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Designer Diary: Abandon All Artichokes, or a Heartless Card Game

Emma Larkins
United States
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Board Game: Abandon All Artichokes
What did artichokes do to deserve this? What could anyone possibly have against them? What kind of existential crisis inspires the consternation of this particular edible flower bud?

Well, friends, buckle up because I'm here to take you on an Abandon All Artichokes journey of mythical proportions from name-first design to pitching, from mechanical development to design philosophy musings, from playtesting to publication and beyond.

What's In a Name?

In July 2017 I issued myself a challenge (dubbed #gamedesigndaily) to improve my skills as a game designer. My goal was to do one design-related thing (no matter how small) each day, for example, play a board game, brainstorm a game concept, or take a picture on my daily walk to inspire creativity.

Enter the Alliterative Game Name Challenge. I wrote the list on my bus ride to work, and later posted it on Twitter:

The names were fun and goofy, but had no mechanical underpinnings — and yet someone responded to my tweet with "Can I pre-order Abandon All Artichokes?" My initial thought was "It's not even a game! There's nothing there! It's just a silly name that I came up with on the bus!" Nonetheless, the seed was planted, and slowly took root.

Three months later...

Game-a-Day Prototyping

...I was still going strong with #gamedesigndaily. At the end of October 2017, I issued myself a particularly tough challenge: design a game a day for a week. I made sure to set the bar for these designs low; the purpose of this challenge was not to come up with seven amazing games, but instead to hone my rapid prototyping skills.

With the clock ticking, I latched onto a name from the past for one of the designs: "Abandon All Artichokes". There was no time to ponder how a game called "Abandon All Artichokes" might function mechanically, so I went with the first mechanism that popped into my head: deck-building. You get rid of cards in a deck-builder, so it meshed well with this idea of "abandoning" the artichokes.

Next, I wanted to come up with at least a semblance of a theme. Well, the artichokes were there already. Why not throw some other fruits and vegetables into the mix? And why not put funny faces on them, just for the heck of it? No big inspiration there — I'm just a big fan of adorable faces on food.

And thus, a prototype was born.

Core Game Structure

From the start, I wanted Abandon All Artichokes to be something that kids and families would enjoy, but with enough strategy that I could play with my gamer friends.

From gallery of emmalarkins
The win condition emerged naturally and is one of my favorite parts of the game. Instead of having to count up points, you simply check for Artichoke cards every time you draw at the end of your turn. No Artichokes = WIN! As you cull Artichokes and add non-Artichoke cards to your deck, you naturally progress towards the end state. However, you don't know exactly when it will occur, which is a hallmark of an engaging game.

I decided on a limited set of card powers (as opposed to mostly unique cards) and a dynamic market (instead of always-available piles of each card type). Pineapple let you blow up an opponent's hand, forcing them to discard one or more cards using an adjacency effect. Broccoli shielded you from Pineapple attacks. Strawberry trashed cards to remove them from your deck. Banana drew cards.

That was the whole game, at the start. I like to point this out because a lot changed over time, but right from the beginning, there was a simple, core loop of fun that felt worth pursuing.

The original prototype didn't emerge from my brain as a shining diamond, however. Many things either immediately got the axe or took a while to weed out.

Far From Perfect

At first, the adjacency effect of the Pineapple felt like the biggest innovation. Very early on, however, it proved too chaotic for Abandon All Artichokes.

The Artichokes acted as a currency in the original version. Instead of getting a card for free each turn, you'd have to "spend" (discard) an Artichoke to purchase a card from the market. This slowed the game down because you couldn't get rid of your Artichokes as quickly if you kept discarding them from your hand.

The game had a good hook, but there wasn't yet a lot of meat to it. It would need a lot of development to get it in working order, but I didn't have a ton of time to spend on iterating because...

From gallery of emmalarkins
Abandon All Artichokes Hits the Road

The first PAX Unplugged was in less than a month. As someone who loves PAX and loves board games, I already had my ticket. I wanted to bring a new game to demo and figured that out of all my prototypes, Abandon All Artichokes had the most potential.

I did a quick art pass using clip art from Etsy. (Rule of thumb for new designers: Don't spend a fortune on prototype art, and don't steal art from the Internet.) Then I added the names and the powers to the cards, and I was ready to go.

