Saturday August 30, 2014

Download, print and start playing


There is a huge field of gaming encompassed under the umbrella of print ‘n play.

The games are not categorized by a particular mechanic, like finger flicking, but rather by the fact the rules, and the components, if required are posted online where they can be downloaded, printed, and then played.

Nick Bentley is a game designer who created Catchup in 2010, a game now among the best abstract strategy games of the last decade, and it is available via PnP, the rule set and specially designed board which is used on combination with play stones in two colours.

Bentley said he took the game “straight to PnP,” adding, “Just as I never expect anyone to like my games, I never expect to publish them. I decided to pursue publication of Catchup only after receiving a great deal of unsolicited positive feedback.”

Bentley said the feedback through PnP has been essential.

“Very important, in the sense that I never would have learned how much other people like the game without it, and therefore wouldn’t have pursued publication or tried to take the game further in any way,” he said.

That said design was not aided by going PnP.

“I’ve been designing table games for about 15 years, and for most of that time have been doing it for my own enjoyment,” offered Bentley. “For that reason, I haven’t often used play testers or listened to the opinions of others.”

The designer added, “My own taste in games is a little idiosyncratic, so I don’t expect anyone to like my games. That so many people like Catchup is surprising and wonderful. I like the feeling so much that I’m now spending time designing games for others, which is a very different process than designing for myself. Sites like BGG (Board Game Geek) are much more useful in that endeavor.”

As background “Catchup is a simple, draw-less abstract game with a devilish dynamic. The goal is to end up with the largest group of stones on the board, but as you get closer to winning, your opponent gets more powerful. Whereas most stone placement games are about position, Catchup is about timing, position, and the interplay between them.”

The rules are covered in four lines;

• One player owns the white stones and the other owns the black stones. White begins by dropping 1 stone.

• From then on, starting with Black, each player must drop 1 or 2 stones on her turn.

• If the largest group at the end of your turn is larger than the largest group at the beginning of your turn (regardless of color), your opponent may drop up to 3 stones on her next turn. (This does not apply after white drops a single stone in step 1 above.)

• The game ends when the board is full. The player with the largest group wins. If the players’ largest groups are the same size, compare their second-largest groups, and so on, until you come to a pair which aren’t the same size. Whoever owns the larger of the two wins.

“A game unplayed is like a song committed to paper but never performed. Does it exist? Technically yes, but in important ways, no.

“Therefore, a key goal of mine is to produce a commercially available version which conveys its spirit and attractions well enough that it gets people playing. Not an easy task.”

So how did Bentley come up with Catchup in the first place?

“It started with the win condition. I wanted to design a game where the one and only goal was to build the biggest structure. It seems to me an intuitive and natural goal (Donald Trump’s entire life is built around the notion, after all), and at the time I could find almost no games using it, so I started tinkering,” he said.

“At around that time, I was fascinated with ‘negative feedback’ mechanisms - mechanisms which create a dynamic such that the closer you get to winning, the weaker you become, or conversely the stronger your opponent becomes. These are often referred to as Catchup mechanisms.

“I liked the idea, but I disliked the way it’s usually implemented – in games with luck, the introduction of Catchup mechanisms amplifies the effect of that luck on the outcome, by keeping games close. Most games with Catchup mechanisms involve luck, and I tend to dislike them.

“So I was trying to figure out how to construct my build-the-largest-structure game, and I was struggling, because all the most obvious constructions result in horrible games. Then it occurred to me that negative feedback was exactly what I needed to create my game. So I tinkered some more and came up with the first version of Catchup.

“That was five versions and four years ago. The first version was clunky: the rules were about twice as long as they are now, and there were annoying turn restrictions to prevent draws that added mental overhead for the players without making the game any better.

“In addition, I didn’t understand how to use negative feedback well, and I had made it much, much too strong. It turns out that negative feedback is like cayenne pepper: it should only be used in small amounts - otherwise it’s overpowering.

“Subsequent versions have progressively fixed those problems, and now I’m quite sure I’ve got something I’m completely happy with. I’ve played the current version more than 1000 times, and I never get tired of it.”

There four games whose mechanisms collectively inspired Catchup:

• Yinsh, for showing me the value of negative feedback.

• Connect 6, for it’s two-stones-per-turn-except-for-the-first-turn turn protocol, which was key to balancing the game and getting the level of negative feedback right.

• Ingenious, for inspiring what I call the ‘fractal tiebreak’ mechanism I eventually used in Catchup (Ingenious has a similar tiebreak mechanism). It both makes ties impossible without any fussy turn restrictions and introduces a ton of depth.

And Catchup, while still available as a PnP is garnering publisher interest too.

“It’s a short game, and so while I was trying to endow it with some depth, I didn’t expect my understanding to continue evolving 1000 games in.”

Check it at



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