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Designer Diary: Familiar Tales

Jerry Hawthorne
United States
dallas
Texas
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Hello, everyone! My name is Jerry Hawthorne from Plaid Hat Games. Our newest adventure game, Familiar Tales, will debut in Australia on January 26, 2022, and we're anticipating that it will arrive in the PHG warehouse for distribution elsewhere in late January or early February. While we wait, I thought I would take the time to do my first-ever design diary.

Board Game: Familiar Tales

The Origin of Familiar Tales

In August 2014, I started writing a story and designing a game that I named "Inkywoods". This was a game about a group of wizard's familiars who were tasked with protecting a baby princess. Their wizard sends them into a dangerous enchanted forest with the baby while he fends off an attack from those who would have her. I wrote the first chapter in just my normal prose so that I could preserve the emotional hook while I worked on the game's engine.

"Inkywoods" began as a resource-collecting survival-type co-operative game in which the players would explore an ever-changing mysterious forest, protect and provide for a baby, and try to survive until they could eventually reunite with their wizard. The game had a day cycle in which players had to venture through the forest foraging for supplies, fending off threats, taking on side quests, and solving mysteries, and finally finding a decent place to camp. This was followed by a night cycle that acted as a sort of reset. In the morning, the ever-changing magical forest (created by laying out 4" hex tiles that I envisioned looking similar to Don't Starve) would be different, and the cycle started again. The players used the knowledge they had collected previously to advance the plot.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Prototype tiles from "Inkywoods"

The action in "Inkywoods" was handled using custom dice drawn from a bag. It was a bag builder and required a lot of different dice, way too many actually. This became rather unwieldy, not just as a design puzzle, but due to component cost as well. This needed to be resolved, so I spent my time streamlining the bag-building idea.

Board Game: Stuffed Fables
Through this process, and drawing inspiration from the movie Inside Out, I ended up with a bag of different colored D6s. These are far cheaper than custom dice, easier to teach and learn, and very flexible. However, I had another idea that seemed to fit with the bag of dice much better than "Inkywoods". Stuffed Fables came to me as a much more universally relatable theme, and a great fit for a bag of colorful dice. "Inkywoods" was sent to the archives where it sat pretty much untouched until 2019.

Winds of Change

In late 2019, I was told that Plaid Hat Games, at that time a studio under the Asmodee umbrella, was going independent again. I had an offer from Plaid Hat to stay on as creative director, but the games I was most noted for were staying with Asmodee under Z-Man Games.

I felt somewhat lost at first because I had been doing work on a new version of Mice & Mystics and was very motivated by spending time with that world and those beloved characters. But it was obvious I couldn't just flounder in regrets, and a spirit of optimism came over me. I could actually go back in my archives and devote some time to ideas that had merit. That's when I started looking at my old materials for "Inkywoods".

Game Design Sort of Rules My Life

I work all day in game design, but the way my mind works, I can't just shut it off. I work on designs every day and at all hours. In my off hours, I work on things I call personal projects. These are designs for me that reflect the things I like or am interested in, but without the additional pressures or restraints that a professional project comes with. I don't have to adhere to anybody else's expectations; I can just tinker.

In 2018, I started tinkering on a personal project that revolved around a simple, universal deck-building idea I thought might be a fun way to put my extensive miniature collection to use. The idea was that your character's stats were spread out across a small deck of cards that would be used in conjunction with dice to resolve skill tests. The cards would be designed for modularity. As you played, you could build your character the way you wanted to. Your cards would be used for all actions, and a character's turn was defined by what they could achieve with the hand they were dealt.

This wasn't intended to be a novel idea, but more of a universal solution to the problems of specificity. The system would be adapted by the player to match their character's trajectory. Players would pick a fairly generic starting deck of ten cards. This would include six generic cards that all players started with, plus four more (better) cards that emphasized that character's strengths and starting field of expertise through icons (that I will explain in a minute) and a simple starting action ability. After that, the players are free to adventure, earn points to spend on new cards, and curate their character's growth.

