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Designer Diary: Nitro Dice – A Long and Winding Road

David Whitcher
United States
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Microbadge: Protospiel AlumniMicrobadge: Star Trek fanMicrobadge: Mayfair Games fanMicrobadge: Star Trek: Five-Year Mission fanMicrobadge: U-Con attendee
Board Game: Nitro Dice
The development and eventual publication of Nitro Dice is a long and convoluted story involving numerous publishers. I will not be naming any of them except for the one – Minion Games – that eventually picked it up.

Way back in the mists of time, circa 2003-2004 I was experimenting with alternate uses for dice in games, attempting to find potential in using them for pretty much anything other than just a randomizer. All manner of dice with common numbering and custom faces were considered and from such experiments came curiosities such as the abstract games Op-Position, Coffee & Tea, and the minimalist Arrow Cubes.

Although I enjoyed creating and playing these games, none of them gripped my attention like the other idea that was spawned by this exploration: a card game which I worked on under the name "Die Racing". Since I was endeavoring to use dice in an unusual manner, it's no surprise I was of a mind to do the same with cards. Die Racing uses dice as cars (with the speed visible at a glance) and segmented cards as the track so there is some real jockeying for position with multiple lanes involved. Players move based on their speed, discarding cards from their hand to change lanes, trying not to discard ones they may need later. The cards are also used to accelerate, break, and place hazards. It's an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket sort of game.

Having had the hydra known as parallel development rear its ugly heads before, I decided to see whether anyone had already done something similar. To be certain, I searched a well-known online game database, which at the time had a couple of thousand items recorded. I looked through every item listed as a race + card game, finding nothing significant similar. With my fears quelled I dug in and worked on the game alone, doing solo tests where I played as all six players to work out the mechanisms. It wasn't long before that process yielded all it could. I knew several other game designers in my area and did my first real playtests with them. As a first filter you can't beat game designers for feedback. The results were encouraging enough to spring the game on some testers who I didn't know personally.

This brings us to our first publisher. While I was testing Die Racing in the Penguicon game room, a publisher in attendance took notice of the novelty of the design and asked to see more. Let's call him "Joe" (not his real name) so that I don't have to keep saying "the publisher". My early prototype was minimalist, printed on 110# card stock which is barely thick enough to shuffle properly and just opaque enough to keep the other players from knowing your hand. It was also quite small.

From gallery of dralius

From gallery of dralius
No, I don't have freakishly large hands. The prototype was really small.

The first prototype had fulfilled its purpose. It was time to make something sturdy for heavy testing. Joe supplied me with hundreds of blank playing cards so that I could make a better prototype. Over several months we tested and refined the design, addressing runaway leaders, the details of cornering, and road-blocking issues. We also changed the focus from point A to point B races to multiple lap races since this is where the hazards really come into their own. Although Joe had great faith in the game, this particular company's process of choosing new titles is done by the board of directors, not just by him. Two of the board members happened to be coming through the area on business and I got to show it to them in person which is always great. After some deliberation, the game was turned down because it wasn't quite right for their product line.

This left me with a fairly polished design but no publisher. Knowing my disappointment, Joe was nice enough to get me in contact with a rather large German publisher he did regular business with. He thought they might be interested since they maintain a large line of card games. Their decision came quickly. They said it was a good game, noted its expandability, and even noticed that multiple sets could be used together – but even with all that they said they couldn't publish it. The reason set me back on my heels a bit. The game was too large for their small boxes and too small for their large boxes. That's right – the game was the wrong size! That's the first time Joe or I had heard this reason but after having it explained to us it made sense.

Being tenacious Joe took the game with him on a trip to Italy and found a publisher that was interested in co-publishing it with their American, Spanish and French partners. More prototypes were made so that each partner could have their own copy. At that time the deck had 112 cards, so I became quite good at building decks. There was a catch, though – they wanted changes, and the changes turned out to be extensive. Road racing is very big in Italy and they thought that the game mechanisms lacked realism. I had at this point been working on this game for over two years but listened to and adressed their concerns. I worked out a way to simulate high-speed cornering within the confines of the current system. It added a full page to the rules, and limited a player's options.

From gallery of dralius
You see it was really quite simple to understand with everything color coded.

I was only moderately happy with the result but still pleased at the prospect of getting published. All of a sudden, however, they changed their mind and wanted it made into a chariot-racing game with new mechanisms to match. While I was trying to get them to reconsider, the Italian economy caught up with them and they dropped all but one title from their development queue for the rest of the year. A while later they decided not to publish the game at all but the partners were still interested as long as a replacement partner could be found. As you can probably guess, that never happened. The search lasted nearly a year.

Once again a ship without a port. The game sat dormant until late 2008 when I started working with an overseas publisher that was looking for multiple games to start a new product line. I showed them several designs, including Die Racing. They immediately became interested in two of them. Neither of the two were Die Racing. They felt it was too complicated for their audience. I offered to simplify it and provided them with a motorcycle-racing themed version for kids. They turned it down again. I couldn't simplify it further without ruining the fundamental mechanisms, so back on the shelf it went.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Fast-forward to July 2010. For those who don't know, I run the game designers conference known as Protospiel in Ann Arbor, Michigan each year. Some attendees arrived the night before the event, which coincided with one of the Ann Arbor Gaming Groups meetings. We hold our meetings at local restaurants, have dinner, then play games. Over dinner I was chatting with Keven Nunn, designer of such games as Duck! Duck! Go!, Rolling Freight and VeloCity. VeloCity is a racing game that was coming out at the time, and it got us talking about racing game mechanisms. I described Die Racing and Kevin, being a race game enthusiast, asked to see it. I dug out one of my better prototypes and packed it along with the other games I still needed to get tested. During a lull, Kevin and I grabbed some willing participants. This is where fate or luck comes in. The game accommodates up to six players, and two of those players were our guests from Minion Games, including the owner James Mathe.

Although he hated the working title, James was interested and asked to take the prototype with him. Having had the game sit on the shelf for such a long time, I wanted to make sure none of the Italian complexity remained in the rules and told him I would deliver it to him at Gen Con, which I did. His testing group gave it a high rating and the usual process of developing the design to fit the publisher's vision started again. He saw it as a drift racing game and that meant adding the nitrous oxide boost. No problem; I liked the idea and easily integrated it without compromising the design. We also added the garage for brutal races where you can't avoid taking damage. That being settled, the game was put on the fast track. Rules layout, editing and artwork commenced. This part was quite enjoyable since I got to weigh in on all aspects from character design to rules layout.

There was still the name issue to deal with. To go with the theme we considered several names including "Nitro Card Racing" but thought that Nitro Dice sounded like more fun and represented the "car dice" better, even though it's not a dice game. The game is due out in June 2011, hopefully in time to have copies for Origins 2011. That's less than a year from submission to publication, but what do you expect – race games should be fast.*

David E. Whitcher

P.S. I'm still friends with Joe.

* Yes, I realize this is an ironic statement for a game that took seven years to get published.
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