Category Archives: Board Games

Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 4

Community Improvements

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

Writing rules is hard. I know; it’s part of my job.

Naturally, the more complex the game, the more difficult it is to write the rules. Game complexity can come from a whole slew of places, but when actually writing rules, one of the most challenging types of complexity to explain comes when a game has tons of little sub-routines.

Games that get their complexity from strategic depth can actually have very simple rule sets. The difficulty in comprehending chess, for example, comes from the fact that on any given turn, the number of choices presented to a player are huge, and each possible outcome will each affect that many more possible outcomes on the opponent’s turn. Every choice opens up a geometric expansion of further game states.


Source: Wikipedia

The rules for chess though are elegantly short; they account purely for the game’s setup and the rules for moving the various kinds of pieces. Chess also includes a short list of additional rules for various game situations and movement exceptions, but in total, chess can accurately be explained in fewer than 1,500 English words and only a handful of simple diagrams. These can all reasonably fits onto a single sheet of standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, using both sides.

The depth of Chess’s strategy however is a subject that has been the subject of tens of thousands of books and articles over the course of more than 1,000 years of play. A child can learn the complete rules of chess in a matter of hours, but the study of the game’s strategy can consume a lifetime.

Then there are games where the gameplay can be entirely open-ended, but also less strategically complex in their play than chess. The rules for these games might still require dozens of pages (if not more) to explain.


Source: Gloomhaven Kickstarter campaign, Cephalofair Games. Image used without permission.

Gloomhaven is a tactical “campaign” style adventure game with deep roots in narrative exploration of a city and its surrounding world. It is huge in every sense of the word.

The box measures around 17″ x 12″ x 18″ and weighs 20 pounds. There are 18 sheets of 11″ x 17″ heavy chipboard punchboards, including literally hundreds of map tiles, monster standees, tokens, and markers. There are 17 little paperboard boxes for different unlockable character classes, each with sculpted plastic miniatures and over two dozen cards, markers, and other pieces of paraphernalia. There are at least 1,500 different cards covering a range of purposes — player actions, attack modifiers, monster stats and actions, equipment and other treasures, randomized events, randomized side-quests, and more. There is a book with 95 playable campaigns. There are envelopes with secret content to be opened at various stages of the game. There is a board showing a map of the city of Gloomhaven and a chunk of the continent surrounding it, and a sheet of stickers to add to the expanding range of known locations on it.

And there’s a 52-page rule book.

The community response to this game has consistently been incredibly positive. When Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games first launched Gloomhaven’s first printing in September of 2015 on Kickstarter, he went in seeking $70,000. He finished the campaign with over five times that funding goal, and after the orders were closed, demand on the retail and secondary markets far exceeded the supply.

A second printing was announced in April of 2017, and at that point I knew I had to back the game. This time Isaac placed the goal at $300,000.

He hit the mark in five minutes. By day 4 of the campaign he had over 16,000 backers, nearly all of them in for at least $95. The next day the pledges totaled over $1.6 million, and over 2,000 of the backers were actively participating in a Gloomhaven mini-adventure Isaac was hosting through the Kickstarter updates.


The unboxed contents of Gloomhaven. Photo courtesy The DM’s Apprentice, link in footnotes.

After all was said and done, Gloomhaven’s second printing raised $3,999,795, coming in only $205 shy of the 4 million mark. The guy I shared an office with pulled his own $105 pledge just hours before the deadline because he was putting in an offer on a house and opted for financial adulting. (Sadly, the bid on the house was not accepted and he wound up kicking himself for withdrawing on Gloomhaven).

The backers of the second printing had largely received their copies of the game by late November 2017, and a retail release date was quickly set for mid-January 2018. At the time of this posting, the number of remaining retail copies is dwindling to a point where copies regularly sell online for around $200, significantly higher than the $140 MSRP. The current placement on’s all-time board game rankings and the user ratings back up the hype; Gloomhaven holds the number one slot, recently edging out Pandemic Legacy, and boasts a remarkable (and yet fully-deserved) 9.0 out of 10.

The game is largely narrative-driven, despite not actually being a role-playing game. Some reviewers categorize it as legacy game, though that’s up for debate. There’s a very good case for it being a turn-based strategy game — in a similar way to how a lot of video games are categorized as such — themed as a dungeon-crawl adventure. There’s no question though that the 52-page rule book covers a lot of technical/mechanical ground, and this is where the game’s complexity becomes apparent.


The Gloomhaven rule book, Cephalofair Games, 2016. Image used without permission.

As I said earlier, part of my day job is to write rules documentation for games. Writing rules for themed strategy games with lots of parts and sub-routines is really hard. I have a number of tricks I fall back on to help push clarity in my rules (I’m not averse to repeating a paragraph if having it in two different places helps people get through a process without having to cross-reference), but I’m always looking for ways to improve the information design that goes into writing rules.

And that’s ultimately what it is; information design, the place where my career and professional training began. It’s not an easy skill to build, and it‘s something that can make or break a player’s first experience with any game, let alone one as complex as Gloomhaven. Isaac and his graphic designer Josh McDowell did an amazing job pulling all the rules together in that book, and presented them with a visually beautiful and well-designed structure. Still, even with 52 pages to get everything in there, there’s a lot of stuff that players have found a need for beyond those rules.

