Another Meeple Speak article from Nat Levan (designer of New Bedford) this time on nanogame adaptions of existing games.

Welcome to another Meeple Speak. In this edition, our guest writer is none other than Nathaniel Levan. Designer of New Bedford and author of the gaming blog Oakleaf Games. Nat has written a Meeple Speak in the past: Understanding the Flow of Decisions in a Game (if you would like to read more by him).


by Nathaniel Levan 

Nat Levan

Last year, I wrote about my approach to designing several microgames. Since that article, I have worked on a number of adaptations of Buttonshy Games, based on their wallet line titles, that we’re calling “Nanodaptions”. With the third coming with this quarter’s Kickstarter for Circle the Wagons, it’s a great time to talk about some of the new things I’ve learned as I honed my skills working on these games.

Buttonshy has carved a niche of making low cost, small form factor games that are literally and figuratively outside the box. But they also love providing a ton of extra content to their Kickstarter and Boardgame of the Month supporters, which is a great opportunity for me as a designer.

The basic premise is to take one of the Wallet Games, distill the game down to fit on just a few cards and tokens, either to fit into a Boardgame of the Month envelope, or to tack onto one of the quarterly Kickstarters this year. Since the source material is already microgames, this adds an extra level of challenge, since these games already make such good use of their space. But it also makes it a little easier because I don’t have to recreate a myriad of different mechanics

These Nanodaptions take a different direction from my previous adaptations, because of one element. Or rather because of a missing element. These games use no dice (so far). Dice can replace a lot of components for tracking information and creating randomness, so creating a nano game that doesn’t use dice can be tricky. But it also frees me up to use more components.

To accompany January’s Wallet game, Avignon: Reformation, I made Pont d’Avignon, the game that started my Nanodaption journey. Avignon does an amazing job of conveying its theme of a power struggle, and it was really important to me to recreate that with Pont d’Avignon, too. A lot of details serendipitously came together to make that work, but it also took a considerable amount of research for such a small game. The names of the various tracks, the use of the “Ferula”, the floods, and the bridge itself aren’t just incidental, they are contribute significant thematic details. Even the title “Pontiff” derives from Latin words meaning “bridge builder”, a fact that I would never have had the opportunity to share without this game.

Pont d’Avignon was also the first nano game I worked on that required other people to test, due to the bluffing and guessing game at the heart. Love Letter established bluffin/guessing as microgame mechanism, since the bare mechanism is practically a game already.One thing I have learned to watch for is that if you use a mechanism that is already so common, you have to build the game around it to stand out.

After a few more attempts at the other games, I focused on the second nanodaption game, Accumulus, an adaption of last year’s Ahead in the Clouds (AitC). Have I mentioned how important punny names are? The whole idea of making a nanogame adaptation of a microgame is somewhat absurd, and a punny name both reflects that while tying the two together. And if AitC is a “Cube pusher without cubes”, Accumulus became a “Cube pusher from concentrate” when I added cubes back in.

Accumulus shows how you can connect two games with a physical aspect, even when it doesn’t represent the same thing. AitC is all about making connections, and while I couldn’t physically move the connections on the single card, I could borrow the card flipping behavior from AitC to rearrange all connections on the card at once. Accumulus also reminded me that I don’t need to use every inch of design space. The original game ended after 4 of 8 contracts were filled. But after every test showed the player who reached 3 first also reaching 4 first, I realized I didn’t need to fill the card to make it interesting.

The third complete nanodaption game is Wagon Wheels, based on Circle the Wagons, from Buttonshy’s current Kickstarter for Circle the Wagons, That Snow Moon, and Mint Julep. Circle the Wagons (CtW) has proved particularly challenging to adapt, due to how efficient that game already is with its use of space. Of all my Nanodaptions, Wagon Wheels probably borrows the least from the source game’s core mechanics—in this case tile laying—but it borrows indirectly from almost all other aspects.

After a few failed versions of an area control game, I changed my approach and looked at what made the tile laying in CtW interesting: the competition for scoring. And that became my driving inspiration with the new core mechanic of area control around the card. So now when I can’t replicate a mechanic in the future, I know to step back and look at what other systems make that core mechanic work. So while it doesn’t play much like Circle the Wagons, it still manages to feel like it.

The last, and possibly most important lesson I learned in the past year was how important it was to plan ahead for manufacturing. Dice Cream (from Green Couch Games) was manually assembled from bins full of 10000 tokens. Similarly Pont d’Avignon needed a lot of punching and bagging. The standard token sheets come with 15 tokens, so that gives me a hard requirement.

Sorry Jason!

Design of these Nanodaption games has been a wonderful experience. But while they are fun for me to make, the most important aspect to me is making them an appealing bonus for players. When you see that there’s a Nanodaption in your package, I want it to add value to what you’re getting, not take away from the experience. So if you’ve played any of these games, please let me know how you like them, good or bad. Because one thing I’ve learned time and again making these games is that the small things are important.


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