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Designer Diary: The Wolves

Clarence Simpson
United States
Cary
North Carolina
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Microbadge: Video Game ProgrammerMicrobadge: North Carolina State UniversityMicrobadge: Twitter userMicrobadge: "I play a Stratocaster"Microbadge: 5 Year Geek Veteran
Board Game: The Wolves
The Wolves has had quite an eventful path to publication. We wanted to invite you to take a closer look at that journey with us as we share how we co-designed a game in the midst of a pandemic.

Lone Wolves No More

Clarence: The Tabletop Mentorship Program is a crown jewel of the tabletop design community. They run a service that matches up volunteer mentors with mentees across all different disciplines within tabletop game design. The program is open to everyone and completely free of charge. They matched me with my own mentor, Rob Newton, who helped me pitch what eventually became my first published design, Merchants of Magick.

Since then, I've served as a mentor myself many times, hopefully giving a helping hand to the next generation of designers. One of those times, I was assigned to mentor a passionate gamer who wanted to dive into game design. He had a lot of ideas, but hadn't made anything tangible yet. I was new myself and had only been designing games seriously for about six months, but if you know things that you didn't know when you started, then you can be a mentor, so I thought I might be able to help him out. That mentee was Ashwin, my eventual co-designer on The Wolves.

First time meeting Ashwin at PAX Unplugged 2019

Ashwin: Just being completely transparent here, with no intention of being punny, I felt like a lone wolf prior to all of this. I was/am missing home, missing family, wishing I could build something for myself. A mid-late 30s transplant in Seattle where art, music, dance and innovation at the community level is masked by not only gray skies and awful traffic congestion, but also mass transit on life support and overpriced housing everywhere you go! Struggling to find definitions in my life, I stumbled upon the Seattle Tabletop Game Designers community, a group that I once mistook for a board game meetup, but is now a group that I call family.

After being a joyous fool overly excited about everyone's projects, one person asked me a simple question, "Ashwin, where's your game?" I stopped showing my face for a few weeks. I always run away. I always do this. When adversity hits, I hit up my favorite burrito joint, play hours of Dota 2, and drown myself in box wine. This wasn't even adversity! This was just me not committing to something creative, joyful, and full of meaning that I quickly discovered about myself when I took a leap, a pounce? of faith. After overproducing a few mechanical concepts trying to show off what I found in the aisles of Michaels and Home Depot, I was guided to this Tabletop Mentorship program to sign up and be a mentee to someone who is definitely going to try to support my goals.

Clarence and I met under these incredibly unique circumstances, where if it weren't for those series of events mentioned before that led to us meeting, The Wolves wouldn't have been made, and we wouldn't have known each other. I am eternally grateful to Clarence, firstly, but I also want to give a special shoutout to the Tabletop Mentorship Program that is hosted by the lovely Mike Belsole and Grace Kendall that led to us getting together.

All right, so after a few months in the mentorship program, I had almost nothing to show for it. I was obsessing over the game Glory to Rome and wanted to do a city rejuvination game with concepts inspired by it. I was off to a coldboywinter start as while I never knew I had it in me, I was approaching things slowly, in my head, without working nearly anything out.

Clarence started to provide some guidance: "show me", not just "tell me" type of guidance. All sorts of real conversations were had to help push it out of me, but the biggest takeaway from all of this was that it's okay to ask for help, and it's a glorious thing to have a person, like Clarence, in your corner, believing in you, and attempting to hold you accountable. It was something similar to a penpal of sorts...getting to know someone cut from the same cloth, offering to be a sherpa or just a person to talk to, and we kept in touch over the weeks/months.

Oh, I remember the day. It was raining outside. I was wearing my favorite shirt and probably shorts, with my pasta water boiling over when I got a notification buzzing sensation in my pocket. Clarence asked what games I was working on and whether we could meet about a potential co-design. Grinning from ear to ear, that moment woke me right up. That was all I needed to hear. It was a pasta primapassion for those wondering what was made that evening.

I love working with others. I love building something and solving problems with others. This had the make-up of something great from the get go. We were in high spirits, and we needed a project to really motivate us, and most of all, keep us connected. We started considering different game concepts and mechanisms to work on with seemingly endless lists of random themes. With a goal of publication in mind, we looked at current games and marketability, eventually settling on basing a game on our mutual interest in wolves.

The Hunt Is On

Ashwin: Underrepresentation is a big thing for me, and not just about me being a minority, but also designing around an under-served subject matter. Shining a bright, elevated spotlight on wolves was a key driver in my desire to theme a game around them. Wolves are hunted still to this day and often characterized as vicious, villainous creatures, when they are quite the opposite. They are nomadic, territorial, and a great indicator of a thriving ecosystem. I wanted to break these harmful stereotypes, educate players about our endangered wolves, and as much as possible, make the game's mechanisms mimic what wolves are like in real life, from how they move as a pack, how they stay territorial, prowl and survey the land for what prey they typically hunt to how they make their homes near water sources.

We looked at types of wolves, and while there weren't many outside of a few regional species, most sources of material were describing wolves in a wolf pack led by a pair of alpha wolves. This clicked instantly with us as we could use wolves in different ways and maybe not asymmetrically. In certain regions, pack sizes are large, upwards of 20-30, but a loose definition of a wolf pack described them peaking at no larger than 8-12 wolves. How convenient. Pinch me. We're really doing this!

It came quickly to us. In mere hours after a 4:30am text from me saying, "Yo Clarence, you up?", we were penciling in major thematic mechanisms from wanting wolves to grow and strengthen their pack, evolve in the types of actions players would do, and hunt in this game while fighting for control of what is considered theirs. It was inspiring. Out of thin air, we found something we could really sink our teeth into.


