Nevermind the Designer's Diary

Memorializing the trials and tribulations of a new board game designer launching an unlikely passion project to meaningfully connect tabletop gamers with the most uninteresting proposition since their Sunday laundry; Mindfulness.

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Designer's Diary #4 - Interlude (Nothing to see here...)

A.J. Plank
United States
Las Vegas
Nevada
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Microbadge: Gloomhaven fanMicrobadge: Etherfields fanMicrobadge: Orange Nebula fanMicrobadge: I design board games... poorly.Microbadge: I'm anti-anti-aliasing!
Originally posted to the game forum page here.

Twenty Thousand Words Under This Hea...

From gallery of xiphile


"Wait, wait... Wait."



From gallery of xiphile


"What?"



From gallery of xiphile


"Don't you think this ongoing joke about being too wordy is getting kind of stale?"



From gallery of xiphile


"Uhh... no?"



From gallery of xiphile


"I mean, who are you trying to tell jokes to, you know no one reads this right? Well, there's Dan from Canada, but that's pretty much it."



From gallery of xiphile


"Hey, I love Dan! Besides, he's Canadian, he'll totally get the humor. What's your point?"



From gallery of xiphile


"Well, did it ever occur to you you're trying awfully hard to connect with a non-existent audience?"



From gallery of xiphile


"Audience? I don't think the word 'Diary' means what you think it means."



From gallery of xiphile


"Ok, fair enough, but let's assume for a second there were actually people reading this. Don't you think it might be a little counter-productive to start every post with essentially a "Don't read this" warning?"



From gallery of xiphile


"Hey, I'm not saying don't read it, I'm just saying it's probably going to go long. Lots of people don't appreciate reading more than 250 characters at a time. I'm sort of warning those types that what follows might not be for them."



From gallery of xiphile


"A bit passive-aggressive don't you think? Also, why alienate us from a large percent of the population? Aren't the people with short attention spans sort of exactly the ones we are hoping to reach with this game?"



From gallery of xiphile


"True, what do you suggest? Some ultra-meta imaginary dialogue between two different versions of us arguing about it?"



From gallery of xiphile

"Now you're just being contrary. Also, definitely not, that might be an even dumber idea than pre-emptive warnings about post length.
I'm not saying the length is the problem, though we do tend to ramble on. I'm saying scaring someone away before giving them the chance to make up their own minds is probably not the way to go about it."




From gallery of xiphile


"Ok look, you know how we left social media almost four years ago because all the anger and hate and divisiveness was bringing us down?"



From gallery of xiphile


"This oughta be good..."



From gallery of xiphile

"Hear me out. Remember middle school? We learned very early that the best way to defuse a bully is to beat them to the punch. They can't exactly make fun of you after you've already made fun of yourself. So, writing with a self deprecating sense of humor is the best pre-emptive defense against bullies like those in the comment section of every website everywhere."



From gallery of xiphile


"You mean everywhere except BoardGameGeek."



From gallery of xiphile


"Well, yeah, the people here are pretty great."



From gallery of xiphile


"Also, that's ridiculous anyway, everyone knows the best way to defuse an internet troll is to ignore them."



From gallery of xiphile


...



From gallery of xiphile


...



From gallery of xiphile


...



From gallery of xiphile

"Oh very funny, smartass.
Did it ever occur to you that all this 'pre-emptive self deprecation' could be exactly what led to the levels of self-loathing that brought about the need for us to find mindfulness in the first place?"




From gallery of xiphile


"Hey! That's...
...actually a pretty good point now that I think about it."




From gallery of xiphile


"You're welcome, that's what I'm here for."



From gallery of xiphile


"I was wondering if you had a purpose, other than being a Fig Newton of my imagination."



From gallery of xiphile


"A Fig whatnow?"



From gallery of xiphile


"Newton. It's like this sort of cookie but not. Kind of... you know what, it's not important.
What is important is that you aren't real."




From gallery of xiphile


"I feel pretty real to me."



From gallery of xiphile


"You aren't. You are just a series of electrical impulses coursing through our brain taking the form of a construct of ideas. A trick of the Mind.
And truth be told, a rather distracting one."




From gallery of xiphile


"Don't you dare."



From gallery of xiphile


"And we know what to do once we realize we've been distracted..."



From gallery of xiphile


"Wait! Don't..."



From gallery of xiphile


(bloop)



From gallery of xiphile


"Much better..."



From gallery of xiphile


"Ahhhhhhhhhh..."
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Mon Dec 13, 2021 6:00 am
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Designer's Diary #3 - The Core (The importance of a single moment)

A.J. Plank
United States
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Nevada
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Originally posted to the game forum page here.Designer's Diary #2 - The Goal

Previously on "Death by Ten Thousand Syllables"...
Designer's Diary #2 - The Goal

But First... Addressing the Elephant in the Room

Nods at elephant. "Wassup?"

But seriously. It's been almost a year since the last diary entry, and I should take a moment to tackle the burning question on absolutely no one's mind; "Where the heck have you been?"

