‘Premise of Heroes’ – Developing Blog

Premise of Heroes is the title of a creative storytelling game I am developing. A few years ago I started fooling around with an idea: a roleplaying card game (rpg) in which players create interesting characters and have an adventure. In rpg’s I always liked coming up with characters and the defining part that makes them unique and interesting. Could that be a game in itself?

Screenshot 2019-03-12 at 10.54.00Another intriguing part of rpg’s is how a group of characters become a party, a team, how unlikely it would be. Heck, unlikely parties are the standard. Rare are the player groups that create characters to form the most probable teams, say a bunch of dwarves going on expedition. Could coming up with the story how an unlikely group of characters became a party be fun to create as well? As the second act of a game?

After many playtests and iterations the answer to those questions is yes! For sure. And based om the recent plays it is fun as heck. I am amazed how much creativity and fun I see each and single time when players play the game. It did take many versions of the rules and card types to hone in on the sweet spot in which the game is now.

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Iteration

In the beginning the game did outstay it’s welcome, but now it is snappy and enjoyable. The game is inspired by traditional fantasy rpg’s, like Dungeons & Dragons. However, no experience in such games is needed. A bit of knowledge of fictional fantasy stories like Lord of  the Rings, Harry Potter or Game of Thrones is more than enough to be able to play. When a race or class is unfamiliar to a player, either the group solves that easily, or that concept will get a new temporary meaning.

Looking for story prompts emotions did not work and character traits were meh. The current use of icons that are black and white work very well. And the more ambiguous the picture and open to interpretation, the better. For example a beard that also seems like a mountain upside down. Mad props to game-icons.net, the icon are their creations!

Early in development it became clear that playing the unusual races makes this game really fun. Instead of ‘playing’ a regular Human or Half-Orc, it became clear that it is awesome to come up with a description of a Demon, Zombie or Cyclops for example. Especially if paired with classes (roles, professions) that are regular or seem at odds with the race. More and more the regular races were dropped and more unique ones were added.

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Freedom versus Guidance

While considering optimal production value I made the cards double sides. This way with 40 cards the game offers 1600 unique race + class combinations to play out. A pleasant side effect of that is it added the possibility for choice in the character creation round. And that is liked a lot. Players can now choose which out of the 4 different combinations the player would like to describe. To ensure choice and variability another iteration was to combine races that are regarded as equally cool or extreme but still different together on the same card (e.g. Angel and Demon). The 2 classes on each card are now designed to be different enough: not two fighting or magic oriented classes on both sides. This is subjective, yet seems to hold up and every play session the feedback of players is they like the choices offered.

The other phases of the game took many more tries. How can the players get a sense of direction, be steered in their creative storytelling, yet still not force a particular type of story? A milestone in development was adding the rule that uses the technique of having a group look back on an adventure. It is used in regular rpg games, as a way to still play when only a few of the players that are essential for the campaign can meet up. The players that are present imagine themselves sitting in a tavern, chatting and collectively recollect how a certain adventure happened, making it up. The added benefit is that player could talk about what another player did, instead of only their own character.

Letting players decide freely how long the story can take and how many cards can be used never worked. Even though a group felt that it took too long, they had a hard time wrapping up the story and kept adding. Yet then the stories do become much more interesting with some sidesteps or plot twists added.

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Game versus Play

At first the game played around 45 minutes to an hour, overstaying its welcome by a margin. However, doing just the character creation part felt like an incomplete game. There should be something happening with all the heroes (or villains) created. Finding the proper play length has been an adventure (badum tsss). Having a round that is about forming the party and then another round to describe an adventure was taking too long. Now the second round is looking back at and adventure, which optionally is about the party formation (and meanwhile there is a list of cool other scenario’s). Doing another adventure or using more cards is completely optional. Again it is about guaranteeing a good experience by the basic rules, while offering suggestions how to adapt the game to you own groups liking.

