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One Game, Four Editions

The original concept for Wonky started as a possible “mini-game” within a game aimed at preschoolers. Turns out I was WAY off on the target age projection, but error in audience aside, the game’s had four different editions published on three continents, so something went right.

My first build of the game was made with a stack of wooden cubes and a hand-held radial power sander in the Forrest-Pruzan parking lot. It was a simple experiment to see if young kids could stack blocks that weren’t completely squared (spoiler alert: they couldn’t). We went through a few different gameplay models to give some structure to the activity of stacking, and eventually settled on one that riffed off the familiarity of UNO.


One of the earliest prototypes of Wonky, cut by hand with a scroll saw

Once we started tuning the prototype, it became clear to us that hand-shaping the blocks was going to lead to some really irregular components. It wasn’t the sort of thing that would ruin the game’s core activity, but it was something we knew prospective publishers would be curious about. In order to make a more mechanically consistent set of blocks, we hired a local woodworker — who came to be known around the office as Grandpa Jim — to figure out how to make a cutting jig that could be used to cut lots of perfectly duplicated blocks at once. The big challenge was that since each flat face of the block was opposed by a curved one, shaping the third curved side required you to clamp down an irregularly-shaped profile at least once while cutting, without damaging the curve in the clamp.

I don’t know how he did it, just that he did.

Grandpa Jim was pretty slick with a scroll saw, and old-school in the truest sense of the word. When he heard we wanted him to help us make a game with wooden blocks, he started running numbers on how many copies of the game he could produce in a day (he figured he could make around 25 copies of the game a day by hand, 30 if he skimped on sanding the edges). I may have broken his heart a little when I told him we’d expect that any publisher that took on the game would likely do all the manufacturing at a factory in China.


Four versions of Wonky, published by Tactic, USAopoly, and Broadway Games

Apart from the manufacturing methods, the game didn’t change much once picked up by publishers. USAopoly was the first to publish it, taking on the North American publishing rights. Shortly afterwards, Tactic snagged the rights to publish it in Europe. Later, Broadway Games licensed it for distribution in the Asia market. After about a year of publishing Wonky in the United States, USAopoly then riffed on the original by releasing an adult party game version, which added some challenge cards and some loose suggestions for optionally adding an element of beverage consumption to the game.

I’d designed several other license-driven kids games that got published before Wonky, but Wonky was the first completely non-licensed original game I created and saw reach stores. Knowing how tough it is to even get a single edition of a game onto shelves, it’s still kind of surreal to me that it’s spun three additional versions after that… but I’m hardly complaining.


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Filed under dexterity games, Family Games, party games, prototyping, Published Games, stacking games, Uncategorized

Small Pieces — FPC Extra Life Marathon

Starting at 8:00 AM yesterday morning (Saturday the 4th) and accounting for the daylight savings clock change, we held a 25 hour live-streamed board game marathon at the Forrest-Pruzan studios in support of Extra Life and the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Many dozen games were played, and the centerpiece of the event was a full play-through of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. It took roughly 19 hours, but eventually Team FPC took down Game 7’s Voldemort.

Then the Monster Box of Monsters expansion kicked in, and there were no more victories at Hogwarts to be had. Fatigue and a just plain-old brutally challenging add-on took over.

I avoided that test of endurance myself. I opted for about 20 different side-event games, several of which I’d never played before.

So here’s my brag: I currently hold lifetime undefeated streaks in Ethnos, Orleans, and Century Spice Road. In each of these games, I took down individual players with at least 5 prior plays under their belts.

Damn I’m good.

And tired. Very, very tired.

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The Jig

Jig02Over the last seven years I’ve built a lot of game prototypes, and at least half of them have involved having to hand-craft some kind of custom part for the early concept testing. Forrest-Pruzan, where I work, has a pretty good workshop for these kinds of things. Big printers, tons of old toys to dissect for parts, a huge cutting table, laminators, corner rounders, and as of about two years ago, a pretty serviceable tool shop, including a CNC router and a vac-former. If I need to build something, I can.

Jig06-2Sometimes the simplest projects are the toughest though. Take, for example, these little wooden coins.

