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Designer Diary: Alice in Wordland, or Watch Your Language

Spyros Koronis
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Satire bites with white teeth.
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The discussion topic is "Introduction". The forbidden letter is "B". Begin.

Chris: There is a saying I like a lot: "Every game has a story." I think the reverse is also true: "Every story has a game." Alice in Wordland is my second design, produced for the SPIEL '19 fair thanks to Drawlab Entertainment

You used a "B"! OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

Spyros: Hello, everyone, I'm Chris' co-designer. This is my first time designing a game. We're here to tell you the story that gave birth to Alice—


Spyros: ...well, we're off to a good start.

The discussion topic is "How it all began". The forbidden letter is "K". Begin.

Chris: In the fall of 2016, I had a unique experience. It's not something I would easily do again; nevertheless, I came out the other side with unforgettable moments, my first published game, and a brand new project.

A couple of the Drawlab team members and I traveled by car from Athens, Greece to Essen, Germany in a van full of newly minted games (When I Dream, my first design, being one of them). In order to be at the fair on time, we drove constantly, stopping only to grab a bite and refuel. Our poor van Ivan was a real trooper.

I was one of the two drivers, and my co-driver was a very good friend of mine, Spyros Koronis—


Spyros: As Chris' partner on the road, I helped him stay focused and alert, especially at night-time. As we crossed Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria, we whiled the long hours away discussing all sorts of things, from our lives to our views, hopes and dreams. It really was a bonding, if grueling, experience.

Naturally, one of the most popular subjects was our shared passion for board games. At one point, Chris told me about a game he wanted to make—


Chris: Nice job.

Spyros: Like you're one to talk!

The discussion topic is "The partnership". The forbidden letter is "V". Begin.

Chris: I told Spyros I wanted to create a fantasy-themed game in which players would be restricted in their speech in some way, ideally teaching their teammates a made-up language to communicate, but I hadn't gone much farther than that. From my time with Spyros, I knew him to be a great playtester; he was one for When I Dream, after all. His considerable experience playing games and his quick, analytical mind are to thank for that, I think.

I thought it worthwhile to offer Spyros a "push" or "spark", an opportunity to work with me on a game from the very beginning—


Spyros: I had already known Chris for quite some time by that point. I admired and appreciated not only his prowess as a designer, but also his warm personality and fun attitude. I felt truly honored to be offered this opportunity.

SPIEL came and went, and we returned to Greece with our suitcases full of games and our heads full of ideas. We started meeting up regularly at "The Cell", a well-known meeting place for board gamers in Athens, as well as other gaming venues. Only this time, instead of playing games, we set about designing one. It was very exciting—


Chris: Really, mate? With the same word as me?

Spyros: Yeah, that was unfortunate...

The discussion topic is "The turning point". The forbidden letter is "P". Begin.

Chris: Although we were highly motivated, our initial sessions were not very successful. I had the main hook of "communication restriction", and the thematic justification of an enchantment enforcing it. We were gravitating towards a game between teams of two in which one teammate would have all information but no way to act, and the other could act but have no information. The challenge would be for information to be transmitted from one to the other without conventional language.

We then toyed with various ways one could get instructions across, including a fictional vocabulary, a modular language taught in real time, lines drawn in the air, and hand gestures. However, we were struggling to find a fast, effective, and fun code of communication, as well as thinking of an interesting set of tasks to go with it. During one of our breaks, to take our minds off the subject, I told S— my...friend...about a tangent off my main idea: a deduction game in which we would each have a single letter we were forbidden from using, the goal being to identify the taboo letter of each other based on how they talk.

And that's when it happened—


Spyros: Chris' idea reminded me of an anime I used to watch called Yu Yu Hakusho. A minor storyline had the characters facing an antagonist with the ability of "Taboo": He could forbid certain letters, and anyone using a word containing them would lose their soul. Even in the show itself, this challenge was seen as a game of sorts, and it immediately intrigued us. From that moment, our design efforts shifted, centering around this new idea.

The basics were quickly established: There would be a discussion subject and two or three forbidden letters; using a word containing any of them would mean you are out of the round. Favoring a short game, we initially made it last just three rounds, with Chris introducing a time limit enforced by a mobile a— assist with the flow. I divided all letters into difficulty tiers according to their frequency in the dictionary, an effective tool when decoding substitution ciphers—


Chris: And we were doing so well...

Spyros: I forgot "cipher" has a "P" in it. Give me a break!

