I am getting better.

It was last summer, two months before release of Stronghold: Undead. I was demoing the game during Polish convention called Kaszubkon. It was Ryslaw, fan of Stronghold, who was playing Undead with his opponent – Tele – that night. At some point Ryslaw said: „Damn, it is great. Undead is much better than base Stronghold. I loved Stronghold and this one I love even more.”

„It has to be better. I learn. I get experience. Every year I improve my skills.”, I said. I really believed that Undead is better than base game and I really believed it is exactly how it should be. Every new project has to be better. My Zombiaki2 are better than Zombiaki1, my Undead is better than Stronghold, my New Era is better than 51st State. That's how it is.

I really do like all my games. Almost 10 years after first release of Zombiaki, I still like the game and I am proud of it. I love Witchcraft, I am damn happy that I designed Stronghold. But I also know that if I do them today I could make them better. Every month I play new games. I observe other players playing my games. I read game blogs, reviews, I am in the very center of gaming world. I learn. Every day I am getting better as a designer.

I am writing today about it because this week I did something exceptional (from my point of view).

Last year I designed Pret-a-Porter – an economic strategy game about world of fashion. It was published in Poland in late November. (Few days ago it was nominated for Game of the Year in Poland.) In Pret-a-Porter there are more than 50 cards (representing employees, buildings, contracts) with text on them explaining how they work. Since November I was worrying about international release of the game. It was impossible to make international edition of the game with so much text on cards!

For long long months we were - here in Portal - unable to change Pret-a-Porter into language independent game like our previous releases (NS HEX, Witchcraft, Stronghold, 51st State). It was a huge problem for a small company like Portal. Since months we were trying to make some iconography for the game and it was failure. Failure over and over.

In a fact few weeks ago we finally decided to do only English edition with English text on cards. We saw no other option.

Last week I decided to sit once again with Pret-a-Porter and try once again.

Last week I sat and this time it turned out I can do it! I can design icons for Pret-a-Porter. I finally did it. I finally got rid of text. I am happy as a hell. I waited for that moment since last year.

I am happy to know that I am getting better. Every single week.

Through the Ages

It is called Das verructe labyrinth. Known also as The aMAZEing Labirynth or just Labirynth. Published by Ravensburger in 1986 roku was then republished in 16 different editions and gave a birth of whole range of games with Labirynth in name. True classic. Best-seller. And – what is more – the boardgame of my childhood. I do really have no idea how it got into my home. It was a deep communism in Poland then, no boardgames in stores. It must have been sent to us in some package from Germany. I don't know. It doesn't matter. What matters is that I spent countless hours with it.

It's been more than 20 years ago. I still remember playing it with my parents and brother. I still have photo in my old photo album with me playing the game. I loved that game. I believed then I will play it till my last day. Unfortunately, I grew up.

I got to know Role Playing Games, I got to know hundreds of exciting things to do. My box with Labirynth disappeared. Lost in time. Adventure has been finished. It seemed for ever. Well... Not for ever.

Three years ago my friend Adam Hammudeh brought his copy of Labirynth to our gaming club. When I saw box, I felt thrill. My eyes opened wide. Heart beat stronger. Memories become live again. I asked Adam if I can borrow the game. 'No problem. Have a good time with your kids' he said and I took Labirynth with me. It was nearly 15 years since I have it last time.

It was amazing. It was time travel. I was sitting at my table, with my kids and I was playing Labirynth. Magical moments. Could I – 20 years ago – believe that when I will be adult, I will still play this game? I couldn't.

We played for a few months. I sat with my kids and together we fought to find best track to our goal items. Every single game of Labitynth with my kids was like a best game ever. I had a great time.

Unfortunately, finally my kids grew up...

I' ve just packed my Labirynth to box. The adventure is finished, again. My son wants to play Galaxy Trucker, Nina wants to play Kingsburg, and in a fact, Descent is their favourite. 'Dad, Labitynth is a kids game' they said. It is over. Labirynth goes at the bottom of wardrobe. I will miss it for few years.

My youngest daughter has 2 years. In three years I will pull out the box from wardrobe. I will put it on my table. And again, I will be the happiest man on the planet.

Theme in 51st State

'Mariusz sent us new artwork. Look at 'Mr. President' card. It is awesome.' , said Michał and showed me the artwork.

'You must be kidding', I said.

'What?', asked Michał. 'What's wrong with this ilustration?'

The artwork was really nice. Smiled showman was pointing at us.

'Mr. President is a men who rebuilds the city. He is a tought guy. Not showman'


'Look at the card. He gives on free rebuild action and he gives you Victory Points anytime you do rebuild action again. He believes he is a new president of US. It is clear. Obvious. He is tought guy with mission.', I explained.

'Do you, really, believe that anyone find it obvious?' asked Michał.

Michał might be right. I may be the only one men on this planet who sees theme and story in 51st State. I am the guy who knows exactly why Excavator gives you – while Invaded – two bricks, and why Bulldozer ignores type of the card when you make rebuild action.

So here I am. I tell you about story in 51. I hope you will have more fun with the game when you will understand what is happening on your table.

Card icons
Every card in 51st State represents location that you can find in neighborhood. What you have in your hand, this few cards, represents locations that you've heard that are around your home. That is why the draft phase is called Lookout phase – when you take cards, you are looking for interesting places near your Base. When you have cards in your hand, it means, that you know about these locations and that you can try to make a contact with them.

That is why when you put Pub into play, you may – during every turn – take new cards. You have Pub, Pub is a place where people share information. You listen to stories from wanderers and you know what is interesting behind horizon.

If you have Noticeboard, you take more cards during draft – you have access to information. When you Invade it, which means burn and destroy, you take all announcements that were there and that's it. You take 3 cards – that is all knowledge you get by reading these announcements.