Clarence: After settling on a wolf theme, we decided on some core design pillars. We wanted a competitive game that involved minimal randomness. We wanted high player agency and high interactivity. We wanted to support 3-5 players minimum. We wanted games to run no longer than 90 minutes and ideally closer to 60. We wanted the game to be about authentic, natural wolves and not some cartoony or anthropomorphized version of wolves. We wanted strong connections between theme and mechanisms.

We kept these design pillars in a shared Google Sheet that served as a sort of living design document and reference throughout the project. Occasionally, when thinking about what direction to take the design, we'd go back to these pillars to confirm that what we did would still be in service to those pillars.

It was almost too easy to pick a title for our game. Originally, we simply called it "Wolf". We were surprised that no existing games already used that title. Plus, it was one of those four-letter titles that seem so trendy these days.

From gallery of casimps1
Our original logo for "Wolf"

We also took some time to brainstorm all the words we could think of that might be associated with wolves. That word list would help guide what components, actions, and systems we built into the game. Mechanically, we quickly settled on grid movement and area control as key game mechanisms that made sense for controlling packs of wolves in a competitive game.

Ashwin and I also had a shared love of the game Hansa Teutonica. From the very first iteration of "Wolf", we had a core system in which you could add pieces to the shared central board from your player board, and when you did so, you simultaneously revealed upgraded abilities on your player board. That system has existed in every iteration of the game and owes quite a bit to Hansa Teutonica.

Game Design Goes Digital

Clarence: One distinctive fact about "Wolf" is that it's likely one of the first board games in which design, playtesting, iteration, and pitching was all done completely digitally and online. We never created a physical prototype or met with anyone in person. In fact, the first time we ever held a physical version of the game in our hands was when we finally received a production copy a few months ago. It was all because the pandemic changed everything.

When Covid began shutting down in-person events in early 2020 and for the foreseeable future, the tabletop game design community faced a moment of reckoning. Either designers could wait the pandemic out and put their designs on hold until some unknown day when things returned to normal, or they could pivot into unfamiliar digital spaces on Discord and Tabletop Simulator to continue creating in spite of the circumstances.

Many designers refused to take the leap to digital, but thankfully an online design community spearheaded by Gil Hova began to take shape and flourish. Although it was started by designers from New York, it quickly reached people across the nation and inspired many similar digital playtest groups that came after.

We built our first playable prototype of "Wolf" in June 2020 on Tabletop Simulator. It was the height of uncertainty with regards to the pandemic, but digital board game design was getting its legs and becoming more and more accepted. By this time, there were weekly online playtest meet-ups, online publisher speed-pitching events, and even weekend-long online playtest conventions like Protospiel Online.

From gallery of casimps1
First playable prototype (in Tabletop Simulator)

There were times during the height of the pandemic when I was unsure what would happen to board games in a world where people couldn't gather, but the rapid industry adoption of digital alternatives gave me a lot of hope for our little hobby. I also became very hopeful about the fact that the shift to digital might actually help to democratize design in a way. Suddenly, even if you lived in a very remote part of the world with no local design community or had no money to travel to conventions, you could still design, playtest, and pitch to publishers. All you needed was a decent computer. Marginalized voices had a new way to access the industry.

As strange as it sounds, I've totally embraced the forced shift to digital in this distinctly non-digital industry. Yes, digital prototyping and playtesting have some quirks, but they also have some clear advantages over in-person work. Digital allows for extremely fast iteration when you don't have to print and assemble new prototypes constantly. It allows you to network with and utilize an entire digital world of other designers and playtesters. And it makes for easy pitching and demoing with publishers without having to wait for in-person conventions. Even now that in-person events have returned, I am continuing many of my digital habits that I learned during the worst of the pandemic.

Ashwin: Digital skills were surfacing as a valuable resource, and a willingness to adapt to new, uncharted territories and vibrant communities felt like a necessary trait for which I was prepared. I have quite a unique set of skills that were able to be tapped into, and I crafted time into my schedule to be a resource for many, in addition to honing my skills to make this hobby a reality. I was attending various digital groups to learn from others how they would present, test, and work on their projects in order to implement these practices into my process. I was able to cram what could have been years of playtesting into just months, and from that, bolstered the confidence I never knew I had to exist in this space. Untethered by location, time of day, or group, I found myself in a mix of everywhere I wanted to be all at once.

How convenient! I had access to all sorts of like-minded people who want to exist in this space with me and help "Wolf" stand on its own! I will always preach: Playtest your game dozens of times, with dozens of different people. You won't know until you do that your game is ready for next steps.

Our game took various forms, and you know what โ€” those forms were all great! Learn from those versions, and let all those ideas fly, baby! From making maps that looked like literal wolves, to mimicking 18xx and Age of Steam maps for inspiration, we were able to quickly realize the type of game we could make, and iterate live, in the moment, testing and reviewing dozens of game board designs just because we could. We could actually get a glimpse of games we knew about, but had not played and were able to compare components and table presence with just a click of my mouse.

Decisions were made, easily, with the power of co-ordination digitally, and access to an endless shelf of resources ready for us to utilize. The game Silk had these very distinct-looking wooden meeples. Let's just copy and paste them in! A game similar to Agricola had wooden donkey pieces โ€” and they could easily be used to represent wolves! We're just playing and prototyping with ideas here, finding inspiration along the way.