Usability through information design extends beyond rules too, affecting the design of individual components. Great components are intuitive in their purpose, and take into account the way the audience is likely to interact with them. Weak component design can stifle the play experience before the players even get to the heart of the gameplay.

This is where the story fits into my Reading the Room series; Gloomhaven is a prime example of the game’s community coming together to listen to questions other players posed, looking at how to better present information for players and then building better tools with which to learn and play the game. It’s not my own research and synopsis about usability and product design, but it’s definitely about improving a product based on community feedback, and in that, it’s something I can carry forward in my own rules-writing and component development process.

By this past November, before I had even received my own copy of Gloomhaven, I had spent hours upon hours reading through discussion threads on about the game. My goal was to know as much of the workings of the game as I could, so that when it arrived I could dive right in. It’s entirely possible that I did more active studying for the arrival of this game than I did for the arrival of my son.


At the time of the writing of this article, there were 6,207 discussion threads about Gloomhaven on BGG

Despite the amount of reading I’d done within the community threads, I never read the actual rules until I had the game in my hands; a PDF of the rules existed on the Kickstarter campaign page, but I tried to stay as unspoiled as I could about the actual game components. That included the rule book.

Instead, I followed discussions on the merits of pre-fabricated storage inserts, do-it-yourself options, painting guides for the starting characters, miniature landscape accessories, and so on. I read about common mistakes made by new players, and the methods for adding and removing players from the game over the course of a campaign (because not everyone in the party will always be available to play ever time). There were minor spoilers, but it was worth it to me to have a general understanding of the kinds of things I’d be able to do and the ways I’d be able to share the game experience.

At one point, Isaac posted a link to a set of graphical assets that he and Josh were making available to the community for the purposes of creating new home-brewed dungeons and quests. Isaac’s only stipulation was that if anyone wanted to use the assets for anything other than making their own campaigns for personal use, that they request his permission first. A chorus of gratitude and applause for the move followed from the community. The assets were embraced and immediately put to good use, evidence of which can be found in the many web-based tools, third-party apps, and printable materials that can be found in the BoardGameGeek Gloomhaven Files forums.


The Files forums for Gloomhaven on

The kinds of files available range from schematics for home-made storage inserts to tuckboxes and envelopes for components to rules reference materials. Subscribing to any of these threads will quickly demonstrate how much the creators of these files care about their usefulness. Dozens of them show multiple stages of curation with periodic file updates and version tracking numbers. The originators frequently take and respond to questions in the forums, incrementally making the utility of those files more attuned to the needs of the end users.

With the availability of the art assets, the creators of the files are able to build things like full rules and campaign books translated into different languages that look just like the original. Players can also create appendices to the rules that summarize game sub-routines in formats that the rule book wasn’t able to devote space to.


Bill Norris’s “Gloomhaven One-Sheet”

For example, Bill Norris (BGG username Harleyguy) was able to create a one-sheet summary document with key game information for use as a quick reference guide. It begins with the full back page of the official rule book, but adds a reverse side with brief summaries of key combat-related conditions, effects, and sub-routines. Because Bill had access to the iconography, stylistic elements, and typefaces that Isaac and Josh had used, he was able to make his player aide visually tie in to the original game materials seamlessly.

BGG user Gekey took advantage of the art assets to create a simple, attractive board for setting out cards relevant to players’ visits to the city of Gloomhaven through the game. It’s a nice accessory piece that adds some flavor and focused visibility of thematically connected game components. I’m personally already seeing ways I’d like to use this in a constructing a physical tool for storing armor, weapon, and item cards available in the game’s marketplace.


Gekey’s “Visit Gloomhaven board”

Takeaway Number One for me: As long as there’s little concern for counterfeiting, trust the community and provide them with digital assets for creating supplemental materials. It’s impressive how much the community can add to the play experience when provided with elements that help them create accessories and player aides. Better assets will only help them build those pieces in ways that tie into the game’s existing richness and environment.

One of the most useful kinds of user-made appendices that I’ve found is flowcharts. While Isaac and Josh are thorough in explaining in the text of the rules how every process works, with a few exceptions, most of those processes are shown only as text. Given the enormous number of multi-stage procedures in the game, properly parsing and executing all of the rules text for those procedures is difficult. Even with decent quick-reference indexes (the rule book actually includes two of them, and each character box holds a simplified turn guide), it’s easy to miss or misunderstand key steps in any of those processes. Flowcharts have shown to be an excellent way to get from start to finish without overlooking anything.

There are many of these flowchart documents available in the Gloomhaven files forums, with varying degrees of detail in their step-to-step writing. One of the most useful flowcharts I’ve used is also one of the simplest. Erik Nilsson (BGG username Arne_Sven) created a clean, bare-bones four page set that explains the process of setting up and playing the game. They are elegant in their brevity, and were indispensable for my first dive into character creation and playing of a campaign.


Pages from Erik Nilsson’s “Gloomhaven Flowcharts”

Takeaway Number Two for me: Any rules document I create from now on for games with moderate or high complexity will include one or more flowcharts as appendices to help players quickly understand the flow of rounds and/or turns.

(Assessing the quantifiable meaning of “moderate or high complexity” remains to be worked out.)

Even in some of the lighter games I’ve designed and developed, I’ve seen time and time again that text alone often isn’t enough to explain concepts that play out within the game. Every game experience has moments where a choice or choices will create branching paths that the game process can take from that point. Static paragraphs of text can’t account for or accommodate the changes in procedure that the choices create.