If you put Tavern into a game, you will be able to sell information. That's how it works – discard a card from hand (which means you share some information about interesting Location) and gain Victory Point.

What does Baby Swift? She discards cards, which means she sells information... I will not describe it in more details. You get the picture, do you?

Victory points
Victory Points represent power. Victory Points show how our faction is perceived by others. If you have Wreck of tank it makes impression, isn't it? Size does matter. That is why you get 1 Victory Point when you have Tank. Everybody in neighborhood knows that you are the one with Tank at your doorstep. You do more, you put Wreck of plane next to Tanks and you will rock. You will be famous. You will get many VP.

What about Museum? You Invade it you get 1 VP – everybody's heard that you was the guy who destroyed this big, famous building. And you get 1 card. Why? There were some old maps and you know something interesting now...

Arena gives you possibilites to attack other places. You have Arena, so you have thugs who can invade. That is why Arena produces Guns. Guns trader makes you famous in the area. You are they guy from whom everybody can buy a gun. That makes you rich. Powerfull. That gives you VP. Well, when you will build Gun shop, it will be something!

I really do like Kelly's Pawn Shop. Kelly is a big fish, as you can see when you look at the card. If you have interesting Spoil, and you not use it, but you go to Kelly and give it to him – you will gain lots of VP. Everybody will notice that you are Kelly's good buddy. You make business with big fish. You got 2 VP. Your power grows.

In Old depot you will find lots of iron. With Radiostation you may contact other locations and sign deals. At School you will find free workers, in Old factory you have space to hide good stuff... I believe that 51st State has interesting rules but I also do believe that there is a great story behind cards. When I play 51st State I always imagine my faction growing stronger and stronger with new buildings, deals, and spoils...

Post Scriptum
About these Bricks in Excavator... You sent your thugs to bring you stuff. You say: 'Overe there, two miles from here, there is Excavator. Do your job!'

Few hours later they are back. They are happy as a hell.

'Boss, you will be proud of us. We hunted it down. You won't believe! It had a locker in front, and lots of stuff there. We have it!'

And then they give you two backbacks full of bricks. Stuff, they found when destroying Excavator...


I spent some 35 minutes at Bazik’s house, we were in a hurry – Merry, me and Folko. We managed to have some tea and play two short, very quick games. That visit has cost me 10 Euro, because Merry absolutely fell in love with the first of the two games. So it resulted in an order and a money transfer.

I spent 90 minutes in total at a two-day convention in Belk. You could say that I just dropped by, said hello to friends, had some tea and went back home. Costs? 40 Zloty for petrol and as much again for “To Court the King”. To be honest I didn’t even play it. I just came in, saw the cards, listened to how it’s played and went home. Then I switched on my PC, fired up the browser and ordered the game from Rebel.

Seriously, one is scared to go out, to meet with friends. Wherever I go, costs follow. One visit and the shopping list gets longer, a game catches my eye and the wallet goes like crazy.

Anyway, what can I say, I’m not innocent myself. I take a heavy toll too, you could say. You go and visit me, or invite me to your place and you can be sure it’ll cost you dearly.

I came back from Warsaw yesterday, one evening at friends’, and those friends are now 10 Euro down. They rather liked Adel Verpflichtet, which I brought with me to show them. One meeting with Folk at “Pionek” where I demonstrated Verflixxt to him and his wallet suffers. I invited Bogas and the visit has cost him a bit, you know – petrol, delicious cake, and a decision to buy Mall of Horror…

Unfortunately it’s like good games screamed to us: „You have to have me, you have to have me!” And with friends it’s like they never put some unplayable Pinocchio on the table, oh no! You’re barely past the doorstep, barely manage to agree to a cup of tea, when you hear they had recently bought a fantastic game which you have to see and play. And so the best game from their collection lands on the table, the pearl they want to show off, the wonder making you think on your way home: “Great, awesome, I have to have it.”

I’m looking at my shelf and see these titles – Dungeon Twister? Bazik’s fault. The Pillars of the Earth? Pancho’s doing. Heckmeck? Revenge for Adel Verpflichtet. Yes, it’s the friends from Warsaw...

How are you supposed to socialize? How to meet gamers? How to visit friends? Seriously, it’s a scare. With terrifying consequences...

Is it an expansion or is it a new game?

It’s Cedric’s fault. We met in a hotel in Essen, in 2008 – two people from Portal and three people from IELLO, and discussed our publishing plans. I told them about a game I wanted to design – I told them about Stronghold. It was October 2008, the very beginning of my work on that game. I spoke about the huge numbers of troops, about hordes of skeletons and orcs storming the castle.

In the end the skeletons didn’t make it to the game, orcs did. The game was shown in Essen and I had a lot of fun with it.

I met Cedric again in October 2009. We discussed publishing plans again. I told him about a Stronghold expansion. I told him I was considering replacing the orc cubes in the Invader’s army with the undead.

”That’s it!” he exclaimed. ”The last time you spoke about Stronghold I imagined hordes of skeletons. It’s going to be great. I’d wished you had included skeletons back then!”

I came back home and started working on the expansion. I wanted to make the expansion similar to those modules for Race for the Galaxy. You buy a box with four, five sets of new rules inside, pick the ones you like and ignore the rest.

I started with making 8 new Heroes fighting in the stronghold. That was easy since Stronghold’s realm, the realm of Monastyr, is very rich. It didn’t take me long to think of distinctive features for Heroes from Kord, Gord or Doria, interesting rules would immediately come to my mind. Some two weeks later the first part of the expansion was ready for testing – a new set of game transforming Heroes.

Next in line were the Invader’s cubes. I looked at the white, green and red cubes thinking what I could do. The white ones became Phantoms, the red ones became Vampires and the green ones… The green ones were Skeletons. Rotten Skeletons, sort of, but Skeleton nevertheless. What do Phantoms do? They... fly. Bang! A rule just got created – white Invader’s cubes don’t need free spots at the walls since they don’t need ladders to fight. Vampires? They spread vampiric power and strengthen the Phantoms. Skeletons? You kill one and its bones return to the game. It’s not discarded but reused (back then I didn’t know in what way yet).

