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Designer Diary: Ex Libris, or Books, Brains and Building Things

Adam P. McIver
United States
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Board Game: Ex Libris
OH, HI BGG! I'm Adam P. McIver. You may know me from the art/graphic design work I've done on the smattering of games flashing in my GIF-y little avatar over there on the left, or you may remember my slick little microgame Coin Age, which won a Golden Geek award a while back, or you may have no idea who I am at all, which is totally fine, obviously. No worries, I get it. There's a lot to keep up with these days, it's hard to stay on top of it all. It's way more important to know your next-door neighbor's name than some guy on the internet. Make connections! Build community!

Anywho, you may be asking how I went from designing a microgame that is essentially a single card to creating Ex Libris, a hotly anticipated Gen Con 2017 release with over 150 cards? Well, it certainly wasn't as easy as just adding 149 or so cards, let me tell you. Turns out I actually had to design a COMPLETELY different game!

Just Another Idea in a Notebook

I, like so many other game designers, keep a lot of notebooks. Over the years I've filled probably a dozen or so notebooks with board game ideas, sketches of components, development notes, and more. A common bit of wisdom you hear from game designers is to get your idea into prototype form and on the table as early as possible. This is one of many areas in which I'm not terribly wise. I tend to keep game ideas in my notebook for a long time, making more and more notes, tweaks, sketches, and more sketches. Ex Libris began in the same way, with a few scribbles and notes to outline an idea.

From gallery of ad7m

Also pictured above: a couple of the dozens of doodles my wife Kerry sneaks into my notebooks

I love games where you're visibly building something in front of you as you play, games like Best Treehouse Ever, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Suburbia, Sapiens, etc., games where the placement of the components result in your own little creation by the end of the game. Being a bit of a bibliophile, I realized that one of the most aesthetically pleasing things to me is a well-curated, substantial bookshelf filled with hardcover books and old leather-bound tomes. And graphic novels. I'll be honest, about half of my library consists of comics. I decided to design a game about building libraries. And not just any libraries — fantasy libraries.

Why fantasy? Because I really enjoy when something potentially mundane and dry is paired with a magical setting. I prefer Caverna to Agricola, for instance. I bought into Thunderstone instead of Dominion. I'd likely rather play Dungeon Petz than a pet-raising game set in reality...

Actually, a realistic pet shop strategy game sounds pretty cool to me, now that I think about it. Lemme make a note in my notebook real quick...

Oh, yeah, fantasy libraries. With that seed in mind, I began brainstorming the game's connective tissues: fleshing out a basic theme, identifying the experience I wanted the players to have, and working out the game mechanisms that would tie it all together. From the sketches pictured above (and a few other pages of less visually-interesting notes), I let the concept guide me. I narrowed down to six categories of books that would exist in a fantasy world, then imagined what sort of rules would govern the quality of a bookshelf.

From gallery of ad7m

Before long, I broke outside of my notebook, created a slew of book cards, and started to play with them. I quickly realized that I didn't want the game to be solely driven by card-drafting since so many games have already done that well, so I expanded the scope and added worker placement to the mix. The action spaces represented locations where players would gain cards and manipulate their bookshelves. Taking it a step further, I included mechanisms that would vary the available locations so that each round would feel and play differently from the one before it. It all began to come together into something promising, and I'll admit I was very excited!

The Slog of Solo Playtests

A bit more honesty for y'all: I am not good at solo playtests. Having to keep track of the unique objectives of each imaginary opponent, simulating decisions without basing them on information that I know, but my fictitious fellow players aren't supposed to know, but also knowing what they know, but they don't REALLY know it, because they're just a figment, after all...

It may come as no surprise at this point in this rambling designer diary that I have ADD. Solo playtesting is a struggle for me. I ran through the earliest iterations of Ex Libris several times by myself, making changes and tweaks in between tries, but each time felt more like work than fun to me. My largest takeaway was, "It's a shame I wasted so much time on this." I placed it in my prototype closet, in the "maybe come back to these some day" pile. I lost a few nights of sleep turning over and over in my head just what had gone wrong and how I could fix it. Did I mention I also suffer from insomnia? I've got a really fun physiology!

(Don't run away just yet — a mid-post turnaround is just about to happen, I promise!)