I also took this time to consider what the game could look like with modular set-ups. Revisit it a hundred times with different permutations, then see what lands and what could work in a physical setting. Digitally, things won't slide or shuffle, but maybe to prevent an issue with a physical copy, perhaps we can design to have the pieces nest within each other, leaving no doubt. Using NURBS Software and the Adobe Creative Suite in conjunction with free vector and .svg sites like thenounproject, we were rolling. Now, if only we could figure out how players would meaningfully enact these wolves on the board!

Building Our Lair

Clarence: During those first design iterations, we already had most of the actions you could take on your turn. You could move, build a den, howl at lone wolves to recruit them into your pack, and mark territory by placing scent markers which also revealed upgrades on your player board. From researching different real-life varieties of wolves, we knew that we wanted the central board to be a hex grid composed of five different terrain types, each of which could support its own wolf type โ€” but we didn't yet know what impact terrain should have on the game. Everything was working fine, but the central board was meaningless.

As days passed looking for an answer, I found myself listening to a game-design podcast, and they briefly mentioned a prototype that utilized double-sided action cards. When you used an action, you flipped it over and revealed a different action you could take next time. I was fascinated by that idea and was quickly inspired to figure out how something like that could work in "Wolf", hopefully in a way that made terrain meaningful.

I started by giving each player five double-sided terrain cards โ€” much like the tiles in the published game โ€” but they were only for movement. To move through grass hexes, then forest ones, you had to flip one grass and one forest card. I also wanted to be able to flip two matching terrains to move a nature spirit component we had at the time.


Soon after, the way movement worked was tweaked and the nature spirit was scrapped, but the idea of flipping terrain cards to move and flipping multiple matching terrain cards for more powerful actions remained โ€” and it ultimately became the core of what I consider the most unique and interesting system in The Wolves.

Ashwin: You're not wrong, Clarence! Okay, so wolves don't literally pick up pieces of terrain and flip them, but a mechanical hook that leaned into a very popular typology in games, and a heuristic gamers of all kinds can understand โ€” flip this, it becomes that โ€” really helped expedite the feel we wanted in this game.

We quickly glanced at a game called St. Petersburg in which the cards file down and clog up when players are not interacting with them. Before we figured out that five terrain cards were what we wanted, we played around with a deck of cards, as well as cards that were played and arranged, but quickly we became deranged.

We wanted the actual execution of actions to be snappy, quick, and serviceable. Approaching each action may take a quick sweep of the game state, but each action was purposeful and, with the action system implemented, intentional.

So yes, as Clarence mentioned above, we landed on five double-sided terrain cards and quickly made these cards to match the types of terrain, delivering a system in which both sides of the tiles represented a unique sequence. The dark green wolves had grass turn into forest, and another card turning forest into ice, while the light blue wolves had ice turn into desert, and ice turn into grass. With these overlaps, each faction will inevitably be fighting for different types of terrain, but this felt off in one aspect: Shouldn't the dark green wolves have an easier time in their dark green habitat? While we struggled initially with the fluidity of the mechanism, we were determined that we could find an answer that both improved player agency and added tension to the puzzle to make it feel rewarding. To the digital drawing board!

Awoooo

Clarence: Once we had the core action system figured out, it quickly became our and our playtestersโ€™ favorite part of the game. The constant mini-puzzle on your player board was just the right amount of challenge to keep every turn interesting. The game was starting to sing.

We continued to test and iterate over the next few months. We added a faction-specific sixth terrain card to each player, giving the game just a hint of asymmetry. We added the powerful three-terrain dominate action that provided conflict, tension, and memorable moments. We switched from a static central board to modular tiles that could expand with player count. We introduced wild terrain tokens, bonus action tokens, and countless other minor tweaks.



However, we were still missing one crucial piece. We didn't know how the game would end. We initially thought the game would end based on a player placing all their wolves or dens. What actually happened was that for the first ten or so playtests, we just called the game after an hour when it was clear we weren't going to reach the end trigger within our desired playtime. The answer, it turns out, was moonlight.

From the first day of brainstorming we thought about having some sort of timer element related to moon phases. As we were searching for an endgame trigger, it seemed like a good time to revisit that notion, so we made a moonlight tracker board that looked a bit like a calendar and put moon phases on certain dates that would trigger scoring of certain regions on the board. Players would control the timing because every piece that came off the central board would move to the moonlight tracker, advancing it to the next date.


It was exactly what the game needed. It gave players agency and a reason to go to a region quickly. It created the sense of migration that is key to the finished product. Most importantly, though, our playtests now actually started to finish within our desired playtime!

Ashwin: This is the meat and potatoes of The Wolves story! You were fed a few appetizers, a glass of wine with notes of tree bark, but this is the main course. The SIXTH Terrain Card! People! This completely changed our game for the better. What was sticky started to feel smooth. Players were able to work with the puzzle, but not be hamstrung because of it. Players could create combinations now, prepare for future turns, and also uncover contingency plans, knowing that their cards won't change, but the drama of what happens on the game board inevitably will!

Most area-majority games come with a feeling of withholding and passivity. What's mine is mine, and if I show aggression, it often benefits the other players. With a pillar of design being engagement and interaction, starting players off in their corners of the world seemed a bit off-putting.

Early in development, we came up with an idea in which players start in the middle, in each other's way from the jump. Listening to feedback and revisiting conversations of our own, we determined that the pair of alpha wolves needed to split off and not necessarily clump up. We wanted players on their toes, sure, but also as a means of flexibility to have options on which action to take when. We created a chasm or donut hole in the middle of the central tile and forced players to split up their alpha wolves. Thematically, this works as often one is hunting, while the other is training or nursing the pack. While grouping up could still inevitably happen, this was now a choice we are giving the players to add to their strategy.