There you go, nice and easy.

I looked at all Invader’s actions very closely to check whether they fitted the undead army. Some of them were inconsistent with the plot, I mean, do Vampires use Saboteurs? Do Skeletons use Saps?

At some point I should have given up on analysing whether Skeletons make Poisons, build ladders or Trebuchets.

I didn’t. I went into it.

Does a Necromancer send his troops to build machines? No. He casts spells and uses powerful magic to summon nightmarish ballistas and catapults. He doesn’t need wood or nails, he doesn’t send ghosts to paints banners. He summons it all with his magic. Very interesting possibilities started to appear. I was entering a fascinating world of spells. There were Warhammer Battle books with Vampire armies on my table and galleries of undead artwork opened on the computer screen. Wherever I looked, there were cemeteries and skeletons.

I couldn’t stop myself, I would create, write down new ideas. The board started to fill up with cemeteries, strigas, mists, ghost illusions… The situation was getting out of hand, especially when I looked into the castle one day. How about new ways of defending against the undead? I created Priests, Exorcisms, stakes for the vampires and tower crossbows…

After a few weeks it turned out that the whole idea of modules of different new rules in this expansion might as well be scrapped. The Undead would grow and expand with every working day, slowly taking over the whole expansion. There was no more room for anything else. I would create new Invader’s actions, new actions in the Castle and slowly realize that this idea is big enough to simply dominate the expansion.

Today the testers don’t say that Undead is a good expansion. Today they say that they’re playing Stronghold 2. An entirely new game. And that it’s great. Much better than the first one.

I hate Stronghold

Sometime around the end of July 2009, shortly after all bloody tests were finished, I realized that I hate Stronghold. I was fed up with it. I hated it. A few weeks later, when the production of the game started – a ride with no handlebars, I hated it even more. My heart would stop at the mere sound of the word “Stronghold”. I was fed up with phone calls from Rebel, or from the office regarding publishing. Of course back then I didn’t really know that much about hating Stronghold. Essen was the place where I finally learned what hating this game really meant.

Essen 2009 was tough. I have a gift of composing words into nice sentences and expressing emotions, but I fail to describe the horror of the last year’s fair. An unbelievable job held in the rhythm of a 15 minute game presenting monologue. The game is about a siege. One player plays a role of Defender, the other is Invader... Trzewik, this customer would like an autograph, will you sign it? Yeah, I’ll sign it, defenders know that there is no chance to save the castle.... Trzewik, this man is from a Portuguese portal, he’d like an interview. Ok, let him come back in an hour, they fight only for two reasons... They earn time for women and children to escape from castle... Trzewik, this guy asks if you have a publisher in Brazil. I don’t know, ask Rebel, I’ve no idea what they’ve signed so far. And they fight for honour, for history. They want to be remembered as brave warriors. Spartans, you know... Trzewik, the guy asks if the box contains a manual in French. No, it doesn’t, the French edition is made by IELLO, defender has altogether 30 cubes representing soldiers. Invader has 300. Question is not if he breaks into castle. Question is when... Trzewik, a guy from Phalanx Games just came in asking for some detailed rule. Trzewik, that Woman from the Czech Republic is back, what do I tell her? Have Multi explain the rules to him. And have her leave a business card, I’ll call her back later today. This is Glory board. It represents glory that players earned. It’s cool, I’m from Poland, you can explain in Polish. I can’t do it in Polish, I’ve been doing it in English for three days now. At the beginning of the game Invader has 10 glory points... Trzewik, Petr is asking if you lend them a copy for the night in the hotel. Yes, I will. After every turn of the game, he will lose one... Trzewik, Rebel say the Dutch are interested in 2000 copies, wicked! Cool, chronicle will say: 'Well, defenders fight brave'... Trzewik, do you want to swap?

We would get up at seven, eat breakfast, drive to the fair, explain Stronghold rules for 10 hours, come back for the night, hit the bed dead on our feet and repeat it the next morning. Yes, I really hated Stronghold then. There was no way in the world anyone could talk me into a game of Stronghold.

“Trzewik, you have to do an expansion, you know that, right?”, Piotr Katnik, Rebel’s boss asked me at the fair. “It’s an absolute hit of the fair, we will sell everything we brought with us. The stock we have in Poland will sell before the end of the year. People will want an expansion. You’ve made a hit, now you have to make an expansion.”

I knew that. I knew that bloody well. And I hated Stronghold even more. The thought of setting up the board and testing an expansion made me sick.

“I need a few months break, then I’ll make an expansion. I promise.” I answered.

I kept my word. I made an expansion for Stronghold. I put all my heart and talent into it. I bent over backwards to satisfy the players, to give them a new story, a new chunk of emotions and joy over the board. I’m looking at this expansion, I’m looking at the testers and I know I did a splendid job.

And now I know that before it was just teasing. Oh yes, now I do really hate Stronghold.

Fun with testing

Browian, Grzech and I finally have the chance to meet and discuss 51st State, three weeks after they took the prototype. They live in Wroclaw, I live in Gliwice. With 200km between us the only contact comes courtesy of Skype. But thanks to Pionek, a convention for gamers, we can finally meet and play together.

“The Merchants are too powerful”, starts Browarion. “They win all the time.”

“It’s possible. You got the deck for testing, didn’t you? I never noticed it and perhaps you have found a way to win the game by using the Merchants.” We sit down and play. „Take the Merchants.” I say.

Browarion takes his Merchants. We play the three players version. The Merchants come third.

“Let’s do it again” says Browarion. Again we sit down and play. The Merchants come last. We play again. The Merchants come last for the third time in a row. I’m tempted to tease him but Grzech beats me to it.

