a company name and a company logo: Mindful Mammoth. To go with that new brand, I’ve started up a new website at http://mindfulmammoth.com.
From here on forward, I’ll be splitting up posts based on content. I’ll continue to put FnF specific news on this blog, but I’ll put general company news, and announcements about other products, on the Mindful Mammoth website, and the Mindful Mammoth Facebook page.
If you’d like to be informed about goings on beyond Fire and Flora, please like the Mindful Mammoth Facebook page. And even if you’re only interested in Fire and Flora, please like the Mindful Mammoth Facebook page anyways, as supporting the company as a whole is a good way to help get Fire and Flora into stores.
Lastly, yes. If you’re wondering, I’ve recently finished a working prototype of my second product: the Puzzle of Life (provisional name). So there is indeed a solid practical reason for developing a company brand, namely, the need to have a legal umbrella that ties together these very different products.
The last time that I put in an order for some prototype cards, I asked for a box as well. It’s pretty simple box art, as I’m not much of an artist, but … Wow! I’ve been thinking that I’m in the home stretch of the game design, but seeing Fire and Flora delivered in an actual box drives that home. After years of work, that’s an amazing feeling to have.
Maybe I’ll have to stop calling these “betas”, and switch to calling them “release candidates.”
This past week, I went on two long trips. The first was up north, to Sequoia, where I met up with Jon Keeley, a highly-respected fire ecologist, to seek his support for F&F. The second trip was in the other direction, down to the town of Julian, where I helped run an F&F based outreach program for some of the 5th and 6th graders at the Julian Elementary School. Going up to Sequoia, down to Julian, and back, was just a bit under a thousand miles of driving. Much as I like my car, I’m a bit tired of it, though I won’t complain, as both trips were very rewarding.
Over the past few months, I’d traded several emails with Jon Keeley, talking about outreach, fire ecology, and F&F. He’s in high demand, but at the same time, he’s very passionate about ecology, and had already been looking into doing outreach through gaming. Last Monday, I drove up to meet in person, and we talked for a bit. We went over the rules of the game, discussed the ways in which they were intended to model real world processes, then played a few rounds of F&F. He had several good comments. The best idea was to introduce mutualisms. I’ve long toyed with the idea of an Animal Expansion to F&F, and been mulling over what sorts of new mechanics I could introduce, and animal/plant mutualistic relationships are a great idea (e.g. Yucca Moth and Yucca).
At the end of the conversation, Jon said he’d love to see F&F get into schools, and be willing to put his name behind it – with the caveat that he was speaking for himself, and not as a representative of any institution – which is what I’d hoped would happen. He’s not well known to the general public, but he’s highly respected among professional botanists, ecologists, and conservationists. For this reason, his endorsement will be a big help in future conversations with those sorts of professional groups. Thanks Jon!
And of course, while I was up there, I took the afternoon off to go for a hike. Specifically, I walked the foothill trail up to Marble Falls, which was spectacular. So it was a doubly rewarding trip.
Two days later, I drove down to Julian. I met up with the education coordinator from Volcan Mountain (an environmental nonprofit), and we spent an hour talking about the game, and outlining a plan for the class. We wanted to make sure that there were two people who were fully up on F&F, so that we could help things to go along as smoothly as possible. We then went into the class and put our plan into action. I took about fifteen minutes to introduce the game, explain the rules, talk them through the setup, and then through the first turn. I’d hoped to walk them through the first several turns, to set a real strong foundation, but the kids were chomping at the bit, so I just set them loose.
It was remarkably chaotic. Fun and interesting chaos, but chaos nonetheless. Lots of different kids were confused about different parts of the game. Yet they were all determined and excited to go forward, confusion-be-darned. The teacher and I circulated among the six groups, doing what we could to keep them somewhat on track. After about forty-five minutes, we called a halt to things, and turned to the discussion part of the program.
I asked some questions about different species, and their response to fire. Several kids had picked up isolated facts, and I was able to fit some of those together to talk about (and illustrate) the way that unnatural fire regimes could negatively affect diversity. I then asked for questions and comments. Unlike other groups, most of these kids were curious about the workings of the game. The knew they’d missed important bits, and wanted to understand it better. Several said straight out that they enjoyed the game, which was a nice surprise. But I actually see their rules questions as a bigger complement.
The element of fun and play had drawn them into the game, and they wanted to learn more. While I do want to spread knowledge and promote understanding, knowledge or understanding without passion or interest are moot. On the other hand, excitement and personal interest can motivate people to learn, and more importantly, to act. Something along the lines of the old saying about importance of, “teaching a man to fish.”
In the end, this experience showed that F&F is within the reach of this younger audience, but that younger kids will need additional help to get started. A fifteen-minute explanation of rules is not enough. In fact, in the post-game discussion, one kid actually spoke up to say that. Which speaks well of his self-awareness. For F&F to be successful with kids younger than 12, you need at least one teacher per group. This need not be a classroom teacher, it could be a parent, an older friend, or an older sibling. But given that help, I think that these younger kids would get a big kick out of F&F, and have some seriously fun times.