Next I had to decide what to do with Abandon All Artichokes at PAXU, so I signed up for an Unpub table. (Shout-out to Unpub for being an awesome place for playtesting games.) I also figured I'd send a few pitch emails. It would be good practice, even if no one responded. I used the Cardboard Edison Compendium to find publisher contact information and cross-referenced that with the PAXU floor plan to make sure the publishers I was interested in would actually be at the show. I chose Gamewright because of my long-time love for their games (I figured I'd be able to play up the "food with faces" angle), in addition to a handful of other publishers.

Much to my surprise, despite the newness of the prototype, the response was positive! I credit my marketing background as right from the start, I had pitching on my brain. I wrote these notes less than a month after making the first prototype.

From gallery of emmalarkins
Early pitch notes for Abandon All Artichokes, November 2017

I kept the following in mind as I composed my pitch email (below): keep it short; images sell; have a good hook; and understand the publisher's products.
I'd love to meet you and your team at PAX Unplugged, where I'll be pitching my light, fast-paced deck building game Abandon All Artichokes.

Attack your opponents with pineapples. Hit an artichoke with a pineapple to do triple damage!

External image

- Fast-paced
- Easy-to-learn
- Reduces deck building to its simplest components
- Funny theme
- Strategic
- Take that mechanic makes players consider card placement within their hands

Do you have time for a meeting? Happy to come by your booth if that's convenient. Love to stop by and say hi even if this game isn't a fit — I'm a big Gamewright fan, and Sushi Go! and Go Nuts for Donuts are my jam.
Playtesting at the Show

Playtesting was my main goal. I've always been a huge proponent of testing, and although I'd received some publisher interest already, I had no illusions that the game was done.

From gallery of emmalarkins
"Playtesters putting bought cards into hand instead of discard. Maybe this is okay!"

Testing proved fruitful throughout the show. For example, one player suggested that instead of "trashing" cards (a terminology common in deck-builders) you'd "compost" them.

I watched players take cards from the market directly into their hands instead of putting them into their discard piles (another common deck-builder trope). I wanted to lean into natural player behavior to make the game as intuitive as possible, so instead of fighting against these instincts, I decided to incorporate them into my game.

I also observed as one player in particular "broke" my game by making an Infinite Potato Loop using card draw.

From gallery of emmalarkins
"Will fix infinite potato."

Drawing cards in a deck-builder is an incredibly delicate power, and this started my long fight with the ability, eventually leading to cutting it completely.

Unpub was fantastic, the testing went well, and even with this incredibly early iteration I saw positive player feedback: smiles, laughter, and email list sign-ups — all good signs that I was on the right track.

Publisher Meetings

From gallery of emmalarkins
PAXU, at least in its first year, turned out to be a great event for engaging with publishers. I'd been to Gen Con a few times before, and there is so much going on that it can be hard to get a publisher's attention. PAXU was chill enough that I was able to set up some in-person meetings by handing out my card. My card has my picture on the back of it, so it was easy for people to find me.

I stopped by the Gamewright booth with my sell sheet and rules, as requested, and shook hands with Jason, but didn't actually demo. I did have a chance to sit down and play the game with a couple of publishers, and the response was surprisingly positive.

Initial Impressions

Jason emailed me back that the rules looked interesting, and he wanted to see a prototype. I sent it off December 2017.

Jason later revealed to me that he knew from the beginning that Abandon All Artichokes had something special to offer, but at the time I had no idea. Here's his response to my first prototype:
I love the premise and can certainly see the potential here. I'd say the main sticking point is that it may be a tad too difficult for your causal, "never played a deck-builder before" player... Not sure how interested you would be in tweaking the game to address some of these issues, but if so, I'd be happy to give it some serious reconsideration.
That was good enough for me! It's exactly what I was looking for — someone interested in giving me focused feedback and passionate about making the game the best it could be.

Early Development

There's no secret path I took as I started developing Abandon All Artichokes. I didn't have a clear plan of "change x, y, and z, and then it will be done." I simply put in the hard work of iterating on card powers while maintaining the core elements of engaging play that I'd identified in the first prototype.