“I told you but you wouldn’t listen. Don’t look at nations, look at players. When we played in Wroclaw you didn’t lose to the Merchants, you lost to me. I told you.”


The match has been on for good fifteen minutes now. Piotr has been moaning like a slaughtered calf for good fourteen minutes.

“The Merchants are too weak. They can’t do anything. The contracts are of no use to me, three spots and that’s it. This needs to be changed.”

“Stop moaning and play.”

“But they are. Can’t you see that?!”

“How many points do you have?”


“How many do I have?”


“So will you, please, stop moaning?”

“I’m being serious. Do you know how I struggle to get these 14 points?”

Another 10 minutes pass like the whole eternity, since Piotr manages to fill every one of them with ten minutes of moaning.

“The Merchants are weak, what a joke. I have the contracts’ spots blocked and you’re all over me.”

“Stop moaning, concentrate on the game. I’m finishing in the next turn.”

“I would finish too, but with those stupid Merchants I stand no chance. Maybe with a fourth contract spot, or a universal resource instead of the stupid fuel? This would bring some commerce mood and I would stand a chance…”

We’re done in the next ten minutes.

”How many points do you have?” I ask.

“36. And you?” he asks.

“36.” I answer.

“See? I barely managed a draw!”, he is moaning again!

“You have more cards left in hand, which means that you have won. It is tiebreaker. Merchants won.”

“Do you realize how tough that was? The Merchants are too weak, I’m telling you!”


After another series of tests I discard the Baby Swift from the deck. The players have too few cards in hand to afford discarding two more for a victory point. Baby Swift is an unplayable, dead card. We play without it and everything works well until the next rule change. Now the players have more cards in hand, so Baby Swift gets another chance. It comes back. We play subsequent matches and indeed, Baby Swift makes more sense now, even though it seems to be one of the weaker leaders. Players tend to put their money on Borgo or Greedy Pete, Baby Swift is usually a second or third choice. I make notes and analyse everything, constantly monitoring which cards come into play and which ones are regularly ignored during the draft. It seems to me that Baby Swift walks a thin line between being popular and being unused. It’s a little too weak to be a hit and slightly too strong to simply be discarded from the deck. It gets used sometimes.

In the meantime Michal Oracz prepares another version of the prototype for me – new graphics from the illustrators came in. We can finally play with the original Baby Swift artwork that will appear in the final game. The graphics are insane. Another wave of matches and tests commences.

Baby Swift is the most popular leader in the game now. It’s on the table every game. It’s always the players’ first choice.

I haven’t changed a single rule. I only changed the graphics.


Testing games is crazy fun. You get tens of contradictory conclusions and pieces of information. Every tester tries to pull in their own direction. Each one has a different view. Each one expects from the game something different. One tester plays well, another one is not that good. One tester claims that a certain faction is powerful, another finds it the weakest. Testers from Wroclaw catch me on Skype in the evenings and ask me not to listen to testers from Opole, because 51st State doesn’t need negative interaction. Opole rings me and says that the players from Wroclaw are little girls, and Neuroshima is for big boys. Wroclaw writes that Opole is biased, since they prefer war games there. And that the merchants are too weak.

Games’ reports. Results’ files. Statistics. Opinions and claims. A continuous flow of information.

I sit and filter through it. I pick recurring remarks. I check and thoroughly analyse opinions which seem to appear on a regular basis.

And everything else... into the bin.

Heart on the pitch 2

Initially the prototype doesn’t work. It’s ugly, boring and crashes often. It takes a lot of effort to find people willing to play and test it. Friends try to avoid it, preferring other games from their collections. It starts working after a few months. It doesn’t crash. You are happy with it, after many weeks it’s finally there – your game works. You start thinking about sending the prototype to a publisher.

Stop. Before you do that, you need to answer two questions. The first one was covered previously, today the second one.

When your friends visit you, do they ask you if they could play your prototype? Do your mates say: “Could we play your prototype today?” If they ask for it, everything is just fine – send it to a publisher. If you have to persuade them to play it - throw it away. It’s not worth releasing.

A few weeks ago I came back from my holiday in Croatia, which I spent with friends and a big bunch of children. The friends are board games’ fans, so we had a substantial number of board games in the car boot, besides swim fins, swim trunks and goggles. The friends brought Dominion and Small World, and I brought Neuroshima Hex, Galaxy Trucker, Doom, Tichu, Havana and the 51st State prototype.

Throughout the entire trip we had one game of Small World, one of Havana, five games of Tichu and over 20 games of 51st State. I didn’t suggest playing 51st State once, I always waited for others’ suggestions. I wanted to see how quickly they would get bored with it, what its replayability was, how many games it would take for them to get fed up with it and play something else. I didn’t suggest playing it once. And the game has landed on the table over 20 times…

In the last evening of the holiday Piotr came to our room. They’d also had their stuff packed, their children in beds. And we’d had our stuff packed, our children in beds. We were to go back to Poland at 7am the next morning. 10pm, the last evening of the holiday in Croatia.

“How about a round of 51st State?”, Piotr asks.

“With pleasure” I say.

51st State is a winner and I’m feeling good about it. We already had sensational titles with us, the board game elite, from Dominion, to Small World, to Havana, to Galaxy Trucker. And yet in Croatia they have all gathered dust. The game on the table was 51st State, time and again.

My answer to the question: „When your friends visit you, do they ask you if they could play your prototype? – is “yes”. Yes, I sent Small World back on the shelf. Yes, my 51st State made Dominion stay in a suitcase all holiday. Yes, due to my card game we only played Havana once throughout the entire holiday.

Yes, 51st State is ready to be released. The prototype has been tested, pitted against the giants, which it’s trapped on a shelf. If your prototype is not up to such trial, don’t send it to a publisher. Nobody is going to release a game worse than the ones already present on the market. You have to be better. You have to lock the giants in the cupboards. You have to make the competition retire early.

