Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 3

Entry Points Onto the Autobahn

This is the third in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community. 

The Autobahn is the federal highway system in Germany. If you’ve never heard of it before, know one thing about it: it has a reputation for being fast and full of aggressive would-be F1 drivers. Overall, the general, uninitiated perception is that it’s really intimidating for newcomers.


The German Highway system known as the Autobahn. Image from, used without permission (sorry.)

If you’re looking at getting on the “fastest highway in the world” for the first time*, you may do well to take some advice from a native.

That native is not me. Go talk to these guys.

Many games are the same way. Games with high complexity and depth almost always go hand-in-hand with a high barrier to entry, and the initial view can look a lot like full-speed highway traffic from the shoulder.

If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, it should in no way shock you that I’m now going to talk about Magic: the Gathering — this time specifically about the ways players experience it in their earliest stages of introduction into the Magic “lifestyle”. It’s a game I know well, and while my own entry into the game was back in 1994 (at risk of making it awkward, I’ll admit I’ve loved the game longer than I’ve loved my wife), I’ve seen and helped other players find their way into the game hundreds of times now.

For first-timers, Magic is often a surprisingly social game. The richest aspect isn’t actually the depth of card interactions, it’s the depth of interpersonal interactions. Magic is a game that thrives because of the tight-knit communities that form around it. Ironically, as close as the smaller communities are – often defined by the games/comic stores they meet at — these groups are almost modular or interchangeable in their structures; since the language and “customs” of the game are the same everywhere you go, it typically doesn’t take long for a player to migrate from one store/community to another.


Pro Tour Austin, 2009, and Pro Tour Philadelphia winner Samuele Estratti, 2011. Images from and, used without permission

Magic as a brand has recognized this for a long time, but has recently begun to put even more special emphasis on it, shifting some of the “outreach” efforts from promoting large, high threshold things like the Pro Tour and Grand Prix events back to the local shops where people congregate. The Magic brand has seen and encouraged a return back to its grassroots-style person-to-person viral origins.

The large-scale events are still around and thriving — the 2017 World Championship event alone paid out $350,000 in prizes, and prize payouts for the 2017-18 Pro Tour season total $2,600,000 over 8 events. The Magic Pro Tour requires players to qualify for events through a series of qualifiers, limiting the field to a global elite, best-of-the-best pool.

Mid-tier events like the Grand Prix tournament series are open to all Magic players of any skill level, and carry prize payouts in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, as well as Pro Tour invites and points that can be accumulated to qualify for inclusion on the Pro Tour for top finishers. Each Grand Prix is a massive weekend-long convention-like spectacle, with a main event surrounded by dozens of smaller side tournaments. 2018 will see 60 Grands Prix held all over the world. Any one of these can attract well over 1,000 players, there for games, prizes, trading, celebrity appearances, exclusive Grand Prix souvenirs, and more.

The Pro Tour and Grands Prix have spawned side industries like websites that stream tournament coverage with full, professional production crews and commentators. These sites often sponsor teams of pros, and roll that visibility into selling content subscriptions, accessories, and single cards used by players to build better decks with. Magic, even outside of the sphere that Wizards of the Coast inhabits, is a multi-million dollar engine of commerce.

This is the fast lane of Magic. Getting here is certainly doable, but the first-time player can come in facing an overwhelming cacophony if they attempt it without a guide of some kind. One does not generally attend a Grand Prix hoping to learn the game from scratch.


Some of the contents of a typical Prerelease Pack. Image from, used without permission

Pulling onto this Autobahn begins at the first game of Magic someone plays. In all likelihood, it’ll happen at a kitchen table or in one of those aforementioned thousands of shops with small grassroots communities. And with the depth, complexity, and history of Magic, even that can make for an intimidating view. Just learning the game in the first place is an undertaking best done with a living, breathing person there to teach you. Wizards of the Coast has embraced this rite of passage by creating an events schedule aimed at the local scenes, where new players can meet and learn from other more experienced local players. Building upon the weekly “Friday Night Magic” series held at participating shops, players can now jump into the game through novice-friendly events like Open Houses, Prereleases, Draft Weekends, Leagues, and Store Championships.

The tournament scene is in itself a product, carefully designed to create comfort zones for players of all types and draw them more securely into the fold. That’s about the brand though. We’re here to talk about the design of physical products.

When I recently interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast with Mark Globus (as discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this article series), one of the questions he asked me was how I might improve an existing product aimed specifically at new-ish Magic players in the early stages of learning how to build a Standard-format deck. I admitted that I’d never purchased a Deck Builder’s Toolkit, as the product first launched in the spring of 2010 — a full 16 years after I first learned how to play and build decks for Magic — and I never really had a need for one. I’d looked at the product several times at retail though, and was generally familiar with what came in them.


Two editions of the Deck Builder’s Toolkit. Images from, used without permission.

The Deck Builder’s Toolkit (or DBT) has undergone some changes from its first version almost eight years ago, but the overall makeup and purpose are essentially the same. It’s aimed at players who are just beginning to build their own decks, rather than using borrowed or pre-made decks. The goal of the product is to present the player with enough cards to build a deck that can be brought to and played at a typical Friday Night Magic Standard event. While the specific components vary across the editions, all of them contain a pre-selected set of semi-randomized and fixed content comprised of common and uncommon cards, four booster packs from recent sets, a stack of basic lands, a “learn to play” guide, and a storage box. Recent DBTs have scaled back on the amount of random card content and include small “seeded” packs of cards that all fit a specific theme to give users a choice of visible paths to start with.

Beyond this, I didn’t know much about how well the DBT actually jump-started a player’s collection or deck building stock. I asked Mark if I could take a few hours after the interview to refresh myself with the product and send him some written notes on improving it.

With such a short turnaround time, setting up online polls or directly interviewing players at a local shop wasn’t going to be a viable means of research. Google pointed me to several video reviews on YouTube, including some from Tolarian Community College. The Professor’s a pretty watchable guy, and his reviews are consistent and well-balanced. After running through a couple of videos in which he examined the whether buying a DBT was worthwhile (the videos each cover a different edition of the DBT), I had a pretty good idea of what was going on inside the product.

Overall, The Professor’s assessment was that some of the DBTs were worth the $19.99 MSRP when looking at the individual contents (four booster packs purchased individually would cost someone $16). That judgment varied slightly from year to year, as the expected return value of the sets represented by the packs rose and fell based on the secondary single-cards market. When he looked at whether the DBTs provided new players with a viable entry point into learning how to build a deck — evaluation based on effectiveness in its purpose — his findings were less promising. In his estimation, it was very unlikely that the contents of a single DBT could provide a player with anything resembling a competitive deck that would keep pace at a Friday Night Magic event. Further, he noted that by including packs from multiple sets, it meant that at least a quarter of the cards in any given DBT would be obsolete within a very short time, which would almost certainly prove frustrating to new players.

The problems presented seemed to me to be the exact place to start building in improvements to the product. My gut said that by narrowing the range of the cards and packs in the product, players would get a more focused set of thematically and mechanically linked cards and packs. This would mean losing some of the DBT’s ability to reflect the breadth of the current Standard environment, but it would keep more cards relevant within that Standard environment longer. And in fact, after writing my recommendations to Mark later that night, I went back and watched more of The Professor’s reviews. In fact, it turned out that he had drawn some very similar conclusions in his other YouTube reviews.

What I’ve learned recently though is that, much like with movies, the opinions of the reviewers and the opinions of the masses are not necessarily simpatico with one another. Just because The Professor and I were seeing the DBTs along the same wavelength didn’t mean our takeaways matched those of the larger audience. Our opinion came from the perspective of two Magic veterans who weren’t actively in the process of supplying a new player with the tools to construct their first deck. So I turned once again to the community within the Magic: the Seattling Facebook group to see if the “narrow DBT” plan resonated with other players. I was particularly interested in seeing what an experienced player would recommend to a friend whom they were introducing to Magic for the first time.


Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, November 28, 2017

In an effort to minimize any skew that might come from respondents whom had preconceived opinions on the DBTs, I shifted the context by looking almost solely at the makeup of the booster packs. In retrospect, I realize that my posed scenario used six packs rather than four, but I have no reason to believe this error had any significant impact on the poll results.

When faced with setting up a friend with the cards needed to build a deck for Standard format events, 86% of experienced Magic players felt that a new player was better served with the more thematically and mechanically concentrated card pool.

Several of those who responded in the comments noted that they’d prefer to simply hand their friend a deck that they’d built themselves, but I felt that this circumvented the actual question at hand. My goal was not to find out the best way to teach someone to play a proven competitive deck, or to find out what that ideal pre-built deck was. This stage of the research was purely about optimizing the tools to allow a new player to learn the process of evaluating cards for decks and building those decks. The answer seemed clear; the community agreed with the evaluation that The Professor and I had come to.

As I saw the results come in, I realized that a DBT built from just a single set began to bear a strong resemblance to a supplemental product that already had strong traction in Magic’s larger community: The Bundle Box (formerly known and now frequently mis-referenced as the Fat Pack) is a product aimed at more enfranchised players.


The original Mercadian Masques Fat Pack, 1999

In the 18 years since they were first launched, Bundle Boxes have undergone numerous configuration changes to get to what we currently know them as. In 1999, when the first Fat Pack was released to coincide with the Mercadian Masques set, the product included three booster packs, a tournament pack (a 75-card box of rates, uncommon, commons, and basic lands typically used for certain tournament formats), a randomly selected foil basic land and a randomly selected foil common card, a visual guide to the set, and a paperback novel. Over time, notable changes included the discontinuation of the novels and tournament packs, the addition of a spindown life counter (see Reading the Room: Part 2), an increase in the number of booster packs, and the inclusion of a storage box capable of holding a few hundred cards.


Ixalan Bundle components, 2017

The current configuration has become particularly streamlined: ten booster packs, an assortment of basic lands and token cards, one spin down life counter, a visual guide, a one-sheet “how to play” guide (common to all Magic supplemental products), and a storage box. There is also a smaller box that purports to be for holding dice, since it’s too small to hold actual cards. The smaller box is often maligned in reviews as less than useful, though I suspect the true purpose of the dice box has more to do with simply making the Bundle look larger on a retail shelf than with any kind of usefulness as a game accessory. All in all, while a Bundle box offers a fine return-for-MSRP value, they’re not particularly exciting in their array of components.

Ironically, there is another product in the Magic line that is effectively no more than a smaller Bundle, but that generates a ton of excitement for both new and veteran players: the Prerelease Pack (a picture of which can be seen earlier in this article). Prerelease Packs are available only at specific events, but apart from a premium foil rare or mythic rare card with the event’s date stamped on it, typically have very little exclusive content that players will want to hold onto after the event. Otherwise, the Prerelease Pack amounts to a six-booster Bundle rather than a 10-booster one. In the past, Prerelease Packs for some events included packs from two or more associated sets and/or special seeded packs that allowed for a higher concentration of cards that showcased the set’s themes. Barring any seeded content though, future Prerelease Packs for the new “single-set block” structure will have little reason to be much more than 60% of a Bundle.

Compared to the DBTs, Bundles somehow manage to promise less than and still likely deliver more of what a DBT promises. The simple concentration of card themes and strategies makes virtually any deck built from a Bundle’s pool more streamlined and potentially competitive than a deck built from a DBT. On top of this, a higher percentage of the cards acquired in a Bundle will remain playable in the associated Standard format longer than would in any in a DBT.


Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, January 4, 2018

My polling has shown me that more than 80% of new players learn from another human being rather than through their own reading of printed materials or video game tutorials. With either product, a new player will still get more mileage from sitting down with a friend who can teach them deck building basics in a one-to-one setting than they would from simply buying the product off the shelf and reading from an impersonal guidebook/sheet. This means that, given a friend with any Magic experience to learn from, the Bundle is almost ALWAYS going to be a better value to the new player learning to build their first deck.

This doesn’t mean that the Bundle is any more apparent in what it offers a new player or the quantifiable value it provides over a DBT. The DBT talks a good game, while the Bundle more or less says “here’s a bunch of packs and a spindown”. The former sounds more instructive and function-driven, while the latter sounds flat and unremarkable. The difference comes down to external messaging.

I believe that the two products could be merged into one and, with a few new features, be as attractive to — and functional for — both audiences at the same time. This is, as Magic Head Designer refers to the principle, Lenticular Design; one thing that has two different apparent purposes when viewed from two different perspectives, but that provides significant value to both. It is the ideal vehicle for both the inexperienced driver looking at the Autobahn from the merging lane as well as the fearless one doing 200 kph in the left lane.

There is no official special term for the moment when a Planeswalker (a mythical wizard-type character who can travel from one Magic world to another) actually arrives on a plane (one of those worlds).

I had this conversation with Gavin Verhey, a Senior Product Designer at Wizards of the Coast a few weeks back. What is it called when a Planeswalker gets to where they’re going? Airplanes and birds land. Cars and trains arrive. Boats dock or run aground. Planeswalkers “walk” between planes in the multiverse, and it could be easily be settled upon that they “arrive at” or “walk to” Ravnica, Zendikar, Ixalan, or any of the other planes that they may be visiting. Still, there’s no special or exciting term for that exact moment when their feet (or whatever they have) touch the matter of a new world. Gavin was as stumped by the question as I was.

That moment is a fairly significant one with different meanings for different people. As players, we each have a first experience with Magic, and it’s the biggest introduction point into the game we’ll ever have. Veteran players still experience fresh arrival points whenever a new set is released. To have a word that specifically references that experience through the eyes of a Planeswalker would be pretty handy.

It would also be a perfect name for a product meant to introduce players to a new game and/or a new setting, depending on their experience level.

For now, we’ll go with The Planeswalker Arrival Kit. It implies an entry point into the game to those new to it, while also referring to something veteran players expect Planeswalkers to do all the time.

I’ll take a second here to revisit the purpose of this article series: I’m retraining myself to look closer at how people use (or don’t use) the products available to them. It’s easy for me to explain why I like or dislike something, but when it comes to understanding someone else’s preferences, it’s easy for me to forget that there’s an underlying “why” in that preference. When I say I like “A” and you say you like “A” and the conversation goes no further, I only have partial information. It’s likely that my confirmation bias will kick in, and I’ll assume you like “A” for the same reason that I like it. This isn’t necessarily true, and recently it’s been the case that my personal preferences take some really random routes to reach the same places other peoples’ do.


Brad Pitt is totally into product design.

That is to say, if I wanted to build a better DBT, or a better Bundle, or something that hybridised the two, I had to be sure the stuff I put in the box wasn’t just stuff I’d want in the box. Since half of the potential product I was thinking about comes from something I’d never used (or had an immediate need for), I had to get a better understanding of how other players felt about each component of the DBT. Since the Bundles have been gradually stripped down to the barest of essentials, getting breakdown data on those was less pressing; there’s very little fat on that particular steak. If there was something that players outright hated about the Bundles, it would most likely show up alongside the data I wanted to mine regarding the DBTs. Somewhere in the data was, hopefully, an ideal and exciting product that served a wider audience than either the DBT or Bundle does on their own.

Now, before we get into the nuts-and-bolts of this, please bear in mind that I’m no marketing guy. I know that specific price points and the surface area of a product’s shelf facing have an impact on the way the product is viewed by various consumer bases. I have no idea what those ideal price points or surface areas are. I make games, and I’m good at figuring out how to optimize the play experience of those games within a pre-established budget. Any product proposal that follows in this article comes purely from my ability to ask questions, apply some pretty rudimentary analysis of data, and make logical assumptions as to which components make others necessary or obsolete.