Beyond the elegance and beauty that the game presents in its appearance, which was beyond our wildest dreams by the way, we wanted the game to feel elegant โ€” elegant in that nothing was out of reach or inaccessible and that everything happened to have a purpose. No long-term artificial aspects were talked about as wanting to find its way into the game.

The region tiles, as mentioned before, took on many forms. The patterning math behind it all was set to five players, with every combination appearing twice, but no region tile had the same exact patterning. Intentionally, the free action of hunting prey happens around multiple terrain types, which means it takes more actions to surround the prey. Keeping prey token accrual as unique and not repetitive meant that all wolves had to keep moving, allowing for planning and preparing for future turns while also staying present in your current state of affairs.

We tuned the game to create more story and arc. We added and affixed extra action tokens to hunting prey to give permission to players to go crazy and have everlasting memories and moments in games that often miss the intention of why games exist. Similarly, as mimicry often leads to stagnation, offering another path towards extra exciting and potentially threatening future actions through the use of wild terrain tokens gave players the chance to compete and get out of any possible tricky spot easier, potentially even ramping up the pace of the game.

Lairs being required to be next to water features was a way of guarding players against themselves because if lairs could be built on edges of the map, it could lead to stale game states. By going into each region tile, it enriched the meaning and intentionality to do these actions over others. I could keep going with all the subtleties, but through each iteration and revision, things felt cleaner, refined, and cared for, which reflected how players were feeling.

Finding Our Pack

Clarence: We were now getting consistent positive feedback on the game. Playtesters unfailingly mentioned our action system as the most unique and interesting thing about the game, but maybe more importantly, we finally knew how the game would end. That was the last missing piece before starting the pitch process and looking for potential publishers.

We looked for publishers that had done medium-weight games, had done an animal theme, had done area control and/or grid movement, and had a good track record with their production values. There actually weren't a huge number of publishers that fit all these criteria. We ended up picking out about a dozen publishers and, starting in October 2020, sent out pitch e-mails with a sell sheet and overview video.

From gallery of casimps1
Our checklist to prep for pitching

About one-third of the publishers never replied at all. Another one-third said "no". Some had full production pipelines. Some didn't want to publish a wolf theme, but also realized that changing the theme would likely do it a disservice. Some said the idea didn't excite them or didn't fit their plans. But the last one-third were curious about the game and wanted to spend some time evaluating it.

Around this same time, there were a few programs emerging that were trying to help designers get matched up with publishers in this new digital world brought on by the pandemic. We entered "Wolf" into the Board Date Project and The Pitch Project. "Wolf" was selected for the Board Date Project, but we received no contacts from publishers. "Wolf" wasn't selected at all for The Pitch Project. This was pretty disappointing, but we still had a lot of faith in the game.

About a month later, Heather Oโ€™Neill of 9th Level Games ran another one of her great Publisher Speed Pitching events. It was at this event that we got to pitch "Wolf" to Alex Cutler at Pandasaurus Games. After demoing the game, Alex was immediately enamored with the terrain-flipping action system and felt like "Wolf" could fit well in their line-up and be developed into a published product with minimal mechanical changes. After a demo with the owners, we were given an offer to sign the game! We also received a comparable offer from a second publisher, but Pandasaurus was a bit higher on our list, so we decided to become part of the Pandasaurus family.

A Wolf in Pandasaurus Clothing

Clarence: After signing, Alex took the lead on development of the game. He liked most of what we had designed and didn't want to make any broad, sweeping changes. It would be more like tweaking rules and massaging numbers.

For most of our design process, we had felt that the interaction between players was key to the fun of the game, and that you needed at least three to get that interaction, so we pitched "Wolf" as a 3-5 player game. However, there was a strong preference from Pandasaurus for adding two-player support, if possible.

Luckily, one of the very last things we did before signing the game was trying it once at two players with no rules changes, just to see what would happen. To our surprise, it didn't completely break or fall apart. It was still an enjoyable game, but it did have some quirks. Alex ironed those quirks out with some special rules for a two-player variant, including tweaked score values and a neutral wolf pack.

Alex also added bonus tokens and VP to the attribute tracks. He also simplified the distribution of prey tokens. Originally, we had a rule that two opposing pieces could never occupy the same hex. Alex introduced the concept of pushing and the piece hierarchy to allow for more interaction.

From gallery of casimps1
An early 3D rendering to explore what the board and pieces could look like

There were also a few non-mechanical changes that needed to be made. The double-sided terrain cards would become thick punchboard tiles. That would make them much easier to handle once they finally existed in the physical world.

Scent markers would also need to be changed because dominating a scent marker by howling doesn't quite make sense. Also, there was never a good plan for what a scent marker would actually look like as a wooden piece. The team eventually settled on changing scent markers into small dens and dens into large lairs. This change meant the end of all the pee jokes that inevitably happened during the prototype versions of the game.

Of course, I can't talk about the production process without mentioning Pauliina Linjama. Pandasaurus brought her on to do the art, and we could not be more thrilled with the work she created. It really takes the game to another level. The wolf eye box cover is jaw-dropping and is consistently one of the first things to draw people in.




With a sold-out debut at SPIEL '22 and a brief trip to the top of the BGG Hotness charts, it's been quite the whirlwind journey for us and The Wolves. We are both very proud of the finished product, and we're excited to see it soon on your gaming tables!