There is no real win or lose state, no competition offered by the game or by your fellow player. The rules do offer structure and direction and I have made more explicit what the challenge is. How well that challenge is met is not scored or defined in other ways by the game. The players do not seem to miss that. Leaning into a party game vibe seems to ensure that even more. Still it won’t be for everyone. Some will like it less for that or feel it is a very good activity but not a real game. Seeing game versus play as a scale instead of binary I do think it lies more towards play. However, my search was to find the minimum in rules and structure to create a consistent but very open experience. It seems the game is getting there 🙂

Some players see Premise of Heroes as a great tool for getting inspiration for regular storytelling or rpg’s as well. That is a great bonus! A few player fear that the experience of this game is too dependent on the player group even while they had a good time. While the play certainly is depending on the input of players, the consistency really seems there: so far I only saw 1 playtest be mediocre, the rest of the time groups enjoyed it a lot and there was surprising, enjoyable storytelling. Even people who feared they are not well versed or felt they are not creative or playful did well and reported feeling they were able to contribute in a good way. The gains of the high player agency in this game seems to outweigh the downsides.

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Up next

While playtesting the game at a Narrative Design Meetup at the Game Bakery, a local game dev hub, there were multiple suggestions on potential different ways the game could be different. I added a bunch of suggested and new challenge modes as add-ons to the game. Testing these is the next step. As is continuing playtesting with diverse groups of players.

The game icons work well. One publisher was quite critical on these, players like them a lot. However, this way there is no unique selling point in distinct art, which usually is a great way to increase the perceived value of a game. It also means it can be created for a very friendly price, though. Still, I will test what other types of art does for the experience (art on cards like in Dixit, Mysterium or Muse). If the game icons stay, the selection of these is next: some spark more diverse stories than others, others are really iconic but straightforward (a sword). This needs further testing and selection to ‘balance’ well.

The races and classes in the game have been through multiple sorting selections with players and the current set seems to be in a really good spot. There have been good new suggestions, but probably these are expansion material (e.g. what might spark extra humor is adding mundane roles like tax collector or their modern day equivalent,  accountant). The development continues, and I want to check with rpg publishers if they would be interested.

Are you curious about the development of this game? Or did you play and have an opinion about it? Then please sign up for updates by filling this form below.

Game on! -Arjan

Looking back: Test & Chill January 2019

On Tuesday 22 January we had a rather impromptu playtesting session. The moment was right after the project deadline of 1st year students and just before the deadline of 2nd year students of our CMD study. So the turnup was a bit lower than usual. Still there were multiple groups getting feedback on their prototype.

Stay tuned, soon we might have an event with students from other studies participating…!

Designer diary: Making Capo della Mafia

pic3760902A year ago my game concept Capo Della Mafia was published by 999 Games in the Netherlands. It is my first published design and in this post I reflect on the design process and the game itself. If you can read Dutch, in this article the publisher wrote about their in house process of development of their games.

 

The game

Capo della Mafia is a mafia themed bluffing game for 3 to 7 players. Players are a low level bosses aiming to get promoted by collecting Respect (victory points). The first one to accumulate 15 respect wins the game. Each round players need to allocate mafia members (cards on hand, each with unique skills) to the new mission flipped, which requires specific skills. Each mafia member also has a certain amount of ‘heat’, aka the amount of police attention that they add to your crew. Missions states a maximum amount of heat that can be present.

Every player needs to fulfil the mission individually. Or more correctly stated, each player needs to give the impression they fulfil the mission. After placing cards face down on the table every player decides simultaneously whether want to actively suspect another player of bluffing. If a player finds a bluffing player, they earn 2 respect (the boss is grateful). However, falsely accusing another player makes results in losing 1 respect. Doing the mission correctly (or seeming to do so) earns a player 1 respect. When a player gets caught, they earn no respect for the mission.

Choosing which cards to play and choosing whom to suspect is all done simultaneous, making the game last not much longer with a bigger group.

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What makes it interesting

Players get 5 cards at the start of the game. The only way to get new cards is to play 4 or 5 of them. So players need to do some hand management, and time their plays well.  A player always has a team of mafia members, and 1 or 2 cards is not a team anymore. So when 1 or 0 cards are left, a player draws up to 5 again. In an earlier version players needed to have played all cards, but the publisher felt this was too hard and not fun. A nice bonus of the current version is that you feel like you can ’save’ a card for your next set. Sometimes you just don’t play a bad card. Other times you can keep 1 really good card.