Getting Encouraged by Encouragement

Fast forward a short while to pre-Unpub 6 preparations. Unpub is one of my absolute favorite conventions of the entire year. For anyone who is unaware of it, Unpub is a convention that exclusively showcases unpublished games. It's the best. Trust me. I was packing up an armload of other prototypes when Kerry asked me, "Are you taking that library game you've been tinkering with?" As an explanation of why I wasn't planning to, I began to describe the gameplay a little bit. This led to teaching her how to play, which led to breaking it out to play a sample round, which led to playing an entire game. And another one. And another one.

Now, Kerry has played a LOT of my prototypes in varying degrees of polish. She's a great sport. I can usually work out pretty quickly when she is suffering through a crummy experience and when she thinks I am onto something. Her demeanor was unlike anything she had exhibited after previous playtests. "This was fun. You have to take this. At least play it with Alex (J. Alex Kevern) and Chris (Chris Bryan) and see what they think, but I really like it."

Here's the strange part: I really liked it, too! The experience was much closer to what I had intended in the first place, and I was able to connect with the gameplay and strategy much better when it was being bounced off a non-fictitious opponent. Turns out that board games tend to work better when you play them with other people! Who would've guessed?

My takeaway was to accept that solo-playtesting just isn't my forte. I have an incredible amount of respect for anyone who is able to do it, but recognizing your own limitations is an important step, I think. With Kerry's encouragement, I decided I would take Ex Libris with me after all.

The first day of Unpub (and every day, really) was a whirlwind. So many fun prototypes and great people. Seriously, go to Unpub. All day, Ex Libris buzzed in the back of my head, scratching at my brain. I had registered my other games in the event program, but Ex Libris sat in my bag, nagging me to be played. Before I knew it, the day was over and our little crew was headed back to the hotel room to crash. At some point on our walk through the streets of Baltimore, I asked whether Alex and Chris would be up for trying Ex Libris before bed, and they obliged.

These were (and are) two of my very good friends, but I went into that playtest with a fair amount of nerves. Teaching any game late at night to worn-out convention goers can be a really rough situation, and both of these guys were beat from a day of playtesting. We pulled a table between the beds of our hotel room, put on our pajamas, and took a crack at it.

In my opinion, observing your playtesters during gameplay is nearly as important as their responses and opinions afterward. If you're observant, you can pick up on the experience they're having. After a round or two of play, I started to notice everyone waking up a bit. I began to catch sly smiles and nodding glances between my opponents. Kerry (who is one of the world's best sleepers) was sitting up straight and poring over the cards in her hand. As we neared the end of the game, everyone cared about who might win.

It was a hit. I can't remember their exact feedback (my night-brain was too tapped to remember to make notes), but Alex and Chris both made it very clear to me that I had created something special. That I should be proud. That Ex Libris was good.

I slept like a baby. No insomnia for the happy game designer.

A Playtest Leads To a Pitch

The day after our late-night library session, Unpub continued as normal. Alex had the table directly behind mine and had an early pitch with Renegade Game Studios for what would end up becoming Sentient. They had shown immediate interest and left his table smiling and energized (which makes sense as I loved Sentient two turns into my first playtest). After congratulating him and talking a little shop, Alex said, "Oh, hey, I also told them they should definitely check out Ex Libris today if they had time."

Within a whirlwind few hours of exchanging phone numbers and coordinating plans, Scott Gaeta and Sara Erickson from Renegade were at my table, and I was nervously fumbling my way through a rules explanation. Playing the game was a blur. Again, I don't remember much from the playtest, other than a few questions were asked and I air-balled a few bad jokes. They were friendly and seemed like they enjoyed themselves, and before I knew it, we had shaken hands and they were gone.

I wasn't really sure how the whole thing went (or how it all happened, really). Publishers often play their interest close to the chest, which I appreciate. There's no point in getting a game designer's hopes up if you can avoid it. By the end of the day, though, Scott and Sara had swung back around my table to ask whether they could take a copy of my prototype home with them. So that's a good thing, right? Right?