Clarence Simpson and Ashwin Kamath

[Editor's note: I'm aware of the Nov. 16, 2022 Dicebreaker article regarding accusations of non-payment by and "a toxic environment" at publisher Pandasaurus Games, but Clarence and Ashwin started working on this diary months ago, and I want to give them a chance to tell their story. Please direct any comments about the publisher's business practices to this thread instead of posting them here. โ€”WEM]
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Fri Nov 18, 2022 7:00 am
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Designer Diary: Merchants of Magick

Clarence Simpson
United States
Cary
North Carolina
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Board Game: Merchants of Magick: A Set a Watch Tale
As of November 2021, Merchants of Magick pre-orders are being delivered, and hopefully it will show up at your local game store soon. It's been a journey getting to this point, and I wanted to share a deep dive into the details of the whole process and how a new designer went from vague idea, to prototype, to pitching, to lots of rejection, to my first published game.

It all started because of Suzanne Sheldon and GenCan't.


Polyhedral Possibilities

GenCan't is an online-only alternative to Gen Con, operated by Suzanne Sheldon of The Dice Tower. The event offers raffles, online games, and also a design contest. On May 13, 2019, the restrictions for the GenCan't 2019 design contest were announced, and the first twinklings of ideas for the game that was to become Merchants of Magick emerged.

The restrictions were simple but fascinating: Design a roll-and-write game that is played using at most a single set of polyhedral dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, percentile). I was familiar with the boom in roll-and-write games by this point, but I realized Suzanne was right and this polyhedral idea seemed to be almost totally missing from the market. Practically every published roll-and-write used d6s exclusively, but I saw no good reason that a game with polyhedral dice couldn't work. It was a captivating challenge.

But what to do with polyhedral dice? My main experience using polyhedral dice came from RPG sessions playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I felt like that might be a common experience for many gamers, so I decided to lean into that association and create something with a fantasy theme. However, I knew I didn't want to do a dungeon crawl. Plenty of other games did that far better than I could. I wanted something more unique.

From gallery of casimps1
The first scribbles of ideas for the game

My initial brainstorming went to the untold stories of dungeon crawlers. Who were the people that managed the item shops that equipped those adventurers? I scribbled down lots of ideas about managing workers that harvested materials of varying rarity, which would then be made into items, which would then be stocked on shelves like a Tetris puzzle, with some magic spells thrown in for good measure.

It was way too much for a roll-and-write, and I scrapped almost all of it โ€” but the idea of running a fantasy shop that sold magic items had enchanted me. And I wasn't aware of any shop management games that were set in a fantasy universe. I had my unique angle and started to run with it.

From gallery of casimps1
Another idea that had been in the back of my mind for a while was the randomly-generated loot systems pioneered by RPG video games like Diablo. When loot items dropped from monsters or treasure chests in Diablo, the game would randomly generate a base item, a prefix, and a suffix. For example, it might generate a "War Staff" for the base item, then "Brutal" as the prefix and "of the Jaguar" for the suffix, giving a final magic item named "Brutal War Staff of the Jaguar". Each base item, prefix, and suffix would convey its own set of stats and abilities. Putting these elements together gave seemingly endless combinations of magic items.

I wanted to somehow do something similar to Diablo's loot system in tabletop form, so I added the ability to research enchantment spells that could give an item a prefix or a suffix. Creating a customer's magic item would now require crafting a base item, and researching a prefix and/or suffix enchantment.

Okay, but how do players get from rolling dice to items and spells? More importantly, how do I ensure these standard numeric polyhedral dice are essential to the design? I wanted it to be impossible for a publisher to look at the design and say, "How about we just make all of these d6s?"

From that first brainstorming session I brought the idea that all items were made of three different raw materials and all spells were made of three different magical energies. Each material and energy could be created only by certain dice, and you needed a certain threshold amount of it for each item or spell. I also wanted both high and low rolls to be useful, so crafting uses "greater than" thresholds, while research uses "less than" thresholds. This system worked beautifully to make the polyhedral dice meaningful and create interesting player choices, and it never changed.

I had a plan now, but sadly I never got to enter the game into the GenCan't contest. It was a week after the entry deadline when I finally figured out how to make everything work together โ€” but I was still excited to iterate on the idea and see where it could go.


Ye Olde Magick Shoppe

Once I settle on a theme or mechanism that I want to design around, I always spend time on BGG doing competitive research. I want to know both what makes similar games work well as well as what design space has yet to be explored.

I wasn't terribly well-versed in roll-and-write games at the time. I knew there was a recent explosion in the genre, but had played only Roll Through the Ages. I made it a point to become familiar with most of the top games in BGG's roll-and-write family. I looked at That's Pretty Clever, Welcome To..., Welcome to Dino World, Fleet: The Dice Game, the newly released Cartographers, and others, taking notes on things I liked about each. This would guide some of my future design decisions.

In July 2019, I created my first playable prototype and called it "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe". It was pure text, and the player sheet was hideous because I made it quickly in Google Docs. For the rest of the year, I brought it regularly to meetings of the Game Designers of North Carolina, whose feedback was instrumental in the game's development. I iterated through nine major revisions to the game and a dozen minor tweaks. Let's talk about a few of the most interesting changes.

From gallery of casimps1
A surprisingly large portion of this first prototype player sheet made it to the final product

I always knew that I wanted the player to choose which dice they use each round, but it wasn't always as simple as the "choose two" with which I ended up. In the original prototype, I actually rolled a d4 in addition to the other dice every round. Since there were four other dice, I thought it was clever to make the result of the d4 be the number of other dice you had to use that round. I'll never forget that first playtest when Daniel Solis asked whether it was a Cones of Dunshire (Parks & Rec) reference: "Roll the dice to see how many dice you roll."