After my initial poll on Magic: The Settling regarding the mix of packs that a new player should be presented with, I decided to get a little more granular in what they felt a new player really needed in order to get going. I proposed a list of potential components that they might put into a kit for newcomers, along with typical or estimated MSRPs on those components, and asked what they’d give a friend new to the game. If the popular components were ones that veteran players also had frequent use for, the odds of making a viable Planeswalker Arrival Kit that met the needs and interests of both player subsets would go up.


Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, December 21, 2017

Based on aggregated component costs (estimated based on other products and MSRPs) over selections made by at least 83 respondents, I was able to see that the average price a player would pay to offer a friend a “startup” kit topped out around $22.90. Since the MSRP for the Ixalan DBT is $19.99, the price point arrived at through the polling wasn’t too far off the mark. The price was right, but the components needed some adjustments.

The top component selections actually bear a strong resemblance to the DBTs. However, prior polling indicated that veterans preferred to give friends a more concentrated pool of cards, and the popularity of the Fat Packs/Bundles, leads me to say that the overall product built upon this data would get more traction among both new and veteran players with a single set mix than with a multi-set “Standard” mix. I believe that by tying the hypothetical Planeswalker Arrival Kit to only one set at a time and including features that players can only get in the PAK, Wizards could have a product that would not only be giftable to new players, but would have quarterly relevance to enfranchised players looking to buy a “kit” product for themselves.

Several people who commented on the poll said they’d like to see basic introductory decks included in the product. Some recommended what amounts to an “after-market” pre-made deck product sold by local and online game stores made from cast-off common and uncommon cards, like the Card Kingdom Battle DecksWelcome Decks (free decks given away by Wizards of the Coast as training tools or at open events) are an existing Magic product that would easily fill this role. These would allow for newer players to either play the Welcome Deck right from the box, or to modify and tune it with other cards from the included Booster Packs. Veteran players may not see the same value in such a feature, but with a few notable alternate art cards and mid-tier rare cards included in the deck, this could still have appeal for them.

Within the poll, the closest analog to a Welcome Deck is the pre-assorted mix of 120 Standard format cards. If the Welcome Deck-style feature were substituted into the build-out of the PAK in place of the 120 cards, the estimated price point could stay about the same, if not drop slightly. Alternately, the PAK could include five 30-card mini-Welcome Decks designed to be shuffled, two decks at a time, into ten possible two-color decks with a slight increase in cost.

A Welcome Pack–style component would also be a way to pack additional basic land cards — a piece that those polled felt were a critical supply for new players — into the PAK. If the cards in the pre-built decks included roughly 60 basic lands, the remainder of the 100 basic lands requested could include more alternate art or full art, providing a little more novelty and exclusive content in the product.

There are several other possible components I’ve thought of since posting the poll that I’d be interested in putting into a PAK. The most significant of these would be a sign-up form for a DCI number. This low-cost feature would provide new players with a nudge to attend officially sanctioned Magic events and reinforce how easy it is to become part of the “card carrying” Magic community.

So here is my proposal for a new DBT/Bundle hybrid product, with an MSRP coming in around the $30 mark. I offer you the Planeswalker Arrival Kit:

  • 1 Card Storage Box
  • 1  Plastic Deck Box with key art from the associated set (example)
  • 1 Spindown Life Counter with set expansion symbol
  • 5 30-Card Mini-Welcome Decks built from the associated set
  • 6 Booster Packs of the associated set
  • 1 “How to Play” foldout insert
  • 1 “Deckbuilding Tips” foldout insert
  • 40 Full/Alternate Art Basic Lands
  • 1 DCI Membership Sign-up Card

If response to the price point proved too high for new players, I’d recommend dropping two of the booster packs and cutting the number of full/alternate art lands down to 20; this would push the MSRP to or below $25. The overall appeal to veteran players may drop when fewer packs are included, but part of the goal with the PAK is to improve upon the very dry build of the current Bundles with something that carries a wider variety of exciting product-exclusive features still attractive to veterans.

The challenge I gave myself was to retool one or more products into something that better serves the stated purpose — providing a new player what they need to really get started in Magic — and, if possible, still holds appeal for enfranchised players. I may never actually know if the Planeswalker Arrival Kit would do that job as intended, but once I started figuring out what it would look like, I had to see where that road would go.

On-ramp and travel lane.




* While I can’t personally speak to how scary the first approach onto an on-ramp on the Autobahn may be, I can say that if you need a more domestic thrill-ride, try US Route 6 on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There are literally entry “ramps” that are no more than a T-intersection with a stop sign between a residential neighborhood and the 60 MPH highway.


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Filed under Card Games, consumer research, Product design, redesigns, Uncategorized

Small Pieces — The Worst from Whence We Came

I started this blog as a way to examine the ways visual design impacted game design, and sometimes I actually stick to that theme.

Today in Game Art 103: What not to do.

  1. Don’t point fingers and laugh when something is visually awful. Laughing at someone’s work is akin to laughing at them, and laughing at them is not the same as laughing with them.
  2. Let someone else do the “laughing at” for you, and laugh with them.

The critics over at Tabletop Tribe recently posted a list of the 20 Worst Board Game Box Art offenses ever, and it’s brutal in a sort of way. And phenomenally funny. Does it make me a slightly awful person that I’m sharing this with you? Probably, but I’m too busy laughing to care.

I won’t spoil any of it for you, except that there’s a dog. DEAR GOD, that dog.

Remind me to tell you about Rob Liefeld’s comic book illustration career some time…

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Filed under Board Games, Box Art, Illustration, Uncategorized

Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 2

What We’re Counting On

F643E3AB-DADD-467A-BB84-27CBA68D16FCThis is the second in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community. 

Taste is personal. Sometimes your personal tastes are highly consistent with those of the masses (i.e., most people love bacon and so do I, most people dislike paper cuts and so do I, and so on), while other times your tastes make you something of an outlier.

I seem to frequently be an outlier.

When you’re a product designer though, being an outlier means you need to spend a little more time looking at how — and more importantly, why —  your tastes vary from those of the rest of the crowd. Even more so, it underlines the importance of taking time to objectively understand what’s driving the tastes of the crowd, and how those drivers might affect future tastes and trends.

Tastes, particularly those that run wide throughout a community, are a good place for me to practice how I watch for, listen to, and process data.

Recently, I had a conversation with Mark Globus, the head of the team at Wizards of the Coast that makes supplemental Magic: The Gathering products. Afterwards, Mark pointed out to me that my own personal tastes towards various things in Magic products — and my read on the tastes of others  — tended to skew very differently than those that market research indicated prevailed among the greater Magic community.

Magic: the Gathering Commander’s Arsenal, November 2012. Image used without permission.

One of the products we talked about was the Commander’s Arsenal, a premium-tier set of foiled cards and accessories for Commander format players released in November of 2012. From a consumer standpoint it was a product that, as far as I had understood, had been a bit of a misfire. The Commander format is generally seen as one of the more “casual” ways the game is played, and the limited release of the Commander’s Arsenal meant that the retail price of the product very quickly exploded to well over the MSRP of $74.99. The inflation meant that a remarkably high percentage of casual Commander players saw very limited value in purchasing it, and caused quite a bit of backlash in its reviews.

Much of this negative response stemmed from availability and underestimations for demand of the product. Scarcity is good when it comes to limited product runs, but this was a case where the scarcity put it out of reach for most of the audience it would best serve. Aside from reviews based solely on the comparative monetary value of the Arsenal, my own anecdotal understanding of consumer reaction was mixed.

The product was primarily about the cards it contained, and many of those cards were certainly in high demand (which, paired with the scarcity, did a lot of the driving of the retail price inflation). The players I’ve talked to all seemed to see at least a few cards they would have been happy to get their hands on if the price had stayed around the MSRP, but after the markups began, practical interest in those cards for anyone not planning to resell the parts became very lukewarm. The Arsenal also came with 10 oversized foil legendary creature cards for use as commanders (see my last Reading the Room article on those), some premium card sleeves, a new kind of barrel-shaped life tracker (that went to 99), and a set of reversible plus-and-minus tokens for marking “buffs and debuffs” on creatures. Given that these accessories weren’t as integral to the game as the cards themselves were, they were always the last things people talked about when giving opinions on the product.