Even visual diagrams will come up short when describing sequences with a set of interconnected or nested decisions and results. Diagrams nearly always need accompanying text to explain what’s going on in that diagram, which then in turn necessitates a structured system through which the text and diagram components are connected. Diagrams tend to be absorbed by the eye as a whole, while the text or copy that correlates to the diagram must be processed — in part or in whole — in a segmented, linear manner.

This is all to say, once again, that good information design is hard. Using flowcharts in the rules I write will reduce my own headaches and those of the people trying to play the game I’ve put in front of them. Why has this not occurred to me before? No idea.

Much of the fun of Gloomhaven is the discoveries that happen as the story unfolds. One of the first things you’ll notice when you start digging into the community’s conversations and home-made tools is how often the words “spoiler warning” appear, and how emphatically they hold others to respect that concept.

All of this can make discussing rules and asking questions about specific in-game situations very tricky.

Luckily, Isaac and Josh came into this prepared for some of the biggest potential spoilers. Within the game, there are points in which certain boxes are opened to reveal new characters. The game needs a way to tell you to which box should be opened, without ruining the surprise for players as to what kind of character they should be expecting to find.


The 17 character class tuckboxes included in Gloomhaven.

Six of the characters are available right from the start of the game — The Cragheart (broken diamond), the Scoundrel (stacked daggers), the Tinkerer (gear), the Brute (three horns), the Spellweaver (swirling star), and the Mindthief (brain). Eleven others begin the game locked, and are brought into the game as previous characters complete objectives and are “retired”. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the names of those eleven other characters are, and I don’t want to know.

The real beauty of the icons Josh made for the character classes is that they provide only the most minimal information I need right now, and spoil nearly nothing that I don’t.

Beyond that, they give the community a way to identify them without ever mentioning their names directly. When I reach the point that I’ve opened the character box with the Cthulhu–looking symbol and I have a question about the way something in that box works, I can go to the forums and post a question with “Cthulhu-looking symbol” in the title without spoiling a single thing for anyone who hasn’t gotten there yet. Other users familiar with the contents of that box can then click on my question and respond with full confidence that they’re not unnecessarily spoiling things for me. Anyone who hasn’t opened that box yet can glance at the title of my question and walk on by without concern of seeing something they don’t want to yet, and feel assured that they’re also not missing critical information that would be valuable to them right now.

There is clarity in the obfuscation.

The game also keeps plenty of information under wraps through the use of decks of cards, kept separate from the main game components and accessed only when directed. Some of these are numbered so that a game event can tell players to go retrieve a certain card (and be surprised by the results), and others are kept in stacks that are shuffled so that they can produce randomized results (that will also keep users surprised by the results).


Numbered treasure cards from Gloomhaven. No spoiler alert necessary; these are available to players at the beginning of the game.

During a campaign’s setup, the campaign book may show you that there’s a treasure chest to be looted. It may even say that the treasure chest contains an item — but knowing that that particular item is shown on card #070 won’t ruin the surprise until you’ve looted that chest, retrieved card #070 from the box, and read what kind of item it is. And much like the character class symbols, the numbered card system allows players to reference and discuss items, treasures, and events without ever risking spoiling other players’ experiences.

This is not to say that the game’s creator and designer did a perfect job of hiding things that players want to discover gradually.

The particulars for setting up any given campaign are shown in the campaign book. It’s a static document; it would be impossible for the creator and graphic designer to hide any or all of the setup for any given dungeon from the players once they’ve turned to the campaign’s page.

There is a deck of cards that comes in the box meant for generating randomized dungeons, so a system of cards that might only reveal dungeons one room at a time is theoretically possible. It would be exceedingly difficult to organize and produce though — the sheer volume of cards needed to hide each room’s contents, along with story introductions, event descriptions, special instructions or conditions, and other relevant information for all 95 scenarios (in just the base game) would number in the high hundreds. That’s on top of the more than 1,200 cards already in the box. The book, while an imperfect delivery system for hiding spoilers, is the most practical option available.

But then the community showed up, and they found a way to improve on Isaac’s design in a way that fully maintains and respects the thought that went into the initial design.

BGG user tds_gaming went above and beyond, working his way through a PDF of the entire campaign book and adding opaque blocks that can be toggled on and off. The result is an interactive digital campaign book in which users can hide and reveal information as their campaign progresses.


The iOS Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer, by RVG Software Ltd

RVG Software Ltd (Roy Goncalves, BGG username Riggert)went one step further, bundling the interactive campaign book into an app, available for Android and iOS devices. I’ve used the app to play through campaigns myself, and while visually the covers are a bit choppy, the overall effect on play experience is exciting and well worth the download. Not knowing quite what’s going to be behind the next door adds both challenge and atmosphere to the game in a way otherwise lost in the physical book.

The app and PDFs also have the benefit of obfuscating story points that couldn’t be considered as anything but spoilers. It’s tough to pretend you can’t see a full paragraph of “future” story text when you’re scanning the spread to make sure you haven’t missed the information you need right now.

Takeaway Number Three for me: When keeping information back is critical to the enjoyment of the game, having elegant ways of hiding, revealing, and — in particular —discussing that information makes a world of difference. Numbers are functional and accessible when dealing with a high quantity of hidden information, but the are clinical and devoid of flavor. The iconography created by Josh for the character classes is exceptionally flavorful, mysterious, and exciting, and it serves its function incredibly well.

