Ignoring your (Cosmic) dreams

Cosmic Encounter might just be the best modern board game ever created.

The fact that each player has one seemingly game-breaking power, along with the sheer number of aliens makes the combinations explode. Each combination of aliens changes the rules in a way that you, or perhaps anyone else, has ever seen before. It doesn’t tend to get too out of control due to players being able to self-balance by not allying with a player in the lead, or even by allying in defense against that player. And yet there are no hurt feelings because each turn your target is chosen randomly. It’s a masterpiece. I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing.

My only problem with Cosmic is its footprint. I often find myself wanting to play games with my less-nerdy friends, often in a dinner party setting. Cosmic is a big game: a big box, lots of components and a decent amount of setup. There are tons of cards, flares and the rules are a bit unwieldy. I find that convincing people to play a game where they play as an alien is sometimes difficult as well.

But I don’t want to play Balderdash and I’ve played Love Letter to death. There must be a way to take the essence of Cosmic and streamline it into something simpler and more approachable. That’s been a nagging thought in my mind for the past few years. But as an inexperienced board game designer (it’s been all video games for me), every time I tried to design a prototype, I’ve made little progress.

Then this summer, tired of being blocked on this game idea, I decided to unblock myself: I gave myself a goal of creating ANY game in one evening. I gave myself 3 hours to describe a game in a Google Doc that I could play with my friends the next day.

The first thing that came to mind was vampires. I wrote three pages of rules where players attacked humans that were positioned between them, trying to take them as servants to gain influence points. Energy flowed me as I typed furiously in my dark apartment in Bologna, with a huge smile on my face. It was crap I knew, but it was my first board game and I was exactly what I needed to unblock myself. I played the game with my friends the next day with some index cards and some pieces from a spare copy of Coup.

First playable of "Moonlight"

It certainly had some problems – especially with the real-time four-directional action card that each player revealed simultaneously – but I was incredibly excited. I took the next couple days off from Subnautica and rapidly iterated on the game, improving it a lot.

A couple months later, after a couple dozen prototypes and about 50 games, I had iterated away from almost all the original rules except vampires (whom each have a unique game-breaking rule btw). I then had a revelation: I had unwittingly turned my just-make-anything game into my hypothetical less-nerdy Cosmic Enounter dream concept. The game that I couldn’t make any progress on I suddenly had made tons of progress on, without even realizing it.

Today I continue working with even more energy towards a finalized set of core rules. In December I sent the rules to the legendary Bruno Faidutti (Citadels, Masquerade, Mission: Red Planet, many more), in the hope that he might be able to give me some feedback. He seemed to like it, and has joined me energetically, taking his own stab at the rules and cards and playtesting as much or more than I. We’re now co-designing it together and I couldn’t be happier.

Maybe if you’re having difficulty moving towards your dreams, the answer is simply to do something smaller that speaks to you instead.

Make every day feel like Saturday

One of the most inspiring ideas I’ve come across recently is an idea I got from a  book about changing office culture and how we work. The book is the terribly-named, but fantastically-important, Why Work Sucks and and How to Fix it.

It describes a new way of working, called a Results Oriented Workplace Environment. At its core, it’s about not thinking about hours or “facetime”, it’s about trusting people to get their work done, no matter what it looks like they are doing, or how much time they spend. It talks about the illusion of management where you think you know what your co-workers or employees are doing, because you can see them at their desks. In reality, you have no idea what they’re getting done, and it’s more effective to measure the results, and forget all about “presenteeism”. The most tantalizing nugget they describe is a guidepost called Make every day feel like Saturday.

Remote work

On Saturdays, I’m usually busy and quite productive. This is because I know that as soon as I get my chores and tasks done, I get the rest of the time for myself. So I get a lot done, but I also get to linger a bit over morning coffee, engage a random stranger in conversation, or have a glass of wine in a sunny spot outside. I’ll make some personal calls in between projects, errands, and exercise, but still have time for some socializing, gaming or staring off into space at a cafe. This seamless intermingling of personal and work feels more holistic than a regular work day and it feels fantastic. I feel stimulated, excited, and generally in flow, as I know I’m making my life better in all areas, and making good choices about my time. This is how entrepreneurs and freelancers spend all their live and allows you to be hyper-efficient, but also live your life your fully.

For many, Mondays (and by extension, Sundays) are filled with dread and Fridays are anticipated. Wednesdays are “hump” days, which makes you agonize over your time, hoping the work week will speed up and the weekends will slow down. This is no way to live. We also hold off our dreams until retirement, which is a future that may never come. Even if it does come, often we no longer have the energy or physical capabilities to embark on those dreams we delayed. The results seems to be endless yearning, and a longing for our days to be different then they are, and us becoming ungrounded. Time is alternately too slow and too fast, and we live our lives feeling out of balance and out of control.