Tokens from the Commander’s Arsenal

When the accessories did come up, there was some more consensus among players. The sleeves were okay, but nothing remarkable, and certainly not worth any price inflation. The plus-and-minus tokens were really uninspired and unimpressive. The life counter though… early reaction was that that thing looked cool.

And since in any given pool of casual Commander players, seeing a full set of the Commander’s Arsenal was relatively rare, the feature that was typically most visible — largely because it was universally applicable in any game of Magic, not just Commander — was that life counter. It was big and chunky, so it stood out among dice, paper, and phone apps. It was shaped like a barrel and had a subtle haptic “click” feeling when the numbers were turned. There had never been another counter like that in previous official Magic products. AND IT WENT TO 99!


Life counter from the Commander’s Arsenal (it goes to 99!)

“That life counter”, I told Mark, “was the one part of that product I still keep seeing people geek out over.” I’ve seen people at Friday Night Magic events ooh-and-aah over them when someone down the table pulls one out of their bag. This past summer, I saw someone ask another player if they could buy it off of them for $10. The offer was rejected on account of it selling for twice that online.

As it turns out though, this was another one of those things where the surface-level responses I was hearing in passing from casual players in casual settings didn’t really get to the heart of the greater consumer reactions. It was something I could use as an exercise in looking for the deeper whys and wherefores.

And here we are now.

In any complex system — including games — there are many, many smaller elements, some that fall subject to judgement according to the tastes of the users. Magic: The Gathering is a game with literally thousands of subjective calls that can be made by players to customize their approach to the game. Most of those calls have a bearing on the game itself and how a matchup between players pans out. Some of the choices present in the game’s systems though are more aesthetic and a lot less impactful on how a game is won or lost; these are things that vary based on a player’s tastes.

The means for tracking life totals falls in that latter category. In an official capacity, the best way to track life totals is with a pen or pencil and paper. Life totals are pretty simple numbers though — they start at 20 and move up or down in whole-number increments — so beyond pen and paper accounting, players frequently assume some leeway to track totals in whatever way they see fit. The only broadly practiced (unofficial) guideline is that both players can easily understand at a glance what’s going on.

My conversation with Mark Globus, and in particular the short exchange about the Commander’s Arsenal life counter, got me thinking about the relationship between a player and some of those smaller, subjective elements of the game that they customize to their tastes. I wanted to know if my read on the Arsenal-style life counter — that people thought it was cool — was a general truism rather than my personal reaction reinforced by small-pool data and confirmation bias. I recognized pretty quickly that this particular life counter was a pretty specific piece of the picture though, so I started looking at a wider category that the life counter was just a part of.

Once again, I started asking the folks I see at my regular Friday Night Magic game what their preferences were when it came to tracking their life totals. I posted polls in the Magic: the Seattling Facebook group. I watched games being played in drafts, in constructed matches, and in Commander pods. I took notes on how people literally looked at the things that were used for tracking life totals.


Poll on life-tracking methods, Magic: the Seattling, November 23, 2017

I know, a lot of focus on something pretty trivial. It was more about me checking my own means of gathering data objectively, and it gave me some really interesting data, including a few things I wasn’t expecting at all.

Takeaways, layer 1:

  1. If you want anything resembling specific, serious data, don’t leave the option to add new poll choices open to the audience.
  2. Magic players who like using a paper and pen, when asked for a second choice other than paper and pen, will opt for paper and a totally different, not at all the same pen. A lot.

Leaving the poll (unintentionally) open for new categories definitely made it trickier to parse the information I was initially looking for. There were plenty of other interesting methods brought up though, including some discussion on the best phone apps for tracking life totals, and some images and links to custom-made counters posted in the comments.

Takeaways, layer 2:

Overall, paper and pen seemed to dominate responses among players who tend to play a little more competitively, which I expected. The more casual-format games someone played, the more popular some combination of dice became. 20-sided dice were the most common response overall, but within that group, I found that there were some pretty strong opinions on the choice between using the “spindown” D-20 life counters that come with various official Magic products and other “standard” D-20s. Just over half of the people I spoke to in person — 14 in 25 — felt that the number distribution of spindowns made them easier to track totals on, but “less random” when rolled to see who’d play first. Most said they’d just use different dice for the two functions, but a small handful said that if they had to choose just one to carry, it would be the traditional D-20. Online polling gave D-20s (with no specification as to spindown versus standard) a slight 51 to 46 edge over other dice.


An official Magic “spindown” life counter with the Planeswalker symbol

With this in mind, when I looked around the table at a Friday Night Magic event, I observed that nearly everyone who carried a dice collection with at least one spindown had multiple spindowns with them. There’s a collectible element to them that’s easy for players to get attached to. Many players, even those who dislike the spindowns for the statistical imbalances they carry, still have a strong affinity towards them, like small trophies of the events they’ve played in and products they’ve bought.

Beyond using them for their utility, those players who prefer to use dice typically have specific dice they like to use because of an emotional bond towards them. Dice often become an extension of the player’s personality out on the table during the game, and for many have a totemic or “lucky” quality. Dice selection is frequently a very personal thing — one of those elements of taste mentioned back at the top of the article.

Phone apps weren’t far behind dice on the list of responses, and some brief discussion came up within the Facebook group as to recommended apps (which makes me wonder why there’s no current Wizards–produced basic tracker app available), and on the merits of other digital note-taking devices like the Boogie Board.

At the point that I had collected this data, I had determined that if I were to make any recommendations to the Magic product team about improving features or components of their products, it might be to simply re-order the numbers on the spindown life counters to reflect a more balanced number distribution, like those on most “standard” D-20s. This would, theoretically, be a simple way to offer some minor improvements that satisfy more players with minimal effort. However, the whole point of the exercise in reviewing my own impressions against those of the crowd was to get a better gauge as to whether the things I assumed I was seeing were in fact adding up the way the rest of the community saw them. I would need to put the assumption to a test. 

Fast forward to the poll results: It is true that players tend to be wary of the numerical imbalance that comes with rolling a spin down to determine first player, but they also really like that there is a logical sequential order to the numbers on a spin down when it comes to selecting a die to track their life total with. General consensus showed that people have preferred to, and will likely continue to prefer to just carry both kinds of dice and treat them as two very different tools for two very different purposes. Scratch the would-be recommendation to reorganize the spindowns, but get somebody on that need for a good app stat.


Two playmats with numbering for tracking life totals

One of the things that stuck out for me in the poll responses was the notable absence of “playmats with life tracker numbers printed on them”, even after I’d left the poll open for user-created options. I own two such playmats that I love using; one with art from a Shadowmoor Island with custom Sandman artwork by Mike Dringenberg (one of the comic’s first pencillers), and another featuring “Ambassador Groot” that I made myself (the art degree still shows up from time to time). When I made the Groot playmate, I made a conscious decision to include the numbers, since I’d found the ones on the Island/Sandman mat to be so useful. I even bumped up the tens column to ten positions to better account for things like insane life-gain strategies that can quickly exceed dice supplies.

So why didn’t a single numbered playmat show up on the poll? I can honestly say I frequently hear people at casual events comment on how much they like the playmats I use, both for the artwork and the fact that they can read my life total so clearly from across or around the table. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it happens at least once at every event I attend¹.

I decided that the numbered playmat question was another one for the chorus.

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 4.10.15 PM

Poll on opinions of playmats with numbering for tracking life totals

Overwhelmingly, people really don’t like tracking their life total on their playmat. Even folks who said they owned and/or used a numbered playmat still didn’t actually use the numbers. Like with the oversized foil Commander cards, I once again found myself staring at sets of evidence that didn’t coordinate with each other; I like my numbered playmats for their function, I’ve had many players comment on the clarity they give regarding my life total, and people hate using playmats with the numbering.

