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Designer Diary: Head of Mousehold, or Winning in Third

Adam Wyse
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Sometimes a game just comes together. Sometimes from the very first germ of an idea, it's all there, just waiting for you to make it. That's how it was with Head of Mousehold.

This is a game that changed very little over the course of its development compared to some of my other designs. I feel that hearing how mechanisms changed over time is really only interesting to people who have played it — which at this time is very very few of you out there. I hope that will change soon, but for now that's the case. The story of this game, though, and how it came to be made is an interesting and a personal one for me.

Starting Out — January 2014

My name is Adam Wyse, and I'm a board game designer from Calgary, Canada. I started designing games in January 2014. My first game was not any good, but it was the spark that ignited the fire. I started work on Masque of the Red Death in mid-2014 (coming soon from IDW Games!) and a game about stand-up comedy that autumn, so Head of Mousehold was my fourth design.

An Idea! — December 2014

I can't fully explain this design process without going into a few personal details. That winter I was preparing some big plans. I had been dating my girlfriend Chelsea for about two years, and I already knew that she was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was planning on surprising her with a proposal at Christmas. Chelsea and I live in Calgary, but she grew up in Cranbrook where her parents still live, about a four-hour drive away. She goes home every Christmas to spend a week and a half relaxing and enjoying some much needed family time. I decided that I would fly to Cranbrook on Christmas morning and propose unexpectedly on her parents' doorstep when she answered the door.

All that said, it went perfectly and she said yes! And as a result, now I had a relaxing week to look forward to of great food, movies, hot tubs, and beautiful mountain scenery. But my relaxing didn't last long — I was struck by an idea the next day, and I had to get it out of my head, like… now!

As I mentioned at the start, the idea came together quickly. I wanted to design a game all about coming in second place. It's one thing to want to win a trick by having the best card, but isn't it interesting to try to come in second? When everyone is trying to do the same, this should get quite tough.

The theme came naturally: "The second mouse gets the cheese", right? So there are five colors of mice, and each round the colors are ordered randomly from fastest to slowest. I figured that each family should have two mice of each color in their deck.

Players would send out mice to mousetraps to bring home cheese; the fastest one would get snapped by the mousetrap and the second fastest could grab the cheese. But I wanted something to change up this formula in certain situations, so I thought up the "squeaker" mouse, and each family of ten mice has five of them. When a squeaker gets snapped by the mousetrap he squeaks, the cat hears him, and comes in and eats the second fastest mouse! Thus, when a squeaker dies, the third mouse gets the cheese.

The mousetraps should each have different amounts of cheese — and you shouldn't have your whole family of mice from which to pick so that the decision space isn't too overwhelming. What if each round you sent out only three mice, but this was done simultaneously along with everyone else once you saw how "fast" each color of mouse was.

Oh, and then what if everyone got to see which colors of mice you'd chosen to send out? They'd know what you had to send, but not where you'd send them and in which order — that would be good. During the round, you take turns playing cards to mousetraps one by one. I knew there had to be information trickling out as the round went on to make the deduction and second-guessing element more interesting — how about every second card at a mousetrap must be played face up?

Whew. All these ideas were there from the start in concept, but now I really needed to make this thing and see whether it worked.

Since I had flown out to Cranbrook I didn't have a car, I didn't have any prototyping supplies, and most stores were closed for the holidays. I immediately put in an Amazon order for blank playing cards — rush shipping to my future in-laws' house! And I begged for a ride into town to the dollar store to try to gather what I needed: a sharpie, stickers in five colors, some kind of colored pawns, and little beads I could use for cheese bits.

The day the blank cards arrived I spent eight straight hours with stickers and sharpies at the kitchen table making my mouse cards. I can imagine a fast-forward time lapse like on TV with family milling around me, having breakfast, then lunch, chatting, cleaning, reading magazines, listening to music — all while I sat there sticking stickers onto the corners of cards and drawing mousetraps like a crazed kindergartener in art class. But after eight hours, I was done!

