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Designer Diary: Waddle, or How I Learned to Love Penguins

Isaac Shalev
United States
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Microbadge: On Board Games fanMicrobadge: Waddle fanMicrobadge: SeikatsuMicrobadge: Ravenous River fanMicrobadge: Show and Tile fan
Board Game: Waddle
Waddle was designed by Raph Koster and Isaac Shalev. Raph's part of the story comes first.

Raph's Story

Hi! As you read this Waddle is just hitting the market from WizKids. It is my first published tabletop game after designing several dozen. My career is as a videogame designer, and for a long time, my tabletop designs were just things that I would prototype, get printed into presentable versions, and play with friends and fellow designers at videogame developer conferences.

Even though I am a game designer by trade, and videogame and tabletop design have a lot of similarities, there are also some huge differences — but frankly, the differences between the businesses of board versus digital are a lot bigger. I had no idea how to go about getting any of these turned into a real thing.

Now that the game is actually going to be hitting store shelves, I thought it might be interesting for people to see the process of getting Waddle from a vague notion to something that will be on FLGS shelves soon!

The Idea

The earliest design document I can find was nothing more than a sketch. Long ago, I used to carry a pad of paper or a sketchbook with me everywhere I went to take notes and sketch out ideas. I switched over to an iPad a long time ago, and I've used various different note-taking apps ever since.

I think this game was originally prompted by a vague memory of Eric Zimmerman telling me at a Game Developers Conference (GDC) dinner about his new game installation Interference, probably in 2013. (See this page on his website for a description.) I don't actually know the rules for the game, but I do recall how the images of the game struck me: hanging sheets of cut metal, with pegs that are placed in holes in the sheets. The sheets are arranged in ovals, and each oval has a different number of pegs and slots in it.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I would not be surprised if the following notes were taken at GDC fairly soon after the conversation with Eric, to be honest. I don't have an exact date, but these are from early 2013, and before May for sure because I have a date of the contents of the next page in the notebook!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The text is a bit hard to read from the image, but the idea is quite short, which is pretty normal for me. It reads:
A board with spaces on it. You get to put in your pieces anywhere...but we rotate through win conditions per turn. So who owns the space changes as the win condition does.
Probably the most notable thing about this quick idea is that this is not what the game ended up being at all. Waddle is not an area-control game, so there is no "owning" of spaces!

After that come some questions and elaborations:
Do they rotate with dice? With cards? Can you see in advance what is going to come up? And do you score at the end or when you end a phase and the condition changes? Or maybe you choose from your hand each turn: play a piece (or several) and then play a card.
The answer to these questions ended up being "with cards, no, and yes, it will work like that!" So in the space of just a couple of sentences, the original idea was already dead, and the bare bones of Waddle started taking shape.

At the bottom are then the seeds of the actual strategy behind the game: the varying scoring conditions that you can play in order to score the individual spaces on the board: Majority — minority — even — odd — multiple — empty neighbors — neighbor count — empty...

The struggle in the game development process was going to be about picking the right set of scoring rules, the right number of spaces, and the right number of pieces. This would turn out to be a lengthy process.


I instinctively lean towards abstract strategy games when I do tabletop design. This is a little weird to those who know my videogame work, which is mostly big sprawling online worlds with tons of mechanisms and systems. The commonality is that even in those giant projects, I try to keep each system small and super simple. This also means that I tend to design games for two players, which isn't necessarily in step with the market realities of tabletop gaming.

You haven't gotten to play the game yet, but here's how it ended up working: You have different colored tokens that go into spaces on the board. Each space has room for five tokens. There isn't really a spatial relationship between the spaces. Each turn, you either place several tokens into spaces, or choose one space to empty of all tokens and redistribute them to the other spaces. Then you play a card that has a scoring rule on it. You get as many points as there are now spaces that match your scoring rule. You get to play each scoring rule only once, and you cannot play the same scoring rule as the previous player.