From gallery of nobeerblues
Sample of my old prototype cards

The players would have a character card, but it would use a simple silhouette instead of illustration so that it would not only be good for home printing, but also be unspecific. My thought was that players could draw weapons and stuff onto their character silhouette if they felt the need, and there could even be blank character sheets for drawing your own or taking a picture of your miniature and using it on your character sheet.

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues
More examples of my old prototype

Shuffle Building

One of the other reasons I was working on this level of modularity was so that I could play my adventures with multiple adventurers by combining their decks. One of the issues I was working on was how your characters feel unique if their cards are combined into a deck with other cards.

Solution 1 was to add icons to certain cards that matched items typically employed by their character type.

Solution 2 was to put special actions on some cards that were specific to certain character types, then allow that action to be performed by that character, even if it isn't that character's turn. This was profoundly simple and used mostly in situations when you control more than one character, and it allows those characters to have their uniqueness.

From gallery of nobeerblues
Even if it's not the paladin's turn, you can still activate the paladin's ability

The Pitch (Jan 2020)

So before Plaid Hat Games became independent, I was summoned to a discussion meeting about the potential future projects we would be working on, providing the transition went through. Up to this point, I had been approaching these meetings with fear and uncertainty, but now filled with this new optimism, I went to the meeting excited to talk about my new game idea.

I had dropped the name "Inkywoods" because I wanted a name that immediately stated what the story was about. I had done a little googling on the word "familiar" and found out that it was derived from the Greek word familia, which meant "of the family" and pertained to anybody blood-related, plus anybody who worked for them such as servants, caretakers, etc. I knew I wanted "familiar" to be in the name, so I pitched it to my studio head, Colby Dauch, as Familiar Tales.

I began by reading the introductory story (which is strikingly similar to the opening story in the final product), then went down a short list of bullet points. I expressed that the look and feel of the game was to be heavily inspired by Disney movies of the 1980s and 1990s. The idea captivated Colby, and he gave me the green light to see where things went. This meant I could wholly invest my time into it, and some budget could be spent on things like printing and prototype materials.

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues

Sketching out the Story (Feb 2020)

Board Game: Forgotten Waters
I knew where I wanted the story to go, and I knew the scope of the story was to take place over three eras, each divided into three chapters. I scheduled time with our staff writer/designer, Mr. Bistro, who I've been working with since Mice & Mystics. Typically, I write the stories, then Mr. Bistro comes in and cleans up my prose. This time, I wanted to get him involved right away so that he could apply more of his talents to the story structure. There was some indication that Familiar Tales might use a companion app, and since Bistro was a co-designer on Forgotten Waters, I really needed his app experience as well.

We started by creating a rough outline of the major plot points, a breakdown of each chapter in the story, and a list of the principle characters, both good and bad. We established the names of the land and sketched out the cultures. I studied old Disney classics, noting how the movies are paced, how the worlds are presented to the audience, and how the villains are established. I wanted to emulate all of that. We named the land Principalia. The villain we named Lord Perish to reflect how Disney villains always have evil built right into their names.

Getting an Artist

Art needs to start fairly early in the process since it's time consuming and cannot be rushed. I had sketched out an itemized list of art needs, and these were all put into Awebase, which is the project management software we use to organize all of our freelance work.

I knew I wanted to have Tregis working on the location book environments. I know his pace, and it matches my pace pretty closely. He has been the environment artist on all of my book-style games.

From gallery of nobeerblues
Example of art direction for Tregis

From gallery of nobeerblues
Example of the finished result

However, we needed somebody with a signature style to create the look of the characters in the game. Colby stumbled across Vanessa Morales, a young artist from Mexico who specializes in Disney Princess style art.

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues
Vanessa's art style really grabbed us!

She was perfect for establishing the look of our familiar heroes. Now the work was going to start in earnest as I had to create art briefs and find references for all the art. This is an enormous and time-consuming endeavor, and suddenly our country, our world, was on lockdown as the coronavirus began spreading!