I would probably skip this entirely, but I think there's an important lesson in mindfulness here somewhere.

It's been a combination of things. The weather got nicer, work got a little busier and the world got a little less lock-downier. I had to take some time to adjust to some not insignificant changes in my personal life. I fell down a rabbit hole called Etherfields and spent a fantastic summer with my son before sending him off to college. And yes, maybe I was even dealing with a touch of Nevermind The Burnout.

But this situation could be its own metaphor as it relates to meditation. Sometimes we get sidetracked by life-stuff and practicing meditation... falls by the wayside a bit. Fortunately, no matter how far off into the weed-choked wilderness of human distraction we wander, the Path is always just one step away. The important thing is not to judge. There is no crying in baseball (or so I'm told, I don't really baseball), and there is no judgement in meditation. Interestingly enough, the principles I've learned meditating come in handy for situations like this one.

• Realize you have been distracted.
• Commend yourself for your diligence.
• Acknowledge your commitment to stay focused on what you are doing.
• Return your focus to what you are doing.

So in the spirit of the thing, let's get back to it. Now... where were we? Ah yes...

Making it 'Work'

As mentioned many months and several thousand words ago, one of the most important goals I set for myself was Making it 'Work'. But what exactly does that mean? Well, it's a combination of a couple things. It should introduce and reinforce some of the concepts and techniques of meditation. It should also evoke a similar feel and experience as a meditation. Yet, it needs to do these things in an accessible way that doesn't feel preachy or condescending.

I keep thinking of a scene in the 1984 movie Karate Kid where a frustrated Daniel confronts Mr. Miyagi after spending an entire summer doing seemingly meaningless chores, including waxing dozens of old dirty cars:

"Show me Wax-on, Wax-off..." says Mr. Miyagi.

"WAX ON!" he yells, at a surprised Daniel, who unconsciously making the requisite circular arm motion, blocks an incoming punch.

Daniel realizes that his summer spent waxing cars, painting fences and sanding floors had not been in vain after all. He had been learning how to block various punches and kicks the whole time, and just didn't know it.

So what if a game could do this? It's not a new idea. Take, for example, books like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game or the more recent Armada by Ernest Cline. Heck, even another 1984 movie The Last Starfighter. Sure, these all describe unwittingly learning to pilot starships and fight aliens through video games, but the same principal could apply to learning meditation via board game. Or so my nerdy pop-culture roots would like me to believe. Breaking down how this could work is simple right? First create an accurate simulation of a task, then gamify it.

But before deep diving into the mechanics of simulations, let's talk a little about significant moments.

Being Mindful of the Big Picture

It's always important to keep the long view in mind so I occasionally like to ask big "why"-type questions as I go, to keep me honest.

So what is the actual point of all this mindfulness stuff? What is it, why is it an important skill to cultivate and what are the real-world benefits? Put as simply as I can, mindfulness gives us the clarity to live each moment within its own pure context, unpolluted by fantasies the mind feeds us. Put another way, it teaches us not to make a habit of eating our own homemade baloney.

Yep, our minds are big fat liars and like to constantly feed us bullshit. Fantasy, speculation, false-narrative and regret are just a tiny sampling of spices the mind likes to "enhance" the flavor of our experiences with. Mindfulness is simply recognizing that gorgeous filet mignon might actually taste better not slathered in ketchup.

One of my favorite explanations of the benefits of mindfulness can be found in the book The Mind Illuminated by John Yates:
"When you have cultivated mindfulness, life becomes richer, more vivid, more satisfying, and you don't take everything that happens so personally. Attention plays a more appropriate role within the greater context of a broad and powerful awareness. You're fully present, happier, and at ease, because you're not so easily caught up in the stories and melodramas the mind likes to concoct. Your powers of attention are used more appropriately and effectively to examine the world. You become more objective and clear-headed, and develop an enhanced awareness of the whole."


Let's look at a common snapshot from everyday life to illustrate how this works in practice:
You're driving to work, listening to the radio and mentally prioritizing your day. Traffic is heavy and it looks like you might end up being a few minutes late, so you're a little anxious. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a guy in an obnoxious, noisy truck cuts you off, almost clipping the front of your car as he crosses three lanes of traffic to exit the freeway from the shoulder. You swerve to avoid him, and your morning coffee spills into your lap.

"F#^king Douchebag!" you yell out.

Then your mind kicks in.

"Who the hell does that guy think he is? He thinks he's so much more important than the rest of us that laws don't apply to him! How dare he be so oblivious to the people around him! I ought to follow him and give him a piece of my mind!"

Your mind has started painting this picture of the character of the person driving the truck. You suspect he's got an elitist, entitled attitude, is probably selfish, and surely oblivious. He's definitely an asshole. Your amygdala has kicked in, bolstered by a squirt of adrenalin. The fight or flight response to danger has translated this conglomeration of wild assumptions into a personal attack. Chances are good that you don't actually chase him down, but chances are equally good the experience ruins your morning. You will think about it for hours and recount the event several times for your friends and co-workers.


