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Designer Diary: Relatively Speaking, or Say Whaaat?! How Far Will an Idea Go?

Mike Petty
United States
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Michigan
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Board Game: Say Whaaat?!
My party game Say Whaaat?! will debut from Drawlab Entertainment at SPIEL '18 in late October 2018. It's the latest version of a simple game I made almost 18 years ago. I'm really looking forward this new edition, and I'll explain why at the end of this post, but first please skim along as I take this opportunity to reflect on some highlights in the game's history.

I know most readers will not be familiar with my game. I hope aspiring designers and creative types in general will find something of interest. I will drop some names that will be recognized by those who have been in the hobby for a long time. Many friends I met along the way have gone on to enjoy a lot more success than I have, and I'm so grateful for the roles they played in the development of my game.

I jumped into game design with both feet over twenty years ago after discovering modern games like Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, and some abstracts. I was well aware most designers never made a lot of money with their designs, so money wasn't my main motivation. I kept at it because I loved games and I got many ideas the more that I played them. When I had an idea I thought was promising, I felt a responsibility to see it through. I wanted to see how far my ideas could go.

Also, I went into education — initially teaching high school math — hoping to encourage students to follow their dreams. I played many games with students at lunch, including ones I made. Telling them about my small successes and inviting them to take part at times was one of my favorite ways to do that.

I ended up using this particular game in school far more than any other. (Teachers might be interested in this recent blog post about the many ways that I and other educators have used the game in the classroom.)

2001: Einstein and What Matters Most

I used to keep all my game ideas, no matter how rough, in a text file on my computer. When I had time, I'd skim through them and flesh out any that sounded promising. For a long time I had a quote from Einstein written in that file. I've seen it worded different ways, but here's how I remember it now:

Quote:
Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. That's relativity.
I found that fascinating, and I felt there had to be a game in it somewhere. Over time it developed into the idea of arranging random words relative to each other in some way. I eventually made a small deck of word cards and tried the core activity with my wife. She has always been my faithful encourager and ever-willing playtester. "Light" and "chocolate" were a couple of the words I recall. The question we used for that initial test was, "Which do you need most?" For each round, we'd draw five cards. One of us would rank them, and the other would try to guess the ranking.

There wasn't much to go on, but the idea had something to it. (Will Niebling gave a talk to the aspiring designers at an early Protospiel gathering. He called that elusive quality of promising games "a spark of life". That term has stuck with me whenever I'm playtesting games and deciding which ideas to pursue.)

After that brief playtest session, I remember thinking the question should be changed to "Which is most important?" From then on, the design became the party game of what matters most. I called it What's It to Ya?

In July 2001, five or six of us, all mutual friends of designer Stephen Glenn, met in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the first Protopsiel (which Stephen called "Protospiele" at the time). I didn't play What's It to Ya? there, but I learned that my prototypes looked terrible compared to the ones Dominic Crapuchettes and Greg Daigle made! I decided to spice mine up, drawing a couple characters in the shape of arrows named "Up" and "Down" and adding them to the ranking cards.

2002: James Droscha and The Low-Budget, Low-Risk Approach to Game Publishing

I built up the deck and kept trying the game with friends. One early playtest (again, as more of a ranking activity than a game) was with my friend Terry Carr. We laughed hysterically while we played. I was fascinated that a game about the most important things could be hilarious at times. I also saw how it could spark brief conversations and that I was learning things while we played.

Board Game: HellRail
As the rules were finalized, I considered the partnership game the official way to play. Players paired up and would score points by guessing each other's rankings. I worked out rules for groups of odd-numbered players, too. I have a fond memory of testing that version with a couple of students at a Taco Bell on our return trip from a chess tournament. All the playtests with students were a hit, which was very encouraging.

That summer I met James Droscha (who goes by James Kyle when designing) at the second Protospiel. Our guest of honor was expected to give a presentation back then, so James shared the process he went through to get his game HellRail to the world. In those days, before Kickstarter and POD services, an aspiring designer usually had to make connections with publishers or risk losing a fortune (and a ton of storage space) by self-publishing thousands of copies.

James' method was to slowly build up attention for a game by starting with a low-budget, hand-assembled print run. He printed and cut the cards for the first edition of HellRail himself. The game ended up in Games Magazine's "Games 100", which in turn led to a contract with Mayfair Games, then with Franjos.

I came home that summer excited to try the same thing with some of my designs. I called them Black & White Games and I sold them from Terry Carr's online game store, Fair Play Games. Near the holiday season, What's It to Ya? became the second title I produced following James' low-risk approach.

I remember getting some copies at Office Depot. For that first run, I printed only ten for a little less than $10. The low-risk and low-budget approach was just my style! I hoped the amount of fun in the little box would be perceived as a bargain.


Board Game: What's It To Ya?
Board Game: What's It To Ya?
Pictures of that first edition, which sold for $5


2003: Yes, It Really Is Fun

I made another print run of around thirty copies and sold them throughout the year. That will seem like a ridiculously slow pace, but I was always working on other games, learning what worked and hoping eventually one game would catch some attention.

I met Kory Heath and Dave Chalker at Protospiel that year. I especially owe them and Greg Daigle a huge thanks for their encouragement to keep moving forward with What's It to Ya? I used to start with a few blank cards and ask the group to write words on them before I even explained the rules. Kory wrote "Mike Petty" on one of the cards. They all felt awkward ranking me less important than telephones later in the game, but I understood.

About a month later, an up-and-coming reviewer, Tom Vasel, had some nice things to say about the game. Then at the end of the year Bernie DeKoven (author of The Well-Played Game and giver of the Major Fun Award) wrote a short positive review, too. I sold out my second print run at that time. One cherished memory was assembling those final copies with my family. My two children were only three and four, but they enjoyed folding the small boxes I used in that inexpensive edition.