Heart on the pitch

Initially the prototype doesn’t work. It’s ugly, boring and crashes often. It takes a lot of effort to find people willing to play and test it. Friends try to avoid it, preferring other games from their collections. It starts working after a few months. It doesn’t crash. You are happy with it, after many weeks it’s finally there – your game works. You start thinking about sending the prototype to a publisher.

Stop. Before you do that, you need to answer a question.

Before you send a prototype to a publisher, answer the question – Is my game the best game in the world? If the answer is “No”, you can throw your prototype away. I’m being serious. If you yourself don’t consider the game to be excellent, outstanding, the best in the world, then what are you counting for? Do you think others will? You don’t love it, so what do you expect from others?

Every time I sat down to work on Stronghold, tinkering with rules, drawing boards, castles, in every moment, every afternoon, there was one thought in my mind: “Here comes Stronghold, the best board game in the world.” I would create new Invader’s actions, or design new Defender’s actions and mutter: “Agricolo, you are about to lose your crown, Stronghold is coming.” Everything I did for the game, I did believing that I was creating the best board game in the world. I would sit awake at night wheeling and dealing how to make it even better, so it could beat Puerto Rico and other top games.

I’m a realist. I know that Stronghold won’t ever reach the BGG charts’ No. 1. I knew it even when I was creating it. But being realistic has nothing to do with it. When you design a game, you clench your teeth and do everything you can to create the best game on this planet. There is no other way. Your game will revolutionise the market, it’ll get you both Spiel des Jahres and DeutscheSpielPreis together and your name will be the synonym of genious. That’s all that matters to you.

And it’s a bit like in a basketball match. When you face Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan on the pitch, you realistically estimate they’ll win 96-72 or 101-78. But down in the changing room you believe in victory. You’ve trained to the limit, your team is tuned, your coach is good, and so you believe you can win. You have to believe you can defeat everybody. The game starts, you loos two quarters and before the half time it becomes obvious that you’ve failed. But it doesn't matter. Training, heart on pitch, hope and strength matter.

The game came out and didn’t reach BGG’s No.1, and that was to be expected. But back then, when I was sitting over nights, creating it, preparing it for publication – I believed it was the best board game in the world. I believed that it’s excellent, that people would love it, and that it’s unlike any other released game. Original, interesting, thrilling.

If you’ve finished working on your prototype and plan sending it to a publisher without yourself being able to describe it as original, interesting, thrilling and that it’s the best game in the world and it’s going to BGG’s top 10, then you take that game and bin it.

There are thousands of average games in the world. Publishers expect the best of the best, and won’t settle for less.

Potential of a prototype

I have 30 cards. Each of them has a red watercolour on the top and a blue one on the bottom. Each has a name written in the middle. One is called Guardhouse, another Petrol Station, and another Bunker. I take all thirty of them and go to the board games club in Gliwice.

Asiok is the first one to arrive in the club.

“Come in, let me show you something” I say and take out the cards.

“A new prototype?” he asks

“A brand new one.” I say and give both of us five cards each. “It’s set in the Neuroshima universe, a post-war world with the mood from Mad Max. We’re the leaders of some organization with the aim of expanding our power. Every turn we scan the horizon in search for interesting locations. There are three ways of making contact with a location. You can assault it to immediately get a lot of resources or you can start collaborating and start getting a smaller amount of resources every turn. You can also incorporate it into your micro-country by building a road. In this case you use that location to its full extent. OK?”


Asiok looks at his five cards.

“Ignacy, these cards are blank.” He shows me his cards marked with paint with names in the middle. Like I never saw them before.

„Imagine, that there’s something there. Show me what you’ve got. There, you have a Petrol Station. If you assault it, you’ll get lots of fuel at once. Or collaborate with them and get one fuel every turn. Or build a road there and you can start selling that fuel to me.”

“OK, I’m assaulting the station and take lots of fuel.”

“And I have a Watchtower. I’m making a road connection.”

“What does a Watchtower do?” Asiok asks.

“I have no idea to be honest. Let’s say it defends you from attacks.”

“Can you attack one another?”

“For the time being you can’t. Keep playing. What’s in your hand?”

“I’m placing Barracks, it’ll give me soldiers. I’m making a road connection and it’s now part of my country.”

“OK, I’m contacting a Pub, it’ll give me one hit man every turn.”

Five minutes later we run out of cards. I’m collaborating with a Pub and a Refinery. Asiok has Barracks, has also assaulted a Petrol Station and an Arena. We have no idea what these cards do. It’s irrelevant at this stage. It’s the potential that counts.

„And?” I ask, “Can you imagine how it’s going to look in the future? Would you enjoy such game and its features?”

“If you make it well, there’ll be lots of choices. Players will have plenty of potential moves.”

“Did you have any vivid ideas? Did you feel you were assaulting and signing contracts, and that it has nice atmosphere and makes sense?”

“Yes, there’s a potential here. Bring a new version next week.”


I showed the game to a few other people that afternoon. I played with Sheva, Mst, Allchemik and Korzen. The latter, to my amazement, after playing a weird, made up match with me, took those 30 cards off me and played each other, also making up card’s functions as they went.

It was clear to see – 51st State had an idea. When someone asks me what this game is about, I won’t have to say: “Well, it’s a new kind of pick and delivery with a twist…” I won’t have to tell: “51st State is the four hundred and fifteenth take on territory control mechanics, where the players fight for field advantage…” I won’t be embarrassed by saying: “51st State is a game using deck building mechanics known from Dominion, but introduces a little twist…” It’s not a boring, three hundredth variation on a popular theme.

I made a game about which I can say something interesting in two sentences. 51st State is a game, where players look for locations and are able to make contact with each and every one of them in three different ways. You see an Old Radio Station and you invade it and steal their equipment, you start collaborating with them and use it in every turn or you annex it and it becomes exclusively yours, indefinitely.