From gallery of casimps1
The d4 idea ultimately caused too much variance in how many total dice would be spent during the game. There was about a 10% chance that players would spend fewer than 20 dice or more than 30, which made the game feel too short or too long.

I decided to keep the total dice spent each game to 25, which was about half the number of total boxes on the player sheet. That was enough to feel like you could accomplish something, while also wanting more.

Next, I tried a fixed deck of ten cards numbered 1-4 and totaling 25 to determine how many dice would be spent each round. That made the game length consistent, but one playtester hated when they could choose only one die. Another playtester hated having to choose three or four dice, so that settled it in my mind. Everyone was good with choosing two dice so that's what we'd do consistently from now on.

Two dice over ten rounds made 20 total dice. I added five "extra dice" boxes that players could use in any round to spend more than two dice. That brought the total dice to 25. This change eliminated some physical components, made the game experience consistent, and gave the player more interesting choices with when to use their extra dice. The game was getting brain-burny in the best kind of way.


In earlier iterations I tried without success to implement "first to market" bonuses. They were die modifiers given to the player who first completed each item and spell. The hope was to create more player interaction in the race to complete rows. This idea worked okay at low player counts, but absolutely fell apart at high player counts because it was too hard to track and players no longer had enough modifiers to effectively mitigate bad luck. Scrapping the "first to market" race in favor of always awarding die modifiers for every row completed streamlined things considerably.

The way that customer cards were distributed around the table evolved over time as well. I was initially inspired by the goal system in Welcome to Dino World. It placed shared goal cards between players and had them compete to finish them before the other player. I thought that was a clever way to introduce some player interaction to a roll-and-write. I realized that my twist on this idea would be that my goal cards would rotate around the table from player to player, which made a lot of sense thematically as customers getting impatient. This provided both player interaction and opportunity for long-term planning.

From gallery of casimps1
The evolution of the player sheet

I spent a fair bit of iteration time trying to improve the readability of the player sheet. I often joked that it looked like "Microsoft Excel: The Game". Adding icons, row shading, and boxes did wonders for how long it took players to understand their sheet.

Two common pieces of feedback I received were that players wanted a non-moving goal so they didn't have to worry about losing it, and they wanted to craft a matching set of equipment, all with the same enchantment. After some thought, I came up with "sponsored heroes" as a solution to both of these problems. They would be a special customer that stayed at the player's shop for the entire game and wanted a matching set of equipment. This also allowed me to design some special rewards for the sponsored hero. Rewarding the player with multiple die modifiers and allowing them to check boxes for free felt like powerful rewards and created new opportunities for players to make satisfying combo plays.

I was starting to feel really good about the game. It had simultaneous play and the ability to scale like Welcome To.... It had the potential for combos like That's Pretty Clever. It had competition for goals like Welcome to Dino World. It had long-term planning for future goals like Cartographers. It was one of those rare heavier roll-and-writes like Fleet: The Dice Game. It was solid.

Apprenticeship

I had started seriously designing games only in early 2019. Throughout 2019, I consumed game design podcasts, YouTube videos, Twitter, articles, and BGG forums at a rapid pace. By the time I had designed "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe", I already knew so much more about game design than when I started โ€” but it's just as important to know what you don't know.

I knew my ultimate goal was to get "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe" licensed by a publisher and in stores, but I had never been to a major gaming convention, had never met a publisher, and had almost no idea what pitching to one was like. I knew a few stories from fellow designers, and I had read a few older, possibly obsolete, articles about pitching, but I still had so many questions!

Around this time, I learned about the Tabletop Mentorship Program, a free mentorship program spearheaded by Mike Belsole and Grace Kendall that was still fairly new at the time. After they convinced me that I had things to teach in addition to things to learn, I volunteered as both mentor and mentee for a three-month session. It was a fantastic experience that I am incredibly grateful for.


My mentor, Rob Newton, helped tremendously throughout that time. He playtested "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe", helped me understand the pitch process, gave advice on refining and streamlining my sell sheet, gave tips on researching publishers, and explained how to navigate a major convention. Maybe most importantly, after playing "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe", he told me that I should be pitching it to publishers. I had already been wondering whether it was ready, but his validation pushed me to move forward and make that happen.


"Get Your Fresh Game Designs Here!"

From gallery of casimps1
I decided to start pitching "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe" to potential publishers at PAX Unplugged in December 2019. I already had a few publishers in mind, but I certainly didn't know all of them, so I had research to do. On Rob's advice, I started by looking in the Cardboard Edison Compendium, a database of publishers, what kind of games they're looking for, and how to pitch to them.

When I found a publisher that was accepting submissions, I went to look at their catalog of games on BGG for two things. I wanted to see whether they published lighter games like roll-and-writes and whether they seemed open to fantasy themes. For the ones that passed this test and were going to be present at PAX Unplugged, I emailed them my sell sheet about a month prior to the con asking to schedule a pitch meeting.

I sent pitch e-mails to 25 publishers. About half of those (12) responded to me, which was better than I hoped for as a totally unknown first-time designer. Half of those responses (6) were positive and resulted in scheduling an in-person pitch meeting at PAX Unplugged.

When PAX rolled around, I met with the six scheduled publishers, as well as a few more spontaneously thanks to referrals and the Unpub room. Of those, most declined, but two publishers said it was the best pitch they saw all weekend. They both asked to take a prototype with them to put the game through some more rigorous testing and evaluation.