I found the piece I was missing when I began telling people at a Friday Night Magic event, and again later at an Unstable draft, what the data was showing me. The responses were consistent:

Me: “I’m surprised, because I like this style of playmat, and people compliment it’s clarity all the time.”

Them: “Yeah, it looks great, and I can read it pretty easily from here. Man, more people should use those.”

Me: “Okay, that’s what I thought I’d see in the polls, but it wasn’t even close. Would you use one?”

Them: “Hell no, I like paper and pen or dice.”

Me: “But not a numbered mat? You just said that you like the way it looks and works.”

Them: “Yeah, I like that YOU use one because I can see YOUR life total from all the way over here better than I could if you were using dice.”

The key seemed to be that players liked the numbered mats just fine when their opponents used them. This got me to a whole new layer of the data-crunching.

Takeaways, layer 3:

Players evaluate their opponent’s life-tracking methods in ways very different from how they’d evaluate their own, and clarity and visibility are near the top of the criteria list that they want to see from their opponents. There is no apparent “optimal standardized method”, even among the paper-and-pen crowd, when it came to looking across the table at an opponent’s tracking method. Overall, immediate clarity was key; the less effort it took for a player to see their opponent’s life total, the more confidence they had that the totals were correct. As shown earlier in the playmat example, players typically expressed that the clearer and more visible their opponent’s methods of tracking were, the less bothered by it they felt, even if they would never use that method themselves.

In competitive settings, seeing an opponent use anything but a paper and pen raised red flags for most players. Even when the other player was using paper and pen though, each player’s handwriting and individual shorthand created varying degrees of clarity or confusion from across the table, and this had a definite impact on a player’s confidence in the accuracy of their opponent’s notes. In cases where professionally designed and printed score pads were available, the layout of the pages wasn’t always considered helpful, since handwriting was still a factor, and formatted columns often made notes cramped and difficult to read. Players responded most favorably to an opponent’s life tracking and notes when the paper was kept closer to the center of the play area.

In more casual settings, where dice were the more common tracking method, players preferred to see their opponent use a D-20 (either standard or spindown) when dice were used. Most commercially available dice are clear enough to be read from a distance of two or three feet, and are without other features that would otherwise obscure the numbers.

Groupings of smaller-numbered dice (usually four D-6’s) were also generally looked upon favorably, but nearly everyone I spoke to said they’d rather be looking across the table at a single D-20 whenever possible. D-6’s can easily be accidentally grabbed when looking for a die to put on a permanent that needs counters to designate something, thereby unintentionally obfuscating the player’s life total. A pair of D-10’s was also seen as an acceptable arrangement, and gained more support when one of the dice was a “percentile” die — a D-10 with numbers starting at 00 and going up to 90 in increments of ten. When an opponent used mismatched dice in any arrangement — those being dice of different colors or apparent scales — players tended to express irritation and put lower confidence in the tracking. The consistent through-line was that more dice equaled less immediate clarity and more room for mistakes.


The 2017 version of the Commander’s Arsenal life counter

The Commander’s Arsenal life counters, as it turns out, are polarizing little buggers. People who like them love them, and people who dislike them hate them. Those who eschew them will typically criticize the weight, or the minor variations in manufacturing that can cause the pieces to fit together too loosely or tightly. They were considered “too fidgety”. A number of players I spoke to cited that they disliked when an opponent used them, as they could roll towards the user and hide the relevant numbers.

More players are in the “love” camp than the “hate” camp when it comes to the life counters though, and this is probably why they were brought back in 2017’s Commander Anthology and Archenemy products. Users like how they have a somewhat exclusive air to them, as they’ve only come in premium or supplemental products so far. The 2017 versions got a stylish update — black with red details — and even come four to a box in the Commander Anthology. A few significant functional improvements were also made on the design: the side walls on the new model have a broader “footing” to help prevent it from rolling over on the table, and the 9’s on the counter’s faces now have a mark that distinguishes them from the 6’s. There are a number of online retailers who’ve begun selling the life counters out of Archenemy and Anthology sets that have been broken down for their components, and you can typically get one for between $7 and $10 (right in the range of the guy who wanted to drop ten bucks for his opponent’s back in the summer) .

It was a long way to go to confirm something I believed to be true, especially considering it was a read on a secondary component of a product from five years ago. The process of confirming the read through research though was necessary for me from a practical standpoint, and I picked up some other interesting quantifiable notes along the way.

It’s a process that I intend to continue. I’m particularly interested now in how players in Commander format games track totals, given that players are not only tracking their own life totals, but also separate tallies for damage taken from each of the other players’ individual commanders. Expect to see some study findings and proposals in a later article. I have some thoughts already, but if it isn’t obvious by now, I’ve come to anticipate that the views I have of the pieces around me are usually very different from the views from the other parts of the room. I need those extra sets of eyes.


¹ Side note RE: my own pet peeve — It drives me CRAZY that there aren’t more players who know who the Morpheus/Sandman on my playmat is. 90% of the events I play at are at comic shops. Sandman is one of the most influential comic books of all time. The comic shop I play at most often is LITERALLY called “The Dreaming” — a reference to Sandman — and has a BIG sign out front with Sandman on it. Eight years I’ve had this thing, and maybe a dozen people have said “Hey, it’s Sandman!”. That’s it. 12. Seriously? Neil Gaiman? Tori Amos? Anyone? Damned Magic players are getting too young and need to get the hell off my old-man lawn.

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Small Pieces — G.D. via G.D.

Let’s lean back into the “arts” part of Arts and Gamecraft for a moment, shall we?

It’s almost a cliché at this point to do a post about people asking how to get a job in game design; every game designer has answered the question (persistence and luck), and written about how often they get asked the question (constantly).

There are a ton of game designers — many of whom I respect a lot — who will point out how valuable math skills are in the process of making games. You’ll hear a lot about how writing skills (both creative and journalistic) are helpful. You’ll see a lot of people with engineering and/or computer science degrees in the business. Some game designers will advocate taking an improv class or two. I’m always a little disappointed though to see my own field of study get overlooked as a phenomenally valuable asset in the gamecrafting business.

Before I was a Game Designer, I was Graphic Designer. Got a BA in Graphic Design from RIT, Class of 1999.

Side note, Elan Lee, the guy who made Exploding Kittens was there at the same time as me. We worked together for a couple of years on the campus Tech Crew. He taught me how to not accidentally detonate Kliegel lamps.

So yes, math is important (and I’ve got that covered), and writing is really useful (working on it). I’ve never taken an improv class, so I can’t speak to that personally. I can say without a doubt though that my knowledge of graphic design and the software associated with it accounts for a good third of my Value Proposition as a game maker.


When you make a game, you have to start with a prototype. When you make a prototype, you want to see how the game plays, and how quickly people grasp it. When you want to see how quickly people grasp it, the last thing you want is an awkwardly constructed prototype slowing down or hindering a tester’s ability to make sense of it. My entire career pre-games was as someone who took complex visual concepts and streamlined them into something accessible and attractive.

Accessible and attractive are really good qualities to have in an early prototype. When you first put a new game in front of someone, the entire experience begins with a fog of obscurity, and sometimes with an intimidating overload of information. By knowing how to help contain and organize that information visually from the very first prototype, I can get a faster read on the strengths and weaknesses of the game, without wondering if poor usability is what’s making it all suck.

It’s also incredibly useful to know the digital tools of graphic design when you’re dealing with something mostly comprised of printed paper. Cards, boards, tokens, chits, character sheets, rules, instructional diagrams — these are all things that will inevitably need to be processed through a graphic designer before they’ll ever get published. Having all of your components in “designer-ready” file formats will earn you considerable points with the illustrators, designers, and art directors you’ll eventually hand things off to.