Each round players are completely free to choose how many cards they put down. As the mafia is ‘one big family business’ each player is a bit aware of what is going on. Translated to mechanism: Players have to reveal half of the cards they played, rounded down. This offers great opportunity to mislead other players: to appear like you are succeeding the mission when you are not, or appear to fail while succeeding. Or double bluff. Players also need to plan ahead a bit: what cards do you keep and what you could do with then during the next mission (which is unknown).

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Design breakthroughs

The ‘revealing half of the cards played’ mechanism was actually added late during the design process. A lot of fun was already had with playing cards face down and suspecting someone. But, rightly so, during a test a player commented that just seeing how many cards were played is not enough information to go on.

Another critical iteration was the scoring in the game. I tried many different ways. A first version made you win or lose respect based on how many players suspected you (you got respect for being falsely suspected). This was too swingy and made it hard to guarantee a consistent play time. Imagine how first versions played in which some cards doubled respect losses and gains…

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Target audience

Having a relative short -and consistent- playtime was one of the demands the current publisher 999 Games had when they showed interest for publication. They wanted to gear this game geared towards mass market. They liked the core idea, but at that point they also stated the game needed more development. It did for sure. So with the target audience in mind, the gameplay needed to be streamlined, together with the scoring.

In the end it seemed most clear and fun to be able to keep respect for doing your own mission simple: get +1 of 0 Respect. While suspecting someone should feel as a small risk, but with potential gain: get +2 or lose 1 Respect. This makes suspecting very rewarding, unless a players accuses blindly. Falsely suspecting others can take away the near victory.

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The defined target audience guided my development of special mafia cards and events:  they should be simple enough, not too complicated. It meant I added some randomness (a card that let’s you steal 1 Respect from every player suspecting you). And ensured I did not add more complexity even though playtesters accustomed to heavy games were requesting that. This also inspired adding rules for a first play (not using some of the special cards), so learning the game first time would be a bit shorter and easier.

Players who are really into bluffing games might find this game a bit too tame. However, players who usually never played bluffing games liked the way Capo della Mafia played. The game forces you to bluff, but players learn quickly what they can get away with it. If you have a hard time bluffing, the good news is your score is more determined by reading other players and making proper accusations. This ensures interaction, as players keep an eye on each other. And, because play is simultaneous, playtime does not increase much if the game is played even with the maximum of 7 players.

The Mobsters

img_2609In the beginning I tried varied amounts of different skills offered by the mafia members, represented by icons on the mobsters and mission requirements. The first version had 4 different types, with a card offering up to 4 of them. In the end 3 different skill types could offer enough variability and hand management, without resulting in too complex puzzling. Being inspired by a book about the ‘Ndrangheta mafia helped me defining the skillsets that are fitting: intimidation, bribing and smuggling.

The quantity of a skill offered was at first higher, and a mission then required quite a lot of total skill (say even 5 of one type). This made for more ‘math’ work and more puzzling. This was distracting and got in the way of the fun of this game, managing your cards, bluffing and reading players. In the end only a minority of the cards offer multiple skills, which make them feel special.

Spicing it up some more

To spice up the game some more, we wanted to add more special feeling cards. Having variability in the amount of heat *police stars shown) on a card was also something that had many iterations. In the final version there are usually multiple mafia members offering a skill with each a different amount of heat shown. This creates cards that are really good and some that are bad (but still useful to bluf or often enough can be played to fulfil a mission). Having skills and heat to consider makes managing your hand of cards more interesting. Two aspects are to be considered when playing, bluffing and analysing what others have played.

From the early start the prototype had corrupt cops as special cards. These do not offer mafia skills, but help you reduce the amount of heat of your play. These are quite common, so it is hard to keep track of them whether they are all have been played or not. If you keep track you might know it is improbable, but I felt it should never be a sure thing. This is also the reason all the action cards were added in multiples.

