Hello, hello! I'm Daniel Solis. This is the story of how I designed and self-published the tree-growing card game Kigi, which was later adapted into Kodama: The Tree Spirits by Action Phase Games.
I wrote a little post about that adaptation just before Kodama's kickstarter campaign at the end of 2015, but Eric Martin asked me to go back into the past a little further to the earliest days of Kigi's development and international growth, so here we go!
Sample of the print-on-demand edition
Back in 2013, I started self-publishing card games on DriveThruCards as an affordable way to get my name out there as a game designer. Belle of the Ball had just been released by Dice Hate Me Games, and I was eager to get another game published.
It's a tough business, though. Even with one game under my belt, I knew it would be hard for an otherwise unknown designer to get noticed, so my plan was to release games on DriveThruCards, build up a few sales and customer reviews, and use those numbers to back up pitches to traditional retail publishers. I thought it might give my games an edge to have real data. The plan was always to use self-published, print-on-demand games as a laboratory and launchpad for other games I had in my back burner that would be too weird for a traditional publisher to take a risk on without something firm to show their viability.
At the very least, this plan gave me a reason to finalize a lot of small game ideas that I had shelved because I wasn't confident enough to take them over the finish line, with one of these ideas featuring an "organic" tile-laying mechanism similar to Agora by James Ernest. I liked how Agora allowed you to play cards at any angle, free from a grid, and thought it would be interesting to encourage overlapping as a viable tactic as well.
Early sketches for Kigi
Above is the initial two-page sketch that was the basis of Kigi. Looking at this again years later, I can immediately see the faltering assumptions and missteps that I'd have to overcome to get the game to work properly. I can also see the heart of something that I knew would be unusual, eye-catching, and easy to produce — which was exactly the thing I wanted to pitch to publishers.
The arboreal theme was there from the start, along with the primary goal of making contiguous chains of features: sprouts, butterflies, flowers, etc. Though I tried other gameplay elements in early iterations, this seemed the easiest to figure out. The branching motif was already imprecise enough without using an obtuse scoring method as well. Though I had these core elements in place, I like to answer three questions when I teach a game:
• Who are you?
• What are you trying to do?
• How much time do you have?
For Kigi, I contrived a scenario in which competing muralists try to make the best tree painting. They'd jostle to fulfill their commissions and even go so far as to erase each other's work. When the last card is taken from the deck, the game would be over, and each player would score their commissions, if able. That's who you are, that's what you’re trying to do, and that's how long you have to do it.
In the end, I had a pretty nice game with illustrations cobbled together from stock art sources. However, I see now how the design choices were at odds with the zen-like relaxing experience promised by the aesthetics. My art promised a slightly different feel than the game provided.
Sample of the commission cards from the print-on-demand edition
Connecting Theme and Mechanisms
The two main issues came from mechanisms designed with the best intentions: pruning and commissions.
First, I noticed that players would be encouraged to grow only a single branch since it already had the best opportunity to score maximum points, so I added a mechanism called "pruning". When you scored more than a certain number of points from a branch, all of those scoring cards would fall to the owner's personal discard pile. This would be used offensively against other player's trees to keep their scoring opportunities limited. You would sometimes play defensively, scoring sub-optimal points from your own branch just to cap off the maximum point value any other player could get from it.
Second, I wanted to reward long-term planning and the cultivation of an interesting-looking tree. As part of the theme, I thought these artists should have commissions that they're trying to achieve by the end of the game. Almost all of the commissions in Kigi score based on having a majority of a particular feature or card. If you have more of that than any other player, you score the points! Yay! If you don't, then you don't. It was an oddly brutal note on which to end the game.
Both of these mechanisms conspired to make a more vicious game than I originally intended. At the time I thought it was a happy accident. I was sort of amused that this peaceful exterior hid a competitive take-that experience. The game certainly didn't seem any less popular for it.
I worried that it was a bait-and-switch, but 2014 was all about Getting Games Done. I can spend ages noodling over all of my games if I don't have a hard and fast deadline to meet. That year, I prioritized overcoming my own conservative reservations and taking the small risk of releasing these games as they stood. If small design tweaks came to mind later, they could be easily implemented and updated in the POD product.
Right away, Kigi became my best-selling product and the overall best-selling product on DriveThruCards, dominating the top spot for months thereafter. For a good while, it was the site's top-selling product of all time.
Kigi's debut at the Tokyo Game Market in May 2015
Dave Du from Joy Pie/Creative Tree demonstrating Kigi at a fair in China in early 2015
In early 2014, an American representative of Chinese publisher Joy Pie noticed one of my first self-published games. Joy Pie thought games with Asian themes would appeal to the Chinese market. Apparently they had imported a copy of my game Koi Pond, and local gamers thought it was from a Chinese designer already! So we worked out a contract and suddenly my second traditionally published game debuted in China, not North America or Europe. This is a very cool time to be a tabletop game designer.