I often do the first few iterations entirely in my head, or playing against myself. The original board consisted of five circles drawn on a blank sheet of paper, shaped like a five-spot on a die. I had plenty of glass beads laying around to use as the tokens. Pretty quickly I was calling the game "Pebbles" in my mind.

It's my habit to rewrite the rules from scratch every time I do a big design iteration, while keeping the old version in the document. It turns into a longer and longer design history of how the game evolved. It means I can often go back to earlier versions and check out discarded ideas to see whether they once again fit into the game.

Version 2

The very next ruleset I wrote down looked like this:
There are five wells on the table.

Player starts with either three cards or all of them.

Each player has white and black pebbles to distribute. Each turn they get to put a pebble on the board or move a pebble on the board. A given well can have only five pebbles in it. Is there a cap on the number of pebbles? Say, 16? (works out at avg of 3 per well)

Each player has a hand of cards. Each turn after their pebble actions, they get to choose to play one of the cards in their hand to claim points according to the rules on the card.

The cards are things like:

● A point for each even well
● A point for each odd well
● A point for each empty well
● A point for each well with more white than black but split
● Each well with more black than white but split
● Each evenly split well
● All white
● All black
● Each full well (five)

When they play that card, the pebbles in the wells that score are removed from the board, and that card is discarded, never to be played again. The player gets one point for each well that meets the criteria of the played card. Play ends when all players have gone through all the cards.
The big new thing was the idea that the scoring rules were a consumable resource. This imposed a length limit on the game; it would always consist of the same number of turns. This is a nice thing for a tabletop game, I think, many of which have unpredictable durations.

I also baked in a couple of things after that early playtesting: five spaces and 16 tokens total. Why those numbers? Because they have awkward relationships to one another. Perfect multiples here would lead to a lot of symmetry and repeated moves, I thought. I eventually tried out letting players pick from pools of white and black beads, letting them get more beads over time, letting them play varying quantities of beads in a turn, but kept coming back to the idea that this would be a game about fixed resources, about managing a decline in choices.

Version 2 suffered from really disjointed pacing. You added only one pebble every turn, which meant that spaces didn't build up fast at all — you rarely got to a full space before the game ended. Most of the scoring cards were useless. Emptying the wells when you scored them added to this. If you play version 2, you will find it truly sucks and doesn't really feel like a game at all.

Version 3

In the next version I am still stubbornly hanging on to forcing the player to choose from among three cards. In an effort to make the board more dynamic, you now can choose from several actions — what I tend to call "verbs" from my videogame design life.
Players shuffle their decks.
They choose three cards to lay in front of them.
They take turns adding or moving a pebble, then playing a card from the three they laid in front of them.
New cards:
● Add a pebble
● Move a pebble
● Remove a pebble
● Empty a well
Total failure. This didn't help the game at all.

But there was something to keep, something I still had strong faith in: the scoring rules mechanism. It was the beating heart of the original idea, and it had evolved into basically a permutation space: every axis of comparison that I could think of for two sets of five. I explored having scoring cards for exactly 1, exactly 2, exactly 3, and so on, but discarded it as less interesting; it made the game longer, but also meant that players had too many choices on their turn.

It was time to make radical changes. The problem was that choices weren't interesting yet, even though the scoring rules, I felt, were solid.

Live Testing!

I cornered one of my kids, we sat down at the game table, and we started playing. I would change the rules every few turns, just to see whether more interesting choices appeared. When they got sick of me changing rules, and as the changes started becoming less frequent, we set my phone up on a tripod, pointed it at the board, and used video calls to loop in other kids so that they could do head-to-head matches while I watched.

One of the first things that changed was the realization that there was no need to limit players to just three scoring card choices. In practice, the board layouts tended to force a small set of choices on you. Even with nine scoring rules on the first move, most of the possible choices were obvious dead-ends, so it never felt overwhelming.

Where a limit of three cards had made the game feel like you were pushed into bad choices or had no real choice but to play a given card, allowing you to choose from all the cards put agency in the player's hands and made them feel like every choice was in their control on every turn.