But what's the truth? He could be an entitled, selfish asshole with no concern for anyone but himself. He could have morning-coffee bowels and be racing for a restroom. He could be rushing to the hospital to make sure he's there before the birth of his son, or the passing of his father. The important thing is, we don't know for sure, we are getting carried away with assumptions coming entirely from inside our own heads.

So how does this situation look through the lens of someone practicing mindfulness?
You're driving to work, enjoying a song on the radio. Traffic is heavy and sometimes that causes people to drive erratically, so you're keeping an eye out. A guy in a large truck three cars back is clearly in a hurry and isn't being very careful about it. You ease your foot off the gas, and sure enough, he passes in right front of you and onto the shoulder to exit.

"Wow, he's in a hurry" you say.

And that's pretty much the extent of that moment's impact on your day. An hour later, not distracted by emotions or coffee stains, your ability to focus lets you catch a tiny math error with the potential for catastrophic company-wide consequences. It lands you a nice juicy bonus.


There's a couple of key differences here, some more obvious than others. First, mindfulness lets you be more aware of the true context of the moment. You know traffic is heavy, so this is a time to pay attention, not distracted by planning your day or getting anxious. This allows you to be aware of your surroundings enough to predict being cut-off and make a slight adjustment. The tiny change results in a less intense situation without primal reflexes and, more importantly, is crotch-burn free. Yet all this could be the case and still result in the mind making assumptions about the guy's character, leading to an emotional or personal response. Mindfulness keeps us from chasing that rabbit-hole of conjecture and has us simply note what is fact, "He's in a hurry". The moment passes, and you return to being mindful of the present, which has moved on.

There's a tendency to make the reasonable assumption that "Mindfulness" means always being aware of your thoughts, what they mean or where they originate from. To some extent this could be true, especially later in the practice. But early on it's more just an awareness that you are thinking at all, and the understanding that your mind brings unnecessary baggage to every experience.

One Moment Can Change Your Life

So where does meditation fit into this equation? Essentially, meditation is a mental exercise that helps cultivate mindfulness by reprogramming us to recognize when our minds are reaching into that Spice Rack of Lies to alter the flavor of how we experience a moment.

How exactly does that work? What happens inside one's head during a meditation? So... so much, and yet, so very little. In the most basic of terms, what is supposed to happen is this:

• Try to keep your attention focused on your breath.
• Eventually, your mind WILL wander off...
• Realize you've been distracted.
• Without judgement, let go of the distraction.
• Return your attention to your breath.

And basically, that's all there is to it. You just keep repeating this loop, over, and over, and over.

There's a common misconception that meditation is about trying "not to think". This couldn't be further from the truth. This misconception keeps many people from practicing at all and it is one of the biggest ones I'm hoping to dispel with this game. Thinking is fine. It's normal, it's a part of who we are. Meditation is about training the mind not to let ourselves get carried away by our thoughts, which is an important and fundamental difference.

Eventually, with much practice, your inner perception starts to change. You develop what John Yates calls "Metacognitive introspective awareness" where your consciousness sort of "splits" and a part of you just sits back and observes what is going on in your mind with the sole intention of catching you before you fall down a rabbit-hole. There is a great cartoon animation on the popular Headspace platform describing this as sitting on a hill overlooking a busy freeway. The thoughts are the individual cars and you just watch them go by. Metacognitive introspective awareness keeps us from chasing one or getting in and driving off.

Initially, this "observation" of the mind is something that mostly happens only when we are meditating. The difference between thoughts and distractions are noticeable because we are supposed to be focusing on the breath, so it's easier to tell when we have faltered. The intent though, is that experienced meditators learns to bring this awareness into everyday life. It leads to lower blood-pressure and fewer coffee stains. This is Mindfulness.

There's a particular feeling when the mind is about to wander that an experienced meditator learns to recognize. Tension starts to build in the body (for me, it's in my shoulders and calves) and the awareness does this thing where it sort of "zooms forward". The closest I can come to describing it is playing a video game and switching from a 3rd person to 1st person camera view. Perception goes from a wider, more peripheral, observational view and zooms to a narrower, more focused "in-the-thick-of-it" experience. Later in the practice, you can catch this as it is starting to happen and stop it. For beginning meditators though, it's all about realizing it has happened, and forcing yourself to switch back.

Realize you've been distracted. Focus on the breath.

This is the core of beginning meditation. It's not "Don't get distracted" but "Realize when you have been distracted".

Let's go back to the previous example of driving to work. This actually did happen to me, (it was a lifted, red Dodge Ram) but it didn't play out either way described previously. That's because when it happened to me, I was still a relatively novice meditator. This is what really happened, and it was the moment I knew for certain meditation was changing my life for the better:
I was driving to work, listening to the radio and mentally prioritizing my day. Traffic was heavy and it looked like I might end up being a few minutes late, so I was a little anxious. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a guy in a giant obnoxious, noisy truck cut me off, almost clipping the front of my car as he crossed three lanes of traffic to exit the freeway from the shoulder. I swerved to avoid him, and my morning coffee spilled into my lap.