These are the core design philosophies that guided my practice:

1. Follow the Feedback: It can be incredibly tough for a player to put their experience into words, making it difficult to distinguish between what a player says and what they actually mean. "Following the feedback" doesn't translate to "make every change playtesters suggest". It means observing and tracking the sum of play experiences over time and not ignoring how someone feels just because it's not something you want to hear.

From gallery of emmalarkins
2. Design for Delight: I learn a lot by watching people's faces. A sudden smile, a look of shock, a shout of triumph — these are the things I want to inspire. My goal was to make a game that people would discuss in excited tones during play and even after the game was done.

3. Break down Barriers: I wanted Abandon All Artichokes to be as approachable as possible. This meant leaning into players' instinctual actions and removing rules that went against their natural inclinations.

4. Players are Powerful: Although I wanted to make my game approachable, I also wanted continual, interesting actions. I didn't want the game to get boring after a few plays. That's where the obsession with tweaking and balancing cards came into play.

Growing with the Seattle Tabletop Game Design Community

I launched a local, weekly playtesting group in Seattle right around the time I started working on Abandon All Artichokes. (The idea for the group actually came out of discussions at PAXU.) However, there were already designers doing awesome things in Seattle: Joseph Z. Chen and Justin Faulkner launched their Fantastic Factories Kickstarter in May 2018. Local Point Salad designers Molly Johnson and Shawn Stankewich were also an important part of growing the group, along with Rob Newton (Shuffle Grand Prix), Victoria Cana and Alexandre Uboldi (Gladius), not to mention a dozen other designers who you'll see popping up here on BGG in the near future.

The group had (and continues to have) lots of great energy. I never would have polished Abandon All Artichokes without getting to test it with my fellow designers on a regular basis. Everyone in the group was so positive, always excited to test the game and pushing me to get it published already so they could buy it!

Moving Along

I sent another prototype to Gamewright in May 2018 and scheduled a meeting at Gen Con 2018.

The conversations with Gamewright evolved over time. As I continued to make positive changes, they got more excited, and we had more in-depth conversations about the individual cards and powers.

You've never lived until you've chatted for half an hour about whether or not Broccoli is overpowered and how it should be nerfed.

Closing in on the Goal

Weekly playtests with game designers can help to hone a game, but it's also important to get the prototype in front of new players from time to time. I had a great reception showing the game at PAX West 2018.

My pace varied over time, but I continued to slowly hammer away at the design. The more I tested, the more I realized that I needed to find a really solid pool of card powers. Cards needed to generally be good early game and late game; cards needed to generally synergize well with each other. At the same time, we wanted to have a few different strategies emerge for players to be able to pick a play style that suited them.

Most of the development involved playing around with all the zones of a simple deck-builder — active player's deck, hand, and discard pile; the market, a.k.a. "Garden"; the market deck; other player's decks, hands, and discard piles; and the trash pile, a.k.a. "Compost" — as well as combining different actions available in a deck-builder: drawing cards; discarding cards; adding new cards to your deck; trashing, a.k.a. "composting" cards; shuffling decks; and interacting with other players. Every time I made a new set of powers, I'd have to rebalance every existing card. Some cards stayed much the same throughout development, but some cards had upwards of ten iterations before we landed on a final ability.

A few key mechanical learnings:

1. Costs without Currency: Most deck-builders use points, money, or both to balance card powers. Often, cards will have a "spending power" for acquiring other cards. A very powerful card will cost more to purchase. A card worth a lot of points might not have any other mechanical effects. Without having these things to play around with, I had to invent other types of costs, such as: discarding an Artichoke, taking a risky action that might not result in progressing the game, putting a useful card in someone else's discard pile, taking only one action on your turn, having to demonstrate a certain composition of cards in your hand, etc.

2. Denying the Draw: Card draw is essential to a deck-builder. One of the key elements that distinguishes a deck-builder from other types of games is the constant drawing, discarding, and reshuffling of a player's personal deck. Purchasing cards that allow you to draw more cards accelerates your engine. Drawing cards is also fun! Abandon All Artichokes started out with card draw, and it took a long time for me to remove it. I never found a way to cost the cards that didn't make drawing more cards too valuable, even if you drew two cards and gave one to an opponent.