In fact, this led to an interesting change in the dynamics of the game over time. Some scoring cards have pretty low utility early in the game — the one that calls for full spaces, for example — while others are of limited utility late in the game, such as the one that calls for empty spaces. Even though those are the two most obvious examples, it holds true for all the cards: their "potential" value changes over time in the game. Some move in a straight line, some swing back and forth.

I visualized it in my head as a line graph: What's the "potential value" of this card, on average, as the game progresses? This landscape of intersecting curves headed in different directions was very interesting to me. I now had a lens through which to look at the game for tuning it as a system.

All About the Value Curves

This realization led immediately to the choice to not allow beads to be removed from the game. Otherwise, you didn't get a nice clean set of graph lines. They bounced around too much. I was persuaded that having regularity to these curves helped the game. Players could speed up the demise of the empty card's value through their choices, but it was always doomed to go down over time. This created a sense of risk-taking: How fast is this curve going to decline? It contributes to a sense of pushing your luck, without actually using that formal mechanism.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Pretty soon, I was thinking of the mechanisms all in terms of these curves. "Empty" versus "full" was a natural progression through the game, but we could get more curves to be strategic. In the earlier versions, both players had access to both colors of beads. By giving each of the two players control over only one of the colors of beads, rather than a mix of both, they each controlled the ramp of availability of a color. This then affected the curves of all the scoring cards that called for scoring based on color.

The last scoring card curve that needed to be put under player control was the odd/even pairing. Adding beads one at a time was not only really slow paced, but it tended to move this curve in far too predictable a way, swinging back and forth. The earlier versions of the game let you break the pattern only by skipping a bead, that is, by moving a bead from one space to another. This basically was a parity shift, but in itself wasn't that interesting. Both problems could be solved at the same time by letting players place a varying number of beads in any of the spaces. Now there was a new curve to manage the speed of: running out of beads, which could happen very early or very late depending on player strategy.

Lastly, the old moving mechanisms were now obsolete. We didn't need them as cards. Moving a single bead felt pointless now that you could place a bunch at the same time, yet a board that only accumulated felt too static, so I kept the rule that allowed you to empty a space, but now the beads had to be redistributed to other spaces, as long as they were not full.

I now had what I felt was an interesting mathematical landscape. Players, through their choices, were basically pushing the game along these curves. Every choice they made was going to affect more than one of them, sometimes perhaps in ways they didn't see (though a thoughtful player could work it out). There were enough curves that even though the game has no hidden information, it's more than you can reasonably keep track of. Every scoring choice you make is actually deeply consequential — which they had to be because you got only nine of them.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Making It Pretty

What I had, at this point, felt very much like a battle of wits. It was determinedly two player and very simple in appearance: five circles, and white and black beads. It conjured up the unholy marriage of go and mancala, despite not playing very much like either, so I decided to skin it that way. I used The Game Crafter, my usual go-to for making pretty prototypes, and put together something that I was trying to make look ageless or timeless.

I even thought about actually making a real wood version of it, but I am not a very good woodworker.

The final ruleset was still quite small and elegant:
There are five wells on the board. Each player starts with eight beads, either black or white. Each player has nine cards as well. White goes first.

Each turn, a player can choose one of the following actions:

● If the player has beads left, they can place between 1 and 5 of their beads in the wells. These beads can be distributed into any wells you choose as long as a well does not exceed five beads total.
● Select a well that has beads already, pick up the beads in it, and distribute them into the other wells. They can be distributed into any wells, as long as the destination wells do not exceed five beads total.

After performing one of these moves, the player plays one of the nine cards from their hand. The cards have rules for scoring on them:

● Score one point for each well that has only black beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has more black beads than white beads, with at least one white bead present.
● Score one point for each well that is split evenly between white and black beads.
● Score one point for each well that has more white beads than black beads, with at least one black bead present.
● Score one point for each well that has only white beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has an even number of beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has an odd number of beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that is full, at five beads.
● Score one point for each well that is empty, with zero beads.

