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Designer Diary: Inkling

John Keyworth
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Board Game: Inkling
This is a short designer diary about the development of Inkling, a word card game designed by me and published by Osprey Games in February 2021.

To help make sense of a game you are unlikely to have played here is a brief overview of the final game: Inkling is a game about using letter cards — in any way you can — to help the other players guess words on a secret clue card. Longer words are worth more points, and you are playing in two teams at once, one with each neighbor.

Concept and Prototype

I've always been bad at word games as correct spelling does not come naturally and anagrams remain completely opaque, but in March 2019 I was listening to the latest Ludology podcast — all about word games — and I thought rather than start with the letters and make words, you could start with the words and make letters, and in that way you can play with words even if it's not normally your thing.

The prototype came together quickly, and the core of the game has remained the same: Drafting letters to spell words on your card for people to guess.

The components were the letter cards from Lexicon and the word cards from Concept. Both were ill-suited to the task, but making up words proved fun enough to develop the game further.

Design and Playtesting

The bulk of playtesting happened at the UK Playtesters group in Oxford and Oxford on Board, although I also took the design to the playtest area at the UK Games Expo 2019, which let it receive feedback from a much wider variety of people.

There were three challenges to work on before the game could be finished: the clue cards, the letter cards, and the scoring.

Clue Cards: Dedicated clue cards were the first component to be made — the same list of the most common English words with 4 to 9 letters that made it into the final game. The problem was word distribution as early versions had very easy cards and very hard cards depending on the letters in the words.

Fixing this took learning what made cards easy or hard, then making a formula to calculate a difficulty score in a spreadsheet. I then played with the word lists until each card was balanced with the others.

From gallery of jkeywo
Clue card prototype and final design

Letter Cards: While the word lists were being balanced, the letters needed designing. First, the cards became stylized, which gave players much more scope for playing with them to make words. After that, a new set was printed without the black border of the originals.

From gallery of jkeywo
Letter card prototypes and final design

Scoring: This was originally both more chaotic and more rule-intensive. You were limited to guessing 1, 2, and 3 words in rounds 1, 2, and 3, and these words could be from anyone. You received the points from words you guessed, as well as from each of your own words guessed by at least one other player.

You may be able to imagine the problem already, but with six players it could take a while to look at everyone else's creations, with players often getting up from the table and walking around it. There was also some unwanted randomness in whose words received the most attention, and some unwanted strategy that emerged from a mixture of competitive and co-operative incentives.

Laying the problem out like that makes the eventual solution seem much more obvious that it was, but ultimately, instead of playing as individuals, players would guess only their neighbor's words and total their scores as a team of two (so each player is on two teams).

The game became much more comfortable to play, the time taken was more consistent across player counts, and all you had to worry about was creating good letter combinations for your neighbor to guess.

Publishing

Come September 2019 I was playtesting the game at the UK Playtesters event in Oxford, and Anthony from Osprey Games was also there. He liked the game, they took it back to the office, and it was soon signed.

Board Game: Inkling
Image: More Games Please

While most of the game was finished at that point, we continued playing with the word list until it was as balanced as we could make it.

That all seems like a lifetime ago, with how long 2020 has been, but I'm very excited to be able to see the game in print come February 23, 2021.

John Keyworth
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Subscribe sub options Tue Feb 16, 2021 1:00 pm
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