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Designer Diary: Sherlook, or Not Sherlock — Spot the Difference!

Silvano Sorrentino
Italy
Bari
BA
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Board Game: Sherlook
Almost

Everything started back in 2013, at the end of October, soon after the yearly SPIEL game fair in Essen, Germany. I was chatting about Dobble's great success with Roberto Corbelli, CEO of dV Giochi. Dobble has many perks: It's extremely easy to explain; it quickly allows the players to check who won a given round; it's unpredictable due to the random combination of cards in play; and it can be played by many players at once. I, too, wanted to write something as accessible as that, so I started working on several ideas, trying to focus on graphic elements as one of the main components of the game mechanisms.

I recall the eureka moment: I had loads of colored pieces of paper and cards, looking for a use, scattered about on my extremely messy desk, and I stopped to look at two identical cards. What if they had not been totally identical?

Did someone already come up with a game in which the player must spot slight differences between two illustrations? It's a rhetorical question: Of course they did. This is a well-known game, in Italy as well as abroad, appearing on countless game magazines, including extremely popular ones such as La Settimana Enigmistica, which has run it weekly for decades.

It would have been interesting to have a never-ending "Find the Differences" game in which one could always find a given number of differences between two randomly selected cards. In a couple of days, I had found a technical solution to this effect, one that I will discuss later. There still was another Dobble characteristic that I wanted to reproduce: The way in which one could instantly find out who had won a hand. A game in which the players must spot differences was not ideal for this because the control phase would have been too slow. I decided to base the game on the count (or the estimate) of the number of existing differences.

The first draft of the idea was called "Almost". Drawing is not my forte, so I decided to create a prototype with pixel art. I found apt images from my favorite TV series, Doctor Who, on http://pixelblock.tumblr.com and prepared a prototype deck of cards of "Almost: Doctor Who" (with my best regards to BBC solicitors!) to show would-be publishers that the game could easily be adapted to any license.

The game was based on an extremely simple idea: Picking two random cards, there are N differences between them. Try looking for them here:


From gallery of ilsilvano


Turning the cards, you discover the position and the number of these differences:


From gallery of ilsilvano


The rules of this first prototype were minimal: The players would look at the two cards, and one of them could stop the round in any moment, giving their estimate. A player, for example, could say "Almost 3!", stating that they thought there are approximately three differences between the images. If the player was exactly right, they could take two cards. If they were almost right, e.g., the estimate was one less than the real answer, they could take only 1 card. If they were wrong, i.e., in any other case, they had to give one card to the player on the left and one card to the player on the right. The game would continue until the deck was exhausted, after which the player with the most cards won.

The first round of playtesting was… well, a disaster. The starting idea was good, but its realization — glossing over the issue of "placeholder" graphics — left a lot to be desired. The main flaws were:

d10-1 The round cards were too small, which made it difficult to spot the differences.
d10-2 The player with the cards in front of them had an unfair advantage against those on the other side of the table.
d10-3 Each round of the game lasted either too long (waiting for someone to talk) or too little (when players with few points tried to answer randomly, having little or nothing to lose).
d10-4 The cards, even with all their little differences, looked "all the same", making for a repetitive and boring game after a while.

Crime Scene

During the 2013 Christmas holidays, I thought the game over, with its pros and cons. I became increasingly convinced that the basic idea had to be developed better and that all the various issues could be solved. I also realized that if the game were to be proposed to a publisher, its strong focus on illustration demanded the help of an artist.

Luckily, I knew an excellent illustrator: cartoonist Benny Gemma, whom I had already worked with for the production of both my Globetrotter game and a series of illustrated mysteries for a renown puzzle magazine, a relationship that had lasted every week for over an year. The protagonist of these mysteries was the brilliant Inspector Crosby, one of our original creations. It must have been for this reason that, reasoning with Benny, I came up with a theme that seemed perfect.

The images of the game had to depict a scene of crime, seen from above. In the middle of the scene, a chalk outline of the corpse, with several objects scattered around it, the result of a messy fight. Benny has a humorous style, and the scene would have never looked gory.


From gallery of ilsilvano

The first sketch drawn by Benny Gemma


The cards would have been bigger and more detailed, about the size of a photograph; we could have added many funny or quirky items; the blank corpse in the middle added a bit of space to the image, so that it no longer looked like a random assortment of objects. What's more, now that the scene was shown from above, there would be no impression of being on the wrong side of the card if you were sitting on the other side of the table.