Two sentences selling the mood of the game. Two sentences telling about mechanics and a multitude of choices and tactics. Two sentences showing that it’s a great piece of tangible storytelling fun.

That day I started believing in the potential of 51st State. I saw a vivid idea that works, that people played a card game where the cards had no rules on them. And yet they could imagine what was happening and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it too. It was a nice, playable idea. It was something new. Not another eurogame with cubes, not another Dominion clone. Something different. Assault a location, collaborate with it or annex it to your territory.

One card – three colourful, strong storytelling outcomes.

I am a lunatic.

I rush into the house, toss my briefcase in the corner and run to my desk to get some sheets of paper. “Daddy, daddy!” Lena’s voice comes from the kitchen. The daughter pat pats through the hallway and grabs hold of my leg. “Merry, take her!” I shout in the kitchen’s direction and pass the kid to the mother. “How about a good afternoon?!” I hear. „I’m not here.” I answer and rush into the kids’ room. „Nina, give me the paint set, quick!” I utter and run into the bathroom to get some water. „Daddy, daddy!” comes from the kitchen. „I’m not here!” I shout back. I pick up the paints, sheets of paper, a brush, water and get to the table. “Ignac!” Merry gets angry and now I’m going to get it. “I’m not here, don’t talk to me.” I answer risking my life and start to cover the paper with paint. Have you seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Then you know what’s going on. A nutter covering sheets of paper with drawings. Merry with the kid on her arms stands behind ready to hit me. “Give me three minutes and I’ll say good afternoon. Now I’m not here, please.” I say through my teeth and keep painting in blue, red and grey. One, two, three sheets of paper. They all fill up with notes, drawings, and arrows. “I live with a lunatic.” Merry recaps and goes back to the kitchen. The daughter cries daddy is back, she wants to daddy. Nina brings more sheets of paper. It takes me three minutes to fill up six of them. I spilled everything I had in my head, everything I came up with during a half an hour drive. I didn’t waste a single idea. I managed to note down everything. Phew. I get up relieved. „Daring, I’m back! How’s your day?” I shout in the kitchen’s direction. The daughter runs to me with a squeal. There are six sheets of paper dirty with paint lying on the table. It’s the groundwork for 51st State, a card game that is going to debut in Essen this year...


I sprained my ankle and had to go to the changing room in the middle of the match. It hurts like hell. It’s way past eleven in the night. I hope I won’t finish my evening at emergency. I drink water and patiently wait for the game to finish. My mind goes to Basilica, a game which I’ve recently been testing and helping improve. A solution comes to my head after a short while, one which I’ve been trying to find for days to no avail. I sit in the changing room, it’s almost half past eleven in the night and suddenly all the pieces start falling into place. I have nothing to write it with, I can’t make notes, darn it. I pick up my mobile and write a text message to Merry. “A choice of 3 helpers, a brigadier for two peasants…”. A few minutes pass. An answer comes: „What?!” I might have woken her up. „Write it down on a piece of paper on my desk, please.” A few moments of silence and another text message arrives. “I live with a lunatic.” I don’t deny it. The three helpers patent works and is going to be implemented in the final version of the game. And as far as I know Basilica will be appearing in Essen this year.

Fortunately, the ankle wasn’t that bad either. No going to emergency…


Sunday afternoon - a curse for many men, who have to sit through a boring dinner at their in-laws. I have armed myself with All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a roleplaying game devoted entirely to zombies. I read subsequent chapters, I look at the drawings, and the afternoon lazily drags on. Eventually I pick up a notebook and a fountain pen and start to scribble. No big deal. Zombies walking alongside railway tracks, people at some barricades. I write down fine rules, like a zombie moves one field back when hit; zombies in single file don’t step back, or different shots inflict different wounds… The afternoon drags on. I have five pages filled with rules and ideas for cards. A few days later I bring a prototype to work. A few months later the game is released in Poland under the title “Zombies”. It becomes very popular, gets four additional prints, a release in Germany and a sequel - Zombies2. Lazy afternoons can sometimes surprise…


I have an incredible job. I make games for the living. I buy shoes for my kids and realize that I have the money, because people buy games that I’ve made. I pay my telephone bill and realize that I have the money, because someone likes my ideas and has purchased Zombies or Stronghold. I have a pork chop with chips for dinner and I can afford it, because I made Witchcraft. I support my family thanks to ideas that come to my head. In the strangest places and times.

I am a lunatic. A bloody happy one.

Trash, again...

I had lots of notes, drafts discarded during the work on Stronghold, because they were too complicated, because they would mess things up, because something had to go – the game was difficult enough already. When I was asked in Essen whether I had ideas for an add-on, I calmly answered yes, a whole lot of ideas.

I had a whole deck of cards introducing events. I did write about them in one of the articles on Stronghold. Tens of cards with events like a downpour, a support of eastern troops, a riot in the camp. I had an add-on to make, so they needed another look to see what the problem was and whether it could be solved. These events would bring new excitement to the game.

I had ideas for new heroes, who could replace the veterans – Boromir and Aragorn. There are ten major states in the universe of Monastyr. One hero from Agaria, and one from Ragada made their appearance in Stronghold. Now that an add-on was in the workings, I had a chance to introduce another eight heroes, coming from the remaining nations of Monastyr.

Rules of hunger were in their infancy – they were something Salou would try talking me into during the tens of test matches. Eventually I decided against it, I thought it would complicate the game too much. And since the add-on would be purchased by players who already knew the main game, I felt I could allow myself to introduce more complicated rules now. So I took out the hunger rules from the archives.