First thing we needed to do was firm up our cast. In the beginning, the familiars were a cat, frog, candle, and golem — Blinx, Gribbert, Flicker, and Chalk. Colby asked for a fox, so I changed Blinx to Blaze. I was having a real tough time trying to figure out how to design a playable candle (actually a talking skull with a melted candle on top), so I changed Flicker into an illuminating little fairy. We were now ready to get Vanessa started on the characters.

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues
Early concept sketches

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Having character art allowed us to get the miniatures started. That involved my good friend Chad Hoverter. He lives nearby, so I can do a lot of art direction in person, plus he is really good at sculpting and captures the art perfectly.

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues

And then Vanessa created the look of our villains:

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues
Example of enemy sketches by Vanessa

Closing Up Shop (April 2020)

Covid was a big scare. Many of the offices in our building were shuttering. Colby was shutting down our office and moving back to Ohio, and I found myself suddenly working from home. Board game stores and cafés were closed. It all felt surreal. That said, art was rolling in for Familiar Tales, the writing was chugging right along, and playtesting was happening at my kitchen table and occasionally at the table of others. We had two graphic designers working on cards and icons.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Prototype baby card and discontent track

From gallery of nobeerblues
Prototype campaign journal

From gallery of nobeerblues
Logo

From gallery of nobeerblues
Icons

It was time to start figuring out the app.

Meeting With Joe

Joe Ellis is a game designer, and he's also the guy who designed our lauded Forgotten Waters app. I met with Joe to go over the functionality of the app. Joe wanted to repeat the success of the Forgotten Waters app, but with a couple more quality-of-life functions. I explained what I thought would be needed, and within a week, I had a bare-bones app for running Familiar Tales, being that it was built upon the template of the Forgotten Waters app and had all the same art assets. It was funny playing the prototype of Familiar Tales with people using this app that looked like Forgotten Waters, but it worked, and that's what counts.

Joe introduced me to the app's back end (snicker), and I got to learn how to put the fiction and other information into the app so that we could play. It wasn't too hard to learn, but there's still much I don't quite understand. Since there were a ton of these files being sent back and forth, version control became super important, and quadruple checking everything became the norm.

Covid Issues (June 2020)

We needed a box cover for the game so that we could do a mock-up. These are used in sales meetings to show what the product will look like, and these sales meeting happen way in advance of the release year. Vanessa, our main artist, had stopped communicating as often as we had become used to, and we were concerned about keeping our art needs on track. We decided to contact JJ Ariosa, an artist that has freelanced for us since 2008. They are fast and reliable, and I love their art style, having worked with them since Mice & Mystics. I was happy they joined the team.

From gallery of nobeerblues
Prototype cards with art sketches

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of nobeerblues
Art direction vs. final

We discovered that Vanessa had a really bad case of Covid and was not going to be able to finish the project. JJ came to the rescue and took on the cover as well.

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues

About this time, I also met with our crazy talented Donald Shults. Donald is an expert in sound design and is the person who directed the actors that provide the voices of the characters and narration. Donald needed to get started on casting and wanted an in-depth overview of each character, including side characters. We discussed how we wanted the narration and what kind of actors needed to nail the essential roles. I found it rather fascinating, and we talked about famous actors we would cast if we were making a big-budget movie. I begged Donald to cast Cate Blanchett as the narrator, but he ignored me, and now I might not ever meet her.

Texas Visit (July 2020)

Colby came down to Texas for a visit. We met up with Kendall Elmen, our graphic designer and fellow Texan. We spend a few days playing tons of Familiar Tales and discussing graphic design. What followed this workshop was a flurry of redesigns and improvements of the card play and deck-building systems. Colby conceived this idea for a fatigue card that would provide temporary penalties in your deck. This could be used as a consequence for failure, as an effect put upon you by an enemy, or as a time release consequence of overextending. The addition added an interesting facet to the deck elements.