Over the past month, I’ve continued to focus on reaching out to scientists and educators around California. In addition to talking with several different individuals, I also met with representatives of the California Science Center and the California Native Plant Society.
At the CSC, we talked about F&F, and also about their programs and needs. For work within the museum, they need activities and exhibits that are fast, and which work with a wide range of ages. By necessity, F&F is moderately complex, which means that it isn’t well suited for use within the museum. On the other hand, the CSC often works with groups of students and teachers outside the museum, in afternoon and weekend programs. In such programs, they have the ability to focus on specific issues for several hours at a time. And in that sort of setting, F&F would likely work well. We’re keeping in touch to see if we can work out a way to bring F&F to at least a few of those programs.
While the CSC meeting was a small, focused group, the CNPS meeting was a much larger affair. I joined their quarterly chapter council meeting as the guest speaker for their educational break-out session. The opportunity to do some botanical gaming attracted a surprisingly large number of people, so we had a rather full meeting room. I gave a short overview of the game, then taught the game, and let them play for a few rounds. Given the unexpectedly large attendance the session was a bit chaotic, but it seemed to go over well. While the CNPS has never before supported an outside product, they’re open to the idea, as the content in F&F is well matched to their interests. Over the next couple months, I’ll be meeting up individually with some of the key people, to talk more about the game, their needs, and ways that we might work together in the future.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken small steps forward on a wide range of fronts. Nothing momentous, but rather a nice broad advance.
Last weekend, I ran a playtesting event for Fire and Flora at Orccon 2013. It was a curious experience, as I went to this con with a different mindset than in the past. I realized that it is very much a con for gamers, with almost all games at the con being designed first and foremost as games. And while I had a good time, there were very few families, kids, or teachers. This is despite the fact that all games, even those that are primarily games, are educational.
In the end, four people signed up for the playtest, which was all that I needed, so I went ahead with the event, and it turned out well. One player commented that it was not the most fun game she’d ever played, but that it certainly was fun, and a good balance between gaming and ecology. That was essentially the balance I was aiming for, and so I feel good about the game. It needs a little more balancing, and a lot more artwork, but I feel confident that this is a solidly good idea, and that it’s now ready to shop around among wider audiences.
I’ve begun serious work on a second “game,” one that is more of a puzzle than a game, which is why I put the word “game” in quotation marks. This is an idea that I’ve been mulling over for a while. It’s almost entirely visual, and is therefore accessible to a much wider age range. So it should be a good complement to Fire and Flora. In combination, they cover most of the serious-gamer demographic, from elementary school kids to grown-up geeks. I’m going to be mysterious about it for another month or so.
With two games in the works, I need a business umbrella, and that starts with a name. Unfortunately, lots of the good ones are already taken. “Mindfull” is claimed by the Mindfull Corporation. “Brain Feast” is used in a variety of ways, including this Minecraft mod/map. “Full Course” is a Canadian Rapper, and while I could claim “Full Course Games”, there would still be potential for unfortunate confusion. The Here Corporation is a business consulting firm. “Legitimate games” is unclaimed, but would be lost in the vast internet discussion over DRM and legitimate vs. pirated games. So it appears that I’ll have to continue the brainstorming, and think even further outside the box. (Yes, that’s taken too, by OTB)
Last week, I joined Matthew Bivens and the Game Development Guild at GHCHS for an afternoon of playtesting. Thanks Guild!
There were about 12 people at the meeting, some left early, some arrived late, some just wanted to watch, as they had other stuff they were working on. The end result was two games of four players.
Overall, everybody had fun. There were ups and downs. Some people were temporarily ticked as their carefully constructed landscapes were damaged by fire, opponents, or Evil Squirrels. But they all handled it in a good natured way, and everyone had a good time. The also offered some good feedback on game mechanics, which I greatly appreciate.
Once again, the most important feedback was seeing that they had fun. I’m constantly wary of the possibility of creating something that only I would enjoy, or something that is overly pedantic, and not actually fun. For this reason, it’s incredibly gratifying to me to see people have fun with the game, especially when those people are young-type folks. This is, really and truly, the number one goal of the game.
I took about a half hour to explain the game, in part because we digressed into a discussion of the Fire mechanic, and burn order. I asked them to pay particular attention to this issue, as the current rules cause discomfort in my gut. For this session, we used the following Fire rules:
We called off the gaming after about 70 minutes, to make sure that there was time for discussion. At that 70 minute mark, it appeared that both groups were on track to finish in another 15-20 minutes, so that total game time would have been around 90 minutes.
I’m constantly amazed by the way that group dynamics influence play. As I noted earlier, there was lots of interaction, and lots of messing with other players. One result was that there was a reasonable number of empty lands, off-and-on throughout both games. This was a big contrast to the previous playtest, in which there were almost never any empty lands.
When a plant Propagates or Invades, someone has to decide what to do with the child. In previous playtests, there was an unnecessarily complex set of rules which described which player should make that choice. In this playtest, I unintentionally skipped over that section of the rules, which meant that the players were free to find their own way. They never asked about it, and instead simply did what felt right to them, which happened to be very similar to one of the alternate options that I had considered. Given that we all independently came up with the same idea, I think it’s a good one, and I’ll be incorporating it into the next version of the official rules.