The discussion topic is "Theme and Character Powers". The forbidden letter is "F". Begin.

Chris: Naturally, our developing game needed a distinct theme. Initially, we used wizards and magic as with the previous design, but we soon came up with something better. Spyros re-imagined the "taboo letter" mechanism as a law, one that a king or queen might decree. Obviously, one would have to be mad to pass a law like that. A mad monarch...

Well, there was one who instantly came to our minds: the Queen o' Hearts, a character in "Alice in Wonderland"! It was not hard to imagine the capricious queen inviting her subjects to a tea party and "encouraging" them to make small talk, with anyone breaking her laws losing their head — or, at least, their seat at the party table. It even provided us with a punny title: "word game" + "Alice in Wonderland" gave birth to "Alice in Wordland"!

"Alice in Wonderland" is a well-known tale. This was a bonus to playtesters, but also inspired us designers when it came to the next important point: character powers. I love variable powers in games. They're awesome! It's great when players under the same general rules can still do unique things and play the game their own way. This also gives a game replayability, strategic depth, theme integration, and above all, fun!


Spyros: I was hesitant to include character powers, worrying that they might complicate what I wanted to be a simple game. Luckily, Chris ultimately convinced me and I can't be happier that he did. Introducing this element to the game instantly made it much more interesting and entertaining.

In the beginning, coming up with abilities was much easier than expected. We simply allowed the Wonderland theme to guide us. It's only natural that the Queen can add a banned letter and select the discussion topic; she is the land's ruler and the party's host. Similarly, the Cheshire Cat turning invisible obviously means that he can vanish to skip his turn in a pinch. We were delighted.

Gradually, though, two issues emerged. Number one was balance. In such a short game, powers could — and should — have a great impact on gameplay. The Cheshire Cat's ability, while elegant, inevitably became the benchmark when evaluating new ones. Countless times, an ability was rejected because it was "strictly worse" than the Cat's. It's easy to see why: a turn with absolutely no risk in a game with such a small turn number per player was pretty strong.

Number two was the game's real-time nature. We noticed during playtesting that players rarely used their powers because they were trying to come up with an acceptable word within the time limit. This meant that powers had to be simple and strong enough to encourage players to remember and use them. It took considerable development with our publishers to create easy to use, balanced, interesting and thematic powers, but in the end we are confident that—


Chris: It's getting harder, isn't it?

Spyros: Yeah, avoiding words like "of" and "for" was a real challenge.

The discussion topic is "The Contest". The forbidden letter is "M". Begin.

Chris: "Epitrapezio" is a nation-wide design contest in Greece, with the finals being held in Athens. I always take part as it's a fun way to develop one's creations in a friendly clash with one's friends. Spyros and I participated in 2017's contest. The open playtest sessions that "Epitrapezio" offered gave us the opportunity to receive tons of useful feedback and helped Alice evolve, identifying and fixing a lot of issues along the way. It was then that our game—


Spyros: It was then that Alice in Wordland really hit its stride as a newbie-friendly, yet still challenging design. We also received a lot of positive feedback during the finals, where we received the third Judges' award as well as the People's Choice award. Just like the Cheshire Cat, these results left us both with great big smiles—


Spyros: How much longer do we have to do this for?

Chris: We're almost done, don't worry.

The discussion topic is "Getting Published". The forbidden letter is "N". Begin.

Chris: Some publishers saw our game at "Epitrapezio". We also pitched it with a home-made video:

A few replies showed promise, and after some thought, we decided to go with some familiar faces.

I had the best memories of Drawlab from their work with my first game, so I was sure they would do their best this time as well. Although it might take a bit more time compared to other publishers, I knew—


Spyros: We had zero doubt they would treat the game with care as they, of course, did. From the beautiful art to the multitude of playtests, from the scores of clever ideas to the cool musical teapot timer, they delivered, and we are truly thankful.


Spyros: I don't care. That was worth it.

Chris: I agree.

The discussion topic is "Conclusion". The forbidden letter is..."E". Begin.

Chris: What?! was a long story, but it's about to finish. A lot of fun was had by both of us making this. It's finally all I and Spyros wish for — a quick and fun party game.


Spyros: Um...I'm hoping you will join us at Drawlab's booth for a visit in Wordland! Insanity is not a must, but it helps!


Chris: Whew, glad that's over. Fancy a cup of tea?

Spyros: Sure thing!

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