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Designer Diary: Merlin's Beast Hunt

Ian Bach
United States
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Board Game Designer
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Board Game: Merlin's Beast Hunt
Merlin's Beast Hunt is a card-and-dice game that presents a novel mechanism: the dice-card combo.

My name is Ian Bach, and I am the designer of this game. In this diary, I want to share how the dice-card combo came to be and how a game about capturing dinosaurs named "DinoHunter" became Merlin's Beast Hunt. This is my first design, and by sharing the design process I hope to acknowledge the many wonderful people who through their sage advice and thoughtful feedback made the game what it is today. For those new to the process, I would hope that my journey helps others navigate the adventure that is game design.

Initial Inspiration

I had a dream! Really! I did have a dream that lead to Merlin's Beast Hunt!

On the morning of April 5, 2017, I awoke with an idea. In the dream, I had asked the question, "What do most games have?" and answered my own question with "Cards and dice", so I dreamed that I should design a game that used both. The dream progressed, and I imagined different ways that cards and dice interacted. I awoke with the solution: two dice pinched together holding a card on edge — and the dice-card combo was born.

Before the dreamy image faded from mind, I drew a simple sketch in my game design book and went on with my day.

From gallery of iansbach

That morning, I had to go to the DMV to renew my driver's license. The computer system was down, and I was told to return in two hours when it would be up again. I went to a nearby grocery store, headed to the toy aisle, and bought a deck of cards, a sharpie, and dice. I had this vague idea of surrounding or capturing something. When I saw a bag of plastic dinosaurs, I had a brainwave that the dice-card combos would build enclosures around these pre-historic beasts. Driving to a nearby Starbucks, I ordered a chai latte and started experimenting. By the time, the DMV's computer system was back up and I could get my license renewed, I had the first, very primitive (some might say pre-historic) prototype of "DinoHunters".

From gallery of iansbach
A recreation of the first proto developed at Starbucks (chai latte included)

The first version involved players rolling dice to match one of the four cards in their hands. With a pair of dice, a player could hold one card on edge, sort of like a gamer's version of card castle. Four dice meant four cards could be held in a cross shape. Quickly I realized that the four cards in a square — with dice at their corners — could be used to surround that square, capturing...hmm, capturing a creature like one of the plastic dinosaurs. The game became a race between players to capture the dino (or dinos) first. To keep the whole process going, players would replenish their hands from their own deck of cards and gain more dice from their own dice pool.

Of course, I quickly realized that the dice would not stay put. After brainstorming, I ended up at the local hobby store and picked up sheets of hobby foam (thinking that they'd have high friction and hold the dice in place better). I had drawn spaces for the dice, but still the dice wanted to move out of position each time a card or more dice were added. Staring at the problem and with another cup of chai latte, I had another brainwave: Cut dice-sized holes in the foam. After judicious use of an Xacto blade, I had sixteen perfect holes. The board was finally helping position the dice-card combos!

First Prototypes

As the game evolved, I saw each player with dice and cards of their own color. The players drew cards from their own deck and would roll dice in a Yahtzee fashion, trying to match the number on the dice with the number on their card. The first full prototype looked l like this:

From gallery of iansbach

I started playtesting, and this first version of the game was quick; games lasted from 5-15 minutes and felt a little like chess. Players would place dinos and card-dice combos (fences with time) in incomplete squares, always getting close to completing enclosures but not so close that the next player could swoop in and complete the enclosure to win the game.

Early on, the scoring was simple: 5 points to whoever enclosed the dino. With a goal to allowing others to score, I began to reward 1 point per die and 2 points per card of the player's color. To add spice to the scoring, a card that had matching dice at both ends became a reinforced fence and was worth 4 VPs, which meant that a player who placed lots of dice and cards could beat the player who enclosed the dino. With the help of my wife Robin and my three teenage kids, I kept playtesting. Dozens of cups of chai latte later, we had finished more than thirty playtests — the game held up and the family judged it fun!

Seeking more feedback, I playtested "DinoHunters" at the TinkerMill in Longmont, Colorado. Brian Trotter and Chandler Sirron, the organizers of the meet-up, liked the game but felt it ended too soon. As a fix, they suggested that players should compete to capture more than one dinosaur. In fact, the game wouldn't be over until the whole board was full of fences and whole herds of dinosaurs had been captured. The playing time went up, with 20-30 minute games becoming the norm.

