Introducing: Tiny Trainwrecks: EVEN TINIER EDITION

Tiny Trainwrecks was a great game, but you know what the problem was? That’s right, NOT TINY ENOUGH.

Phantom Knight Games is proud to present Tiny Trainwrecks: Even Tinier Edition! The same great game but now on smaller cards!

Tiny Trainwrecks: Even Tinier Edition

New cards are on the bottom!

While the old edition of Tiny Trainwrecks was on poker-sized cards, the new one is printed on DriveThruCards’ 1.625″ by 2.5″ ‘mini’ size. Even Tinier Edition is perfect for small tables and cramped spaces!

You can buy Even Tinier Edition at GaymerX this weekend; look for us at table 1! It’ll be available online within the next few weeks. Good luck and don’t wreck the train!Tiny Trainwrecks: Even Tinier Edition



Jeremy Geist Compares Board Games To A TV Show From The 70s Because He’s Just That Cool

Columbo picked up the red pillar and placed it off to the side. “That’s my turn,” he said, “now which card are you going to take?” Smith smirked. “Sorry, Mr. Detective–“ he delicately placed one of the cards in front of him– “but this is my win. I’ll use my two copies of Helm of Invisibility to install the rest of my cards in my elysium. There’s no way you can beat it.” He got up to leave.

“Just one more thing, Mr. Smith…” said Columbo. Johnson froze. “I thought you weren’t allowed to have more than one copy of the same card…”

This above hastily written fan fiction is an example of what I call “Columboing”. It is the bane of any game designer and the second-worst thing that can happen to you during gameplay, right after “watching someone else take a fifteen-minute turn in Once Upon A Time”. Columboing is the phenomenon in which a player’s elaborate plan, or even multi-turn, game-winning strategy, is ruined because nobody at the table noticed a small, overlookable rule until it was relevant.

The example I gave above is Elysium’s rule about not being able to have more than one card with the same name in your play area, not because it’s the worst offender (players don’t get the opportunity to hoard identical cards very often), but because it’s almost the perfect encapsulation of the problem. The same-name prohibition is buried in the middle of the rulebook, can’t be logically deduced through play, and significantly affects strategy once it’s discovered.

Basically two things can be done to prevent Columboing.

  1. Remove excess rules

Often, when designing a game, uncommon or small exceptions come up that can threaten to unbalance gameplay. It’s the first instinct to simply add something in the rules that prevents these specific situations from happening, and sometimes this is the only workable way to go about it, but these rules are by far the most likely ones to be missed until it’s relevant.

The biggest culprits here are rules that can be ignored; that is, if a game makes complete sense while ignoring your small fix of a rule, people are definitely going to miss it. These most often occur in fiddlier Euro-style games that have a lot of moving parts; small rules often make the game more tense and cerebral, but it’s also possible to play an entire game without realizing you were supposed to (or not supposed to) do something and still have an enjoyable time.

Part of my game design philosophy is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If a certain style of gameplay works great if people can keep track of a lot of fiddly rules, while another style isn’t quite as good but is easier to remember, I go with the second variety every time.

  1. Point it out in the rulebook

Columboing also occurs because it’s difficult to find a place for it in the manual. Many missable rules aren’t part of the flow of gameplay (e.g. a rule about maximum hand size versus a rule about you can draw cards), making it more likely that it will be missed both by someone reading the book and people having the rules explained to them verbally.

The most effective way to fix this is to emphasize the rule, either by bolding/italicizing it or setting it off in its own box. I personally prefer the latter, as it ensures the player sees it while also “taking a breath” from the flow of gameplay so the reader isn’t thrown off. However, both of them have their merits and text emphasis is probably better in lighter games with shorter rulebooks.

If the pesky rule in question only affects a certain subset of components, printing a reminder symbol or word on the components in question can be useful. People who remember what it does will remember the rule, while people who don’t remember will be prompted to look it up.


The true danger of Columboing is the fact that it’s very easy to say, “this may happen part of the time but it’s not worth fixing.” It definitely is worth fixing. If someone has a bad time during their first time playing a game, 80% of the time they’ll be unwilling to play it again. And it’s hard to imagine a worse experience than the game owner pointing out that your win was invalid because they overlooked something minor.

Columboing happens a lot in a lot of otherwise extremely good games, and sometimes it’s impossible to help; however, if you have the ability to fix the problem you should make it a high priority.