Set the card face up on the discard pile so that the other player can see what it is. Scoring markers are placed in the spot on the board that matches that card. The next player cannot play the same card in their next turn, unless it is their last card.

Players then play until all cards are exhausted. Tally up the points, and the player with the most wins.
I came up with an abstract way of indicating all of the different scoring methods, and used that to guide the card designs and the scoring boards next to the card wells.

On the Road

Once printed, the game made for an attractive package despite the uninspiring name of "Pebbles". I started to take it with me to game conferences in 2017, four full years after I had first jotted down the notes for the original concept. At 2018's Austin Game Conference, it was played by famed videogame designer Dr. Cat, who quite fell in love with it — so much so that I gave him my test copy. As a designer, of course, his big interest was whether the game was going to break because of its small size, that is, whether there was a degenerate strategy that resulted in always winning.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I was pretty sure that the permutation space of the possible states in the game was too large for the game to be easily solved — but as the game went on the road, I did start to see something that had never happened in earlier playtests: playing to a draw. And so I had to add a rule for breaking the tie.

In 2018, I took all my prototypes with me to the Tabletop Network conference, where I had been asked to speak by my friend Tim Fowers, designer of many wonderful boardgames, including Burgle Bros., which I had helped workshop when Tim lived in San Diego. I spoke about applying what I call "game grammar" to tabletop games, using poker as a particular lens.

It was a great chance to reconnect with many friends who work mostly in tabletop, such as James Ernest and Scott Rogers, as well as meet some folks whom I mostly knew only from online interactions. I felt a bit like a fish out of water there as I quickly discovered that tabletop's ecosystem for aspiring designers, pros, and publishers is quite different from that of videogames. They were all encouraging about taking my prototypes to publication, but also cautioned me that my predilection for two-player abstract strategy might prove to be a barrier to getting the games signed.

One of the folks I met there for the first time was Isaac Shalev, who worked with my acquaintance Geoff Engelstein on a boardgame design podcast and later book. Isaac and I played many prototypes together (not just mine — playing each other's games, and other people's, was the primary evening activity for the event, of course). I mentioned to him that I felt like several of the games were good enough to get published, but it was clear that given my day job, there was no way I would ever have the time to go to all the boardgame conventions and pitch. Isaac kindly offered to take my bag of prototypes on the road with him!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

And so it was that our partnership on this game began. Little did we know there was one more huge design hurdle ahead of us...

Isaac's Story

I enjoyed Raph's prototypes because they were both beautifully rendered as products, and they were unapologetically mathematically tight. I like games that balance on the edge of a knife, and I enjoy the way playing an abstract game almost feels like communicating in another language. I knew that these games could be published, but they needed to fit the taste and aesthetic that publishers and gamers were looking for, and it was my job to develop the design further, based on the feedback I received from playing the game with others, from gamers to industry professionals.

At Dice Tower Con 2018, I had the opportunity to show "Pebbles" to Tony Gulloti, who was working for Arcane Wonders, the publisher of Onitama. I thought that "Pebbles" could perhaps be the "Go" of that world, and in any case, Tony understood what it took to sell a two-player abstract that meshed a classic movement and spatial mechanism with a modern card-based system. Tony's advice was to make the game work for a higher player count. He wasn't alone. Designers, publishers and players all agreed that the game was compelling, but nothing about it suggested that the game had to be for only two players.

I had already been toying with some ideas for increasing player count. I knew that the game's math was wound pretty tightly, and the symmetry of both players playing the same nine cards over nine turns was something I could unwind a bit. I knew I could create new scoring cards and loosen the game some by cutting a turn or two off, giving players a smaller hand of scoring cards, and having players play with only a subset of the scoring cards in each game. But how to add more players?

At first I thought I'd try to add more colors — one for each player! Instead of using white versus black on scoring cards, I tried to have your color versus opposing colors. When I ran it by Raph, however, he pointed me to some problems. It would be easy to score some of the opposing colors cards and hard to score some of your own. We could rebalance how the cards score to account for the difficulty, but it might still make for lousy gameplay.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
At this point, I discarded the idea of multiple player colors. I almost discarded the game entirely, to be honest. Just prior to Tabletop Network, Geoffrey Engelstein and I had begun to write Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms, and that consumed a lot of my time and design thinking over the next year — but in the back of my mind, "Pebbles" was still percolating.