I immediately wrangled my two future sister-in-laws into a game and just like I had hoped, the game worked! There was only one serious change from the core game: My original thought was that each round one player would secretly distribute a certain amount of cheese to each mousetrap. I thought it would be interesting if one player knew which trap had the most and other players had to try to follow that player's lead to figure out which mousetrap was more desirable. It quickly became clear that the interesting deduction was not in cheese placement, but in the play of your mouse cards. There was enough solid game there that eventually cheese tokens were drawn from a pile and actually placed face up on each mousetrap.

Playtesting Playtesting Playtesting and GAC – January 2015

I didn't want to overdo it pushing family to test a brand new game, so that playtest was the only one I did until I got back from holidays, though of course I kept thinking about the game and revising in my head. By the time I got home and brought the game out to my local design group for its second playtest, I had made up a set of "Day Event" cards that would slightly change up the rules each round.

I have to stop for a second and mention how great my design group is. I'm a member of the Calgary chapter of the Game Artisans of Canada. The GAC is an amazing and supportive group, full of many designers whose games I'm sure you've played; the games and names are far too many to list. The group communicates online, does inter-chapter playtesting, is a valuable resource for contract advice and publisher information, and is full of experience in the industry. The weekly testing and iteration that happens in each chapter of GAC is what polishes all the games coming out of this group.

I'm proud to have brilliant local designers like Paul Saxberg, Gavan Brown, Orin Bishop, Joe McDaid, Tom Sarsons, Matt Tolman, John Gibson, Glen Dresser, and Gord Hamilton to meet with regularly and playtest.

Head of Mousehold went through a barrage of playtests week after week. Event cards changed and cheese values/counts changed as things went along, but the core was strong and remained intact.

Making It Prettier — April 2015

Early on I knew the look of the game needed to improve if I were to get a better read on how the deduction elements were working. An ugly prototype is all well and good at first, but eventually a lack of good iconography and colors can become a hindrance to how well a player can take in the information they need to make proper decisions. Luckily I had three wonderful and talented artist friends (Chelsea, Jason, and Joanne) that answered my call on Facebook for five simple line drawings of mice that matched some kind of theme.

I wanted each family to have a cool theme and matching apparel and look. I got back some amazing space mice, ninja mice, cowboy mice, and farm mice!

And because I had more time than sense apparently, I decided to upgrade the pawns I was using for mouse tokens into little clay-molded oven-baked ones. And since I was ordering a little silicone mouse mold, I might as well order a cheese one at the same time and make my cheese tokens out of yellow clay! They looked great but after a few weeks of use and being carted around, they were breaking far more often than I would like.

I couldn't find any mouse meeples of the right colors online, so I decided to get a bunch of black ones and paint them myself!

Since I was happy with the gameplay and the look of the cards, and the quality of the components was improving, I decided to enter some contests with Head of Mousehold.

Contests — May 2015

The game was shortlisted in the Ciutat de Granollers (a contest in Spain) in early 2015, but due to some baffling issues with Spanish customs the prototype didn't make it into the country. Customs required a payment of over $200 of the contest organizers in order to release the package, so they rightly declined and had the package returned to me. Weird.

Next, in May, I entered the Plateau d'Or in Quebec City and was chosen as a finalist! Having never been to Quebec, I decided to take a trip out there to see the sights and present my game. But first, remember how I was talking about how amazing the Game Artisans of Canada are? Even though I took French from grades 7 through 12, I was not confident enough to translate my own cards or rulebook. I asked for help from French-speaking GAC members, and Yves Tourigny graciously translated my game for me. It wasn't a requirement of the contest, but I wanted to be able to play with and teach convention-goers even if they didn't speak English! I am incredibly grateful because my conversational French is even worse than my written French, but I did manage to teach and play the game with people who I couldn't really communicate with otherwise. Even though I did not win the award, it was a fantastic trip and an awesome experience!

Pitching and Publishers — June 2015

In June 2015, friend and fellow GAC member Paul Saxberg was taking a trip down to Florida for Dice Tower Con, and he graciously offered to show Head of Mousehold to publishers while he was there. I was thrilled! He put the game through the designer/publisher speed dating event and got significant interest from two publishers, one of which he sent the prototype home with. This first publisher was extremely confident they would publish the game, but after a few months they ultimately just barely ended up passing on it.