At a relatively late point of the creation process the commanders of the Invader’s army were also kicked out of the main Stronghold game. In the game you know, phase six is Dispatch. In the version of the game which I tested for a few weeks, the phase six card was similar to the phase 2-4 cards – it had various actions, depending on the commander drawn at the beginning of the game. There were six different commanders, and the player would draw two, and eventually pick one of the two before the game. There were aggressive commanders (granting bigger dispatches), defensive commanders (smaller dispatches, better protection from archers’ fire), commanders with a stratagem, commanders with high camp discipline, and others.

A similar case was the issue of Resources - the first of the phase cards. At some point there were various cards saying where the action takes place. There was a lakeside area, where the player, in addition to wood, received fish (related to the hunger rules). There were dense forests (giving more wood), and quarries (giving stone for improved catapult fire)…

I removed all of it when we saw that Stronghold is hellishly complicated already and needs simplifying, because it started resembling a simulation that the testers couldn’t grasp.

I was about to make an add-on, and so a chance appeared to give all those discarded ideas a second look and pick the useful ones.

I also had a few new ideas which came into existence after the work on Stronghold had been finished. I wanted to add orc heroes, Aragorn and Boromir’s counterparts on the Invader’s side. Placed on ramparts they would influence combat on adjacent wall sections.

There’s a big box full of notes regarding Stronghold. As big as the Stronghold box itself, with piles of paper written in small print, and tens of different ideas and versions. When I sat down to make the add-on I took it all out and started sifting through it in search for the best concepts.

Today, after months of work on the Stronghold add-on, I have bad news for you. If you liked any of the above mentioned ideas or found them interesting, then unfortunately you won’t find them in the add-on. I have binned everything I wrote about here. Again.

I can’t believe it myself.

An appeal to women

Tomek reports what’s up in Warsaw: „We also play Boomtown, we play it till we drop. The Folks like it for its interaction. The women win. Same with Manila – there’s always some woman with most cash at the end, and boats with my men can never arrive. Some kind of conspiracy.” A week earlier he wrote: “Aska wins in Adel Verpflichtet every time. I have no idea how she does it.” Two weeks earlier it was my turn to flood his inbox with my sorrow, to report with sadness that I had been crushed by Merry in the Pillars of the Earth.

I have a regular correspondence with Tomek. We comfort each other and feel for each other, sharing our true astonishment for our Beloved Women and their unfair game table practices. Let’s say it aloud – women do not play fair.

When Tomek sits down to play a game, he has a plan. He has an idea for a win, and he follows that idea. You can see it in his every gesture and every word. You can hear it in a triumphant Ha! shouted after an especially successful move. You can see it in the proud way he reaches for his wine glass or how he hits his fist against the knee after an especially successful move.
Asia lacks all these sincere gestures. She smiles innocently and makes us put our guard down. Asia asks for a glass of wine or some tea biscuits. She won’t admit to having a victorious plan, she won’t betray it with any gesture or sign telling that behind those glasses of wine, behind those tea biscuits there is a machine rising. A machine that is about to crush me, Tomek and every other man at the table. It’ll flatten us like a steam roller. Women do not play fair.

As for me, my mouth doesn’t shut as they say. I comment, give advice, tell off and mock. I live the game, I live every placed tile, every played card. I live more with every turn, to the point where every opponent knows what to do, what not to do. I live it so much, that towards the end of the game everyone knows what the person on my left is supposed to do, even the neighbours from the opposite house.
Women pretend that the game doesn’t interest them that much. Merry manages to feed the kids, help both daughters with the homework and even do the washing. The board? Oh, she’ll move two pawns, play a card and goes back to pretending that something else has her attention. The dog needs walking, the canary needs water. Sometimes the deception is of epic proportions. I say deception, because it’s all a smokescreen. This nonchalance of moves, this apparent lack of involvement, it’s all there just to have us put our guard down, to make us not take her seriously. To allow her to stay unnoticed, underestimated, secretly striving for victory.

She always does it, and week after week we put our guard down. There’s admirable mastery in it, and insincerity deserving condemnation. Women do not play fair.

If things don’t go well for Tomek, he literally breaks the board with his forehead. He leans over it so deep, like he wanted to move pawns with his stare, to make them reconsider and get out of the spots that were reserved for him. He raises his hands to the sky imploringly, and frowns back at the pawns. Tomek does not approve of those opponents’ moves that cross him. And he demonstrates this lack of approval to everyone around. Including the neighbour from Nr. 3.

Asia doesn’t wave her hands. She doesn’t hit her knee. She doesn’t eye other players inviting them to share the drama that’s happening on the board. Like all women she calmly accepts what consecutive turns bring, calmly adjusts her plans and step by step gets closer to victory. Of course we, the fair playing men, have no idea such plans exist at all. She doesn’t fret and fume, doesn’t waste strength on rubbing her forehead and doesn’t brood over other players’ sins. Asia, and all other women with her, plays calmly and is carried to victory by her serenity. This is not fair.

I’m not asking you to stop winning. I’ve got enough pride not to beg for mercy or handicap, for letting some of my, or Tomek’s plans succeed once in a while. No, we don’t want your mercy. The only thing I’m asking you for, our Beloved Better Halves, is to at least pretend that you had to make some effort to defeat us. Don’t make it look so easy. I’m asking you, begging even.

Why do I like board games?

I’ve been wondering recently what makes me a fan of board games. Why do I enjoy them so much? Why do I like Mondays, when I meet with my friends and spend whole afternoons leaning over boards? I’ve written down some obvious answers.

I like to hold a new box in my hands. I like to unwrap it, eagerly look inside, and pick up the tiles sheet. I like to pick up the board, unfold it and examine from all possible angles. I like to touch the pawns, the dice, and dip my fingers into all that colourful stuff. I like to hear the magical clicking of the tiles being pushed out of the cardboard sheet. I like to tear the wrapping film off a deck of cards… Ok, I’m lying now. I don’t like unwrapping cards.