There are three parts to this rules update:
All the players picked up on the game pretty quickly. The most common mistake was making assumptions about plant behavior. Players tended to generalize, and that led to mistakes. The most common mistake was to think that all native plants were harmed by fire. As fire-loving natives are relatively rare within the game, players came to expect that natives would be harmed by fire, even when a card specifically said otherwise. I saw several people try to damage or discard burned Oaks or Whispering Bells, and corrected them. By the end of the game, they’d mostly learned the plants, and this was no longer a problem.
In one of the game groups, one player chose the Oak strategy. Probably a good choice, as that table was particularly aggressive, with lots of effort invested in messing with each other’s lands. This player bought a land with a Valley Oak, not really understanding what he was getting. However, he quickly came to appreciate the Oak’s immunity from interference, and using time and patience, grew his one tree into a small grove. We had to call the game a bit early, but when we ended, he was solidly in the lead.
The other folks at that table all felt that Oaks were overpowered. We discussed the fact that even young Oaks were pretty sturdy, being immune to Fire and Invasion, and only killable via flood. One particular thing that they noted is that the leading player had used the Plant Nursery to buy a small Oak for three coins, then used his Resource Cards to grow it into a big Oak. They thought this was too easy.
That seems like a fair criticism. Young Oaks are more sturdy and valuable than young plants of other species, so it’s unfair that one should be able to buy a young Oak for the same price as a young something-else.
There should definitely be more El Niño’s. Otherwise, I’m not sure the best course. I’ll ruminate a few more days.
I have not yet seen anyone successfully fire as a positive force in this game. It’s a tough strategy, and rightfully so. In real life, fire followers (e.g. Whispering Bells) are a bit fragile and persnickety. When fires come by, the fire followers pop up, and take advantage of the brief lessening of competition, but when other species begin to return, the fire followers go back into hiding.
The current game message says that fire followers are crushed by invasives. That may be a bit strong. Possible solutions:
I very much like the idea of a seed bank, but that would make the game much more complex. If there is to be a Seed Bank, it should be an optional mechanic, and part of the advanced ruleset. I’m not much excited by the other possibilities. They feel too strong, like overcompensation. For now, I’ll leave things as they are.
This is a complex spaghetti of interconnected mechanics. We’ll start with the basics of fires and burn-order.
Consensus was that the fire/burn rules that we used in this session were decent. That’s nice. My gut remains discontent, but this may be one of those compromise situations where you know you’ve found the best option by the fact that it leaves everyone unhappy. So, for simplicity, we could leave things as they are.
Matthew was bothered by the fact that geography was mostly moot. Plants could Propagate/Invade across all lands owned by a given player, regardless of physical location (central or southern California), and table location (arrangement of game cards on the table). This bothers me too, and I’ve long hoped to put something about spatial arrangement into the advanced rules. The problem is that such rules add a level of complexity that may be daunting for new players.
For example, I like the idea of allowing players to adjust the order/layout of their land according to strategy. There might be a rule which says that, when a Plant makes a child (through either Propagate or Invade), then that child may only go on a land which is one space left or one space right of the parent. I think that Matthew just assumed this was the case, as it seemed intuitive and natural. We could also build upon this rule to allow more interaction among players, such that the leftmost plant of one player could Propagate/Invade onto the rightmost land of the player to their left. Such a mechanic does seem both more realistic and more interesting, though also more intimidating to the new player.
Unfortunately, spatial mechanics are not just complex to play, but also complex to design. Say we implemented advanced rules, and that both Propagation and Invasion were limited by table layout. In this case, child plants could only be placed one card left or right of the parent. Land cards would still be marked by geographic location (central/south) but this would have no effect on placement of children. On the other hand, Fire extent would still be determined by geographic location (central/south). Doesn’t this seem odd? Plants are limited in their movement by the way that cards are arranged on the table (but not by geography), while fires are limited in their movement by geography (but not by table layout). That’s non-intuitive, unnecessarily complex and contradictory.
If there are ever to be rules where child-placement is limited by table layout, then it seems important that Fires also respect table layout. In this case, we’d need to throw out the geography indicators (central/southern) and go way back to the idea of left/right fires. That is, fires that respect table layout, and burn either the left-half of a player’s land or the right-half of a player’s land.
I’m currently leaning in the direction of the importance of table layout. In the basic game, layout would be mostly moot. Players would be required to add new lands to the right side of their holdings, and plants could Propagate/Invade across all lands owned by a single player. In the advanced game, Players would still be required to layout their lands in a single row, but would be allowed to add new lands at any point in that row. Plants would have limited dispersal, and only be allowed to go one space left/right of the parent, though there would be continuity of landscape from one player to the next. Fires would work the same in both the basic and advanced games. Each fire would affect exactly half of the landscape (left half or right half), and lands would burn in counter-clockwise order, around the table, starting with the leftmost land of the first player.
Whew! All that still give me gut problems, but this idea feels better. I’ll try out further variations over the next few playtest sessions, and see if I can get some consensus and closure on this issue.