Lastly, I can not say enough about how useful things like master templates and style sheets are (ask a graphic designer) when you’re creating bulk components with common elements. Being able to set up a single attractive card template, then fill it in with copy from a spreadsheet in seconds is one of the most stupidly satisfying pieces of my job. My prototypes can look close to finished before the first test even starts. Forget Sharpies on card blanks, I can output a PDF and have perfectly duplexed cards in minutes. Clean, clear iconography to help create a visual shorthand for frequently-used information? I’ve got that covered.

You want to make games? Study a lot of different things. You want to make awesome prototypes?

Learn Adobe InDesign.

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Filed under Do It Yourself, graphic design, prototyping, Uncategorized

Reading the Room With Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 1

Seeing the Forest For the Trees and Tapping It for Green Mana

This is the first in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community. 


Magic Commander product, 2011. Image ©Wizards of the Coast, used without permission (fingers crossed)

A little over a month ago I had a job interview at Wizards of the Coast for a position designing new products to fit into their line of Magic: The Gathering supplemental products (Commander decks, Fat Packs, etcetera). I went in with a pretty high degree of confidence that I would be a slam-dunk for the position, what with twenty-four years of experience playing Magic and seven years of making game products under my belt.

At the end of the process, the hiring manager, Mark Globus, told me that on paper my resumé looked about as perfect for the job as any manager could have asked for. Before he told me that though, he broke it to me that I would, unfortunately, not be getting the job. In a series of questions he had for me during a prior phone interview, he’d been looking at my read on the likes and dislikes of the greater Magic community and how they related to the current array of Magic products and components.

In an almost alarming number of those insights I’d given as examples, my read was completely out of line with what the consumer base felt. After 24 years of playing Magic, I’d shown that I was either entirely out of touch with other players…

OR — I hope — I had unwittingly fallen into a combo-trap of looking at sample sizes that are too small and not asking enough (or the right) questions about why people have the opinions they do about Magic products. If this is the case, it’s something I can fix. In the subject of Magic preferences, I had become a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence. [1]

– Justin Kruger & David Dunning

In other words, I didn’t know that I didn’t know what people wanted, so instead I thought that I did. The hiring manager needed someone who instinctively picked up on these sorts of details and insights, and I hadn’t developed that skill properly.

In taking the time to give me feedback regarding why I’d fallen short of landing the job, Mark had done something to help me be better prepared the next time a position like the one I’d interviewed for opened up. It was one of those above-and-beyond things that he didn’t need to do, but I’m grateful for.

Obviously, missing out on the job was not the initial plan, so there’s a new plan. I aim to shore up the weakness Mark identified for the next time a job in that department gets posted. I have a muscle that needs exercise, and I’ve started in on a new training regimen to turn the weakness into a strength.


My first research poll on the Magic: The Seattling Facebook group

My first step was to go back and analyze the answers I’d given Mark in the phone interview. The second would be to find the answers the Magic hive-mind would have given.

In broad terms, Mark asked me for my opinions about a few existing supplemental Magic products and the components of some of those products. We talked about the Deckbuilder’s Toolkits, Commander decks, the Commander’s Arsenal, the From the Vault series, and a handful of others. He asked if there were things I’d change, improve, add, or remove from those products. I gave answers that came straight from my own opinions and experience, and reached back to opinions I’d heard from folks I frequently played Magic with.


The oversized and standard-sized versions of a Commander card

For example, when Mark asked me how I might improve the Commander products, I went with something I’d personally wanted to see more of: oversized foil cards that correspond to the commanders the decks are built around.

I’ve purchased nearly every Commander deck that’s been released by Wizards of the Coast. These products are 100 card decks meant to be played in groups of 3 or more players. Constructing a deck for the Commander format has special rules, one of which is that the deck must have as single card that the deck is built around, called the “commander” — hence the format’s name. One of the things I’ve always liked, from an aesthetic standpoint, is that the products are displayed at retail with a double-sized card of the commander for the deck showing through the packaging’s clear plastic facing. The card is big, the art is cool, the text is readable from several feet away, and if that wasn’t enough to catch your eye, the entire card is printed on a foil card stock that shines and glimmers and jumps right off the shelf. They’re the headliner on the box, and they’re a playable component of the game.

I love them. I love playing with them. As a product designer, I love how they “sell” the product with a combination of definition and style. Before I began this exercise, the only issue I’d had with them is that the assortment of commanders the oversized cards exist for only accounts for a small subsection of the greater game’s hundreds of possible commanders you can build a deck around.

This poses a problem for me though; I have a personal emotional stake in these cards appearing in the Commander products. I had let myself become skewed in my perception of the relationship between the oversized foil commander cards and the Magic players who buy the Commander products.

Almost every Friday night, I head over to a comic book shop a few blocks from my office to play Magic. While we wait for players to sign up for the draft event, several of the regulars will play Commander to kill time. Most of the decks that are played are built from scratch by the players. This means that most of the commanders chosen by the players who built those decks aren’t ones that come from the official Commander products, and therefore don’t have oversized foil versions to use. Instead, you see players who seek out other “upgraded” versions of the commanders for their decks — a commander deck is an extension of a player’s creativity, so “points for style” are widely appreciated. Some players seek out the standard foil cards, some prefer foreign printings, and others spring for altered-art versions.

My assumption: Oversized foil cards = points for style, ergo players who like style points like oversized foil cards.

The problem here was one of confirmation bias and Dunning-Kruger. Since other players never asked me why I use the oversized cards, I never thought to ask others why they didn’t use them. I didn’t even think about whether I should ask why others like or dislike using them, because I liked them, and the logic for my own preference was sound.

MarchesaCompounding my misread were comments from other players that, in retrospect, only painted a partial picture of the problem. Just a few days earlier I’d heard one of the Friday Night regulars mention that they’d “love to see Marchesa wind up in an official Commander deck”. He was referring to a card that’s popular among those who play the format, one that can be used as a commander for a deck, and that has not yet been featured in a Commander product release. Without asking any further questions, I took this to mean that he wanted an oversized version of the card. Why else would he specifically want a card that already existed outside of the Commander products to be featured in one?

To me, it was a given that players wanted the oversized cards. I saw that there was a very simple reason they couldn’t use them. I didn’t question whether they wouldn’t. I understood a small part of why oversized foils weren’t used more often, but I didn’t understand all of it, and I didn’t look for deeper reasons.

When Mark explained to me that the market research Wizards of the Coast had done indicated that players really didn’t like oversized cards, I had a little bit of whiplash. I’d given an answer to an interview question that I thought was on point. Presented with a question I hadn’t anticipated, I gave an answer based on my own experience and the data I’d collected through informal and incidental observations. It turned out that those observations weren’t as complete as I’d needed them to be. If I ever wanted a second shot at joining Mark’s product design team, I’d need to change that.

Since then, I’ve been asking around at the stores I play Magic at. I’ve picked the brains of people I work with and have played Commander with in the past. I’ve begun posting polls in a Facebook forum with a strong community of Seattle-based Magic players. I wanted a definitive, broadly sourced take on whether players liked the oversized cards, how frequently they saw play, and why players might prefer to not use them.

I went back and talked to the guy who wanted Marchesa to be featured in an official Commander deck. His reason had nothing to do with the lack of an oversized card. It was entirely because the MSRP for an entire Commander deck is around $30-35, whereas buying a single standard-sized foiled copy of the Marchesa card will set you back nearly $60. Seeing Marchesa reprinted as a featured part of an official product would give him a functional duplicate of the shiny card he wanted at half the price. If the oversized Marchesa came along with it, he’d probably still only use the standard-sized one.

But why no love for the oversized cards in general?

It has a lot to do with basic logistics. The cards are, as should be obvious by now, bigger than conventional Magic cards. This means that nearly all of the secondary accessories — particularly card sleeves and deck boxes — aren’t compatible with non-conventional cards. Nearly all players already have a supply of sleeves and boxes to store cards and decks in, and those sleeves and boxes weren’t built with oversized cards in mind.