At home, the family played the new version many more times, and I went through many more mugs of chai latte!

B-Con 2017

At the beginning of B-Con 2017 in Denver, Colorado, I walked in and who should I see sitting at a table in the open gaming area with a huge pile of games — designer Mike Fitzgerald! He had returned from Gen Con and was looking for people to play his new purchases. I sat down, introduced myself, and enjoyed games of Photosynthesis, Downforce, and his new game at the time, Dragon Island. During those games, I revealed that I was an aspiring game designer.

I showed him my proto of "DinoHunters", and he was really excited, particularly about the dice-card combos. He suggested black neutral dice as a solution to the endgame fizzling due to fewer and fewer dice being available to roll. Otherwise, he thought it was ready to show to publishers. Mike thought that the set collection could be improved as using numbers was rather dry and themeless. Instead, I developed symbols for terrain and using stickers customized the dice and the cards.

Later in the Con, as part of the annual game design contest, I presented "DinoHunters". It was the last game to be judged on the last day of the Con, so the judges were tired, I was exhausted, and we all wanted to go home. Scott DeMers, the organizer and one of the judges, said, "You have ten minutes." I replied, "I can do it in five!" and did a short-and-sweet pitch that was three sentences on theme, an explanation of the dice-card combo mechanism, and demos of 2-3 turns. Scott said it was one of the best pitches of the contest!

A few weeks later, I learned that "DinoHunters" had won the B-Con game design contest. Sean Brown, the owner of Mr. B Games and a sponsor of B-Con 2017, met with me at Board Game Republic, a great Denver board game pub, and I pitched him "DinoHunters". Over a Coke (since Board Game Republic does not have chai latte), I pitched the game to him. He really liked it but worried that it didn't fit well with the other games in his catalog. I revealed that Mike Fitzgerald was helping me and was going to pitch the game at BGG.CON in November 2017 (since I didn't have a badge for that show). He thought that was a great idea and said he would put in a good word with publishers there.

Among other publishers, Mike showed it to Zev Shlasinger of WizKids, who seemed excited about game and especially the card-dice combos.

Working with Publisher

Board Game: Merlin's Beast Hunt
Soon thereafter, Zev contacted me indicating that he wanted to sign "DinoHunters" to WizKids. However, with the many dinosaur-themed games that were coming out, he wanted a different theme. As WizKids had just come out with Tournament at Camelot, Zev wondered about re-theming the game to something Arthurian. After some brain-storming, "DinoHunters" became Merlin's Beast Hunt. Players went from being dinosaur trappers who were building electric fences to entrap dinosaurs to wizards casting spells on magic seeds to cause them to grow into elemental fences to capture mythical beasts such as unicorns, centaurs, chimeras, and basilisks.

Zev also thought that the game needed more to make it a little bit meatier. I had already thought of rewarding different values for different dinos (5 VP for herbivores, 7 for carnivores, 10 for pterodactyls). With the fantasy theme, the unicorns replaced the herbivores and were worth 5 points. Centaurs and chimera replaced the herbivores. The centaurs, being strong beasts, required at least one reinforced fence as part of the enclosure for capture. The three-headed chimera needed three different fences, one to distract each of the heads. Finally, the basilisks supplanted the pterodactyls. Because they can turn observers to stone, these magical beasts needed to have four-sided enclosures for capture. Thus the higher scoring creatures were harder to capture.

I also added tiles to the board. When a beast was encircled, the capturing player would also take the tile, thus obtaining a one-time benefit, such as being able to roll extra dice or add another beast to the board.

During further playtests (with and without the chai latte), I was disappointed that the tiles did not come into play until the game was half over. To solve this, I allowed players to draft two tiles at the beginning of the game.

Gathering of Friends

Zev took this prototype to the 2018 Gathering of Friends and playtested it more. After a few playtests, Zev and his playtesters realized that the tiles were unbalanced, so we decided to drop them as they seemed too problematic.

Zev's playtesters also observed that play was a bit clunky. The original dice had six symbols and the cards had six matching symbols. Since a pair of dice was needed to match one symbol on a card before building a fence, it was often difficult to get matches. Players complained that they'd have some turns in which they couldn't do anything. Also, adding a beast and moving a beast were originally alternate actions from rolling dice and building fences.