"F#^king Douchebag!" I (almost) yelled out. "Who the hell does that guy think..."

Wait... I'm being distracted. Breathe.

"Wow, he's in a hurry." and I let it go.

Several times that morning I marveled at the realization that because of meditation, something that previously would have ruined my whole day was barely a blip on my radar.


Realize you've been distracted. Focus on the breath.

Cultivating this very skill is what beginning meditation is all about. It stands to reason this should become not just a focal point, but the core mechanic of the game.

Distracted by Simulations of Distractions

Realize you've been distracted. Focus on the breath.

This would become my sort of game-design mantra. Having now identified my core focus, the next step was to start modeling a meditation simulation. The process mechanically looking something like:

1. Build a tableau of possible "Thoughts." (cards)
2. Have some of the thoughts become "Distractions"
3. Empower the player to Realize they've been distracted.
4. Reward them for it.
5. Encourage this to repeat.

The initial vision for the look of the game came together soon after and has changed very little throughout development. I imagined the card-version of meditating as a grid of blank white cards, representing a clear, empty consciousness. Thoughts would emerge as beautiful, engaging (and eventually Distracting) visuals. Since the focus should always return to the breath after being distracted, it only made sense to have the word "Breathe." available for constant reminder, even the center visual focus.

Early builds of the core gameplay were basically a sort of pseudo meditation exercise using the external stimuli of card visuals instead of internal thoughts. The player would concentrate on the breath while looking at the art on the cards. Eventually, something would distract them (as it always does). Once the distraction was realized, the card would be flipped or "Released" to its blank side and the process would start again with one less visual.

I did some early testing of this concept using cards from Vindication (one of my favorite games), while scouring the internet for imagery meeting my criteria to start building an early prototype.

From gallery of xiphile


From gallery of xiphile

I also spent an entire week putting together a rather embarrassing video describing the concept which, for better or worse, is now immortalized on the internet for all time, and is linked here for your cringe-ertainment. Next time, I will hire a voice actor, I promise.

As a simulation of a meditation exercise, it worked fairly well, but as a game, it... well, wasn't. In fact, as the moderators of the Solitaire Print & Play contest were quick to point out, in its current form, it didn't even really meet the definition of a "game" by BGG standards. So the Nevermind activity, as it became known, was born, but I still had a long way to go.

Essentially, the heart of the experience was accurate. Now I needed to flesh it out to make it 'Work'.
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Sat Nov 27, 2021 6:00 am
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Designer's Diary #2 - The Goal (Better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit)

A.J. Plank
United States
Las Vegas
Nevada
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Originally posted to the game forum page here.

previously on "Way Too Many Words"...
Designer's Diary, Chapter 1 - The Idea

Just Because You're Shooting for the Stars Doesn't Mean You Don't Aim the Rocket

What I mean by this is it's good to know what your capabilities are and structure goals accordingly. Not in the sense that boundaries should not be pushed and comfort zones should not be challenged. On the contrary, those are crucial. I think of it more as choosing a direction. We know we are going to the stars, but which star, and why?

In the context of an architect designing a board game about meditation, I had to assess my strengths and weaknesses to do this, mostly in terms of defining my "target audience", which would have a huge influence on the design. As mentioned before, both meditation and board gaming have changed my life, both in very positive ways that I'm eternally grateful for. I'm eager to share this with others.

That said, I've only been meditating for around four years, so there are a lot of people MUCH more knowledgeable than I. I don't presume to know nearly enough to teach it, so setting out to design a board game to do exactly that feels... I don't know, inappropriately arrogant. So I know those millions of people who have spent decades or lifetimes developing their meditation practice are not who I'll be trying to reach. Quite the opposite, I have much to learn from them before I can teach anything. So my goal will be more to introduce than truly teach.

The same thing can be said for board gaming. I've only been a gamer for a handful of years and I'm admittedly quite bad at it. The thought that I would be able to design one that hard-core gamers would actually enjoy is presumptuous at best. Laughable is more accurate. But I do know many board gamers who scoff at the idea of solo gaming, which I thoroughly enjoy. So maybe that's another introduction I'm hoping to facilitate.

Taken together this suggests that my target audience are neither true gamers, nor devout meditators, rather those with a casual interest in either, or both. So, a double-gateway. Being still sort of a beginner at both, I figure I can relate to that position, and it works since I'm trying to spread awareness of two things I love. So my limitations mean I'm not at much risk of preaching to the choir.

Trading Astronomy for Project Management

So at this point I've pretty much decided I'm going to do this, but where to start? This is one of the hardest things in any creative endeavor; it's the writer staring at a blinking cursor, the artist at a blank canvas, the sculptor at a block of stone. For me, true art happens within the context of its constraints, so an obvious first step is to fully understand those constraints. Designing with no constraints is like trying to answer a question that hasn't been asked yet. I've always felt that great design both asks, then answers, its own question. So I needed to start asking the right questions. Answers are easy anyway - they are always 42. I've been designing buildings for decades, so I have some experience with this step, even if I've never attempted a board game before. I figured I'd start there. This was easier said than done.