From gallery of nobeerblues
Prototype fatigue card

Shortly after the visit, we decided to lean into the "fail forward" aspect to the game. We didn't want to make players replay large chunks of the game and reset their progress each time they failed. More emphasis was now being put into the quality of experiences that the baby was having in the care of the familiars. Misfortune would now be the primary consequence for failure. Building up high misfortune would lead to an unruly child, and an even more undisciplined teenager.

Unconventional (Aug 2020)

Coronavirus was impacting everything. Now Gen Con was cancelled, but instead of being disappointed, I was actually relieved. Attending conventions turns my life upside down, and I didn't think large gatherings were prudent. By this time, I was working on the last three chapters of the story. I was emotionally invested in the characters and their individual story arcs. I was worried I wouldn't make deadline as there was just sooo much writing, so many things needed tightening.

This carried over into September. The cover was done and looked great. There were still environment art pieces that were not quite ready. It was starting to look like I was going to be about two weeks behind schedule and art was going to be about the same. Not too bad, but I always worry that blowing a schedule will end up blowing the timing of launch.

From gallery of nobeerblues

From gallery of nobeerblues

Is It Really the Finish Line? (Oct 2020)

I spent the month of October writing, playtesting, and suffering from Covid. The story and all of the various endings were coming together, and by the end of October, I was really close to finishing the story.

At this stage, game play had the players playing cards from their hand to overcome skill tests. The cards would have attribute values on the left and would show a number of dice images. The more powerful a card, the fewer dice images, whereas weaker cards would show more dice images. When you played cards into a test, you counted up the dice images and rolled that number of dice, hoping to get the attribute symbol that matched the test and add to your chance of success. The dice represented more luck dependence and also had a skull symbol on one side that added to a clock that eventually triggers the enemy turn.

Very powerful cards usually had a skull symbol, too. They hit hard, but raised the danger. Colby wanted those skulls replaced with something else because he rightfully felt all skill cards should be good cards and contribute to the players' overall success. I agreed with this and set about recalibrating the entire system. This, of course, meant I had to change a lot! By this stage, there was almost complete integration between the game's systems and the abilities and powers on all of the cards and components. This also meant resetting the prototype materials. What's more...it wasn't the last change. Many more were coming, and each time, the game became better.

Turning in My Work (Nov 2020)

With the main story completed, my big writing project for November was to finally finish writing all of the Bonding and Story Craft cards. I'll explain:

Story Craft
These cards come up in the same row the players purchase cards from for their familiar's deck. These are purely optional and are used to expand your familiar's personal story. Only the pictured familiar can acquire them. They don't go into your deck. When you acquire one, it instructs you to enter a code in the app, then you get a short bit of story just about that familiar. These usually have some kind of reward path that can be achieved only through story craft. In fact, many of the best items can be acquired only through story crafting.

From gallery of nobeerblues
Prototype Story Craft card

Bonding
These cards also come up in the row and are acquired in the same way as story craft cards, but these are all about that familiar's personal relationship with the child. These cards always either offer a temporary bonus to one of the familiar's attributes, called a "mark of devotion" (a bonus imparted by the magical child's fondness for that familiar), or allow you to immediately lower the child's discontent (a measure of how happy the child currently is, which is constantly in flux).

From gallery of nobeerblues
Prototype Bonding card

Each familiar has nine story craft scenes and nine bonding opportunities in the entire campaign. This meant writing 72 different heartfelt vignettes that thankfully didn't require being rooted to the "in game" moments. These were flashbacks or memories of tender moments between the characters that wouldn't necessarily ever come about in normal play. As superfluous as these seem, I didn't feel that way about them at all. In my opinion, these are an opportunity to do something in the game that is a purely narrative expression. I intended this game to be a narrative experience. However, writing 72 sentimental vignettes was a time-consuming task that required emotional energy as well as creative energy.

Finally finished with all the fiction, I turned in the last of my writings to Mr. Bistro, and turned my focus on intense testing and polish. I finished up 2020 feeling strong about my work. To get to this point took discipline, stamina, and inspiration in a time of personal change and uncertainty.