Elm City Games, a New Haven, Connecticut game store and design community, was hosting Fantasticon, and I knew it was my best shot to get a lot of players playing "Pebbles". This is the advantage of having a nice prototype with components that players want to touch — you're never short of playtesters at public events. With the event upcoming in March 2019, nearly a year after Raph and I had met, I finally came back to working with only two colors.

Raph had previously shared some math on how the game worked in terms of the overall number of stones (16), the limits of each well (5), and the total number of wells (5). I realized that something would have to change, but I also knew that solving an equation is hard when there are too many variables. I determined that the capacity of each well would remain at 5, which was a nice number that felt good in the hand. However, the number of stones in the game would increase, as would the number of bowls. For three players, I added three wells and eight stones, and four four players I added five wells and sixteen stones.

This approach succeeded in replicating the overall feel of the game and the density of stones on the board. But because a well could never have more than five stones, it was not possible to impact all the wells on the board in a single move. On the other hand, some scoring cards — particularly Odd, Even, White, and Black — were overpowered because they could score too many points now that there were more wells to count. I considered simply declaring a maximum score for these cards, but the circumstances that would allow a player to score the maximum amount cropped up too often and with little effort.

Another problem child was Empty, a card I had misgivings about from the very start. In my many early games of "Pebbles", I found that players typically chose from one of a couple of standard openings, either dropping one stone in each of the five wells to play Odd or White/Black to score five points, or playing a single stone to score Empty for four points. I had already nerfed the first opening by changing the mix of stones players received. To help unmoor the game from its two-player roots, I chose to give each player four white and four black stones. This meant that the maximum score from White or Black as an opening was now four. You could play this opening, but you would concede the ability to add stones of one color for the rest of the game. Odd was still viable as a five-point play, but now the player had to have the card in their opening hand, which happens less than half the time, and in any case, Odd was a reliable high-scorer later in the game, and stronger players concluded that opening with Odd and giving up five stones was unsound.

But Empty! Even in the original game, playing a single stone to score four points using a card whose scoring potential only continued to decrease seemed like a very strong play.

From gallery of ender7

In the game that was slowly becoming Waddle, all those extra wells, those extra locations, made Empty even stronger. In a four-player game, it was not uncommon for the first player to score nine points on Empty with nobody else able to score better than six for it. Disaster!

Design disasters are not really disasters, though; they're oracles. They provide clear feedback that something fundamental is not right, and that you ought to consider making changes to the game's core structures. Earlier in the process, I had dealt with the issue of how to translate the rule that you couldn't use the same scoring card your opponent had just used from its two-player version into multiplayer. I tried having the rules apply only to the next player in turn order, but this led to some awkward ping-ponging in which alternating players took advantage of a good board state while the other two players were a bit snookered. I decided that the bar on playing the same scoring card would apply for as long as the card was face-up in your discard pile, that is, until the end of your next turn.

Surprisingly, this led me to the big breakthrough. By taking the deck of scoring cards, adding a few, and then having players play from a smaller hand of cards, I had limited the chances of particularly unfair arrangements of cards and stones from cropping up, but I hadn't eliminated them — and the existence of more wells, and thus more scoring potential, had exacerbated their impact. A play that earned 6+ points could create a massive swing, and players couldn't counter by playing the same card, both because of the rule against it and because the odds that they had the card in hand was low.

I realized I needed to address both sides of the problem. First, I introduced the Copy card, which allows players, once per game, to copy the card an opponent has played previously in the round. This is an insurance card. Every player starts with Copy in their hand, and it gives players a tool to counter the overly-good fortune of another player.