For a couple of months, between working commitments and other duties, Benny and I worked together to create a set of forty cards; this seemed like the ideal number to have enough variety while allowing us to play on the differences. On the back of each card, one could find up to five differences. Thus, in this version of the game, there were between one and ten differences between two random cards.


From gallery of ilsilvano

Two cards from the prototype, drawn by Benny Gemma


The work was really easy because it was based on a non-trivial scheme in which I indicated the changes to make on each card for each box of the grid. "What's this grid?", you might ask. It is the basis of the mechanism that makes the game work, together with the "template" card. In order to explain it, let's create two cards for a hypothetical "Almost BoardGameGeek".

Let's start creating a grid. The cards are really small in this example, so a 3x3 grid will suffice.

Let's then design the "template card": It must have drawings on about half the boxes of the grid, with drawings being allowed to occupy more than one box. Starting from this card, we can design other cards by adding, subtracting, or modifying objects.


From gallery of ilsilvano


Example:

d10-1 The template card.
d10-2 We added the chess king and subtracted the die.
d10-3 We modified the meeple (turning it upside down), modified the diamond sign (turning it into a heart sign and moving it), and added a Go stone.

As we create new cards, the differences among these and the template are shown on the boxes of a common grid. The modifications to the new cards must be made on different boxes:


From gallery of ilsilvano


The result is the creation of the first two cards of the BGG edition of the game:


From gallery of ilsilvano


On the back of these cards we have something like this:


From gallery of ilsilvano


The back shows at a glance the total number of differences between these two cards (a number equal to the total number of green circles — five in this case) and their location. Note the little trick: We have effectively shown the differences between these two cards while we actually marked the differences between each card and the template.

Coming back to our story, I now had a prototype with forty richly illustrated cards. During the development, however, the new "crime" theme had inspired me to come up with another improvement on the first prototype. Instead of interrupting a round as soon as a player gives their estimate of the number of differences, now there are ten evidence markers in play, numbered 1 to 10.


From gallery of ilsilvano


Each player can take one at any time, and once they have, they cannot change their mind. Points are awarded to those who guessed correctly, or (if no guess was right) to those who came closest, whether high or low.

In addition, in order to add variety, I added a special die whose faces showed the position in which the cards should have been tiled for the current round:

* Lined up next to one another (like the "Find the Differences" puzzles)
* Placed opposite one another
* Tiled by the short side
* Thrown randomly on the table (!)


From gallery of ilsilvano


With these materials and a score track, the new prototype looked good in its box. The old title, "Almost", wasn't representative of the game anymore, so I renamed it "Crime Scene". I then started to print, cut, and pack the cards and the various game pieces. The best opportunity to show the game would be at SPIEL in October 2014. I had appointments with some publishers that might be interested in producing it, not knowing that a disturbing surprise and a great stroke of luck were just around the corner.

Blinkspector

As usual, the months leading to SPIEL flew away fast. Time reserved for game developing was never enough, curtailed as it was by day-job deadlines and hard-earned vacation time. I was trying to test "Crime Scene" thoroughly with various friends and with members of Finibus Terrae, a game association and shop in my town.

Board Game: Difference
It was then that a friend gave me a piece of news that made me groan: BGG's "Gone Cardboard" had featured a game by Christophe Boelinger called Difference, coming out for Gigamic. The game seemed to have something in common with mine. Worse still, the game was a new edition of a design from 2010 published by Z-Man Games called What's Missing. During the creation process, I had looked on BGG for games similar to mine, but I had focussed on obvious keywords such as "spot", "difference", "appears", and others.

I... ehm... had completely missed What's Missing!

Boelinger's game and mine definitely had an idea in common: In Difference, choosing two cards at random, one can find differences between them. In that game, the differences are always exactly two. It was therefore clear that the author had started, like I had, from a template card, then designed other cards with only one difference in each of them. The players of the game had to find, as quickly as they could, the two differences between the card on the table and the card they have in hand.

For a bit, the news discouraged me. The two games seemed too similar. Then, all things considered, I realized that they shared only one common idea, namely trying to answer this question: How do you create a "Find the Differences" game that can be played indefinitely?

From there, Boelinger and I diverged in our approaches. His is a pure "difference game" based on spotting and reporting the differences, while mine is more similar to an "auction game". It's not necessary to list the exact differences between the two cards as long as one gives an estimate of their number. In my opinion, this fact was the basis of having an original game, even compared to the classic "Find the Differences".