That experience taught me that I should design more games with minimal text on the cards so that they'd be easier for international publishers to license and localize. It was the beginning of a business model that I stumbled on entirely by accident. My original intent was to use print-on-demand as a development channel leading directly to traditional American or European retail licensing. After the Koi Pond license, I realized that designing within the constraints of print-on-demand made my games attractive to burgeoning game markets and publishers around the world.
I got my start in the games industry by working on indie RPGs that embody a strong punk-rock urge for independence, a feeling that sometimes resonates with me as well. At this point I started wondering, "Why not keep the rights to my games and license them myself internationally? There are a lot of languages out there. I could license the same game in each different language. Each license would be relatively modest, but they'd gradually aggregate into a small income. What the heck? Why not give it a shot?"
After that, everything seems like a blur, but I think the timeline went something like this:
• First, Creative Tree also licensed Kigi in China as a sequel to Koi Pond.
• In December 2014, Game Field contacted me to fast-track a Japanese version of Kigi that would be available for the following Tokyo Game Market in May 2015.
• In March 2015, the French game blog Tric Trac posted a very positive article. (I still don't know how they heard about it.)
• Shortly thereafter, Antoine Bauza tweeted at me publicly, asking how to buy the game in France. That seemed to get a lot of attention.
• In Q2 2015, Kudu Games picked up the license for the game in Polish and German under the title "Bonsai".
• In mid-2015, Action Phase Games approached me with keen interest in publishing Kigi in the U.S.
In less than a year, Kigi had gone from a tiny print-on-demand card game to an internationally licensed game available in five languages. It was an unbelievably fast success for me on that front. However, that's when I realized being the "hub" of all these international licenses was a double-edged sword. In taking on that role, I made it more complicated for a U.S. publisher to take a chance on my games, too.
The new theme and goals for Kodama: the Tree Spirits
New Development, New Theme
Action Phase Games was interested in releasing Kigi at retail scale in English, but offered some changes that would make the game significantly different than its previous iterations.
First, we would remove the pruning mechanism entirely so that players could add cards only to their own trees. Without this core interaction, the only way players affected one another was in choosing which cards to take from the display, perhaps with a bit of hate-drafting. This would be a much more indirect form of interaction than the "take-that" pruning.
We were fully conscious that we might be criticised for making a "multiplayer solitaire" game, but we doubled down on it anyway. If this game is about making you feel calm, relaxed, and satisfied that you've made a pretty object, then let it be exactly that.
Toward that end, we changed the endgame scoring as well. Instead of all-or-nothing scoring conditions, we used granular conditions. For example, instead of:
If you have the most flowers on your tree at the end of the game, score 10 points.
We took the more relaxing and forgiving approach to that scoring condition as follows:
Score 1 point for each flower on your tree.
Action Phase Games also proposed dispersing these scoring phases throughout the game instead of consigning them to the very end of play. Each player would begin with four scoring cards. Every four rounds, each player would have to choose one of these cards to score, then discard. Almost all of these scoring conditions would be best optimized as end-of-game scoring conditions, so choosing which ones to sacrifice earlier in the game would be a challenging puzzle.
Thematically, each of those rounds would be called a "season". Action Phase Games came up with some cool gameplay variations that would pop up at the start of each new season, adding another layer of puzzle to the game. The scoring cards themselves would become "Kodama", tree spirits taking residence in these new verdant trees.
Transition to American Retail
I liked all of these ideas, but in the back of my mind I was worried about my international partners and how they would feel about all of this. Like it or not, I suspected that a retail-scale English language version of Kigi — especially one that featured substantial changes from the original design — would feel like a "definitive" edition for most people. Some of the international publishers who were the first to give Kigi a chance were in the middle of manufacturing their copies of the game when these changes came up from Action Phase Games. Would a significantly different English edition render their international editions obsolete?
These concerns convinced us to market our redeveloped game with a different title and with a new theme. Though Kigi and Kodama were both tree-growing, card-overlapping games, I thought they were different enough that a new brand was warranted. This change allowed Action Phase Games to work with a brand new, fresh property and reduced some market confusion about which edition was the "real" game.
Thankfully, most of my international publishers didn't seem to mind. Later, I'll work to get those publishers first priority for the Kodama license in their native language. It all worked out in the end, but it could have been a real mess.
Now I'm more cautious about this push for international licenses, at least for games that I think might have a chance in North American markets. A North American or European publisher usually expects to be the first one to license the rights to a new designer's game, but when I go into a pitch meeting for some of my games, I have to add caveats that the licensing rights in Chinese, Japanese, or Portuguese are already taken by other publishers. Even if the American/European publisher had no intent to publish in those languages, it's an awkward thing to have to explain.
This is all new territory for me and perhaps an unlikely path for any other tabletop designer. I got extremely lucky with Kigi's success, and I got even luckier to have publishing partners in Poland (Kudu Games), China (Joy Pie/Creative Tree), and Japan (Game Field) who are so generous and understanding.
Kodama: The Tree Spirits is hitting retail now and the reviews have been very positive so far. I love seeing friends and families playing this little game together. Here's hoping Kodama keeps on growing!