Official Commander decks come with a paperboard deck box included; these boxes are made to reliably hold the 100-card deck plus it’s corresponding oversized card(s), but they’re not as durable as the plastic deck boxes most players use. The paperboard boxes have a basic top-and-bottom two-part form, which can easily open up accidentally if a player throws it in a backpack — which is the most common way players pack their decks for transport. They’re not deep enough to hold the 100 sleeved cards, and since so many players won’t play their Magic decks without sleeves, this alone makes the paperboard box functionally obsolete.

Sidebar: From a visual design standpoint, the paperboard boxes have no markings beyond general coloration as to which deck belongs in them. It’s not an important detail on a retail shelf since the oversized foil is packaged in front of the deck box, but when you’ve put all your boxed decks on a shelf, it can be difficult to remember which deck is which without opening several boxes.

When it comes down to it, the single largest factor that makes the oversized cards unwanted by players has nothing to do with availability, it’s keeping them safe. Without a way to prevent them from getting destroyed while traveling to and from places where people get together to play, the best way to maintain them is to leave them in a closet at home.

Third-party accessories for protecting oversized cards do exist, but they’re something of a specialty item, and not many Friendly Local Game Stores keep them in stock. Oversized sleeves can be ordered online, but they come in counts that far exceed most players’ needs. Deck boxes that can accommodate oversized cards are available as well, but again, they’re not generally stocked in large quantities by brick-and-mortar retailers, and players aren’t as likely to invest in one when they can just use a box they already have and leave the oversized card at home.

I store my Commander decks differently than the majority of players; I keep them in their native state, unsleeved and in the paperboard deck boxes that come with the product. When I travel with them, I carry multiple decks in a larger cardboard box that I once received some other Amazon delivery in. This entirely gets around the issues that other players have, and functionally made those issues invisible to me. Moving forward, I need to be mindful that the things that shape my own opinion of a product or component may not line up with the factors that shape those opinions for the greater community.

There were a handful of other reasons I heard from people regarding their disinterest in oversized cards, most of which came down to the ergonomics of actually having them in play (or out of play) in an actual game setting. Some people talked about their tendency to curl more than standard-sized cards. One person I spoke to did cite unavailability of their favorite commanders as a reason they didn’t play them, but before I could feel any vindication, they instead showed me the alternate-art standard-sized card they’d had custom-made for the deck they’d recently playing. It was gorgeous. I couldn’t blame them for being entirely satisfied with what they had.

My eyes are open. I just need to remember to open mine wider, and to use other peoples’ more often.



[1] Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 77 (6): 1121–1134. CiteSeerX accessible. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367. Citation reprinted from Wikipedia Commons.


Filed under Card Games, Market Research, Product design, Published Games

The Shelfie I Can’t Show You & Things We Shouldn’t Talk About

The main focus of my job as a game inventor is to make a lot of games and prototypes. And while plenty of the games I’ve created have landed on retail shelves, many more are still on the office shelves.

And that’s fine. Sure, you always want to see every game idea you start make it to retail, but a lot of that path lies in finding the right publisher for whatever I make. There’s a part of Forrest-Pruzan that builds games on-demand for publishers who’ve already made arrangements to sell games into retail channels, and they’re more or less guaranteed a high percentage of concept-to-published projects. I’m not in that group. The things I build come with a known risk associated with them, but it makes the successes that much more exciting.

These are the shelves in my office.

I’ve taken the liberty to remove the names of anything secret (or incriminating), so don’t hurt yourself looking too hard.

About half of what’s in those boxes and bins are things I’ve created, mostly from scratch. Some of those boxes are games and products that have been published in one part of the world or another, but can still be pitched to publishers in other markets, or games on which an old publisher’s license has expired and it’s back in the pitching rotation. You may recognize some of the Wonky boxes near the bottom of the shelves from a previous post here on the blog.

Sometimes these boxes will get snatched up by the “blue team” — those aforementioned teammates who make games on demand for publishers who already have a retail shelf waiting for a game — when a client’s needs require a faster-than-light turnaround. Producer with no space in the timeline for making something new? Meet Fletch’s Shelves.

One of my more recent examples of a game plucked from the shelves to quick-fill an order is Banned Words, published by Wonder Forge. The client had a deal in place to provide the chain retailer Target with a set number of Target-exclusive new games. One of those slots had to be filled with a family-and-up party game. The blue team was crunched for time, and the ability to pull something straight from my shelves gave them a jump-start on the development cycle in a way that freed up resources for the other games in the order.


Banned Words, 2017, Wonder Forge

Banned Words is a word association game that, at first glance, looks like dozens (if not scores, or maybe hundreds) of other traditional “mystery word” games before it, but plays at a notably deeper level than most. Its roots actually came from a different word association game I was working on that hadn’t quite borne the fruit we were hoping for.

The backbone of that earlier game centered around trying to guess the most likely pairings of words that players would select from a field of options (again, forgive me for being intentionally vague here). One afternoon, while tinkering with that game, I had one of those “jump up and tell everyone to be quiet” moments. The kernel of the thought was this: What if we let the players generate the rules about making those associations?

There’s nothing new at all in the concept of user-generated content. It’s been a staple of games — and especially “secret word” games — for dozens of decades. It’s something that publishers and developers love because it means there’s less work to create editorial content before the project goes into production, which in turn means there’s fewer things that can go sideways at the last minute. If your rules for what kind of content the players should create are sound, you as the game designer don’t actually need to put any pre-formatted content in the game at all. Any time you don’t need to put something in the game, the game is cheaper and generally easier to produce.

In that “be quiet” moment of the meeting, it occurred to me that there are lots of games where people are trying to guess a secret word or words based on other clues. We could let the players affect the rules of the secret word game by having them generate the parameters of the game as they played.

Let me explain that by turning some other games a little sideways.


Taboo is one of the best-known examples of secret word games these days. In it, one player tries to get their teammates to guess a secret word. There is a limiting parameter that the clue-giver must work within in that there are five “taboo” words or phrases that the clue giver may not say. The clue giver knows what the taboo words are, and is being watched by a judge from the other team whose job it is to keep the clue giver honest.

In 2015, Vlaada Chvátil released Codenames. In this word association game, the clue giver must get their teammates to identify a set of secret words from among a visible array of 30 words. The catch is that there is another clue giver offering clues to an opposing team, whose words are mixed into that same array. The parameters are that the clue givers can only offer a single clue per turn, and that clue must be only one word. They can also offer their teammates a number, which indicates how many words in the array the given clue corresponds to. The net effect is an incredibly deep puzzle in which the clue givers are trying to play upwards of nine different word association games at once, while also avoiding giving their teammates any clues that might accidentally lead them to the other team’s secret words.

Both games set parameters for the clue giver in the way clues are given, and in both games, the clue giver has a small puzzle to solve. In Taboo, the clue giver has had five of the most obvious possible clues taken away. In Codenames, no clue is off-limits, but the clues must be very carefully chosen so as to thread as many needles as possible at once. In Taboo, the clue giver works against a physical clock, while in Codenames, the clue givers are each trying to be more efficient in their selection of clues than the other.

Given the choice of which party/word game I’d want to invent, it’s a no-brainer in favor of Codenames. By far, it’s the more sophisticated game of the two, diving heavily into the concept of emergent strategy (something that I should probably write another post on someday). It forces the clue giver to craft clues that not only lead teammates to their targets, but that also steer them away from choosing words that aren’t their targets. It’s something that requires an extra layer of craftsmanship as a clue giver, since there are almost no clue words you can’t give, but in any given situation there are definitely clue words you shouldn’t give.

Banned Words got its hook when I realized that there were three parties affected by the parameters of the game: the clue giver, the guesser(s), and — the one that is more or less forgotten by the other two games — the judge.