For a building, the first thing I'd do is research those constraints. I'd gather all the information I could about the rules and build a framework to focus my output. What is the shape of the site? Are there physical or legal limitations that must be respected? What are the owner's requirements? How is the space going to be used? Are there specific rooms needed or aesthetic style desired? What is the budget? These are all real world questions easily answered by interviewing the right people.

In a new turn of events for me, I had no one to interview, no "real world" constraints to look up to make it nice and simple to know where to start. So I had to start both asking and answering my own questions. The beginning is usually a good place to start, so grade school seemed appropriate. I knew exactly the right questions to ask. In chemistry this is known as W5H1 (not really, I know as much about chemistry as I do about designing board games) but is more traditionally known as Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?

So, let's get to it.

Who?

My immediate answer is, "Well, me". Part of me wants to see if such a thing can even be done, if I have what it takes to do it, and to have fun trying. Besides me though, this being that sort of dual-gateway, it will target more of the casual or beginner gamer/meditator. I imagine a yoga enthusiast who is married to an occasional board gamer who might receive my game as a gift. On further reflection I realize this definitely IS intended for me, though not the me of now. If I think back to the me of a few years (and one diary entry) ago, at my rope's end and not knowing where to turn, I wonder if a product like this had existed, if it would have made a difference.

Then I think of the people I see in the psychiatric hospitals I have designed looking scared and forlorn. Many of these people have very real medical issues and need medical attention, but some of them were just like me, at their rope's end and not knowing where else to go. I know it sounds funny, but if I can design a game to make it so that even one person will never spend a single night in one of my hospitals, it will be worth every minute. This project is mostly for them.

What?

This one is pretty easy, and has been loosely framed already. It will be a board or card game designed to introduce meditation and mindfulness as well as solo board gaming to casual audiences who may be interested but have limited experience with either.

When?

Now. Both meditation and board games are seeing a massive renaissance in the last decade or so. Both arguably fringe interests are rapidly becoming mainstream. It seems appropriate that some sort of crossover occurs as these two separate endeavors blossom.

Also, RIGHT NOW. I started work on this project in the summer of 2020, a handful of months into the coronavirus pandemic and just about at the start of massive civil rights protesting here in the U.S. The world feels like its coming apart at the seams. The vast majority of us are in survival mode, just trying to keep our heads down and adjust to the "new normal". However, at some point in the hopefully near future, we will be able to put this behind us, and most of us will go back to thinking beyond the day-to-day of survival mode. When that happens, and we can finally allow ourselves the luxury of falling apart, I have no doubt the mental health crisis that follows will be no less of a global pandemic. If my design ends up being effective, I want it in the hands of everyone who could possibly benefit from it the moment they decide they need it.

Where?

Everywhere. Literally, frigging everywhere. See just above for reasoning.

Why?

Cheesy as it sounds, because my soul demands it. Also I've been listing to Orange Nebula's The Outpost podcast too much lately to have any good excuses not to. The best design comes from love. I love meditation, I love board games, I love design, and in my weird introverted, cynical way, I love people. That's good enough for me.

How?

Well now, THAT's the $64,000 question isn't it? Time to take the answers from above and start building a framework to keep this thing on the rails.

Goals Aren't Just for Soccer Anymore

In design, I tend to think of 'Rules' and 'Goals' somewhat interchangeably. Goals are even more invaluable in a design endeavor. Much more than simple milestones, the right goals can be a litmus test, and with them, design can become an almost scientific process, at least in its framework. Ask a question, propose an answer, test it against the question, use those results to decide which answers get developed further. I find being able to rely on a logical process helps lend focus and direction to the weirdly illogical chaos of creative output.

Goals are important. Great ideas are a dime a dozen. We eat them on our Cheerios for breakfast. But only great ideas that advance the goal of the project are appropriate as more than garnish. How do you know if an idea is a good one unless you have a goal to compare its result against? For instance, I'm trying to help people learn meditation. My design decisions would be wildly different if my goal were to create the very best cardboard compost - though I haven't ruled this out as a potential side goal.

Time to Marinate

(As an aside, just to convey the timeline here, this is all still going on in my head the wee hours of the morning of July 20th while tossing and turning and trying not to wake my fiancé. I know, you thought you were done with Diary entry #1 like forty-thousand words ago. Nope, it only seemed like forever, this is all part of the same explosion going on in my head, only told in retrospect and laboriously drawn out for your reading torture.)