I’d like to use a similar iconography system if I ever need one for a future project, but I need to keep in mind that each icon will eventually be described by players as a tool for spoiler-free discussions. Icons built for this purpose must be vague in the sense that the contents are a secret, specific in the sense that they flavorfully represent the contents are known, and specific and distinct from each other so that players can accurately reference them when speaking with each other in open forums.

The final question after all of this is whether the community finds these tools as valuable as I do; after all, this entire article series began because my own personal read on what a game’s greater community liked and disliked didn’t line up with the actual likes and dislikes of that community.


Poll in the official Gloomhaven Board Game Facebook group, February 1, 2018

Facebook polling has proven relatively useful for me in this regard. The sample size I was able to gather within the official Gloomhaven Board Game Facebook group was smaller than the ones I’ve been able to put together in Magic: The Seatlling, but it was informative none the less. 62% of respondents there reported having used community-made tools when playing Gloomhaven. One group member gave recommendations on the apps and sites he’s found to be most helpful — John Tonkin’s Arcane Library is just one website that frequently comes up in community discussions of useful sites to have bookmarked. also keeps statistics on the number of times files posted to the site are downloaded. This makes it even easier to evaluate how often community members see a need for a supplemental accessory or aide created by another community member. While the raw numbers don’t speak to whether the file was used or not or how the user might rate the usefulness of the file they’ve downloaded, they do tell us how often a community member felt they had a need for or interest in it.

Among the most downloaded file types are the flowcharts and the interactive/hidden scenario viewers (both PDF and app formats). Tds_gaming’s interactive campaign PDFs are broken into 13 different files to account for BGG upload limitations; the file for campaigns 1 through 10 has been dowloaded from the site more than 1,400 times. The most recent version of Eric Nillson’s flowcharts has seen almost 2,000 downloads to date. Roy Goncalves’s Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer has had over 5,000 downloads just on the Android platform alone; I wasn’t able to find publicly available numbers for his iOS downloads.

Gloomhaven has roughly 21,000 “registered” owners on — and this doesn’t include those who own the game but haven’t tracked their ownership on the site or don’t have an active BGG account. It would be easy to look at the numbers put up by Eric Nillson and tds_gaming and assume that when 10% of registered owners or fewer are downloading a file, the demand is not high. There are over 150 different files available for Gloomhaven just on BGG though, and several popular websites that have features that help players track game states and effects; using only a small sampling of the various community-built tools to assess the larger picture underrepresents the overall supply and demand for these tools.

(Which is to say that, in all honesty, I have no quantitative way of reporting how frequently players rely on these kinds of accessories and aides, but I haven’t seen any evidence that the community would rather “commando” their way through the game without them.)

Even if the larger community wasn’t finding the tools other community members were offering to be useful, all of the takeaways I’ve outlined are still valuable to me. The community has found ways of explaining and distilling complex game content that will continue to inform my own design philosophy and methods.

The community looked around saw holes where things they wanted and/or needed would fit, and they made those things. I continue to learn how to watch the community so that I can improve the things I’ll make for them down the line.


Special thanks to DM Apprentice on WordPress, and Bill Norris, Erik Nilsson, Gekey, tds_gaming, and Roy Goncalves on Thanks also to Isaac Childres and Josh McDowell for the game and information design and illustrations that went into Gloomhaven and the digital asset kit.

Link to DM Apprentice’s image:


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Filed under Adventure Games, Board Games, Community input, Do It Yourself, graphic design, Kickstarter, Strategy Games, 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

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

Mr. Fletcher Goes to Essen

Sadly, not in person. I wish. Someday. Probably better that I wasn’t, as my wife would kill me for dropping too much cash on souvenir games.

I had two games I designed for Forrest-Pruzan showing at Essen last week, and a third that was being pitched to prospective publishers. The third is still well under wraps, but the first two were in full demo mode, and one was for sale. It’s worth noting that the games have been licensed out by Forrest-Pruzan under the Prospero Hall imprint/pseudonym; All of my most recent published games will show Prospero as the designer (company policy), but not all Prospero Hall games are mine.

Kero, published by Hurrican

This one began as an empire building game, and has evolved under Hurrican’s fostering and Piero’s illustrations into a really badass post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque game of resources and wasteland survival.

(Images originally posted by Ludovox_fr)


Kero packaging


Kero on display at Essen 2017


Close-up of Kero sand timers


CONEX, published by HABA

CONEX is a light family strategy/card game that plays out like an irregular game of dominoes. The origin was a game I created for FPC called “RIVIT!”. Here’s the finished game that was on display at the HABA booth at Essen (shown here on a less-than-trade-showy card table in my office) along with a look at the original prototype I built.


Final CONEX packaging by HABA


The final component build and art from HABA’s CONEX


For comparison, my original prototype of RIVIT!, which eventually became CONEX

It’s interesting to see how similar the finished product is to the original. I suspected this would be the case, since I’m an awesome graphic designer and they wouldn’t have to do much work. Also, because in development, I discovered that just about anything other than a fairly flat tone for the color space created all kinds of visual dissonance, and HABA’s testing bore out the same findings. (In all fairness, HABA’s graphic designer Benjamin Petzold did a great job updating the visual design of the cards, rules, and packaging once we handed it off.)

