Jonathan Franklin: A Fistful of Penguins – The Waiting is the Hardest Part

[Editor’s Note – Jonathan also wrote a more traditional designer’s diary for his new game, A Fistful of Penguins, that was also published today on the News Feed at – DY]

A Fistful of Penguins has started arriving in stores this week.

I am thrilled and scared.  When tinkering with a game at home, you get it to a certain point where you like it and play it with friends.  Maybe you show it around, maybe not.  These days, you might create a Kickstarter video for it and go that route.  That is all nice because you still control the message.  You don’t portray the people in your KS video slamming the game or asking the player next to them when it will end.

I thought I would take a bit of time to write about being on the receiving end.

Wattsalpoag Games took several hundred copies of A Fistful of Penguins to Essen.  Wow, Essen!  Even better, there were people at the booth teaching the game!  What could be better?

The very first case of "Penguins" to be opened in Essen

Well, the next morning, I heard great news, the game had sold out!  I was high as a kite.  Woke up and did my usual perusal of BGG.  I had subscribed to my game, just so I would know if there were any rules questions.  I saw that someone had rated it.  Cool, I thought, as I clicked to it.  The gist of it was that the game was awful and a waste of time – you can go check out some of the comments verbatim.

Consider me in Seattle, wanting to reach out to some BGGer who had just slammed my baby.  Maybe they got the rules wrong.  Maybe they were taught wrong.  Maybe I messed up and they had found a fatal flaw in the game.  All these things rush through your head.  At the same time, you are pretty much powerless.

I did write to the person and he wrote back, so that was nice, but short of suggesting that the basic version was not intended for hard core games, I’m not in this business to persuade people that they like things that they don’t.

I then went to a group of gamers who had not played the game. I explained the rules and played the game.  Towards the end, when it as my turn, I stopped and asked others what I should do.  I was amazed.  I got three different answers.  They were amazed.  They all thought that they had the obvious way forward.  You cannot imagine my joy that each player had been thinking the other ones were stupid for making the choices they made.  Obvious?  Ha!

Just for a moment, I want to be clear that this is about ego and feelings.  Wattsalpoag chose to publish it and invested in great art, great bits, and an awesome price point.  I would have bought a copy even without being the designer.  They have lots on the line in terms of reputation, investment, and the like and I sincerely hope it is a great success for them, regardless of any downstream benefits to me.

The two or three bad reviews were quickly washed away, but in that bit of time, those comments raised three questions for me.

1. Is it a waste of energy to care if not everyone likes your game?

Nope.  Initially, you need to see if the game is reaching its desired audience.  If other audiences don’t really like your game, so be it.  You cannot please all of the people all of the time.  I know folks who like silly/dexterity games and hard-core 3 hour Euros, but don’t really like the lighter Euros.  If those people find Penguins not silly enough for them and not hard core enough for them, fine.  At the same time, if the game is reaching the intended audience and not faring so well, perhaps it is time to look more closely at the game and determine why not.

Was there a rules misunderstanding?  Were the game pieces confusing, leading to misplay of the game?

One of the problems is that if there was a misunderstanding or other error that was memorialized in the rules, there is not much you can do about it.  Or so I thought.

Early on at Essen, the publisher realized that two scoring chip colors were too close and caused problems for colorblind players.  The printer had also misprinted the rulebook, so that one set of pages was in reverse order.  Yes, the copies sold at Essen are rare collectibles and have those issues – contact Wattsalpoag for replacement chips and rules – they back up what they sell.

Little did I know that the publisher and the factory could actually go fix the problem for all the other copies that were printed because those copies had not been assembled yet.  How cool.  That means that thanks to the Essen feedback, everyone else gets a better game.

Anyway, listening to customers, positive or negative, is very important and can help you market that design as well as help remind you to check for those issues in your subsequent games.