Other card effects include cards that offer a skill of choice (joker), a card that lets you collect 1 extra Respect if you were player respectfully and a ‘rat’ card that potentially increases the played team of all players with +1 star. But only if the player with that card gets suspected! (under pressure he talks and rats out all the mafia players to the cops). That last card ensures that even if you play truthfully you are not a 100% sure whether you get a respect for the mission. This card is uncommon, a few are enough to make it interesting often enough.

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Event cards, really?

Another way to add spice to the game was by adding event cards. A standard for many starting designers, but it often does not help a game concept. With this game though, it seemed a good fit. Many effects did not survive testing. Either they were confusing or not fun. In the end the current set were clear and they change the game for a round. How they would show up and how often was something that took several tries. I did not want to have multiples in 1 round (very confusing) nor a long time before even one happened. The publisher suggested to have the back of the mission card indicate whether an event would take place. This way the events are random, and not happening every round, but a few will show up every game. With the backside of mission cards indicating an event, ensures they are not directly linked to a specific mission, which was the case at first.

Going through the Design Cycle, it took some time

The total process took about 5 years. I got the idea in 2012, during a holiday when I was thinking what to do with another game concept that was not going anywhere. Somewhere in 2013 I made my pitch to the the publisher. I pitched quite a rough version and I got a bit lucky they were looking for a bluffing game, because it was clear it still needed a lot of work. In the next years it went through many iterations, while several major live events also happened. These days I try to have a prototype be more finished before pitching it and our test group knows better when a prototype is ready for pitching.

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Playtesting was done with a lot of different players, including panel testing by the publisher itself (where I was not present). I also did a lot of ‘goldfishing’: a term from Magic: the Gathering players where they take a constructed deck and see how it performs without a real opponent or opposition (“play against a goldfish”). I used this to get a feel for the types of hands players would get and to determine how much players would need to bluf on average. I simulated hundreds of plays while watching movies and tv series. The goal was to have players bluff roughly 50% of the time. While it is cool to have some variability, turns in which noone bluffs or everyone does, should be rare. In early versions having such extremes often was an indication that the balance of missions and the mafia cards was not correct. Whenever I made some card changes, I would –again– do some more manual simulation. Maybe a computer program could have done this as well. However, doing it manually gave me a lot of insights on what kind of sets of cards players get and whether those are offering interesting choices.

In the end I added cards players can to use to indicate which player they suspect. For a long time players just used their hands to point at someone.  This felt tedious, as you need both hands when you are  having drinks and holding cards. Plus it required that you kept your hand up until all the accusations are resolved. Another player card was added to indicate whether you are bluffing or playing (seemingly) honestly. And the icons on those are used on the special mafia cards, so effects could become textless. An added bonus of these accusation cards is that a group can freely choose to point accurately or just throw their card in front of another player to suspect them. However, there is one event card that lets players suspect an additional player. But it is for 1 round only and the mayhem is quite worth it.

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At the beginning of 2017 I felt I could not improve the game any further and said so to the publisher, inviting them to say so if they felt otherwise. 999 Games agreed and suddenly it was time to arrange a contract. They found an artist team and started up the production process. I got shared the art concepts, box design and helped out with checking the printing files.

At the end things moved fast. If you work with a relative bigger publisher they schedule a time line, reserve a moment for printing and that sets deadlines! Be ready to act fast. I had half a day to review the final rules version. Luckily they knew what they were doing.

Product design

The publisher took the game and made a product out of it. This means art, graphic design, component choices, font. I am very grateful what they managed to do. The box looks awesome and has a stylish insert. The yellow coloured tokens for scoring respect points are fancy. To be honest I was quite critical on the art pieces. However, the publisher and I have gotten a lot of enthusiastic responses to it. So they made a good call. And the box design really makes it shine. Some parents were less happy with guns drawn, but the comical look does redeem it for many.

The publisher had a brainstorm and came up with some nice Italian inspired names for the characters. And the characters are reused in a decent way (combining characters on a card when it offers multiple skills, adding a moustache). I did hear the critique that the game now has cards with identical names and skills but different amount of stars now all have the same title. Technically it does make no sense, but no-one seems really bothered by this.