3. Balance, not Boredom: As I iterated on card powers, I went through many dramatic versions and many boring versions. Some of the most frustrating playtests were the ones in which I was sure I'd "perfectly balanced" the cards. Turns out that the best prototypes had a balance of "exciting" and "boring" cards. Take the Potato card (my personal favorite), for example: "Reveal the top card of your deck and compost it if it's an Artichoke." Every Potato is full of excitement! Compare that to the Broccoli card: "Compost an Artichoke if your hand has three or more Artichokes." No matter which way you slice it, there's just not much to that card. It's great early game, not so much late game. Sometimes you just can't do anything with it. I played the game recently and couldn't resist teasing my friend for choosing a Broccoli-heavy strategy, but you know what? He won the game!

Let's dig into a couple of card evolutions to get a sense of how some Abandon All Artichokes powers evolved over time.

From gallery of emmalarkins

Potato Evolution

Remember what I said about card draw? Look at the power on that first Potato: "Draw two cards." DRAW TWO CARDS. What was I thinking?!?

I love how the changes in this series of cards represents me coming to terms with pulling the weed of card draw from my game. I reduced the power by changing it to "Draw a card. Compost if it's an Artichoke." Eventually I did away with drawing and just had players compost the top card of their player decks. I loved the chaos of this card, but it ended up burning through the deck too quickly. Eventually I settled on "Reveal the top card of your Deck. Compost if Artichoke, otherwise discard it." The final form of this power struck a great balance between the exciting reveal of the top card of your deck and not reducing your deck to zero cards too quickly.

Beet Evolution

I don't want to go over every step in this evolution, but I wanted to point out how two similar card effects merged into one.

One of the core design directives from Gamewright was to encourage player interaction. It took many, many iterations to find a steal effect that didn't feel too punishing for the person being "attacked", especially after I removed the ability to block attacks.

From gallery of emmalarkins

Eventually, I merged the Banana steal effect with the Onion "two players reveal a random card" effect to arrive at the final Beet power: "You and an opponent each reveal a random card. Compost both if Artichokes, otherwise swap them." If you play this early in the game, chances are good that you'll help someone out by getting an Artichoke out of their deck. This ended up softening the potential steal effect just enough to make a "take that" action not feel too bad.

Dark Night of the Soul

It's important to share this part of the designer journey because things aren't always sunshine and roses. Bringing a game design to life can be incredibly emotionally taxing at times, and it's good to talk about that.

I got stuck in development a few times, and yes, it was incredibly frustrating. However, after accepting the frustration, I'd make some wild changes to the game, like playing all cards face-up in front of you or having people swap their entire hand with another player. Most of these drastic changes didn't make it into the final game, but they helped to get me out of design ruts.

I also found myself declaring multiple times that "The game is finished!" when there were still, unbeknownst to me, multiple months of development time left. The more experience you get as a designer, the better you get at estimating development time. Still, sometimes you really just need to take the time to explore all the potential things a game could be if you want to make a really good game.

From gallery of emmalarkins
142 things, to be exact!

For a lot of the early development, I was going to conventions, constantly tweaking the game, getting a lot of good feedback. I hit a bit of a wall at the end of 2018 and didn't talk much about the game on social media for three months. At a certain point when you're developing a game heavily, there just isn't going to be any exciting news to share with your community. "I changed the phrasing on a card from 'draw' to 'reveal'!" No one will ever be close enough to your game to understand all the subtle complexities, all the seemingly minuscule modifications that you agonize over. Designing a game can get lonely, at times.

Closing In

I got to play Abandon All Artichokes with Gil Hova (designer of The Networks and other fine games) at the GAMA Trade Show in early 2019. Gil (who I now host the Ludology podcast with) was one of the first designers who took a chance on testing my games back in 2015, and he has always been an incredibly sharp and insightful person to work with. I was happy with this latest version of the game, and it felt really good to have his support.

That was the first moment when I felt 100% confident in the future of my game.

Picking a Publisher

Board Game Publisher: Gamewright
Gamewright was a dream publisher for me. I love their games, I love how cheerful and upbeat their booths are at conventions, I love their approach to the joy of play. I had strong interest from other publishers who I pitched to because Gamewright seemed like a long shot, but ultimately I decided I was going to wait it out to see what Gamewright would decide.