Streamlining, Signing, and Special Assistants

After Unpub, I immediately put together another Ex Libris prototype — as I had given Renegade my only copy, whoops — kept playtesting with more and more people, and began streamlining. I took note of which locations were used the most, which were most often ignored, and which seemed cool, but weren't enticing enough or didn't work exactly as intended. Locations were axed and added, nerfed and nitpicked. It was (and still is) vitally important to shelve book cards in Ex Libris, but only a few of the early locations allowed you to do so. The number of cards in a player's hand occasionally slimmed to frustratingly few toward the end of the game. I needed more ways to get cards and more opportunities to shelve them.

The further I developed the game, the more fun I was having with it. It was scratching an itch that no other game in my collection could get to. I've heard game designers say, "Design the game you want to play", and I found myself always wanting to play it. Feedback from playtesters was clear and consistent. They were all having fun, and I was feeling great.

Then one evening as I was wrapping up work, I received an email from Scott Gaeta letting me know that they had been playing Ex Libris with their groups back home, that everyone had really been enjoying it, and that they wanted to offer me a publishing contract. I was ecstatic and let the whole world know via social media as soon as possible. You know, as you do.

Working with Renegade was a treat from the start, surprising no one who is familiar with Scott and Sara. The process was very collaborative, and they were receptive to letting me explore new ideas. The first of which was the addition of special assistants.

From gallery of ad7m

A peek at early notes and sketches of the special assistants!

To add further replayability to the game, each player would now have one worker with a unique ability attached to the meeple itself. Thematically, I wanted to tie those abilities to intriguing settings for the libraries. The Fire Imp comes from a volcanic library, for instance. The Gelatinous Cube hails from a dungeon library, of course. I feel like these variable player powers really put the game over the top. Each one adds a nice wrinkle and gives you the opportunity to explore different play styles from game to game. Luckily, Scott and Sara agreed, and special assistants became officially official during a meeting at Gen Con 2016.

From gallery of ad7m

You can really see the excitement on Scott Gaeta's face!

During the meeting, Sara pointed out a funny book title I had scribbled on one of the cards.

I responded, "Yeah, it'd be cool if every book had a unique title."

"Do you think you'd be able to come up with a title for every book?" she asked.

"Yeah, I think I probably could." I replied, not really thinking it all the way through.

A Battery of Book Titles

There are 152 book cards in Ex Libris. Across those 152 cards, there are 510 individual books. I got to work throwing all the wordplay and cleverness at the problem I could muster, but I quickly realized that it would be far more difficult than brainstorming a list of funny titles. Those titles had to correspond to the game's six categories, which needed to be equally represented in the deck. And since alphabetical order is important when you're shelving cards, the arrangement of this list of 510 book titles could potentially throw the balance between the categories off, even if they were all equally represented. If the majority of the "Monster Manual" titles clumped together alphabetically, they'd be less likely to be drawn than a category that was dispersed evenly across the entire list.

I'd inadvertently given myself a gigantic logic problem to solve. Luckily I love myself a challenging puzzle! Using a combination of multiple spreadsheets, spare cubes and discs, hundreds of squiggly lines, and the kind of free time you have when your significant other is in Vancouver for fourteen days on business, I somehow cracked it.

From gallery of ad7m

The incredible spreadsheet conundrum!

I'm extremely proud of the result. My hope is that players will discover new books every time they play, and that you'll have plenty to read and laugh at when your AP-prone friend's turn is taking way too long.

Enter the Artwork

When the time came to begin production, Scott ran a list of potential illustrators by me, and I jumped at the chance to work with Jacqui Davis. Before long, the oddball world I had imagined for this game was being brought to life by her amazing talent. She populated the locations with a diverse cast of charming townsfolk and captured the perfect mood.

And then there were the books. Jacqui's artwork came together so perfectly with the iconography I created and the typography I used for the book titles that I couldn't be happier.

From gallery of ad7m

Seriously, look at these sexy books!

The View From Here

I'm writing this the week before Ex Libris debuts at Gen Con 50 in Indianapolis. This has been such an incredible journey that it's a little overwhelming to approach the end — even moreso considering that if it weren't for my wife and friends, it may never have left the closet. I'm hoping it will connect with an audience that will love it and share it with their friends and family. There's a fair amount of buzz building behind the game, and I'm beyond excited that it is so highly anticipated.


Creating is hard. Brains are weird. Encourage creators.

Marry your best friend. Listen to trusted friends. Work with great people.

Design your dream game and share it with everyone.

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