So I put all of the above into the Instant Pot in my head and set it to pressure cook for a while, then finally fell asleep. What resulted the next morning tasted absolutely horrendous, but did make exactly 42 ounces, so I took that as a good omen. Here's what I came up with as the three key Rules / Goals which would go on to inform every single decision made in the game design from that point forward. My litmus tests, in order of priority:

1. Make it 'Work'

The primary focus of this project is to introduce, and if I'm lucky maybe even teach, a mindful meditation practice using a card game. So as a meditation activity it MUST actually work on some level as a tool for mental health improvement. This is absolutely the most important goal as a failure here would automatically cause a failure in the next two goals. I would decide very early on that I needed to get the advice, input and feedback of people with a lot of experience in mindfulness and meditation to make sure that it not only worked, even on some small level, as a meditation activity, but did so in a way that is both healthy and accurately representative of the heart of the practice.

It's worth noting that I do not attribute the "game mechanic" portion of the design to this goal, but more to the next one, since in my mind whether it "worked" appropriately as a mindfulness activity was much more important to me and I wanted to focus on that as the main goal.

2. Make it 'Good'

Making it work is one thing, but if it's not fun or interesting, no one will use it. To me this meant making it visually and mechanically unique, giving the game mechanics enough variation to keep the replayability high and putting the time, effort and love into making it feel like a finished product. How could I possibly expect someone else to take it seriously unless I designed it so that it could be?

3. Make it 'Accessible'

Every time I thought about the 'Why', I realized I wanted to help people, to create something I wish would have existed when I needed help myself. Making it work and making it good are a nice start, but that doesn't mean anything unless people actually have access to it. Inspired by what Shawn Tompkins did with his solo RPG system Ironsworn, I decided very early on that somehow, a full version of this game would be available to anyone who wanted it, for free, indefinitely. Improving mental heath should not be limited to those who can afford $24.99 plus shipping and handling. If it worked, and it was good, I would put it on every platform I could think of in every media possible to get it into the hands of anyone that wanted it.

Now it Just Needs Some Crunch

And I don't mean game mechanics. As a designer by trade one thing I've come to learn is that the best work doesn't happen without rules and certainly doesn't happen without a deadline. I had the rules, now I needed the deadline. I needed more than an arbitrary date pulled out of my butt-erball turkey to keep the engine running.

I thought I remembered seeing that someone here on BGG ran an annual Print and Play contest, and decided to look into it. In a spot of serendipity, I discovered the 2020 Solitaire Print & Play Contest had only been underway for a couple weeks and the deadline wasn't for a few more months. Perfect! I knew as a freshman designer, I had zero hope of winning, or even placing in the contest, but I'd use this opportunity to not only keep myself on a deadline, I'd also be able to jump into a community of real game designers and get access to the life-saving nectar that every designer - especially the rookies - needs to thrive... peer feedback. This would end up being a mixed blessing.

This brings us to the aftermath portion of the retelling of my Category 3 brainstorm. I think you guys got the worst of it. You had to pick your way through hundreds of lines of barely intelligible word debris. I, on the other hand, have the pleasure of belly-flopping gut-first into hundreds of hours of wonderfully, gruelingly, rewardingly hard work.

And if I'm lucky, maybe some Cheerios.
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Fri Nov 12, 2021 10:38 pm
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Designer's Diary #1 - The Idea (Why a board game about meditation?)

A.J. Plank
United States
Las Vegas
Nevada
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Microbadge: Gloomhaven fanMicrobadge: Etherfields fanMicrobadge: Orange Nebula fanMicrobadge: I design board games... poorly.Microbadge: I'm anti-anti-aliasing!
Originally posted to the game forum page here.

Wow! A board game about meditation? That's a GREAT Idea!

...said pretty much no one ever.

So why in the world would someone choose to do such a thing... on purpose? To understand that, we will have to wade through words. Words and biographical context <shudder>. The following contains both - you have been duly warned. If you don't care for contextual backstory or have a particular aversion to reading more than 280 characters at a time, I suggest skipping to the TL;DR or YouTube version of this post...
Spoiler (click to reveal)
(There are neither.)

The idea for Nevermind The Distraction came about at the conflux of a perfect storm of life experiences and one sleepless night. "I lost a bet", might be a simpler and more plausible explanation, but life is neither. This is the true story. I submit the following evidence for the consideration of the Judge of public opinion and the Jury of the comment section below.

Exhibit A - Me and Board Games

I was never much of a board game person growing up, mostly because I'm not terribly competitive. I was cursed with a bit too much empathy to have that overwhelming drive to trounce the opposition. I also don't have the analytical math mind that looks at a possible move and sees the appropriate optimization algebra formula float past their mind's eye. My problem-solving skills fall more into the spatial and intuitive than the mathematic. My little brother however, was gifted with both the logic-brain for games and the competitive streak for winning. In short, he was never any fun to play games with, being both likely to win, and certain to gloat. Needless to say, growing up I avoided board games for a long time.