The name of the game changed at the very last minute. From the start of the game I came up with the title ‘Capo di Mafia’. The mafia theme stayed, so the title did as well. When I shared the box art on Facebook a former Italian student of mine was quick to point out that this is not properly phrased. It should be ‘Capo della Mafia’. Whoops! Before I could even contact the publisher, they send me an email that they saw the social media discussion and contacted an Italian relative to double check. The title got changed just in time. 🙂

Promotion

With a product to sell, the next steps are to do promotion, marketing and ensure distribution. 999 Games does distribution themselves and have good contacts with hobby gaming retail stores and online platforms. They have a fanbase that gets their newsletter and made an animated promotional video! I am not sure how much impact the local attention had on sales, but it was cool to demo the game at a local game store, do an interview for local newspapers and a student magazine.

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So far the game is only available in Dutch. Whether it will be sub-licensed (foreign publisher selling it at their region) is still work in progress. With the influx of games these days the odds of this seem to wane. As I understood the theme -mafia- is not helping, as many publisher already have a game with that theme or do not think it is trendy enough. I am happy with the sales of 2017 and early 2018: 4300 were sold, which is quite nice for a small country like the Netherlands. I am now waiting their decision to reprint or not. One international edition is in the works!

The final product looks good and I loved demonstrating it at conventions. I would still be happy to play it anytime, after all the testing and solo playing. The publisher was really nice to work with.

It is never done

There are some little things in the design that keep bugging me a bit. The events work, but this still feels a bit fiddly. I ponder whether it might had been possible to create events that would change each game (rather than 1 round during a game). However, players have no issues with it.

The prototype had the amount of respect points gained or lost indicated on the player cards. These are not there in the final printed version. I feel the game could have benefitted from this, as it improves usability. It only takes a few turns, but beginning players need to check a few times what amount they gain or lose.

The game has many male characters, but only 1 female. And they all have the same skin color. This is a missed opportunity to showcase more diversity. Something I am more aware of now. I address this in the concept art I borrow for my prototypes, as I have learned that this already sets a creative direction for publishers and artists.

The design and development of this game really taught me a lot about game design and I am proud of the final product. During its development I founded the game design guild, Het Spellenmaakgilde, and shifted to different career becoming a lecturer at a multimedia study where I also teach in game design (and organise playtesting events). A second game has been published in 2018 and I am working on many concepts. It was a great journey, and still is.

-Arjan

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Looking back: Test & Chill December 2018

On 11 December 2018 we had another playtesting event at our CMD multimedia study. Students presented their digital school projects, their personal work and even a tabletop game going for crowdfunding on Kickstarter right now (Epic Story of Blank and Blank). Some students assessed each other’s art and shared tips. And some graduate students had a paper prototype of their mobile app that aims to have kids do playful activities outside. Below some pictures of the event.

It was nice again to see the diverse types of projects! Save the date: Thursday 24 January will be the next Test & Chill playtesting event!

Blog – Impressions Day Jam November 2018

Together with Study Association Glitch we had another Day Jam at our CMD study with Game Design students. Make a game in 24 hours! This time it was making an analogue game with very specific theme challenges. All teams managed to present a playable prototype after a day, some with created unique art. It is very cool to see students take on this event, for no credits and skip sleep in their week during blocks and deadlines.

The challenges, thanks to this game theme generator :IMG_4133

Four teams presented their games Friday afternoon and played each other games. It is impressive how much game there can be created in such a short amount of time. They are far from done, but each showed a spark, something that could be developed further. It illustrates how a pressure cooker of time can sometimes good focus and production. We talked about how students could use this next block with their regular group project.

And finally the prizes that teams could win, in spirit of education, were 2 game design books: The Art of Game Design, a book of lenses, by Jesse Schell & The Gamer’s Brain, how neuroscience and UX can impact video game design, by Celia HodentIMG_4140

Next up will be the international Global Game Jam event in January! And after the semester we will have another Day Jam.

Game on!

