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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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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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