Armed with this conviction, I did what professional courtesy dictated: I wrote to Boelinger, explaining the genesis of my game and sending him the rules. He very politely replied that the two games could coexist peacefully, but he urged me to seek a second opinion from Gigamic. The publisher quickly answered my query, giving me a cordial and encouraging reply. They had compared the rules of the two games and judged that the only similarity (the "Find the Differences" core idea) was actually in the public domain. For the rest, they had found Difference and "Crime Scene" to be profoundly distinct.

Isn't it ironic that we spent time looking for differences in two "Find the Differences" games? Anyway, that's why Christophe Boelinger and Gigamic are thanked in the manual.

I was back in the saddle, but before I could fully concentrate on SPIEL in October, there was another fair fast approaching. It was much (much!) smaller, but just as important as far as I was concerned. September 2014 would have seen the third edition of BGeek, the comic and game fair of my city Bari, located in the Puglia region in southern Italy. The main guest of the game section was Spartaco Albertarelli, the author of games like Kaleidos, Coyote, Magnifico, and several official variants of the classic Risk! (S.P.Q.Risiko!, FutuRisiko!, Risiko! Master, etc.). Spartaco had worked extensively with Editrice Giochi, the publisher that had introduced in Italy classics like Clue and Dungeons & Dragons, and it had been just a little over a year since he had founded his publishing house, KaleidosGames.

Spartaco's timetable at BGeek was rather busy, with several meetings on different themes. In one of them, he discussed the synergy between board games and video games. On that occasion, Spartaco talked about some of the issues of a video game adaptation of his iconic Kaleidos game, which is based on the careful observation of rather rich and elaborate images. One of the problems was to create a wide variety of different images, featuring objects shown in perspective, while avoiding "collisions" of said objects. As Spartaco talked, I thought a possible solution couldn't differ too much from the "grid" I had used with "Crime Scene", and I told him I could show it to him.

So, the next day, bringing Spartaco back to the hotel, we played a couple of rounds of "Crime Scene" and... boom! He immediately liked the game so much that he considered the possibility of publishing it under his KaleidosGames label, which until then had released only games designed by him. I told him that I would have loved the arrangement, but I was already going to show the game to other publishers. Spartaco wished me luck, saying he expected me to sign a contract when still at SPIEL.

Ever since I've met him, that's the only prediction he made that turned out wrong. Everyone liked the game in Essen, but for various reasons no deal got through. The last rejection came a few months after the end of the fair. Strangely, I felt relieved; my hands weren't tied anymore, and I could go back to work with KaleidosGames.

The protagonists of the game were now police inspectors who are glancing at a picture, so I decided to change the title to "Blinkspector". Spartaco reluctantly accepted the change. To be fair, nobody really liked it, not even me… but for the moment it stuck.

C.S.EYE

Due to various real life contingencies, it took a whole year to see any further progress. I met Spartaco again during SPIEL 2015 and, together, we reasoned on how to produce the game. The outlined production team was nothing short of phenomenal, with Chiara Vercesi and Paolo Vallerga to focus on graphics and visual design of the game. Chiara started to draw the final version of the cards from the prototype design (a necessary step, given the structure of the game), while Paolo took care of the rest: cover, game pieces, rule booklet, etc.


From gallery of ilsilvano

One of the actual cards of the game, illustrated by Chiara Vercesi


Spartaco really disliked one of the rules of "Blinkspector": If a player guessed the correct number of differences, they were the only one who scored points that round. Running the game with six players and counting on having only ten rounds in the whole game, this rule was frustrating for those who couldn't get any points for several rounds, despite begin close to the correct answer. As editor (and publisher), Spartaco asked me to sort out this problem. I was also to remove the die from the game as it caused too much unpredictable randomness.

I once heard Reiner Knizia giving really good advice to game designers: "If you have two problems, try to find one solution that works for both." With three days of relaxation in a wellness center in Salento, I managed to find that kind of solution.

The new rules of the game stated that three medals — worth 1, 2 and 3 points — would be up for grabs in each round, and the 3-point medal (drawn at random) would show how the cards should be displayed during that round, giving the same variation previously obtained with the use of the die. With this method, we could control how many rounds of each type there were — we decided upon two of each of the five possible layouts — making sure that the right amount of variety was achieved in every game.


From gallery of ilsilvano


The new scoring system assigned:

* A red medal (1 point) to the player who guessed closest to the right answer, but was higher.
* A yellow medal (2 points) to the player who guessed closest to the right answer, but was lower.
* A green medal (3 points) and any unassigned red or yellow medal to the player who guessed correctly.

This system, while simple, had a number of positive effects on the game. You may have noticed, for example, that those who approach the right answer but are too high earn fewer points than those who approach it from below; this happens because if between two cards there are, say, six differences, one thing that might happen is that a player sees four or five differences and gambles on there being a few more and taking the 7 or a higher number. In this case, it is obvious that at a certain point we just guessed. If we came close to the truth, we are good, but we do not deserve a hefty prize.