The first half of my answer broke a fundamental rule of "Pebbles", but the second half of my answer was even more transformational. I realized that all these new wells could be organized into two separate domains. In essence, in a four-player game, there would be two regions of five wells each, and players could manipulate one of those regions and score it, but could not freely manipulate all ten wells. Either you could add stones to one region and score it, or you could redistribute stones all into one region — whether the region of origin or the other region — but you could not add stones to both regions in one turn, or empty a well and distribute its stones to wells in both regions. Your scoring card would apply only to one region: the region to which you added or redistributed stones. In the three-player game, three wells would count as being in both regions, creating two overlapping regions of five wells. Frankly, this worked a lot better than I initially expected!

Board Game: Waddle
Three-player set-up in Waddle

With the concept of two regions, the flow of stones and their balance was closer to the two-player game. There were no huge scoring plays that felt undeserved. At the same time, the tactical space of the game increased as players could consider how the two regions were evolving, and how that might suit their cards. It also opened up design space to create some new cards and adjust some old ones.

Empty had now been conquered. The Copy card curbed its advantage as an opening, and the regions diminished its top-score potential. In fact, it was now a bit of a problem when Empty showed up in hands later in the game when it was hard to use effectively. We tweaked this by introducing the concept of a special action. Instead of taking the normal action of moving stones around the board, you would instead empty a well and give the stones back to your opponents before scoring. On the one hand, Empty guaranteed you an additional point thanks to the special action; on the other hand, giving stones back to your opponents gave them a bit more power, a few more options for their turns. The idea of a special action also expanded the template, the possibilities of what a card could do, and opened up even more design space.

Full, the mirror-image twin of Empty, now got my attention. In the two-player game, Full could score only a maximum of three points because there were not enough stones to fill more than three wells. This was always a bit of a letdown for me. Going to the fully open, non-regional board had rescued Full from its weakened state, but with regions, Full was back to being a poor-scoring, uninteresting late-game card.

Board Game: Waddle
Four-player set-up in Waddle

And then it hit me — just because there are regions does not mean that ALL cards must be limited to scoring a single region! A card like Full could score both regions! It would still top out at no more than six points in a four-player game, and achieving that condition was difficult and satisfying. Another OG card, the card now known as Equal benefitted from similar treatment. It had previously been somewhat challenging to score well with this card for wells with an equal number of white and black stones. Early in the game there aren't enough stones on the board, and later the board is too tight to manage the manipulation, leaving only a brief mid-game period in which a good score was possible. Allowing Equal to score both regions made the card more powerful, while increasing the ways players could cleverly construct the right arrangements.

It took some time to finalize these new cards and make all the little adjustments and decisions that take a game from "fun" to "ready to be signed". Fortunately, Zev Shlasinger, whom I've been lucky enough to know from before I even started designing games, had taken an interest. Zev saw the game over the summer convention season in 2019 and took the prototype for further evaluation. We had an agreement to go forward at BGG.CON, where Daniel Solis, the Wizkids product manager — and the graphic designer for Building Blocks — began to consider the theme, product, and packaging as well.

Board Game: Waddle
Penguins chillin'

My design goals for "Pebbles", now Waddle, were to extend the game to four players and to loosen it up a bit, to make it more fluid, fun, and not quite so tense! I knew I succeeded when Daniel came back with the art and the re-theme for the game. We had always thought of "Pebbles" as an Asian-inspired game of stones and wood and leather wingback chairs with smokey scotch and a cigar in amber light. It was Serious and Formal — but that was the game that we started with. At the end of our design work, the game was much lighter on its feet, and the movement of the penguins from place to place brought more smiles than grimaces to the faces of players. It took Daniel and Zev seeing what the game in front of them was and bringing that to life, instead of being tied to the game that had been.

Raph came up with this game back in 2013. We met in early 2018. The game was signed nearly two years after that in late 2019. It will arrive in stores in February 2021. This eight-year journey is not even that unusual in tabletop game design. Sometimes that's simply how long it takes. But the journey from "Pebbles" to Waddle, from stones to penguins, and from two-player mindbender to a delightful family game is, like the march of the penguins itself, remarkable.
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