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Designer Diary: Wonder Book

Michele Piccolini
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Board Game: Wonder Book
Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time, in a small town in central Italy, there were a couple of kids who liked to make custom Yu-Gi-Oh cards with paper. As they grew up, they developed more and more games together...

From gallery of michele_piccolini
Martino Chiacchiera (l) and Michele Piccolini, already playing games (Can you spot the Pokemon TCG booster pack?)

Wait! This is a little too far back.

Our journey with Wonder Book begins in the distant past, but not that distant. It was 2015, a time when we didn't yet know how to write a story or how to fold a piece of paper to make the simplest of 3D pop-ups. Our memories are blurry, but we'll try our best to reconstruct what happened.

One day, probably during some design session of one of our scrappy first games, an idea descended upon us: How cool would it be to make a game with pop-ups? It would have a board that is both 3D and interactive, light years ahead of current board games!

What kind of game could we make with that "technology"? Our first idea, which has remained unchanged since then, was to make a co-operative, story-centered, dungeon crawler game, with rules so intuitive that everybody would be able to play and enjoy.

We began with a "flat" prototype (i.e., a normal game with a normal board) to start evaluating mechanisms. We had a couple of nice ideas — but that was no pop-up game! We wanted pop-ups to be central to the experience. We didn't want to "build pop-ups around a game"; we wanted to build a game around pop-ups!

There was one little problem, though: We had absolutely no idea how to build a pop-up.

Easier Said than Done

After that, we started frantically researching and studying pop-ups. You can admire in the image below our first YouTube search on the topic:

From gallery of michele_piccolini
Researching how to make pop-ups, courtesy of YouTube's history

At the top, you can see Duncan Birmingham, our savior. In "The Pop-Up Channel", he covers most of the pop-up mechanisms that exist on this planet — a bible of paper engineering knowledge! — and teaches you how to build them. (For those who don't know, there is an entire discipline dedicated to making pop-ups, and it's called, you guessed it, paper engineering.)

Obviously, we proceeded to watch all of his videos, and we built our own "physical encyclopedia" of mechanisms. Then we used these acquired skills to painstakingly make our first prototype of an interactive scenario. After a lot of time spent cutting, gluing, and swearing (because pop-ups never go flat when you fold them), we had our game board: a small village and a big ugly temple. We even had an interactive dragon as a boss! (Keep this dragon in mind as it will come up later.)

From gallery of michele_piccolini
Early prototype

The Sacred System

We had a pop-up board, we had combat and exploration mechanisms, we had grandiose ideas for a branching story — great! We tested it. It wasn't great. The game was a bit all over the place. Too many rules, too many components. What we needed was an elegant system that all on its own handled the story and the game progress, that introduced the rules, the heroes, the enemies, and the scenario. But how? We were searching for a sacred grail.

Then, the solution struck like thunder and it had always been right under our nose: We needed a pre-sorted deck of cards! And each card could have all sorts of things on it. It could introduce rules, challenges, riddles, choices — all at the pace that we desired!

A Home for the Game

It should be said that during those years we were living in different cities and that the development had been mostly remote and very hiccupped since we could have in-person sessions only when we were in the same city (which happened mostly during holiday periods, when we were both in our home town).

Our project looked promising, but we couldn't easily find an opportunity to develop it at full force, so when we did have the chance, we made sure we ended up living in the same place. For a period of time, we even lived under the same roof. Only a few months of work, and we could finish the game! We thought. We had no idea how much our estimates were off.

From gallery of michele_piccolini
Keep playing and nobody explodes

Regardless, there we were, developing the game design night after design night, always rigorously accompanied by tea and biscuits. We had a system that worked, but building pop-ups from scratch took way too long. What could we do?

Steal like an Artist

In the field of drawing, artists make extensive use of references. It is surprising when for the first time one discovers that most concept artists, for example, don't paint a character out of thin air. Rather, what they do is take inspiration, steal, stitch together, and transform parts of pre-existing artwork until they get something cool and new.

Basically every field from writing to music, from programming to design has some kind of saying that suggests that the most efficient solution to everything is to "steal". You may have heard it as "talent borrows, genius steals", or "everything is a remix", or something similar.

We needed that. To steal...ahem, to get inspiration from references.

Thus, we bought and consulted an avalanche of pop-up books. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we would start from what was already done and make it better! We studied their designs, and we looked for cool mechanisms, finding some interesting ones. (A modified version of the most complex one is now at the very center of the Wonder Book's game board!)

But not all we found was great. In fact, we realized that most of the pop-up designs that exist in pop-up books are engineered to be looked at, not to be used. They are not suitable, for example, to support miniatures or they don't achieve the level of interactivity that we desired.

So we started thinking about how we could modify some of the mechanisms to make them work in a board game. We were coming up with many prototypes, but we dreaded the idea of refining some of those to production quality. It was clear that it would take us too much time, and we were not suited to the task. We thought we had a solution to inefficiency, but we were back at square one.

We needed a paper engineer.

Bye, Bye, Frankenstein

In the magical water world of Venice, Italy, there lives a paper engineer who had created some books that we liked very much: Dario Cestaro. We tried to contact him. Surprisingly, he wasn't scared away by two crazy guys asking him to build professional pop-ups out of some wacky home-made designs. Actually, he was enthusiastic. Dario was on board!