2004: The Games 100

Terry Carr teamed up with me to make the second edition of What's It to Ya? He paid for a slightly better small printing of 250 copies at a local print shop. Scott Starkey (another designer who had joined the growing ranks of Protospiel regulars) provided the art for that edition, and I loved the style he brought to it. One of my favorite pictures from those cards is still my avatar here on BGG.


Board Game: What's It To Ya?
The second edition, with Scott Starkey's art


The highlight that year didn't come until November. I was overjoyed to learn then that my game had been selected for the "Games 100"! Just like my friend James, I had reached that milestone without paying a fortune. The remainder of our print run sold out quickly after that. I anticipated the next mile marker: Would a publisher show interest in the game?


From gallery of mpetty31
No image included, but they picked it!


2005-2008: Making, Being Made, and Letting Go

It turns out publishers were not interested. I tried shopping it around for a few months, but eventually Terry and I decided to publish a quality edition ourselves. He graciously put up a considerable sum of money for it, and I did the legwork to bring the production together.

I wish I could say it was a huge success, but I soon found out I wasn't much of a game publisher. We took too long to get started and we lost momentum as the big shipment didn't show up at the Fair Play Games warehouse until late summer 2006.


Board Game: What's It To Ya?
The 2006 edition of What's It to Ya?


I had a ton of fun promoting that edition with many groups at that time. We were in local papers. I was able to watch many players have interesting conversations as they played, laughing and giving high-fives while pondering big ideas. I made videos about people playing and ran contests in the Fair Play newsletter. I used it to kick off lessons in school about values and priorities.

Watching people play and hearing how they think (or don't think) about values and preferences made me consider my own priorities. In time it changed how I think about life. I've had spiritual discussions with people during the game or I've used it as an example after the fact. Those reflections on what really matters and why have informed my theology.

But as much as I saw its value affirmed time and again, our efforts to promote it ended with less than stellar results. Some of our business and production decisions as well as my written rules hindered sales. I eventually concluded that print run would be the end of What's It to Ya?

Shortly after my decision to let it go, I got a call from Tim Walsh. He had enjoyed a lot of success with mass-market games years earlier and he was working as an agent at the time. He came across my game and contacted me. When we first talked, he told me he felt God brought us together at that time. I had a lot of respect for Tim's work and his faith, so I took that comment seriously. I was excited to see where he could take the game.

Tim was great to work with. Compared to working hard to make something happen, I only had to read his regular email updates. By late 2008, I was offered a contract from Find It Games for publication in North America.

Board Game: What's It To Ya?
2010-2012: Oh, Really!

They finally released my game in the middle of 2010 as Oh, Really!. My kids, now old enough to appreciate the significance, were excited when the big stack of designer copies arrived. They actually had never played the previous versions, so it was a memorable time for us as we enjoyed the game that day as a family.

I was grateful for their work, but honestly a few of the publisher's decisions about the rules and components left me scratching my head. That was the trade-off for letting someone else do the hard work of publication.

In time, we watched Tim promote the game on a morning news program. My son and I saw it on the shelf in a family bookstore that year, too. Seeing it in a store was a big deal for both of us since all of my other games sold online or through direct sales.

During this time, I made a number of digital resources for the classroom based on the game, and the subject-specific activities and lesson plans based on Oh, Really! were a popular section on my blog.

Though personally satisfying, these highlights didn't equate to significant sales, and the publisher eventually decided it didn't warrant a second printing. It was still a blessing to see that my simple idea had gone quite far. I realized it sometimes continued better without my efforts. I came to appreciate it as the gift that it was.

2016 to Present: It's Still Going

Board Game: What's It To Ya?
In the middle of 2016, two publishers contacted me about printing a new version of the game. I'm grateful to both of them for reaching out. I hadn't been focused much on game design in recent years and had done absolutely nothing to promote What's It to Ya? or push it to other publishers.

The first surprise email came from Happy Baobab, asking for rights to publish in Asia, then a couple of months later Drawlab Entertainment asked to publish in all other regions.

Happy Baobab's edition (which brought back the original title of What's It to Ya?) was released in late 2017 in Korean with English rules and translations on the cards. They were the first publisher to change my ranking mechanism. The previous editions had players use cards that represent the random words, and the player placed those cards in order from most important to least. Happy Baobab flipped that around, having the player place cards numbered 1-5 next to the word cards to signify relative importance. I had considered something like that many times, but always opted for the tried-and-true method. I agree now their new method is more intuitive.


Board Game: What's It To Ya?


They also decided not to include (or possibly they completely overlooked) the partnership rules. Because of that, some graphic design choices, and some of the card content, this has not been my favorite edition. I understand it was aimed at a different market, though, and I respect their decisions. They've sold a lot more games than I have!

I appreciated Zee Garcia's positive review of the game, but had to laugh when he said he wasn't familiar with the original game. I wondered if he asked his partner, Tom, about it. Maybe he would have remembered reviewing it fourteen years prior...

And that brings us to the new version coming out in October 2018. I'm really looking forward to Say Whaaat?! because:

• This is my first game officially being released at SPIEL.
• They included the original partnership rules. Yes! (Most people tell me it's their favorite way to play.)
• I love the look. I proofed the rules a couple of months ago, and I've been excited about it ever since. The team at Drawlab Entertainment did a great job!

I'm grateful to see the game is still going. I hope it results in much laughter, amusing thoughts, and fun conversations for those who discover it.

Mike Petty
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