But I like the moment, when a new game lands on the table. Those frantic moments when players fight for pawns and argue who takes the green ones and who the yellow ones. When they trace the board with their fingers asking tens of absurd questions. Are the yellow cubes built in these buildings? Can I play a bricklayer family, since I have the red pawns? I’m playing with the yellow ones, so being the Chinese I should get double the number of pawns, may I? And so on, and so forth. Madness. A new game means big expectations, a lot of positive emotions and joy in its purest form.

Oh, the cake is also a reason why I like board games. The cake and the tea biscuits. And most of all I like board games with a board so big, that there is no more space for the cake and the biscuits left on it. I’ll hold It, I usually say and put the biscuit bowl next to me. I sip my tea with my hand among the different sweets. Biscuits are usually brought by Multidej, baking by Bogas and Dagmara and chockolate in big quantities by Salou. Eventually it all lands inside the reach of my hand. And I admit plainly – these are my beloved moments.

I like to know about games. I gather this knowledge by various means. I browse through foreign web sites looking for information, pictures of new releases, fans’ opinions and professional reviews. I read Swiat Gier Planszowych (The World of Board Games magazine) from cover to cover. I roam sites like Games Frantic, Kraina Gier, gry-planszowe.pl and many more, absorbing information, ensuring my need for knowledge is appeased. Unfortunately, it never is. And that’s why I discuss games.

I debate with Tomek by mail, bragging about what I’ve played, telling him what is remarkable and what to avoid. I like long, sincere men talks, when we talk over our Better Halves and prove to ourselves that our attitude towards games, not theirs, is the appropriate one. It surely is. I like the “skype” chat with Pancho, when we indulge ourselves in all kinds of gossip, from recommendations, to comments regarding recent publishers’ news. I debate every Monday, in the club, talking to Mst about games, asking for his opinion on various titles.

What I also like about board games is writing about them. Like here, now. When I sit at the computer in the evening and share my passion with you. I like the fact that, thanks to board games, I could start the MDK club in Gliwice, that I could organize “Pionek”, a magical event, to which smiling gamers come from all over Poland. I like the fact, that I always misinterpret the rules and as a result I can always play one game according to two or three sets of alternative rules. I also like how the boxes form such marvelous piles…

Actually, what I also like about board games is the fact, that you can play them too. But I get the feeling that it’s one thing I could manage without. Without biscuits by the table, without email debates with Tomek, without piling up boxes on the shelf it would be a lot harder for me…

A new expansion. For free.

It’s the second half of August, the town of Rowy, a table just by the sea side. It’s blissfully quiet, a nice roar of the waves while we play a game of Citadels. There’s a mixed party here, two players from Gliwice, four from Warsaw. I have a Merchant in my hand, I’m picking two pieces of gold, plus a third one, decide to build a Palace, when I suddenly hear it’s not allowed…

“Excuse me?” I’m asking in surprise.

“You’re not allowed to build after taking a third gold piece. You take gold after you’ve completed your actions.” An answer comes.

“Yes I can.” I smile. “I assure you I can.”

We pick up the manual. I point at the relevant paragraph with my finger. We read it aloud, and all becomes quiet.

„Great. We’ve been playing it the wrong way for a year...”

A few moments pass, an assassin kills a king. “The crown goes to the dead king”, I point out seeing that no one is willing to pass the crown. “No, no, the king is dead, he killed him, he doesn’t get the crown”, I hear. “The king is dead, but he receives the crown nevertheless”, I argument. “No, he doesn’t. Yes, he does. No. Yes.” We take a look in the manual. I get my own way. I feel like a half-wit spoiling the fun for everyone else. Like an accountant eager to ruin someone’s holiday. I feel very, very awkward. Eventually a third discrepancy with the rules comes up. „You’re going to kill me”, I say, then hide under the table...

Two weeks after that the holiday was over. Now people are returning, there are meetings and visits in the hometown of Gliwice. I’m receiving Bogas and Dagmara, a married couple from Tarnowskie Gory. We’re playing Verflixxt, but not before we’re five minutes into the game, when another charming fun with settling for common rules begins. I want to move the bird and the pawn every time a question mark is rolled. Bogas wants every player to pass his or her token to the player on their left. Multidej shows off his German and quotes the manual. Dagmara cuts him short by saying that she’s graduated from German philology. Merry munches on crisps and enjoys the whole scene.

Eventually, both Bogus and I, we shake our heads and give up on the whole fuss. It is settled – since we’re playing in Gliwice, we’ll play according to the Gliwice interpretation. We’re having tremendous fun, unaware of the fact that both versions, Bogus’ and mine, are wrong, which turns out a couple of days later. A few days after that a final, irrefutable translation of those rules lands in my Verflixxt box. And a week later, over two years after I had bought Verflixxt, I have an uncommon pleasure to play it according to the genuine rules. The match is sweet, a breath of fresh air, it brings new experience. We’re all satisfied with this new version of Verflixxt.

The number of games I have played not according to their rules is overwhelming. There was a period when virtually every board game I played, I played according to my own custom rules, since I would go and mix up and change things recklessly time and time again. Rules are eight, sixteen, and often twenty pages long, thick with text, full of sentences and every single one of them purposeful. Full of words, that are not just decoration, pretty feint or accurate metaphor. It’s a dozen or so pages of simple and precise rules, full of indicative sentences describing how to play the game.

Miss one and the game is out of control.

And a king’s ransom for the one who has never overlooked a sentence, who has never missed an exception, who has never misinterpreted an example.

And so, to celebrate the beginning of holidays, I have an offer for you. Take the rules of your favourite game and read it very, very carefully, one paragraph a time. There’s a chance that you find a detail or a few proving irrefutably, that you’ve been playing it the wrong way.

Do play it according to the genuine rules. Experience the taste of freshness, discover new possibilities in your beloved board game, and name the new rules “Trzewiczek’s expansion”. It applies to any game. And you get it from me for free.