Fast forward to just a few years ago. My teenage son and I were looking for something different to do on a lazy Saturday and happened to be in a Barnes and Noble looking at board games. Both being huge Star Wars fans, we decided to pick up the core box for Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game. He and I, and eventually my fiancé, enjoyed it immensely. I still wasn't very good and lost most of the time, but it was a great way to spend quality time with my family not just staring at a screen together. We bought many expansions, house-ruled a 3-way free-for-all mode and had a ton of fun that summer. At one point, I was having a conversation about games and x-wing with a friend who suggested I look into Gloomhaven. My family, also big fans of video game RPGs, were instantly hooked. The best part for me though, was that I had no idea there was such a thing as cooperative board games. Not only did they exist, but there were tons of them! Now the competition was gone and we were working toward a common goal, meaning I was more likely to win riding the coattails of my much smarter companions! Our family became big board gamers. We would frequently pick up a shorter game for the occasional weeknight, time permitting, but mostly looked forward to our Saturday afternoon Gloomhaven like many families do Sunday football. It became our tradition. My son and I even started 3D printing and painting miniatures for our games together. Thanks to board games, I'm lucky enough to have spent many quality screen-free hours with my family, especially my teenage son, that I'm sure I would have missed (and regretted) otherwise.

Now I'm a sucker for a great story and consume pretty much any storytelling media, be it digital or analogue. As such, I have a deep respect for games that go the extra mile to pull the theme and narrative into the gameplay. As a designer by trade (buildings, not games) it has always been important to me to see how deeply theme and concept are executed in any design. To me, "Why?" has always been the most important question to ask as a designer, the most important litmus to hold a solution to, and the most interesting lens to watch solutions develop from. This probably explains the length of this post; it is important to me, this attempt at telling the story of the why.

But games can do more than entertain and tell stories. My fiancé and I played This War of Mine one weekend and had an OK time. It was hard, and it was dark. The story was deep and heavy and in its context the two-steps-forward-one-step-back difficulty felt appropriately poignant. There was a clear lesson here, but there was only so much darkness we could handle in one sitting. Though we mostly enjoyed it, we didn't come back to the game for several months. The second time we played we had a different experience entirely which led to a completely mind-blowing moment for me. You see, the first time through the game, we played it like you'd expect to play any war game, focusing on getting weapons, being able to defend ourselves and win fights. The second game, we decided to play with a little more empathy. We made decisions like we were neighbors, not victims. We treated the characters and situations we ran into with humanity instead of selfishness or aggression. One hell of an amazing thing happened and I still don't know if this was the designer's mechanical intent, or simply coincidence. The game was decidedly... easier. We made it through the game successfully with all of our original player characters still alive. After, I sat back and looked at my fiancé.

"Well, that was definitely more fun than the first ti... what?" she said.

I can imagine the pole-axed look on my face. Shaking my head,

"I just realized what they did here. The lesson isn't 'War is Bad, mmkay', it's 'No matter how bad things get, life will always be easier if you aren't an asshole'. Frigging brilliant!"

It was that moment I realized board games could be much more than stories. I still maintain This War of Mine should be required curriculum in middle schools.

Exhibit B - Me and Meditation

Cliché as it sounds, meditation changed my life, maybe even saved it. Though a mostly self-aware introvert by nature, I was prone to overthinking and always struggled with self esteem issues. A couple years before that summer afternoon in Barnes and Noble, I was going through a pretty rough patch. The combined stresses of running a business in the middle of a recession, keeping increasingly impossible clients happy, increasingly frightened staff paid, and an increasingly hormonal teenager on track was taking its toll. At one point, feeling like I was at the end of my rope, I decided to let go of it and completely gave up. I packed my car with a week or so of clothes and started driving north, no intention of returning. I believed everyone I was leaving behind was better off without me. One thing about driving is it gives you plenty of time to think. That was when I somehow realized thinking was my problem. If life is lived through the lens of one's perceptions, mine were covered in a grime of misplaced priorities and self-loathing that weren't allowing me to see clearly. I needed help.

I started looking into the possibility of therapy but decided in the meantime to try one of the meditation apps that were becoming increasingly popular. I downloaded Headspace and began their basic meditation course. I won't bore you with the details (I know, why stop now right?) but I slowly came to terms with the fact that my overthinking and low self image were influencing my thoughts and actions in unhealthy ways. In the short term, meditation taught me to quiet my mind and recognize when it was spinning off into some unhealthy spiral, allowing me to preempt emotionally charged reactions. Eventually, it taught me to disconnect my thoughts from my definition of self, to create enough distance and objectivity to recognize the source of some of my biggest hangups, and work through them.

I still feel like me, but somehow, more okay with me. I feel like I'm more in touch with my priorities, and less likely to be influenced by things that shouldn't. It's like that old Serenity prayer (no, not a Firefly Season 2) about accepting the things you cannot change, having the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Meditation has somehow given me that. People in my life started noticing. I was told I seemed happier, more at ease, less stressed, content.

So of course, I get asked "You seem like a different person, how did you do it?"

Lacking the appropriate lab equipment, I don't have scientific proof, but my hypothesis as that the shortest measurable unit of time is between the moment I would answer "Meditation" and the other person's eyes glazing over.