If You Throw Me One More Time I’m Going Home

Most people in the fighting game community, and some in board games, are familiar with the works of David Sirlin (Yomi, Puzzle Strike, Pandante). His most famous essay is about the term “scrub”, which refers to a type of player who will, instead of improving in a competitive game, will blame the other players for employing “cheap” tactics and not competing with “honor”. Sirlin writes (in the context of Street Fighter):

If you beat a scrub by throwing projectile attacks at him, keeping your distance and preventing him from getting near you—that’s cheap. If you throw him repeatedly, that’s cheap, too. We’ve covered that one. If you block for fifty seconds doing no moves, that’s cheap. Nearly anything you do that ends up making you win is a prime candidate for being called cheap.”

That last sentence is where I disagree with Sirlin’s definition of “cheap”. While there certainly are people who will accuse anyone better than them of cheating, some strategies attract more complaints than others. And while fighting game players may want to rid themselves of the habits described in the article, a designer wants to appeal to a wide variety of people, including scrubs.

So what strategies are cheap, and does the benefit of having this kind of strategy in your game outweigh the risk of turning off players who refuse to play against them? This time, I actually have opinions.

The Definition of Cheap

My definition of “cheap” strategy is as follows:

Any strategy that goes against a player’s imagined construct of “how the game should be played”.

From this, one might say that each individual has their own idea of how a game should be played, but games will frequently hint at “proper” or “honorable” gameplay without enforcing it outright in the rules. Some examples include:

Strategies that benefit despite incurring penalties from the game’s system. Worker placement games Stone Age and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar both allow you to accrue more worker pawns over the course of the game, but you will lose VPs if you don’t feed them with resources. Players quickly discovered effective “starvation strategies” in both games, where you get as many workers as possible as fast as possible and ignore the starvation penalties you get for it.

Strategies with a comparatively low skill floor. One of the most reviled decks in the online CCG Hearthstone is “Face Hunter”, a deck that ignores the complex board state management practiced by other decks and attempts to deal lethal damage to the opponent as fast as possible. This deck is easy to pilot and, though never the optimal strategy in any metagame, is strong enough to be evergreen in most environments. Most of the complaints about this deck are that players manage to win despite not putting in enough imagined “effort”.

Strategies that ignore the way to win suggested by introductory materials. The game Android: Netrunner suggests that in order to win, the Corp player must slowly advance and defend Agenda cards. Indeed, when playing with the cards in the starter set, that is the only realistic way for the Corp to win. However, once expansions are included, more powerful strategies emerge, including ones that instant-kill the runner and ones that attempt to assemble a combo that wins the game in a single turn. This has acquired flak from some players.

So while all effective strategies might be labeled “cheap” by salty players at one point or another, certain ones that allegedly flout the “proper” way to play suggested by the designers attract the epithet a lot more often.

Is Cheap Good?

If you playtest enough, you will inevitably have some player discover a strategy that could be categorized as “cheap” by your or other players’ metrics. So do you support it, or do you stomp it into the dirt? This depends on the kind of game you’re making, specifically whether it’s a deep game or not. (For more on the subject, read my earlier post about deep games.)

Deep games need variant strategies, even ones decried as “cheap”, because a lot of the fun comes from exploring the system and finding new and interesting interactions. If someone finds a way to win that doesn’t follow the path suggested by your rules, but it’s interactive and doesn’t win 100% of the time, it’s perfectly fine to ignore playtest comments that the strategy is somehow wrong.

Non-deep games (not to say “shallow” as even complex games like Terra Mystica fall into this category) are a different story. The scope of gameplay is much tighter, as all non-deep games are essentially miniature social contracts – the designer promising a neatly packed experience in exchange for the players’ time and money. If a viable strategy in a hobby game involves playing contrary to the intended experience, it needs to be trimmed so that your audience isn’t disappointed. At the very least, these tactics should be adjusted in power level so that they are only a small part of winning.


Every game is created to appeal to a certain audience. If we want to become better game designers, we have to understand that audience’s wants and needs. People who adhere closely to “how a game should be played” deserve the annoyance they earn in competitive communities that explicitly preach the opposite mindset, but wanting a game to be played a certain way isn’t a sin by itself. Instead of thinking in black and white terms, saying “this strategy is cheap, take it out” or “everyone who says a strategy is cheap is a sore loser”, game designs should be evaluated individually to see if “cheap” is something it wants to tolerate.