Category Archives: Card Games

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

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.


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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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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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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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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

Friedrich Nietzsche and What Looks Like a Game

My sister Melissa emailed me the other day to tell me that she and her colleagues in the Sociology department at the University of Notre Dame (she’s working on her Doctorate there) were looking at a stack of trading cards with pictures of famous thinkers on them. I guess one of them had bought them during their grad studies, and now the department was getting a good chuckle comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the various social theorists. Melissa mentioned it was too bad there was no set of rules to play with the cards as a game, “like have them have points or whatever so I could pit my Pierre Bourdieu against your Michele Foucault”.

This got me thinking. I scanned Wikipedia, and in about 15 minutes time, I produced this:

Custom-made Friedrich Nietzsche card. Not from a real game.

I posted it back to Melissa’s Facebook page with a couple of goofy one liners (“in the online version, the card text actually says ‘God is pwned’’, “once he evolves his PokéSkills, he can filter krill like a whale”), hoping that that would be enough to tip her off that this was not a real card from a real game. By all logic, I’d have guessed that she, knowing I am both a graphic designer with the capabilities of producing such an image as well as a gamer geek with a warped sense of humor, would immediately put greater odds on the possibility that I’d just made this on the spur of the moment for her amusement.

She didn’t. Her next post back to me was, “Where did you find this?”. In fairness, she did quickly realize that there was a good chance it was a fake, and then asked if I’d made it.

We then chatted about the possibility of a game that would use a card like this, and I suggested that what we were looking at was a game in which social theorists banded together to form a Barnum-style traveling circus where they competed to one-up each other through daring feats of physical (and metaphysical) and intestinal fortitude.

What I really find interesting in all of this though is the notion that if it looks like a game, there must be a game. Melissa knows enough of the non-standard board game world (by which I mean the games you won’t find in WalMart or Toys ‘R’ Us) that she doesn’t balk at the thought that someone, somewhere has made a game like this. I haven’t gone looking for it, but even I would guess that some twisted goof out there has devised a game that features these sorts of (occasionally questionable) geniuses of social theory as the primary characters. In this case, the suggestion of evidence of that game – my fake Nietzsche card – not only convinced someone, however briefly, that the game existed, it started a line of thinking that could ultimately bring that game into a real existence. So what about the gag gave it this much credibility?

Call me self-serving, but I believe it’s in the plausibility of the card’s visual design. The card bears a resemblance in its layout to other popular trading card games. It features a real illustration of the title character – borrowed from Wikipedia. it has three arbitrary number values on it’s face, arranged to appear to have some greater meaning in the context of a game. These alone suggest that it’s a game, but may not be enough to convince the audience that it’s a “real” game. I think that what puts this image over the threshold of plausibility is the subtler details of the card – the big-top radial burst in the background, the color toning, the drop shadows, gradients and lighting elements. As a designer, these visual elements are second-nature to me; in the right context, they’re what move a piece from rough concept to polished, finished work. Where I saw a few quick “tricks” to make the card look more aesthetically pleasing, even when it wasn’t necessary, my sister saw the fingerprints of an actual “studio-produced” game.

It may seem to be completely backwards; that a game should start with a concept and mechanics and gain aesthetics through it’s evolutionary development process. In this case, the theoretical game came from first an unlikely visual presentation that simply put strengths and weaknesses on pictures of people. This led to the question, “Why isn’t this a game?”, then to a joking mock-up of a piece of a game that never was. Ultimately, there’s now enough of a base to build the real thing from these ideas.

To a gamer, the more it looks like a game, the more likely it actually is a game — even when it’s not.

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Filed under Card Games, graphic design, Social Theorists