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Dice Games, Essen, Family Games, graphic design, Published Games, Strategy Games, Trade Shows

Ludum Videtur!

Or, “Teaching a Confusing Game Mechanic to the Uninitiated Through Subversive Design”


Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (2016, USAopoly)

This is the story of how Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle came to be. Sort of. I was the lead designer for a collaborative deck building game engine built by Forrest-Pruzan Creative. That engine was later licensed by USAopoly, who then in turn combined it with the Harry Potter license to make a really awesome deck building game. What you’re about to read is an account of the design processes that got us to the point where USAopoly decided put our engine to use. 

Around the spring of 2013 I had an idea for a collaborative deck building game that I pitched to my bosses at Forrest-Pruzan. I described it as a backbone that we could apply a license to and show to a publishing partner (other than USAopoly) that we knew published lots of licensed mass-market games. That it would eventually become Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle wasn’t even a blip on our radar.

What I did know from the start was that I wanted to build a system that would ease non-gamers (or at least the kind of consumer that buys a handful of games a year through mass-market retailers) into the deck building genre. Deck building hadn’t been done with much success in mass-market to that point — and generally speaking still hasn’t — so I knew I had to distill the genre down to something that could be taught in about two pages of rules. It would also need a strong theme with characters players would immediately recognize. Those characters had to have intuitive connections to the cards they lived on.

We didn’t go with Harry Potter. That came later, once USAopoly licensed the game structure from us. We began with another well-known set of family-friendly characters that occupied an enormous world that gave us fertile ground for expansions. I won’t spell out exactly what the property was, since we didn’t ultimately partner with them, but if you want to guess, you’re welcome to. There was little doubt that the theme would catch peoples’ eyes when they were wandering through the game aisle at Target, Walmart, or Toys ’R’ Us, but whether those consumers would understand what a deck building game was from the box was another question entirely.

Something to always remember about games that sell at mass-market: consumers are far less likely to buy a game if they don’t immediately understand what the components do, even if they love the theme. To a complete layman, deck building games look and sound like collectable card games, and collectable card games are generally considered to be a much bigger investment in products, time, and mental energy than most people want to jump into. Games purchased at mass retail are predominantly impulse buys, and a product that confuses or intimidates that impulse buyer doesn’t help itself much in the sales column.


Typical board game aisle at Walmart

All of this meant that even with the universally loved theme we were building our concept prototype with, there was a trap sitting in between us and the consumer. If a customer didn’t understand right away what it was — or at least what we wanted them to believe it was — they’d walk right past it. We needed to take the deck building game and make it look, at a glance, like something anyone with absolutely zero understanding of deck builders would still see as a “typical” board game.

You do that by giving whatever game you’re making, regardless of genre or category, the trappings of mass-market family strategy board games.

It needed a board.

And dice.

And movers.

To your grandmother or neighbor or gym teacher who’s only ever played Monopoly, Scrabble, and Yahtzee before (apologies to gamer grandmas, neighbors, and gym teachers), games have these specific things. Boards, dice, and movers are, in one combination or another, in (unscientifically calculated) roughly 98% of the games you’ll find on mass-market shelves.

Boards and dice and movers aren’t generally necessities in deck building games, but we weren’t designing a deck builder for a crowd that already knew what they were looking at. We had to hide something that was likely new and foreign inside a facade they were comfortable with. So we made this.


One of the first prototype boards that eventually became Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

There’s not a whole lot of revolutionary design in creating a play mat that shows the setup for a card game, but it checks off the “has a board” box when grandma looks at the back of the package. After we determined that the board was an aid for setting up the game, we saw that we could also use it as a scoring track; something else that mass-market game consumers are familiar with. Most other deck builders counted Victory Points at the end of the game, but the majority of the board games this audience was familiar with had transparent scoring that tracked turn-by-turn. We steered into that.

The idea was that as the team of heroes played the game, the villains they fought against were slowly marching up their side of the track in the center of the board towards the crown. You and your partners scored points and climbed up your own side of the track by defeating villains. Whomever got to the crown at the top first won.

This covered the board and the movers, though the latter was eventually dropped from the final Harry Potter build. Now we had to figure out how to make dice relevant to the game. Once again, I’m going to stop short of laying out the full mechanics of the die integration. My initial build didn’t make it into the finished Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle game that USAopoly published, so I’ll keep that under wraps for now. Instead, I’ll offer you a sidebar that’s probably more interesting than the initial design itself.


The House Dice from Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

In early 2016, the Forrest-Pruzan team had a meeting with the USAopoly product team that was working on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. USAopoly had secured the rights to the Harry Potter license, and had brought along a rough (but surprisingly polished) prototype of the game that they had built. Late in the meeting, one of the USAopoly designers pointed to the dice, which even at that point looked a lot like the House Dice that appear in the game now. “We’re not entirely sure that we like these though,” he said. “I don’t know for certain if the game needs them. Was there a reason you included dice in the initial build?”

“Honestly?”, I asked. “It’s because if someone who doesn’t know what a deck building game is turns over the box, they’ll see dice and say ‘oh, I know what dice are, this must be a game’ and put it in the cart. Seeing dice makes people think they know how to play it right away.”

The USAopoly group laughed, entirely amused at how subversive the real function of the dice was. Later that year at GenCon, one of their designers told me that this revelation led them to look a little deeper at how wide they thought the audience might be. Thinking of the game as something that would likely be the first foray into deckbuilders for many consumers led them to breaking the game into seven sub-games, starting with a super-simplified “intro game” and progressively ramping up the mechanics and challenges as the sub-games went on.