In their comments they wondered whether the game could go to five players, so I took that suggestion and added a fifth family to the game. With five players, I started finding that the amount of information players needed to consider was becoming too much. An analysis-paralysis prone player tended to take a long time on their turn because there was so much available information out there with five players: five mousetraps and fifteen mouse meeples on the table.

I decided to try a new idea to help fix the problem. Instead of having the mousetraps in the middle of the table, each player would have a mousetrap in front of them. You could play mice only to your own mousetrap, the one on your left, and the one on your right. This cut down on the number of factors a player had to consider and got the game length feeling right again in a five-player game.

So I got my prototype back from the first publisher and decided to contact the other one that had been interested. They still wanted to try out the game, so I sent a copy off to publisher #2. After a month or two, I heard word back that while they found the game very interesting, they were looking for something heavier for their line.

At this point it was late 2015 and Head of Mousehold had been rejected twice — but I wasn't deterred. I believed in the game, and I knew it would find the right home as long as I kept looking. I kept playtesting, playing at conventions, and even making a digital version of the game that could be played on Tabletopia.

SaltCon — March 2016

So that's where things were at for a few months, but 2016 was a big year for me in game design.

When I was first starting out, I went with the idea that game design contests would get me noticed. The judges are often publishers, and for a new designer with few contacts, having a portal directly to people who matter in the industry seemed like a great opportunity. I continued with that line of thinking and entered one of my other games, "Cypher", into the Ion Award put on by SaltCon in Utah. After being chosen as a finalist, I decided to go to Utah and attend the convention. "Cypher" won the 2016 Ion Award for best light game, and Mayday Games ended up signing it (and another of my games, "Poetry Slam") shortly after the convention! The Ion Award publicity was what got me noticed by FoxMind.

Right around when I was finalizing the "Cypher" contract with Mayday, I got an email from JC at FoxMind, who I had never met before. He had seen the award win and watched my five-minute video for "Cypher" and was very interested in the game. I had to tell him that the game was already spoken for, but I had another game that I felt perfectly fit with FoxMind's line: Head of Mousehold! I sent him my pitch video and sell sheet for the game, and he requested that I send a prototype to their office in Montreal. I was thrilled, but also warned him that I would be going to my first big U.S. convention in June (Origins), and that while normally I'd not show the game around while he was evaluating it, I would have to in this case. It's a long and costly trip from Calgary, and I couldn't not show the game when I have so few opportunities to meet publishers in person.

Origins — June 2016

So I was off to Columbus for the Origins Game Fair in June 2016! It was an incredibly fun and successful trip. I met lots of new designers and publishers and did a lot of pitching of my various games. My first pitch of the convention was on the Wednesday when the place opened, and it went great. That publisher was especially interested in Head of Mousehold and "LepreContractors", and wanted to take a copy of each back for evaluation. Nice! Just a few hours later, I get a rushed-sounding email from JC at FoxMind basically saying "We played Head of Mousehold and really enjoyed it! We need another play or two to make some big decisions for the coming year… please don't give it away to someone else just yet!"

That was a tough one for me. I'm a fairly new designer to the scene, and I have a very big company who I just pitched to who is interested — but at the same time FoxMind seems very impressed with the game and I know it would turn out beautiful in their care… but what if I stop showing the game and then FoxMind ends up passing on it like two other companies had before??

I decided to stop showing the game immediately and hold it for FoxMind — and I was so glad I did! This has been the first game FoxMind has signed without actually meeting the designer in person, so I'm extremely grateful that JC and David took a chance signing a new designer like me. It has been a pleasure working with JC on development and seeing the beautiful art as it comes out. Small aspects of gameplay have been improved here and there, and the rulebook has been streamlined into something I'm very proud of.

I'll be attending Gen Con 2017 to be there for the release of the game. It will be my first game to be released, and I am so excited to start seeing people enjoying it!

Thanks for taking the time to read these ramblings. I hope you have fun with Head of Mousehold!

Adam Wyse

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