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Designer Diary: Spring on a String, or Big Journey of a Small Game

Tomas Uhlir
Czech Republic
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Microbadge: 2017 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: 2019 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: Under Falling Skies
Board Game: Spring on a String
At SPIEL '19, you might encounter the new game Spring on a String from Czech Board Games and Dino — and because its journey from the first idea to the released game was such an adventure for me, I would like to share it with you.

Spring on a String is a surprisingly thoughtful abstract game for 2-4 players set in a meadow full of beetles, butterflies, locusts, and other meadow animals. At first glance, it is particularly interesting for containing four laces and an unusual textile game board covered with brightly colored flowers.

This is closely related to where the game idea came from. At the end of 2015, my wife Jani and I were thinking about a Christmas present for our three-year old daughter Lenka. At that time, she was excited to tie, wrap, and knot everything that went through her hands, so we made a blanket with embroidered flowers with a hole in the middle of each one so that she can thread them through. It went really beautifully thanks to Jani patiently embroidering all the flowers. Still, I wasn't satisfied with this serving only as a toy when we had put so much work into it, and since I had been designing games for some time already, I made a simple game out of our blanket, too.


From gallery of uhlik
The first playable prototype, rolled up for easy transport


The basic mechanism of the game has remained almost unchanged since then:
Quote:
With their individual laces, players take turns threading flowers and trying to collect those with as many petals as possible for each petal is worth one point. When a player runs out of lace, they wait for the opponents to finish their lace, too. The player with the highest score wins.
I usually avoid this type of abstract game with perfect information because they often feel too confrontational and cannot be played intuitively. "Flowers", as we started to call our game, worked for me for some reason. A player never knows exactly how many flowers they can collect before they run out of lace, and this slight uncertainty can lighten the game. It also helps that even when players interfere and interact in many ways, each collects their own flowers and the winner is decided only at the very end.

At that time, I considered "Flowers" a simple children's game. The turning point came when the animals appeared in the game:
Quote:
Each animal brings an unique rule to the game and applies it to all flowers of one color.
In the beginning only five animals existed, but even with that small number, the game became much more varied and interesting because an animal can be assigned to a different color of flower each time and players can vary how many animals they use in a game. Animals brought not only variability, but a surprising amount of depth for a ten-minute game.


From gallery of uhlik
The first five animals, all of which survived to the final version with slight adjustments


But we didn't stop with five animals. With each game, more and more were added, some only for a while with others surviving to the published game. In the end, you can find 31 unique animals in the game, divided into three difficulty levels.

I was surprised by how much work this required. You may be wondering what might be so difficult in a game that can be explained in two minutes and played in under fifteen. Imagine that these 31 animals can be combined with each other, with some of their effects making you feel as if you're playing a completely different game. The animals can be assigned a different color each time and up to five of them can appear in a single game, not to mention how their abilities vary with differing numbers of players. This is an incredible number of combinations, which can create all sorts of conflicts and controversial situations that need to be considered.


From gallery of uhlik
Some of the old animal cards


At some point, we started to keep a diary of played games, with games played at home, on the subway, on trips, on the rocks, by the sea, and in the forest. With "Flowers" we traveled all over Spain and the number of records in our diary exceeded several hundred. During that time, I hadn't experienced two really similar games, and even now I am constantly surprised by new combinations.

I remember one day during our Spain trip when we were playing on a bus and some guy seemed very interested by the game. When he finally decided to ask us about it, it was our stop and we had to get off the bus. He had enough time to tell us only that he works for a game publisher and he believes that this could be a big hit and he wishes us good luck! I am still wondering who it might have been...

Spring on a String (as the game is now called) proved to be a perfect two-player travel game, but we also had a great time introducing it to a cute family on a train, enjoying it with our regular gaming group, and playing it with a random couple in a pub. To people who don't know the game, I would compare it to Hive or even better to Santorini, which feels different every time thanks to the unique god powers, similar to the animals in Spring on a String.

The game board went through three iterations before we reached the perfect balance of flower position — and each time, Jani patiently embroidered all the flowers...


From gallery of uhlik
Our final prototype before looking for a publisher


After about a year of testing, I visited a designer meeting organized by Czech Board Games (CBG). They support original Czech games, organize regular events, and annually select one or two games for publishing, trying to publish them in a small quantity to present at SPIEL where they'll look for a bigger foreign publisher for the game.

Spring on a String won the contest, but it took another two years to find a Czech publisher that would be able to deal with the specific production requirements. I took it to playtesting events organized by Czech Games Edition, where the game also got a great reception, but it obviously doesn't fit into their game portfolio. It was considered by other Czech companies until finally Dino seized the opportunity.

The textile game board was the biggest challenge. It wasn't easy to find a satisfactory technical and financial solution. We had been considering other materials like cardboard, wood, textile printing, etc., but to my great delight, the folks at Dino found a solution with a textile board similar to the original prototype.


From gallery of uhlik
The progression from prototypes to the final game board; the flower shapes changed to be more easily recognizable, with an even number of petals being rounded and an odd number being sharp and with the size of the flowers increasing with their value


It was still a long way to the final product. We had to come up with a fitting name, choose the most interesting animals, refine all texts, and start working on the graphics. A young talented illustrator, Dominika Hourová, took care of all the illustrations. We suggested that each picture should somehow evoke the appropriate rule, which was certainly not an easy task, but in many cases Dominika succeeded, and the final game looks beautiful.


From gallery of uhlik
The dung beetle allows you to collect his color of flowers only from smallest to largest, so we decided to depict it as if he's adding them one by one to his growing ball


It has been a super busy time, finishing Spring on a String and working on Under Falling Skies for the 2019 nine-card print-and-play design contest at the same time — all while quitting my previous job and starting to work for CGE. But now when I finally hold Spring on a String in my hands after three-and-a-half years, I am very happy about it. I learned a lot along the way and enjoyed every moment of the journey.

Thank you to all of those who have contributed with advice and have helped with the playtesting or in any other way. I hope you enjoy the game and experience a lot of pleasant moments with it.

Tomas Uhlir


Board Game: Spring on a String
The published game in action (photo from spoluhratky.eu)
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