USAopoly did use dice in the game, though not the way I’d planned. I think their execution was done really nicely within the game, and at the end of the day, my whole reason to use them at all was literally just to have them on the box. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle stayed true to that, and stepped it up in its execution.

Now we had our board, our movers, and our dice, all there to disguise a deck building card game as a standard-issue “roll and move” game. The next step was to start baking in things that would help new players get started once they’d bought the game.

Thinking back to the first time I ever played Dominion, I knew there were a few places I could see new players having trouble. First, there was the idea that you’d have a fresh set of cards every turn. Second, I knew it would feel foreign that you didn’t draw your cards at the start of the turn, but instead at the end, when you couldn’t use them. I also wanted as many aides as I could fit in that would help players set up and put away the game. Lastly, and this may have been the biggest challenge, the tracking of resources in deck builders can be brutal for someone who’s never even heard of a deck builder before, let alone played one.


Color-coded player boards, starting decks, and tokens

The turn flow issues were simple to solve (or at least alleviate). I knew right away that I was going to give every player a basic player board to use as a cheat sheet. “Put your deck here.” “Discard your cards here.” “If you need to draw a card but there are none left, shuffle your discard pile and put it back where your deck was.” It’s hardly something worth taking any credit for as design innovations go.

Next, resource tracking. I wanted a game where players could gradually chip away at villains, so that meant having a physical counter of some kind that could be placed on villain cards on the board. Working backwards, that meant that rather than just counting up damage that could be dealt with cards in your hand and checking them against a villain’s threshold, I could just have players gather tokens on their player board before allocating them to villains. This also gave me a simple currency system for buying new cards from the board; play your cards, get tokens, spend tokens to buy stuff or fight bad guys. At the end of your turn, unspent tokens went away.


Early prototype cards for the collaborative deck building game

Using tokens, I realized, also gave me a way to make collaboration matter. Since I had a physical accounting device, I could have effects where resources could be given, taken, or carried over from one turn to another. Card effects could go beyond giving you resources for your current turn, and could branch out into ways to set your teammates up for theirs. It was something I’d never seen executed quite this way before, and it felt incredibly intuitive as a way to encourage players to work together and help each other navigate through their first few games. From that point on, the cards were all mechanically designed with this kind of teamwork in mind.

Setup in deck builders can be a little daunting to newcomers. There are typically dozens if not hundreds of cards to sort through and keep properly arranged. In order to simplify this process as much as possible, I built several visual cues into the prototype. (This is my background as a graphic designer showing through.)

The players’ starting decks would have obvious, color-coded faces. This meant that players could pick the starting cards out from the full hero cards deck very quickly, and that there was no counting of different kinds of cards when assembling starting decks. Each player had three “attack” and seven “money” cards, but unlike in other deck builders where setup included counting out three-and-seven for each player before the game, here you just handed the red player all the red cards.

Once the starting decks were sorted out, the only cards left to sort were the purchasable hero cards and the villain cards. Keeping these visually distinct was easy; the card backs for heroes had a light color and the word “HERO”, and the villain cards were dark and said “VILLAIN”. Additionally, the layout for the card fronts were very distinct; hero cards always used a “portrait” orientation, the way most playing cards are viewed on a table or in hand. The villains were set up using a “landscape” orientation, leaving no room for confusion.

Lastly, I used some mechanical shortcuts to make setup faster and easier. There would be no “always available” step-up resource cards like in most other deck builders. This once again reduced sorting when setting up and putting away the game. I also decided early on that the hero and villain decks, respectively, would be entirely random. This meant that setup was a simple as shuffling the deck and placing it on the board. No sorting of card stacks needed at all.

It went over like gangbusters in playtests, especially with folks who’d never seen other deck building games before. Together, the whole package was one constructed with them in mind. I’d built a game engine and prototype that had all the trappings and touchstones of a “traditional” board game, while maintaining — and building on — the depth and comparative novelty of a deck building game, and it flowed intuitively.

While the game design goals and the prototype construction decisions were all my own, I owe gratitude to several other FPC team members and contractors who gave feedback and helped build parts and mechanics. It was an early-stage concept pitch meeting with Andy Forrest, Alan Pruzan, and Jay Wheatley that made it clear to me that introducing an advanced game structure to a mass-market audience would require disguising it as a more basic game model. Our contractor Dan Emmons pushed for more clarity in how players needed to win as a team rather than as individuals with a common goal. Eric Duffy ground through days of editing art files, painting tokens, and cutting hundreds cards for the prototypes. All of us, plus the entire in-house staff at FPC played through dozens of games to see where we had to add, dial in, or abandon various mechanics.

I also have to give enormous credit to Andrew Wolf, Kami Mandell, and so many others at USAopoly who paired our prototype with the Harry Potter license and kept designing the game towards that property. They did an amazing job of turning our engine into a finely-tuned performance automobile.

Thank you to all of you!

*Ludum Videtur: Loosely translated, it’s Latin for “appears like a game”.

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, deck building games, Family Games, graphic design, Published Games, Strategy Games, Uncategorized

The Mods

There’s nothing like an original… except when there’s something very much like the original, but just a little bit better.