It's an interesting choice to make as a designer. You'll often have your prototype out with multiple publishers at a time because it can take months (or years!) for someone to agree to publish your game. You might really want to work with someone and have to make a tough choice over turning down a yes from a different publisher. You do have the option, if you receive an offer from one publisher, to approach your other potential publishers and ask for a counter-offer, but that can feel terrifying as a new designer.

So I made my choice and waited.

They Said Yes!

Throughout the development of the game, I had a strong internal sense not of what the game would look like when it was finished, but of direction. Sometimes during a playtest, you can sense the game getting better; sometimes you can tell your changes have made it much worse. Ideally, as time goes on, you're breaking the game less, and it starts to feel solid and consistently play well with new and existing players.

After a lot of uncertainty at the end of 2018, I came into 2019 feeling like this game could definitely get to a really good place. Not every game a designer makes gets there — some you just can't figure out how to move forward — but I was committed to seeing Abandon All Artichokes to completion, and though I wasn't sure exactly where the finish line was, I felt it was close, so I mustered my courage and sent Gamewright a strongly worded email (not really!): "Overall I feel like the game is in a good place now. I'd love to discuss next steps for publication as we continue tuning."

Their response:
Overall, the game seems to be in fine shape and I think it will make an excellent addition to the Gamewright line.
It took my breath away. With those few short words, my life changed forever.

Working with Gamewright

I felt confident after my frequent communication with Gamewright that we would work well together.

The reality was even better than I expected. I couldn't have asked for a better publisher relationship. Because we'd gone back and forth a lot before signing a contract, we knew that we were going to make something together we'd be proud of.

We signed the contract at PAX East 2019.

Finishing Touches

Later that year we ramped up on getting the final game into production. Gamewright worked with me every step of the way. We were testing the game on both ends, sharing feedback, and getting the game into its final form.

Getting to see the art in September 2019 was one of the highlights of my year. I couldn't have asked for a better artist than Bonnie Pang to capture my vision for the game.

From gallery of emmalarkins
Love at first sight

Not every game designer loves writing and editing rules, but I loved being able to put my technical writing background to work to help with the rule book. It was important to me to ensure that when people opened up the game, they'd be able to figure out how to play.

It Lives!

Publishers vary a lot in how they announce games. For Gamewright, they generally prefer to just say, "It's here!" (as opposed to doing a months-long build-up). I wasn't sure exactly when it would drop. I really, really wanted to talk about it, but I figured I could stay patient for a little longer.

And then, news started to pop up. The game was first announced in Issu.

I didn't get to see the game in-person at Toy Fair 2020 in New York, but luckily I had friends there who sent pictures of the game in the wild for the first time.

Posts started showing up in different places, like right here on BoardGameGeek.

Finally I got to hold the game for the first time at PAX East 2020, exactly one year after the contract was signed. It was an amazing feeling — awed and excited and happy and release of all the pent-up expectations, all at the same time.

I had the opportunity to play the finished game with PAX East attendees, which was awesome, but it was also great standing off to the side and watching surreptitiously as new people played the game for the first time. I was already seeing what I had dreamed about from the beginning — people new to deck-building getting excited about this (for them) new type of game. Two people in particular came back to play a few times, excited to tell me how the concepts in the game were coming together for them and they were starting to see how the different powers fit together. I was witnessing someone's entry into a new style of gameplay for the first time, and it was beautiful to watch.

The reception at PAX East and beyond was positive as people started to receive their copies.

Abandon All Artichokes was listed as a "brilliant game" in Forbes, which was quite a trip.

By mid-March 2020, Abandon All Artichokes started hitting retail and online stores. I loved being able to see friends and people in the industry get their copies. Our community is very supportive, and I love seeing my friends succeed, but I emphasize that I don't want people buying my game unless it's something that they really think they'll enjoy. It's such a heartwarming experience to see your friends actually playing and loving the things you make.

In Conclusion

It's a game now. It's real. People are in the world, playing and sharing and enjoying and talking about it, and it's such a trip to see.

Want to learn more? Check out this "how to play" video from Gamewright!

Emma Larkins
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