An Offer That I Couldn't Refuse?

After more evaluation, one publisher really enjoyed it as a game, but couldn't figure out how to make it a viable product, so they passed on it โ€” but in March 2020, the second publisher gave me my first ever offer to license and produce my game.

I was thrilled to have an offer and excited by the plans the publisher had. As we discussed the details of a licensing contract, I consulted with other designers and the fantastic set of licensing infographics by Cardboard Edison to see whether the terms were fair. Everything seemed reasonable with one exception that kept nagging at me.

Sometimes a publisher licenses a game, then never produces or releases it. Usually there is a clause in which rights to the game revert back to the designer if the publisher fails to publish in a certain amount of time. This contract offered rights reversion after five years. The Cardboard Edison licensing survey showed that only 6% of contracts had rights reversion periods that long. I also couldn't stand the thought of possibly waiting five years, then being back to zero with getting the game published.

I agonized over the decision for a week, but ultimately declined the offer. I hoped that I could get a better offer where I wouldn't have to wait that long to see it published. I thought I just had to keep trying harder.

Going Out of Business

After that, things began to look bleak for the game. All of my pitches had hit dead ends for various reasons. I stopped working on the game because I felt like it was more or less done and that any remaining development would be dependent on which publisher signed it.

I still believed in the game, though, so I proceeded to enter it into several different design contests, hoping to do well and attract some attention that way. I entered it into the Hippodice Design Contest, the BGG Roll & Write Contest, the Cardboard Edison Award, the Board Game Workshop Contest, and the Board Game Design Lab Contest. In every case, it didn't make it past the first round.

After these industry veterans had taken a closer look at the game and weren't all that impressed, some serious self-doubt started creeping in. Maybe this game isn't as good as I think it is? Maybe I've just totally missed the boat on the roll-and-write craze? Maybe nobody wants a roll-and-write that's this complex?

I continued sending e-mail pitches and realized that I had now pitched to 45 publishers who had either explicitly declined or didn't respond. I was rapidly running out of publishers that I thought might be interested and losing hope that it would ever be picked up. The Covid pandemic was now also in full swing, and its impacts were rippling through the entire industry. I suspected that publishers would be even more selective and hesitant to sign unknown designers. I wasn't sure what to do next.

Then, a speed-pitching opportunity presented itself on Twitter.


Under New Management

In May 2020, Heather O'Neill of 9th Level Games announced that she was running a publisher speed-pitching event that would take place virtually during an online convention. I had heard of speed pitching, but had never done it. The thought of showing off your game as quickly as possible to ten publishers within an hour or so is a bit daunting, but having already made an under five-minute overview video for the game, I knew I could do it. I applied and "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe" was selected to participate!

It was at this speed pitching event in August 2020 that I first connected with Mike Gnade, owner of Rock Manor Games. He was intrigued by the premise of my game and requested a demo. Later that week, we met up on Discord and played a full game using Tabletop Simulator. He was very happy about what he saw and how it seemed to line up nicely with products he was already developing.

Board Game: Set a Watch: Swords of the Coin
Rock Manor had released the fantasy-themed co-op game Set a Watch in 2019. Now, Mike was busy preparing to Kickstart Swords of the Coin, an expansion to Set a Watch, in which a primary new feature was a merchant character that sold magic items to adventurers. The match was pure serendipity, and Mike felt it was the perfect chance to expand his Set a Watch line with a spinoff game. He pitched the idea that in my game, players would get to become the new merchant character and offered me a contract to license the game the day after our demo. It actually felt quite strange to get an offer so quickly after facing so much rejection previously.

Before accepting the offer, I circled back to another publisher that was still evaluating the game. I let them know I had an offer on the table and asked them to make a final decision within the next few weeks. This is an important courtesy to give publishers when you receive an offer. It gives them a chance to either cease their evaluation or accelerate it and come back to you with their own offer โ€” and of course, it gives you a chance at getting an even better offer than your first one.

I did end up getting a counter-offer that was comparable to the one from Rock Manor, but Mike ultimately sold me on his enthusiasm for the game. I also really enjoyed the artwork in Set a Watch and felt like that style would be able to turn my dry-looking game into something special. Mike didn't want to make a lot of mechanical changes and wanted to develop and produce it quickly. The plan was to use a lot of existing art from the new Set a Watch project and target a 2021 release. This rapid turnaround time made me feel vindicated in turning down the previous offer with a five-year release window, so I signed and officially became part of the Rock Manor catalog.

Becoming Merchants of Magick

Mike wasn't kidding about moving quickly, and we started development almost immediately, communicating through Slack. One of the first changes we tackled was the name. I had become fairly attached to "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe" but Mike really wanted the word "Merchant" somewhere in the name to tie it to the upcoming Swords of the Coin. We had a brief brainstorming session and settled fairly quickly on the alliterative "Merchants of Magick", with the subtitle "A Set a Watch Tale".

Next, since Merchants of Magick was now supposed to be part of the same world as Set a Watch, we wanted to create some consistency between my game and the existing design and art that had been created for both the original Set a Watch and Swords of the Coin.

From gallery of casimps1
Prototype and final hero

My generic star-icon victory points became coins. Some of my items, like shield, sword, and backpack, matched existing art and could stay as-is. Others like torch, cudgel, and longbow needed to be changed to scroll, staff, and crossbow to match existing art. The previously nameless sponsored heroes could now become the hero characters from Set a Watch and Swords of the Coin. We just needed to decide which hero would want which enchantment for their set of equipment.