What if we stopped thinking of work as separate from our personal life? What would that look like? Or put another way, how could we accept our lives fully, and make every day feel like Saturday? Here are some ideas:

  • Employers give complete control over employees spend their time, including where they spend their time. No one judges anyone else for coming “late” or getting sick.
  • Everyone has clear and measurable expected objectives, goals and results. These expectations and heuristics are missing from most job descriptions and many sprints. But without them, you can feel lost, or unsure if you’re getting enough done, often resulting in working more (generally with diminishing returns).
  • Work starts to feel more like a personal project. Even when the tasks are menial, you get a lot of satisfaction from completing them.
  • You stop doing unnecessary work completely. Any time spent on work that isn’t getting results is time you could’ve spent on personal projects, or simply enjoying life.
  • Your time becomes yours. You are free to go grocery shopping when there are no lines in the middle of the day. Or maybe you have a conference call at midnight because it’s really important to coordinate with someone.
  • You get to view your life holistically, and don’t have to make trade-offs between your personal life and work life.
  • You are no longer on the deferred life plan, and possibly lessen or stop worrying about, and saving for, retirement. This frees you up to enjoy your life more right now. A happy retirement isn’t about idleness: it’s about flow and joy, which we’ve just figured out how to have right now, without waiting for a future that may never come.
  • You become happier immediately, which is correlated with productivity gains (instead of happiness coming from “success”).
  • Finally, you fall head over heels in love: with your job. You don’t take it for granted, and you become more passionate about it. You never want to lose the freedom that comes with it. This is a critical long-term success factor for businesses.

Work can be unique, special and thrilling. Surely, being part of a creative team making a video game is a very rare and exciting opportunity. After all, you can’t just pay money for the opportunity to make a game with a talented group of people. We need to change the implicit rules of the workplace so we can feel deep in our bones, just how special it is.

The Best Day I Can Remember (and how to have more)

After many years of dreaming of it, I’m finally on vacation in France. I’ve been wanting to come here since first reading Julia Child and after appreciating her love of food and life, ensemble. Yesterday I spent the day around Chinon, a village in the Loire valley, exploring the countryside and chateaus by by bicycle. At the end of the day I realized I just had one of the best days of my life. One I will cherish when I’m in my proverbial rocking chair (perhaps on a floating orbital platform, but rocking nonetheless). Then I wondered – what made THIS day, one of the best of my life?

There were many memorable, interesting or pleasant moments. I whispered French to an animal in the dark when I was biking home, hoping that if it was a skunk, it would ignore me. In haltering, but understandable, French, I had a conversation with my waiter about the legality and morality of foie gras – why do we outlaw it in California yet mistreat ducks and pigs? I listened to locals sing a solemn hymn during sunset on the lawn of Azay-de-Rideau, a chateau surrounded by a glossy green moat.

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In a sea of rolling clouds, I saw miles of sunflowers all facing the same way, in anticipation of the next morning. My jaw actually dropped open and I screeched to a stop to take this picture:

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But just as stirring together cake ingredients doesn’t make a great (or even good) cake, these little things don’t simply add up to an absolutely incredible day. I realized there were other forces at work.

I think it started when I booked my tickets here. The fact that I made happen something I’ve wanted for a long time builds beliefs that I can, and do, make my dreams happen. It continued to gain momentum when I listened to hours of an audio book called The Language Hacking Guide. It’s polyglot author says that the most important way to learn a language is through changing your attitude, and just speaking, instead of hours of study. He says you start now, no matter your skill level, and that the people that make the fastest progress embrace speaking it at all opportunities, and rarely “relax” into their native language.

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I’ve been wanting to speak French for a long time, and after years of middle and high school study, I still felt mute around natives. I have even read this book before, but I think that hearing it while I was so happy and excited burned it’s message into my brain.

Suddenly, I wasn’t nervous when trying to bumble out a few sentences to a local. I made mistakes of course – like when I pointed at a tilted stair for an old lady and said “Need!” instead of “Be careful!” – but now I felt able to recover and start again. As I got more relaxed, my conversation partners got more relaxed, and instead of making a mad dash, I stayed engaged for longer and was able to have conversations of more than 10 seconds. By the end of the day, I had the foie-gras conversation with my waiter and I was absolutely beaming. I believe I was primed by all the beauty around me, but this change in myself magnified my happiness.

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That’s when I had my realization: my best days are ones that I both a) feel the most gratitude for things and b) improve myself the most, or take a fork in the road of my life. The days that I’m happy with the world and “on fire” for life, are those that contain a seemingly contradictory mix of “magic moments”, which fill me with gratitude for things just the way they are, but also when I make changes to transform into more of who I want to become. The days that contain both, convince me that life can be more than I ever had ever previously dreamed possible.