2. Is it a bad idea to have a basic and an advanced game in one rulebook?

As noted in the Designer’s Diary on BGN, Penguins started with everyone being involved in every roll, yet without much downtime.  I really liked that feature, but it forced players to price their dice privately.  This caused anxiety with new players.  Frankly, no one wants to price anything when they don’t know the value of it.  I saw the fear on players’ faces when they had to determine the value of their camel.

The solution was to have people play a basic game first so that everyone could understand the interrelationships between the dice and gain a sense for how much each die might be worth.  The players could then choose to keep playing the basic game or move on to the advanced one.

When Wattsalpoag took it on, it was not for the advanced version that might sell 400 copies on a good day.  It was for the basic game, which actually has mass appeal.  It makes total sense for them economically.  Most people who play or buy the game probably will never have heard of BGG or maybe even Catan.  They will be happy to roll some dice, make some interesting choices, get and spend some penguins, and win or lose.

I am very happy that Wattsalpoag was willing to publish the Advanced Rules because I think they make the game engaging for almost anyone reading this site on a regular basis and I did not want to rely on posting a variant somewhere that would be hard to find and force the player to go look for it. That said, I continue to wonder about the best terminology for these games that have educational steps.  Basic & advanced?  Introduction & game?  Fun & cutthroat?  We are seeing more and more games that have multiple games in one box.  Although it started long ago, it seems to be more common now.  Is that publisher indecision?  Trying to give people the best of both worlds?  I don’t really know, but I do know that it helps the game reach a broader audience only if they are not instantly turned off by the version that they played first.

3. How should I promote new ideas from me and others about the game if I want to please/reach as many people as possible?

Companies have had expansion map contests, print and play expansions, variant rule sets, etc.  What is the best route to go?  At the same time, I love the variants section of BGG because sometimes it fixes what I found to be a major flaw in a game.  For me, it is the feeling that a game is never really done.  Each game is a construction kit that has been assembled to the best of the designer’s ability.  But that is not to say that newer ideas, regardless of where they come from, are not welcome.

For example, after adding the solo version, I started thinking about how the same pieces and interrelationships could be a great short co-operative game.  For those reading this piece, you are probably up to your ears in co-op games and roll your eyes then thinking of Forbidden Island, Pandemic, Ghost Stories, Lord of the Rings, etc.  But I think co-op is still a novel concept for the vast majority of game players.  It is especially joyful to see those who think that boardgames are Risk and Monopoly play a co-op game and realize they can have fun without losing (or winning at someone else’s expense).

With that said, enjoy this co-op variant of the basic version of A Fistful of Penguins.

Basically, you play your turns as usual with the following changes:

1. You may share your penguins with other players.
2. Take the average number of points scored and use the solo scoring rules.

You will note there are some cool efficiencies in playing this version that are not there in the competitive version.

If you feel the need to have the group win or lose, you must break 100 points per player to win.

Note: You don’t have to pass squirrel points because you are going to total the groups chips at the end.  That also means squirrels are less, but you still need them to score moose . . .

It seems pretty easy to create a team variant too.

Squirrels work as usual.  Partners sit across from each other or two teams of an equal number of players who sit alternating A-B-A-B.

Higher average score wins.  You may share your penguins with anyone, but you probably only want to share them with your teammates. :)


This entry was posted in Designer Diary. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Jonathan Franklin: A Fistful of Penguins – The Waiting is the Hardest Part

  1. Dale Yu says:

    Thanks for sharing, Jonathan! It’s always great to hear the motivations/emotions behind a game

  2. Ryan B. says:

    Well said, Jonathan.

  3. huzonfirst says:

    I really liked both this article and the Designer Diary on the Geek, Jonathan. I also enjoyed playing the Basic version of your game and now I need to check out the Advanced version.

    “But that is not to say that newer ideas, regardless of where they come from, are not welcome.”

    In that spirit, you should definitely use Tony Boydell’s suggested name for an expansion (in response to the Geek article). “The Last Emperor” is a great title for an expansion!

Leave a Reply