After this, we tackled a few mechanical changes. We both felt good about the core, but thought the player sheet was intimidating and should be streamlined. Mike made the bold suggestion to completely scrap my directional up/down arrow modifier system, which by extension scrapped the charms section of spell research, which had previously upgraded the modifiers. He wanted to replace it all with a set of potion tokens that the player would earn one for completing any row and could later spend for either +1 or -1 to any die.

I was highly skeptical of this change at first. I had some memorable turns playtesting with my arrow modifier system that stemmed from solving the puzzle of earning, spending, and manipulating those arrows to combo into something that you previously thought was impossible. I didn't want to lose that feeling. To my surprise, during playtesting of the potion tokens, that feeling was mostly still there, so we kept it and the player sheet instantly became less cluttered and confusing. It remains the most impactful change to the game after signing.

Mike made another great suggestion that instead of just having five free extra dice for each game, you'd have three free, with three more that could be bought with potion tokens. This was another positive change and accomplished two things. It brought back a little more of the puzzly feel of finding combos, and it helped address a common player complaint that it was almost always better to use all of your extra dice as early as possible.

Another bit of streamlining was combining the customers (single-enchantment items) and the connoisseurs (double-enchantment items) into a single deck. In "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe", I dealt one double-enchantment item to each player, then set that deck aside for the remainder of the game. The original intent was making sure that tougher cards were evenly distributed and stuck around as a long-term goal for players, while also ensuring that they didn't show up randomly at the end of the game for loads of free points. It was a trade-off, but combining the decks simplified set-up and clean-up, while also providing a larger deck, which helped reduce the chance of deck depletion at larger player counts.

After a little more balancing and minor tweaks, the final gameplay was solidified. The Swords of the Coin Kickstarter launched in September 2020. During the last week of the Kickstarter, Merchants of Magick was announced and offered as an add-on to backers, but there was still a lot of art production to get done.

Over the next few months, we ran demos and livestreams at various online conventions while art and graphic design slowly trickled in from T.L. Simons, who did an absolutely stellar job. From the beautiful full-color player sheet to the brilliant design of the enchantment icons in the corners of each card, I could not be happier with the final look of the game.

Board Game: Merchants of Magick: A Set a Watch Tale

Board Game: Merchants of Magick: A Set a Watch Tale
Final player sheet and a few final order cards

Manifesting the Merchant

I do want to spend a little extra time talking about the eponymous merchant on the box cover, beautifully illustrated by Boris Stanisic โ€” but to do that, I need to provide some background.

I'm biracial: half-white, half-Filipino. My wife is Black. Her job is supporting underrepresented students in the sciences, many racial minorities, at a major university. Our kids are multiracial. I am keenly tuned into racial disparities because of these personal connections.


My regular game night group is predominantly Black and has been for 10+ years. A few of them regularly accompany me to both local and national gaming conventions โ€” but some of them also feel deeply uncomfortable and unwelcome in the larger gaming hobby when beyond the safe space provided by my game nights.

It's easy to see why they feel that way. Though it has gotten slightly better recently, other game gatherings and cons have always been overwhelmingly white and male. When I started in game design I knew that if given the opportunity, I wanted to make a difference in the industry somehow for them.


Elizabeth Hargrave and Tanya Pobuda have both done great work looking into representation in board game art. Their studies gave numbers to what I anecdotally knew to be true: that board game art was just as overwhelmingly white and male as the cons were.

That's when I knew what I could do to bring some minuscule change to the industry. I promised myself that if I was ever in a position to get a game published, that I would press the publisher to prominently feature a Black woman on the box cover art. It's something you almost never see. I polled Twitter for examples of Black women on box covers, and the responses were few and far between, especially if you limited it to unambiguously Black women as the primary face on the box.


This is another reason I chose to sign with Rock Manor Games. When I asked Mike whether I could have a Black woman as THE Merchant of Magick on the box cover, he didn't hesitate to say yes. He agreed with me about representation and said that I was free to describe exactly what I wanted to the illustrator.

From gallery of casimps1
An early sketch of the cover art

I put together a cover art brief including description of the characters and scene, and some reference images that I liked. About a month later we got a rough sketch back. Even though it was still just a sketch, my wife actually broke into tears seeing somebody that looks like her front and center on a board game cover for the first time ever.

Representation matters.


A few months after that we had the final cover laid out with a fully detailed illustration as well as the title work and logos. It was absolutely gorgeous, and the public reception has been overwhelmingly positive. It felt great knowing that I had helped create some small thing that might make somebody out there feel a little more like they belong in this hobby.

Grand Opening

By February 2021, we had finished prepping all the assets to give to the factory. We received some pre-production samples in April, approved them, and started the print run.

Unfortunately, by the time production finished in June, the world of ocean-freight container shipping had gone insane. Freight prices were already five times what they were a year ago and would get worse over the coming months. This created huge delays and put many publishers in the awful situation of not knowing how to get their product out of China. I started to wonder again whether the games would ever see the light of day.


Mike ultimately decided to run a voluntary fundraiser asking backers to donate money toward the skyrocketing freight fees. Backers were very generous and helped us get the games on a boat. They're now finally across the ocean and making their way into the hands of customers and stores around the world.

After everything it took to get here, it's both thrilling and a huge relief to see the game out in the world. I'm incredibly proud of it, and it turned out more beautiful than I could have imagined. Thanks for reading about its journey, and I hope you get a chance to enjoy the game soon!

Clarence Simpson

Board Game: Merchants of Magick: A Set a Watch Tale
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Thu Dec 9, 2021 1:00 pm
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