He would make real dummies starting from our scrappy prototypes (affectionately named "Frankensteins" because of their nature as "pieces sewn together"), and he would also provide contacts for pop-up manufacturers.

From gallery of michele_piccolini

From gallery of michele_piccolini
Some of the "Frankenstein" prototypes, initially born out of brutally stitching together pieces of other prototypes

We had a game, and we had a paper engineer on board. The missing piece was a publisher.

Looking for a Publisher

We asked dV Giochi, both because of our history of collaborations with them and because our intention of making a game for everyone aligned with their motto that "Everyone wants to play." They were growing, and they had partners in several countries. They were the perfect publisher!

We pitched them the game, expecting "yes" as an answer, but the answer that we got instead was...

"ABSOLUTELY YES! We must release it as soon as possible!"


The issue? The game was not actually ready, and it wouldn't be ready for quite some time still. The scope was simply too big. We had settled on a narrative-driven game, which required a lot of content to produce manually. Moreover, making a pop-up game and finding the perfect use for each pop-up was not an easy task. It hadn't been done before, thus, we couldn't steal, ahem...take inspiration from anything. For the game system, we had taken inspiration from Legends of Andor, Stuffed Fables, Near and Far, Deckscape, and many others, but there was nothing with pop-ups. And we couldn't know for sure how many pop-ups we could fit in the game scenario until the manufacturers told us what the prices were — but to get a quotation, they needed the final pop-up. A chicken-and-egg situation.

Then, we got the news: Pop-ups are expensive. Gluing pieces together costs, so we had to be smart about what we put in there. Furthermore, the typical numbers in which pop-up books are printed is much higher than the typical numbers of a board game print run.

This was hell! With a tight deadline, we would have to redesign some pop-ups and rethink our gameplay and story for the hundredth time while coming up with clever solutions to keep the quality and the quantity of pop-ups high. And we needed the publisher to bet big on the game because it would have to be a huge success in order to amortize the costs.

Plus we had a few other minor obstacles, like babies being born, full-time jobs, living in countries other than the publisher's, and then even moving again to end up living in completely different countries and doing an important part of the final development remotely again.

And finally the cherry on top of the pressure cake: We received news about other games in the making that contained pop-ups! A chilling sensation ran through our spines and lingered for weeks, months even. But our fear gradually faded as we got more and more information, realizing that we weren't competing for the same genres and that our game could still stand out thanks to its unique features, like the interaction with pop-ups relevant for gameplay purposes.

What followed was an intense, non-stop period of close development with the publisher, with game mechanisms being revamped, an infinite amount of story that had to be refined, tons of sampling to ensure component durability, improvements to pop-ups, and a complete renewal of several aspects of the game, including the collaboration with hall-of-fame artist Miguel Coimbra, who did a wonder book... erhm, wonderful job! All of this while more and more partner publishers were getting on board, hyped for the game and urgent to have it. This period seemed to last forever, but it was necessary to support the development of a game like this.

From gallery of michele_piccolini
Miguel Coimbra had to illustrate many spreads of the pop-ups' scattered pieces, but with the final 3D aesthetic in mind. Hard times!


Fortunately, there is a happy ending. Everyone's hard work has paid off. We are very happy with the final result and are thankful to everybody for their amazing work, from the publisher for their help with development, to artists, to testers, to the marketing. Everyone made this metamorphosis possible and turned a scrappy idea on paper to a beautiful polished product made with paper.

The game board now has beautifully illustrated and refined pop-ups that use a paper 10% thicker and 33% stronger than the one normally used.

Thanks to the feedback from the publisher and many playtesters, the gameplay has been enriched and geared toward more experienced players, while maintaining its original characteristics that make it easy to learn and playable by everybody. (You can expect a game that can easily be opened and played right away, but don't be tricked by its cute aspect into thinking that it will be easy to beat the game! We even support different difficulty levels, and if you are a hardcore gamer, don't worry, they are all difficult.)

The story now covers six chapters spread across almost three hundred double-sided cards that will offer you challenges, touching moments, laughs, and dilemmas that will force you to make decisions that impact the future.

The lore has found its raison d'etre in dragons. Do you remember the big dragon pop-up boss that we had in our early prototype? It became clear soon that this was the thing testers loved the most, which prompted us to put dragons at the center of the story. Not only will you find that very same dragon in the final game, but you will find out that it is now just a mini-boss. We wanted to go big, and therefore we introduced a much, much bigger creature...

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Demo at Gen Con 2021

The game is now manufactured and is coming out! At the Gen Con 2021 pre-launch, copies were sold out. The game will be featured in Europe at SPIEL '21 and will hit the shelves in multiple countries at the beginning of November 2021. It will be available in Italy, USA, France, Spain, Chile, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and UK, and negotiations are ongoing for many other countries!

The dust has settled, the heroes can rest...

Or can they? A terrifying silhouette of a dragon pops up. (Pun intended!) Something troubling is happening in the magical world of Oniria. The land of the dragons needs new heroes. Are you ready to enter the Wonder Book and become one of them?

Enjoy the trailer, made by SpoiledBoiled

Every End is a New Beginning

Wonder Book is out, and now we can finally take a rest!

—Michele Piccolini and Martino Chiacchiera

From gallery of michele_piccolini
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