Taboo was about being a clue giver who didn’t want to say certain off-limits words, lest the judge catch them.

Codenames was about being a clue giver who wanted their teammates to not say or select certain off-limits words, lest the judge (in this case, the game structure) catch them.

In both of those cases, the judge has very little actual power or influence in the game. I could make a secret word game in which they were the ones who secretly set the off-limits words that could catch either the clue giver or the guessers.

Banned Words is about being the judge who makes the rules, refuses to explain them, and waits for the clue giver and guessers to fail.

There’s a little bit of malicious intent in that, and that’s why it’s fun.

UNL_BannedWords_Instructions_SetUp_AHere’s how it works: Teams are separated from each other by a screen. Hidden behind the screen, the teams have sets of sixteen small dry-erase whiteboards (placards) and pens. Both teams draw a card from the box, which shows a list of five target words that the other team will eventually have to play the giver-guesser roles with. Keeping the lists hidden, the teams then have 90 seconds to write down sixteen words on the placards that the other team won’t be allowed to say during the clue-giving and guessing stage.

At the end of the 90 seconds, each team picks a clue-giver for the round, and the lists of target words are passed around the screen, face-down, to the other team’s clue-giver. One team will go first, and the clue-giver now has 90 seconds to get his or her team to guess their five target words.


A sample card from the Banned Words playtesting prototype, with the original working title of the game.

Here’s the catch: The clue-giver doesn’t get to see the words the other team prohibited them from using, and if anyone on the clue-giver’s team — either the clue-giver or the guessers — say those words, the other team reveals the placard with the “banned” word and gets a point. In other words, the judges have set a field full of invisible landmines that the other team needs to avoid. The judges know the rules, the players do not. Once the active team’s time is up, play goes to the other team, and the roles of judge and victim are reversed.

The structure of the game adds a couple of really nice features to the standard secret-word format: it creates a constant state of “all play”, and it pushes emergent strategy.

All play:
In the first stage of the game, all of the players are furiously brainstorming and optimizing their lists of banned words with their teammates. In the second stage of the game, every player at the table is serving a role as a clue-giver, a guesser, or a judge. The role of the judge is especially exciting in this game, as there’s a constant tension as you wait to catch the other team in your traps. There’s no down time for players, and no one is ever relegated to just being a spectator.

Emergent strategy:
When you’re writing the list of banned words, writing the most obvious words the clue-giver might use is the most straightforward strategy, but it’s not the only strategy, nor necessarily the best strategy. If the clue-giver assumes you’ve gone the obvious route, they can put together a likely set of clues they shouldn’t give right away, and now your banned words list has a lot less potential to score you points. You’ve got a balancing act on your hands; on a scale of obvious to obtuse, where do you try to trip the other team up?

And if you’re the clue-giver, can you really assume that the most obvious words are off-limits? After all, if the judges assume you’d already avoid those words, they might have gone a few steps deeper into the pool and left the shallow end alone. Plus there’s the risk of steering your guessers into a banned word, which is just as bad as if you said them; how do you get your teammates to zero in on the specific target word and not something very similar that’s probably among the other team’s words?

Crafting both the list of banned words and the clues is a bit of a game of chicken, and it will evolve among the group of players over the course of the game or games.

As I write this post, Banned Words currently has a 7.7 rating on The stretch of time from the very first ideas that kicked the project off to when it came off the office shelf to be presented as a concept pitch to Wonder Forge was about two months. From the point that Wonder Forge first played the game to the day files were shipped off to the factories that made the game, it was roughly one more month. Seven months after that, this past August, it hit shelves at Target stores all across the US.

Not bad for a game that had only barely begun to exist one year ago on a shelf in my office that I can’t actually show you.

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Filed under Board Games, Emergent strategy, Family Games, party games, Published Games, Word games

Small Pieces — 5 Games That Have Influenced My Life and Career

(1989, Milton Bradley)


HeroQuest was the first board game I played that actively made me want to redesign it, or at least design new content for it. My friend Adam and I spent the better part of a summer adjusting rules and stats we felt were off, and created a slew of new monsters and playable character classes. I haven’t seen those additional pages of our rules in two decades, so we may not have actually been any good at it at the time, but these days I make board games for a living, and Adam makes video games professionally, so something must have carried over.

Magic: The Gathering
(1993, Richard Garfield, Wizards of the Coast)


I honestly don’t think there’s another game out there that’s generated as much written content about game design and applied game theory. I’ve been playing for 24-plus years, and have been able to take away so much that informs the design of other card and board games that I’m not sure I could do my job without the lessons I’ve learned from it. Dig into the underlying structure of Magic: The Gathering long enough, and you’ll pick up an intrinsic feel for the value of inter-related mechanics, strategic diversity and balance, resource systems, pacing, growth space, component power levels, utility, accessibility, and God only knows how many other things.

Magic’s influence has gone significantly deeper for me than just as a game I love; it’s also made a profound impact on my life outside of my career. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with and become friends with so many of the people that have made this game over the years. In 2006, I was able to work alongside several of them, putting in a few months of work as a contractor helping to design the Shadowmoor set, but the bigger prize has been the core of friends and “extended family” that’s been there for me, my wife, and most recently, my son.

The Great Dalmuti
(1995, Richard Garfield,Wizards of the Coast)

pic711236_mdMy introduction to The Great Dalmuti came as a direct product of my discovery of Magic. It was sold in the comic shop that I played Magic at, it was invented* by the same guy who made Magic, and it was cheap, as new games went. It seemed like a no-brainer when I picked it up.

Dalmuti turned out to be one of the most incredible party games I’d see for years to come. It was scalable, easy to teach, and had some actual strategy to it. Not much, but enough to be more than another word association game. I got more hours of lunch room and after-school bumming around out of this game than anything else I could have thrown in a backpack. Plus, there was no social stigma attached to Dalmuti, unlike Dungeons and Dragons or Magic.

Yes, I loved D&D and Magic, but high school kids are cruel.

*Okay, Garfield didn’t “invent” Dalmuti, per se. The traditional card game President preceeded it. Garfield skewed the numbers in the deck though, and it made all the difference.

The Settlers of Catan
(1995, Klaus Teuber, Kosmos)


This should come as no shock, because I suspect it’s a pretty common experience: Settlers was one of the first “eurogames” I ever played.

What made Settlers such a watershed game for me was the way it used its pieces. You had no mover that marked where you were on the board. You didn’t even really play on the board so much as in the spaces where the board tiles met. You rolled dice, but that die roll was for everyone, and it had nothing to do with moving pieces along a track. There was no specific goal, like “be the first to build a castle” or “knock your opponent off the board and take over the world”, just a points goal and a bunch of ways to get there. Trading was such an integral piece of the game that you needed at least three players to play it.

It went against so many “conventional” rules of what I knew games were that it felt like learning a foreign language the first time I played. And it was awesome. Settlers was the game that made me actively look for new games outside of the traditional toy store game aisle, and I’ve never looked back (except when required to for work purposes).

Puerto Rico
(2002, Andreas Seyfarth, Alea, Rio Grande)

pic158548_mdFor whatever cultural jump Settlers of Catan was for me in 1999, Puerto Rico was a full quantum leap in 2002. This was a game of pure strategy — no random elements, no hidden information. The concepts of round-by-round role selection and “first turn” markers were something that came totally out of left field for me, and I loved it. Like Settlers, here was a game with multiple ways to gather points and multiple paths to victory, but the sheer depth and variety made any other comparisons to Settlers outright silly.

I haven’t gotten in a game of Puerto Rico in over 15 years, but only because it’s tough to find people to play it with. There’s a pervasive social resistance to the theme of the game boiling down to slavery, which, yes, I’m also a little uncomfortable with, but the game itself is pretty remarkable. At some point I’m going to have to paint all of the “worker” tokens purple and find some other names to put on all the buildings. Maybe then we won’t all feel so dirty about liking it.

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Family Games, party games, Strategy Games