Blog – Impressions Test & Chill November 2018

Once again we had a playtesting afternoon. Students of all study years were present and many concepts and prototypes were demonstrated. It was cool to see many types of projects: group work, individual work, some well developed, others still rough work in progress, digital and card games.

We will have 2 playtesting events again next block. Aaaaand students: to work out those design and prototyping skills join the Day Jam 15 November!

Blog – The Guild Expands

logo 2016 spellenmaakgilde finalAs a lecturer,  game designer and organiser of playtesting events it is a balancing act what to focus on. The paid job has priority of course, as other live events and responsibilities. Game design has gotten some attention, and coming year hopefully more so 🙂 (enough ideas in the works for that).

The Game Design Guild (in Dutch ‘Spellenmaakgilde’) also got some attention, by me and others.  I started doing this to support fellow designers and see what synergy could be created. Slowly but surely this is happeningIt remains work in progress, but the next small improvements are nice to mention, as they offer more structure and opportunity in our local game design habitat:

Slack

slackSlack is some form of chat site, similar to Discord if you know that one, and we started one for the Guild a while ago. While the group is still small, the created slack channel is a nice way to chat about ideas for the guilds and proofread game rules. Plus some local artists also pitched their art portfolio recently. So there is some engagement and I hope it will grow bigger.

Newsletter

Thanks to help of my friend Douwe the Guild (‘Spellenmaakgilde’) now has a slick mailchimp newsletter since this summer. And I have to say, after tinkering with the tool, it is quite nice to create (basic) lay-outs. And finally, after some more tinkering we now have a signup form, yay! You can subscribe here.

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Spellenspektakel Convention

spsp-logo-2018Last year 2 Dutch game designers, Ellis Hendriksen and Dennis Merkx worked together with the ‘Spellenspektakel‘, the biggest Dutch tabletop game convention, to offer discounted demonstration tables for local game designers. This year we took up the challenge and are facilitating demo tables. 10 tables are booked fully for the event on 10 and 11 November 2018. Visit the ‘Auteursplein’ and meet designers, buy their games and play their games in progress.

Other locations!

blokhuispoortWhile we usually are present at the Ducosim conventions (a national tabletop game organisation), we have yet to have other locations were we structurally offer playtesting events. There are other of course that take initiative and Utrecht and Amsterdam have playtesting events often.

Two digital game industry professionals and board game enthousiasts, Friso Roolvink & Mitchel Bonnema, will host the first event in Leeuwarden on Friday 16th of November. We will see what the turn up will be, but the city has quite a (digital) design scene and the initial interest is there!

Future plans

What is next? We will see. One other idea I like to pursue is to interview local designers and post the conversations in Dutch and English. If you have an interest in that, certain questions you would like to have answered or perhaps you like to participate as a published designer: contact us! 

Test & Chill October 2018

We have kicked the playtesting year off! Once again, with the support of the study association Glitch we had a great playtesting event at our study Communication & Multimedia Design. Students from all years (1st years to graduating students) brought their project work and their independent work. And some teachers walked in to give their 2 cts. 🙂 Besides the digital games there were some card games playtested, and some work in progress (also nice to bring!).

I even got the opportunity to bring my RPG party game to the table and put the new rules to the test! Huzza!

In a few more weeks time for another playtesting event. And for tabletop game fans / designers: join us at the Spellenmaakgilde playtesting nights in Groningen! Speaking about tabletop games, the biggest analogue game convention in the Netherlands ‘Spellenspektakel’ is coming up and the Guild has some tables available at a reduced price to demonstrate your game! Further details are available in Dutch here, if you are non-Dutch and interested, you can contact me.

Local news with Capo della Mafia

The Hanze Applied University has an independent magazine for their students. Last year I donated 2 different games to them as a contest price. I had a zany interview about game design and the release of my game Capo della Mafia with them. That was already cool. Besides the print it is also available on their site (in Dutch). Now at the start of the new study year they reprinted it, nice!

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What was even more awesome is to see the game being played! During introduction camp with the new first years’ students the study association Glitch brought a copy and played it. It is so cool to see a designed game being played. My prediction, that will never get boring. 🙂

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