[mod-uh-fahy] verb, -fied, -fy·ing.
1. to change somewhat the form or qualities of; alter partially; amend…


Reasons for graphical board/card game mods:

  1. Restyling or retheming
  2. 3-D customization
  3. Improved playability

Graphical modifications in board and card games happen because the user sees some way to improve their enjoyment of the game through effort and artistic inspiration. Sometimes the mod is a simple retooling of pieces to add a new aesthetic or incorporate a theme that would otherwise be unrelated to the original game. Some mods add dimension – literally – to the game by reinventing the board and/or pieces in three dimensions where there had originally only been two. A third variety of game mod – and perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of game designers – is the modification that directly improves the playability of the game through improved graphic presentation.

Mod #1: Graphic Restyling and Retheming

This is by far the simplest form of graphical game modification. The game stays effectively the same but it gets a new paint job, either to add a new level of flavor or to simply bring a different artistic angle to the design of the pieces. Anyone with some pens, a decent printer, a pair of scissors and some glue can create a functional board or card game mod this way, and the results are almost always enjoyable for the proper audience. This form of mod is also incredibly profitable for established board and card game publishers. Adding a licensed intellectual property or brand to an existing board game is a fast and easy way to produce a collector’s item with a pre-built consumer audience. Just look at the number of sports-franchise-themed chess sets, Movie-franchise-themed trivia games, pop-culture-themed Uno™ sets and region-specific Monopoly™ boards available. Seriously. A search for the publisher USAopoly on nets over 1,000 different results.

Eventually I’d like to write a piece on some of the most successful, most innovative and most unusual commercial mods of this variety. If anyone has input or access to actual NPD data for this project, by all means, write to me and I’ll gladly give you some co-authorship credit for the column.

Meanwhile, I’ve found the following examples of user-created restyle mods.

Marcus Kellerman’s Simpsons-themed Battle Line set. Photo by Marcus Kellerman, posted to

Marcus Kellerman, also known as Sharkus on, created this Simpsons-themed “homebrew” version of  Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line. The activity became an almost communal effort when he opened his creative process to the BoardGameGeek forums. Other users of the web site were able to help him edit and refine his ideas as he worked on it, even suggesting materials and processes that helped Sharkus deliver a more authentic feeling presentation in the end.

Cards from Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line, published by GMT Games.

Battle Line seems to be an incredibly popular game for restylers, and when you look at the simple presentation of the original cards for the game, it’s easy to see why. The cards feature a name, a number value and an image. Apart from the historical relevance of the particular units and their tactical relevance in relation to one another – which even within the game is taken loosely – the game is already something of a blank canvas waiting for new themes. In fact, the game can still function if the cards are reduced to nothing but a number.

Mark Mahaffey, who posts at BoardGameGeek as West2, is actually a professional designer and mapmaker who has worked on the production of numerous board games. His own blog, The Mapologist, documents his creative process of the design of several game boards, both original and reworked. I discovered Mark’s board designs through a gallery he posted in the BoardGameGeek forums, and was particularly impressed with his minimalist take on the Vinci board.

The original Vinci board, published by Descartes Editeur.

The official Vinci board is completely fine by itself. the spaces are clearly defined, have easily recognized terrain attributes, and feature well designed icons. The scoring track is simple, but perfectly functional and impossible to misread. If the board has any weaknesses, it’s simply that the function outweighs the aesthetic. The broad palette of colors and textures can be a bit jarring, and the title typography doesn’t exactly speak to the game’s “dawn and growth of civilizations” theme, but none of this hinders the way the game plays, only how it looks.

Mark Mahaffey’s Vinci redesign. Artwork created by Mark Mahaffey, posted to

The redesigned board presented by Mahaffey quiets the cacophony by replacing the textures with muted color washes over a subtle stone-like texture. The typography has become far more elegant and suited to a game of European history. Even the icons within the spaces have been simplified to basic black silhouettes against the earth-toned colors. The sum is a map that, while less detailed than many of Mark’s other creations, has the look and feel of a classic European fresco. A new richness and depth of style is given to the game simply by visually modifying an already playable board.

Mod #2: 3-D Customization

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a well-crafted three-dimensional customization of a board game is nothing short of a labor of love. The investment of time and materials alone would be enough to deter anyone but an absolute devotee of a game from taking on this challenge.

A hand-made 3-D Puerto Rico board created by Doctorfaust.

Take, for example, the hand-crafted centerpiece for Rio Grande Games’s Puerto Rico created by a Korean gamer who goes by the moniker “doctorfaust”. While I’m unfortunately unable to translate his blog entry, he does a wonderful job of documenting his creative process through photography. Because Puerto Rico is primarily a resource drafting game, Doctorfaust’s elaborate center staging are makes for an incredibly creative way to present the various pieces. What begins as an already deep and rich strategy game takes on a whole new layer of richness in the historically inspired depiction of the game’s setting.

3-D adaptations of Rio Grande Games’s Leader 1, Days of Wonder’s Pirate’s Cove, and Fantasy Flight Games’s Talisman. All images from

Racing and dungeon games are also popular targets for gamers with a penchant for model building. These kinds of games are often structured so that the “negative space” of the board offers plenty of room for creative license and embellishment. The supplies to craft these game adaptations are often readily available through hobby shops, or can be cannibalized from landscape features from various tabletop miniature war games. Trees, terrain and even buildings originally intended for model railroad landscapes become features of road races, shipping ports and long-lost catacombs with relative ease for a seasoned model builder.