New Year, New Gear (Jan 2021)

I started off the new year putting together playtest kits to send out to playtesters. My days were filled with testing in the morning, a lunch break, then more testing, finishing each day by going over my notes and making changes. Whenever writing would come rolling in, I would dedicate time to quickly put it in the app, then test again to be sure all links functioned. The app itself was still very bare bones, but improvements were being made in small increments.

A major change came about at this time. Up to this point, all basic enemies had just 1 life point and a fairly high defense. This was causing a feeling of all-or-nothing to the fighting that felt off. We decided to give most of the basic enemies a short life point track and lower their defense. This allowed the players to chip away at the enemies, and it felt more like they were working toward accomplishing something. There were numerous small changes that added up to a massive improvement in the game, and a bunch of effort was put in to making these changes sing. These weren't the last changes.

More testing feedback was coming in. One thing that created instant improvement involved the dice. In the beginning, we had discussed designing the game system in such a way that it had both dice and cards. We were planning on a kid mode that was simpler and used just the dice, so the system formed around this. As more and more streamlining and improvements came in, the variable dice portion of the skill test resolution seemed to be a little too much. We knew we wanted a nice little random element to the skill tests, so we dropped the five custom dice in exchange for a single D12 weighted slightly in favor of the players. This improved the game tremendously and prompted another batch of changes, testing and updates, but it was so worth it. It was such an exciting change!

From this point on, we tested, polished, edited, and worked on proofing everything. It's not a quick process. The more careful you are, the more tiny errors you find.

Off to Print (June 2021)

At the start of June 2021, the physical part of Familiar Tales went to print. The work wasn't done by any means considering there was a lot to do on the app. I was assigned as developer on the new Quirky Circuits game and was juggling that, building a prototype for a new game I'm working on, and testing the app. I was privileged to sit in on a few recording sessions with members of the voice cast. The experience was really interesting. An enormous amount of work goes into preparing scripts, casting actors, putting together contracts, scheduling studio time, directing sessions, editing, sound design, etc.

From gallery of nobeerblues
Our cast

Musical Score (July 2021)

I got to meet Andrew Manson, who created the music for Familiar Tales. He wanted to meet and play the game so that he could write the score. We met at Madness Games & Comics, a popular game store here in DFW. I taught him how to play Familiar Tales, then explained how the story works and how app integration would allow us to do things that just haven't been done in board games. Each character in the game has their own version of the musical score that matches their personality. Andrew had some ideas about how to capture a bright and modern tone, while still feeling like an epic Disney score. The meeting made me giddy wondering how the music would turn out.

You can check out the app and listen to the score here.

The Big Meet-up (Late 2021)

Our company passed on Gen Con due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Instead we met in Ohio for a company retreat, which turned out to be a really good time to brainstorm and such. We playtested different prototypes and game submissions and did some livestreaming. It was fun.

After the retreat, Joe was able to put more time into the app, and things really began to change quickly. Rumor was that PAXU was going to enforce masks and vaccine cards, so we decided to get a booth last minute. I was going to Philly!

From gallery of nobeerblues

PAXU was a lot of fun. It was great to see so many people I get to see only at conventions. Familiar Tales got a lot of good buzz. I met with board game media all day every day, showing off an advance prototype of the game. We had only one actual manufactured copy at the booth; all other advance copies were sent to reviewers and content creators. As of writing this diary, the rest of the games are on a ship. The app is fully functional with the dynamic musical score, and about 40% of the voiceovers are in. The tutorial is amazing, and the set-up assistance and save feature are quality-of-life additions that really make sense.

If you're reading this, know that I appreciate you. Please feel free to ask any questions in this thread. I know this was long, but so is the process of creating a game, and there's just so much more to it and so many people I could thank. None of this is possible without the board game fans and content creators, editors, marketing and sales, and accountants, developers and event organizers. I mean, there's a lot of unsung heroes in this hobby.

Thank you!

Jerry Hawthorne
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