The correct answer earning the unassigned medals was a nice idea that came to Spartaco while talking on the phone. This gives a bigger prize to those who win the rounds in which the solution is at the extremes (i.e., 1, 2, 9 or 10 differences), which are the most difficult to guess right. Furthermore, this solution made giving the exact estimate more desirable, granting up to 5 points (3 + 2) to the correct player. At the same time, the rules discouraged random answers, allowing for a more tense game.

The most attentive investigators among you have noticed that the tokens had now acquired a yellow hat with an unmistakable shape. The reason was obvious: the name "Blinkspector" didn't win any sympathy from anyone, and we all decided that a catchier name was needed. Staff brainstorming led to several suggestions:

C.S.EYE: Nice pun, unfortunately lost on non-Anglophones
Photocop: Again, a nice play on words between photo, cop and photocopy, due to any given card being almost identical to the others
• Police Line, Do Not Cross: Obviously too long, but it would have been nice to have a box with this title on a yellow ribbon running through its entire length
Luminol: Sounds good, but it is actually not too relevant to the game
• And finally... Sherlook!

Sherlook

I must say that I am really proud of coming up with this title, being a great fan of the Sherlock BBC series (just as much as I am of Doctor Who... remember the origins of the game?). The play on words, suggesting a detective who looks — it is SherLOOK, in case you missed it! — immediately won everyone's heart. The final graphic design of the game started from this new and definitive title. Chiara Vercesi drew some sketches of the cover, each better than the previous one. I'll show you only four of my favorites below.


From gallery of ilsilvano


All of the mock covers were evocative, but in the end we decided to choose the one "displaying" the game better, the one with the two pictures on which the detective is working. Starting from that idea, Paolo Vallerga cast one his spells and pulled out this cover and this logo, hitting the bull's eye, as far as I'm concerned.

The work on the graphics of the game would deserve its own little diary, penned by the three talented illustrators (Benny, Chiara and Paolo) but lacking that, I invite you to look for the many little classy touches that Paul hid in his illustrations. For example, can you find the five references to Sherlock Holmes hidden in the logo of the game?


From gallery of ilsilvano


This story is almost over, even if the actual making and final playtesting took another year, and we didn't manage to complete it on time for SPIEL 2016. The game will be out very soon, anyway, and I want to salute those of you who have endured this long article with one last little secret.

As you may recall, the playtest of "Almost" had been a disastrous affair, and one of the flaws of the original prototype was that the images were too similar, soon boring the players. How did we solve this problem in Sherlook, which contains forty cards that look "almost" identical? Benny and I had the idea of placing many small inside jokes on the cards in order to keep the viewer's attention up and to entertain those who wanted to try to find them.

As an example, take a look at a snippet from these two cards. The first image shows a stain of blood, but... are we sure it actually is blood? The second image, apart from removing the nose profile from the silhouette of the victim, shows a fallen bottle of red wine. No blood spilled in this game then!


From gallery of ilsilvano


Actually, a careful examination of all the cards in the game may suggest to you that there is not even a real victim! And who knows, perhaps, as you play, you will notice that there are:

d10-1 Multiple references to a renowned board game
d10-2 A single reference to another board game that's extremely famous in Italy
d10-3 An artistic, surrealistic reference
d10-4 A veiled allusion to a 1988 videogame
d10-5 An acknowledgement to a great football team
d10-6 A bad joke that risked being censored
d10-7 A belated cure
d10-8 A play on words for musicians
d10-9 The initial of the main suspect
d10-0 And, last but not least, a quote from Doctor Who, to go full circle and go back to "Almost"

I wanted to write these designer's notes mainly to thank all of those who contributed to help Sherlook see the light. A game such as this one, in which graphics and game design are so closely entwined, just couldn't be produced without the help of Benny Gemma, Paolo Vallerga, and Chiara Vercesi. I would like to give them my full appreciation, and to thank all of those who had fun playing with me and beating me almost every time (after initially saying, "All right, we'll play, but you know all of the cards… you'll win for sure!").

The story of the design of this game has been a long one, and if I didn't risk boring you, I could add many more anecdotes to the ones I shared here, but now there's no time. There's a case to solve, and two pictures of the crime scene with revealing details. Take your pipe and hat, Sherlook: The game is afoot!

Silvano Sorrentino

P.S. Thanks to Simon Mas for the translation into far better English than mine!
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