Zev and his playtesters wondered about changing the dice, specifically dropping two of the symbols (going from six to four) and adding a beast face and a wild face. The focus was put even more on the dice (where it should be). Now players could more easily match symbols (with the wild) and could add a beast with a beast roll. With more to do, it also made sense to decrease the number of active dice from five to four. Turns were quicker and more streamlined and offered much more for players to do.

Board Game: Merlin's Beast Hunt

In a typical game, most players go through their dice at roughly the same rate and dice scores are normally quite close, so it made sense to simplify scoring by dropping the 1 point per die-played rule.

With all of this feedback (and many more mugs of chai latte), I reworked my custom dice, re-wrote the rules, and did yet more playtests. While the turns hummed along, it seemed like the player who captured the most beasts always won. I wanted another path to victory, a path that did not rely just on aggressive enclosures, and 2 (or 4) VPs for cards wasn't enough. I had all of these colored dice and nothing really scoring off of them, so I came up with a scoring mechanism in which a fence was completed when it had a full complement of four supporting dice. Scoring would occur during the game, with more points being awarded when the supporting dice matched the color of the card. To summarize

• Any fence: 2 VPs
• Reinforced fence: +2 VPs
• Singlemost color of supporting dice (no wilds allowed): +1 VP
• All support dice colors match the fence color (wilds allowed): +2 VPs
• All support dice colors match the fence color (no wilds allowed): +3 VPs

Those final three bonuses are not cumulative as a fence may score only one of these bonuses. This solved the problem! Players were competitive and even winning when they focused on building high-scoring fences.

Production Issues

Of course, with a game as different as Merlin's Beast Hunt, there were interesting production issues — and by interesting, I mean difficult and frustrating and exasperating and not easily solved with a cup of chai latte. I had invented a board with holes in it to support the dice. Unlike tokens, for which any shape can be punched from punchboard, board game boards rarely have holes punched out of the middle of them. No manufacturer would or could do it. Instead, manufacturers can make very large punched-out boards, but the maximum size is 12 inches square whereas my board was 12 x 16 inches. Even with smaller cards, the board would still have been too large. The only solution was to make the board in two pieces and jigsaw-puzzle them together.

Another issue, which my wife, Robin, pointed out early on, was the issue of fences obscuring what was behind them. Being 2.5 inches high, the cards would hide dice and beasts behind them. Players were constantly asking what was behind a fence or else standing up and sitting down repeatedly throughout the game. While this might be good for a little mid-game exercise, most players were annoyed. Brainstorming sessions with my customary cup of chai latte produced a few solutions: low profile cards (not much room for art), custom-shaped cards (Zev did not think manufacturers could even cut them) or transparent cards (more expensive).

From gallery of iansbach

I took several different versions to B-Con 2018 and polled a number of game designers as to which version worked the best. While there wasn't a clear favorite (pardon the pun), the majority liked the transparent cards. Fortunately, Zev and Wizkids, being supportive of this innovative game, agreed to the transparent cards. Below, you can see how great this made the final production:

Board Game: Merlin's Beast Hunt

Where Credit is Due

Throughout this entire process, Zev Shlasinger and WizKids have been wonderful. Zev's advice and guidance have been instrumental to me as a fledgling game designer. Also, Zev found two great artists (Brian Fajardo and Oliver Morit from Gunship Revolution) who have put together an awesome cover and component art, as well as a fabulous graphic designer (Jason Greeno) who worked hard to overcome the 3D rendering problem in the rulebook. While it has taken a lot of hard work and many, many hours, it has been worth it because Merlin's Beast Hunt has become a truly special game.

Special thanks to Mike Fitzgerald, Sean Brown, and Scott Demers, who supported my design at critical points in this journey.

Thank you to the rulebook editors. I had a fabulous group who spent hours and hours editing and revising the rulebook turning it from a rather rambling collection of rules to a tight and coherent rule set.

Of course, I must thank the numerous playtesters, all of whom provided valuable feedback for Merlin's Beast Hunt.

To my wife, Robin, and my three wonderful kids, Hannah, Owen and Olivia, an extra special thanks. Patiently, they put up with more playtests than any family should but still offered insightful recommendations that made the game better.

To this top-notch team, I raise my mug of chai latte and toast them. I hope that the next time a dream inspires me, they can help me create my next great game.

Ian Bach

Board Game: Merlin's Beast Hunt
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Tue Nov 5, 2019 1:00 pm
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