Conventions seem to be popular places for craftsmen to show off their creations and adaptations. To the audiences at these gatherings, the work that goes into the reinvented boards is immediately appreciated, as the function is as apparent as the form. These modified games are sometimes even used at events by publishers to draw attention to their more affordable retail-ready counterparts. Whether created by fans or professionally commissioned by publishers, the most successful 3-D adaptations must take care to fuse attention to detail with the same standard of playability the original game is known for.

The Catan 3-D Collector’s Edition, published by Mayfair Games. Photo from

Looking at the other side of the coin, the potential drawback to such creations is that the addition of sculptural elements can occasionally create difficulties with the playability of the game. In 2005, Mayfair Games released a special limited-edition 3-D 10th Anniversary edition of Settlers of Catan. While the overall response to the set was quite positive, a number of reviewers pointed out the less-than-spectacular compatibility with other Catan products.

Part of the appeal of the Settlers of Catan games is their expandability; while the basic game is made for three to four players, expansion sets allow up to six players, and the complexity of the game can be enhanced with the strategic expansions, Cities and Knights of Catan and Seafarers of Catan. Where Mayfair’s 3-D set does include pieces for four players to play the Cities and Knights expansion, the results of trying to integrate any other Catan sets – available only in the traditional “2-D” cardboard materials – can only be described as “aesthetically clunky”. The combination of sets creates a situation where each terrain type is effectively represented by two different visual presentations, and roads, settlements, and cities built at the juncture of the two different tile types just don’t set quite the way they should.

By itself, the special edition of Settlers is a phenomenal success. Taken in the context of the entire franchise? Not quite as much.

Mod #3: Improved Playability

Of the three types of board game modifications, this is the one I personally find most interesting. What would otherwise be a fantastic game can be virtually crippled by a poor visual presentation. The designers of a game may give so much attention to refining the mechanical aspects that they completely overlook flaws in the aesthetics. Sometimes a persistent fan finds they can fix the offending game with a retooling of the graphic elements.

Once I set out to find a prime example of this issue, it didn’t take long to settle on the ultimate case study. At a party where several professional game designers were getting together, I lobbed the question out for debate: Do any games come to mind that would be greatly improved simply by reworking the graphic design of the board or components? Almost immediately, the answer came back with multiple confirmations: Medici.

The offending Medici board, published by Rio Grande Games.

When Rio Grande Games first published Reiner Knizia’s Medici in 1995, it was nominated for a Spiel des Jahres award. Mechanically, it was a solid auction and set collecting game. Right away though, players had issues with the components of the game. Crucial symbols on the board were small enough that player markers could completely obscure them. Foreground and background colors all fell in the same range, causing the overall readability of the board to be a bit muddy. The colors chosen for the pyramids representing the five traded commodities were very similar to one another. The confusion the color scheme caused was only compounded by the design of the cards for the game, which didn’t quite match the board. Some reviews even critiqued the size and weight of the game’s cards; players felt they were awkward to hold and difficult to shuffle.

Kilgore’s rework of the Medici board and cards. Image from, art by Sampo Sikiö

Fans took matters into their own hands. Numerous players of the game were known to take paints and markers to their boards to help make the colors more distinguishable. Several even threw the board away entirely, opting instead for their own creations. As photos of these home-brew versions made it on to the forums at, other fans began taking these new versions even further, creating even more stylish components and even packaging for the aesthetically new-and-improved game.

Click the llama to visit Sampo Sikiö’s game design portfolio. Artwork by Sampo Sikiö.

Perhaps the most popular of these custom redesigns was that of Finland’s Sampo Sikiö, known to BoardGameGeek users as “Kilgore”. Kilgore’s board was hailed for its bold colors and incredibly clear readability, and still had a beautifully stylized graphic presentation. His cards were larger and easier to associate with the colors of the board. If there is any weakness in Kilgore’s design, it would simply be that the black numbers on the blue and green cards are a little tricky to read due to low contrast, but the overall result of Kilgore’s effort is a vast improvement on the commercially-available version of the game. Where Rio Grande gave us a muddled board, Kilgore made absolute clarity. Where Rio Grande created a round space, making it difficult to compare positions at a glance, Kilgore fixed the issue by orienting all tracks in the same direction. And where Rio Grande gaffed on the size of the cards, Kilgore replaced them with a standardized card size known for it’s for easy shuffling.

Kilgore’s Medici tin and game components. Image from, art by Sampo Sikiö.

To top it all off, Kilgore used an antique-looking tin to package all of the smaller components of his home-made set. (Author’s edit: since the intital posting of this article, it was brought to my attention by Kilgore that the tin was actualy created by fellow BoardGameGeek member Gary Garison.) The full effect is a visually rich and creative deconstruction and reconstruction of a game hampered only by the original publisher’s poor choices in design. Out of the box, Kilgore’s version of the game is bright, clear, and full of style. Inside the box (or tin, in this case) it appears to be the kind of treasure you’d find forgotten in a dusty attic, just waiting to be rediscovered and played.

There are, without a doubt, plenty of striking and innovative methods and reasons for graphically modifying games; most of them though, I believe, would ultimately fit into the three major categories I’ve described above. If I’ve committed any major oversights in my presentation, by all means let me know. I can always use more to write about!


Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Do It Yourself, graphic design, redesigns, Uncategorized