They’re a half-inch in diameter, and I needed a quarter-inch hole drilled in them. (No, I won’t tell you why.) I needed about 60 of them, faster than I could have set them up on the CNC, which tends to bust a lot of drill bits on pieces this small. The best way to punch through these was the tried-and-true drill press. Easier said than done.

Jig08The challenge: Holding something that small next to a spinning drill bit seems like a recipe for disaster, and this is coming from a guy who’s taken off chunks of his fingers with X-Acto knives and keeps on using them. Adding a little more depth to the challenge, the hole in the plate on the drill press was exactly a half-inch in diameter, the perfect size for the coins to go straight through. There was no way to support the coins directly on the plate when I drilled them.

The answer was in building a quick custom jig to hold the coins in place under the drill.

I started with a pair of 10-ish inch long pieces of scrap wood trim, about half an inch thick each. In one of those trim pieces, I drilled a pilot hole  with a 1/16″ bit clean through the wood, then widened it up to about 5/16″. Next, I taped the two pieces together and drilled a single 1/8″ hole through both of them together at one end. I widened one end of that hole out to 5/16″, setting that hole in just deep enough to accommodate the head of a machine screw.


The assembled jig, with a 1/2″ hole for coins to be placed in

Then, removing the tape and separating the tim pieces, I went back to the first pilot hole and used a boring bit to center a half-inch hole that dropped about 3/4 of the way through the trim.

The two pieces were loosely fastened together at the end with a machine screw, a washer, and a nut. This allowed me to squeeze the loaded jig with one hand to manually keep pressure on the coins as I drilled through the jig, while the other hand operated the press.


Left: The loaded jig. Right: Loaded jig, compressed and ready to drill.

Now I could load up four coins at a time, close the jig, flip it over, and quickly center the drill over the middle of the coins (or close enough)  in about five seconds. I set a stop on the press so that the drill never went more than 1/8″ into the bottom half of the jig. The hole I centered and drilled through doubled as a release if the coins ever got stuck.

Jig03End result: The jig took about ten minutes to figure out and build. After that, 60 coins took just over five minutes, and I could have easily made over 700 in an hour if I’d needed that many. (I didn’t.)

Problem solved.

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

A Completely Utilitarian List of Stuff I’ve Made (or Helped Make)

I’m getting no style points for this post. I’ve been away for a while, and if you want to know more about all that, go read this. The post below is a compilation of links on for games I’ve made and/or worked on.

Visually, this post stinks, and I know it. In a day or so I’ll tear it all down and replace it with something prettier. Consider it a placeholder skeleton. It’s Halloween season, seems about right.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

Harry Potter: Monster Box of Monsters Expansion

Really Bad Art

Banned Words


How to Rob a Bank

Bob Ross: The Art of Chill

Disney Eye Found It


Tips Ahoy!

The Wizard Always Wins

Stick Stack

Donner Dinner Party


Apple Pop

Monkey Beach


Duck Dynasty: Redneck Wisdom




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Stop. Look. Want to see more.

Clever is good. Clever makes you stand out. Clever leads to innovation and originality.

Clever can also confuse people. This is a story about that.

One of my primary clients over the last two years is a creative agency here in Seattle that designs games — board games, card games, party games, and so on. Being that I’m a nut for games of all kinds, this client is able to put projects in front of me that are right in my wheelhouse. They also have access to projects with well known licenses and retail destinations, like Pokémon and Toys-R-Us.

Last summer I was tasked with creating the art assets for a new game called Pokémon Battle Poppers. It’s a skill-based strategy game with some elements of customization. Basically, advanced tiddly-winks with unique abilities and tricks for each piece. My job was to design the packaging, rules, and game pieces around…

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Small Pieces — BrettSpiel

I stumbled onto Brett J. Gilbert’s blog, BrettSpiel, this morning while trying to find a decent image of Smallworld on the iPad for my own blog. So far I’m really enjoying his writings, and I like that he seems to have a similar stance to my own regarding the importance of design and aesthetics in game production. BrettSpiel is now a permanent link over in the right-side column, so give it a look some time.

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