I don't know why this is. My own opinion is that meditation has a spiritual/religious association that is detrimental to its being introduced to a wider secular audience. You aren't supposed to talk about religion or politics right? So "Meditation changed my life" might be akin to hearing "I found Jesus", which at best results in a "How great for you! (but don't try selling that crap to me)" reaction in those who don't also practice. This reception took me a while to sort out since I'm an atheist and Headspace seems to go out of its way to present meditation in a mundane, accessible way without all the spiritual hooha it sometimes gets rolled in with. So my own experience with meditation, though arguably spiritual in a self-discovery sense, certainly has not been religious in any way.

Then there are those folks who seem to recognize the cultural resurgence in mindfulness and are genuinely open minded to it, but are convinced, almost always due to some fundamental misconception of the practice, that it won't work for them, or they can't do it. It's a real shame how often I've heard variations on that argument, particularly in people who admittedly need exactly that kind of help. More often than not, the misconception is something like "Practicing meditation means not thinking and I can't turn my brain off, so it won't work for me". People don't realize meditation is a tool to teach you to stop thinking. It's like saying "I don't know how to use a screwdriver, so learning to use one won't work for me."

Exhibit C - Me and... Life

I knew I wanted to be an architect since my first LEGO set at seven years old. In my teens I saw it as a great way to have a legacy, buildings outlive people right? It would be my way to leave my mark on the world. As I got older I realized architecture was the ideal medium for an introvert to shape the social conversation. I could, through my designs, interact with people in an almost personal way, shaping their experience of a space, without actually <shudder> dealing with people. I was drawn to health care architecture convinced that, designed correctly, a building can become an active participant in the treatment, healing and wellness of its patients. I could actually help people without ever meeting them! Through one of those weird serendipitous events, my career focus became mental and behavioral health care. As of this writing I've spent over a decade almost exclusively designing acute behavioral and psychiatric hospitals.

There are some interesting challenges to designing acute mental health facilities, specifically in the United States. Here, mental health care, especially acute care, is almost exclusively a province of for-profit corporations and health care systems. The size of the nursing units, number of attending staff and availability of related services and amenities, while somewhat regulated by code, are ultimately a function of profitability. To make matters worse, these spaces are extremely expensive for a single reason, they must be designed specifically to cater to only one type of patient.

When the family of a person with a mental health disorder checks their loved one into a psychiatric hospital because they are trying to do harm to themselves or others, they do so with the confidence that the facility will be a safe place for them to recover. Should that person end up being successful in their efforts to harm themselves or others while a patient... well, it's bad news for everyone except maybe the lawyers. Of course, not all patients who need mental health care fall into that category, but because some do, the entire facility must be designed to accommodate them. Not only does this mean the hospital has to pay for extremely expensive fixtures and finishes specifically designed not to allow someone to harm themselves, but all patients are forced to spend their time recovering in a facility only half a step removed from the cold, institutional feel of a prison. Any hospital system wanting to buck this trend has to either build an even more expensive facility, losing profit and treating fewer, or only exclusive patients, or use more comforting (less institutional) fixtures and finishes risking that patients will successfully harm themselves and the bad press and lawsuits will eventually shut them down.

I got into health care architecture to help people, maybe even save lives. It's a frustrating thing to realize the best I can hope for is designing a space that won't let someone hurt themselves, no matter how bad they want to, at the expense of the quality of treatment for everyone else. No amount of daylight and warm colors and materials can make a space like that feel like a healing environment. In short, I felt like I wasn't doing enough.

Exhibit D - My whereabouts on the night of July 20

So all this culminates in one sleepless night. Not sure if it was insomnia, too much Dr. Pepper or both. I had just spent the afternoon listening to the latest episode of my favorite podcast The Outpost (by Orange Nebula, designers of Vindication and Unsettled). Their podcast is both goofy insight into the daily life of a talented design firm and inspirational motivation for people with design in their blood to grab their future by the danglies and just frigging go for it; to Go Big and make a difference.

So all these things were swirling in my head. I felt my gratefulness that board games have let me spend quality time connecting with my teenage son during important formative years and the amazement of This War of Mine, digging deep and teaching gamers not to be assholes. I felt gratitude for meditation and how much better a person it has helped me become and the resignation that people I know personally who could benefit from it won't give it a chance because they misunderstand it. I felt frustration that my career wasn't allowing me the opportunity to actually help people in the way I had hoped and I wanted to do more to make a difference. Throughout it all I heard Orange Nebula saying design can make a difference...

"Huh, I wonder if it would be possible to design a board game that could somehow actually teach meditation?"

Nah, that's crazy talk. Games are about logic and thinking and problem-solving and meditation is about NOT thinking. There's just no way something like that could possibly work.

Right?

And even if it were possible there's no way someone like me, who is no expert in meditation and is notoriously terrible at games could be the one to figure it out.

Right?

Aw what the hell, Challenge Accepted.
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Fri Jan 29, 2021 11:33 pm
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