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Subject: Designer Diary Part One rss

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James Wilson
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1
meeple dreams


My world changed on September 10th, 2009. It was the day my wife and I purchased the Carcassonne Big Box. What was this—a board game where you build little cities and roads and use miniature wooden people and there is no paper money or rolling to move? Sounded quaint, and a little nerdy. Surely this would prove to be a fad, a passing hobby, assuming we could even learn the rules.

We learned the rules. We played the game. It was quaintly nerdy. Being unfamiliar with this new concept of “points” in a board game, most of our attention was captivated with creating a pleasant countryside. Roads and cities were arranged in a logical fashion, cloisters were spaced out evenly, and what happens when I make one of my little wooden guys a farmer again?

That night our dreams were plagued with visions of dirt paths and walled cities. We tossed and turned, trying to surround cloisters, trying to finish walls. We should have recognized this for what it was: withdrawal symptoms.

Carcassonne hit the table again, and again, and soon we no longer cared about logical countrysides or city zoning—we had tasted the sweet flavor of Victory Points and our table would never be the same again.

At that time, Tom Vasel was still in standard definition on the YouTubes. Here was a rather jolly chap eager to tell me about beautiful ways to empty my wallet. Carcassonne, meet Ticket to Ride. Oh, you two already know each other? And you have other friends? Pandemic, Dominion, Stone Age, pleasure to meet you.

Googling bookshelves.

And this is how it goes, right? You start out with pleasant countrysides and before you know it, you are trying to decipher the hidden language of the stars: Race for the Galaxy was painful. Dreams followed again, but they were like Nyquil induced nightmares riddled with psychedelic spinning symbology.

It got better. Like drinking coffee. Bitter at first, but perhaps a little sugar can help, and before you know it you are drinking three cups a day.

Googling card sleeves.

RFTG (we were becoming cool enough to use acronyms), became a staple at the table, like potatoes. But we wanted some more colorful vegetables.

Agricola sat in the shrink-wrap for a while. I got brave one evening while my wife was working on a sewing project. I opened the game, planning to learn the rules. Look at all of these cards. At least they don’t have symbols on them.

Everything was back in the box two hours later. Maybe there was a video that could teach us how to play?

This was in the dark ages before Rodney Smith became a household moniker, but another fellow by the name of Scott Nicholson was rolling in the views. He had a long and informative (and hilarious) video explaining this daunting game about fences and family growth.

Eventually we stumbled through a full game of Agricola. Night terrors about starving in a two-room shack followed.

We cleansed our pallet with RFTG and others. But Agricola taunted us. We mustered our strength once more and went back to the 17th century for more farming fun in the sun. It stuck in our minds, and bled into our lives; we began to evaluate our daily activities as though they were actions in a game. Could we finish this and that before harvest—could we combine these two things into one action to save time?

We logged over 50 games of Agricola and RFTG each. Though vastly different, they were easily our two favorite games.

Then one evening, after counting our sheep and vegetables, I announced that I had an idea. For a game.

2
paper cuts


This wasn’t the first time. I had tried my hand at a few awful designs previously. The game about sneezing was cold, the game about frogs croaked—but remember that saying about charm coming in thirds?

So what if we took our favorite aspects of Agricola and RFTG and melded them together into one game? Though we loved those two games, there were some details that we found somewhat frustrating (namely the very punishing aspect of Agricola, and the inability to find desired cards in RFTG). So this would be a worker placement meets tableau-building game with lots of thematic cards, cool combos, and open strategic possibilities that were different from game to game. Sounded simple enough to make.

My world changed again on June 20th, 2012. It was the day I created a file on my computer called “cards”. I named the game Our Card Game. Catchy.

This is what I knew: players would have workers and gather stuff to play cards. It would be cool. My wife and I would like it. It would never get published.

The first card I created was a Farm. Sometimes things just work right in game design; to this day, the Farm card is still worth the same points, still costs the same, and still has the same basic ability.



Okay, cool, I made a card with some snazzy artwork I drew myself. Now what? Another Building, perhaps? How about some Citizens for this City we’re creating?



I found that the easiest way to create content was to ask myself questions, and then create a solution. How do you play cards? Well, you pay the resources listed on them. How do you get those resources, Well, you place your little workers on locations to gather them. When do I place workers? How many workers do I get? Can I get more workers?

I fumbled around for a few weeks, trying to come up with enough material to justify printing the thing out. I had the slightest thought in the back of my mind that there might be something worthwhile in this mess of ideas, but then, I had thought the same thing about the sneezing game.

There are things you learn in life. Little tricks that make you feel clever. Like how to tie your shoes while drinking coffee and talking on the phone. Here’s a free tip for you aspiring game designers: paper cutters are worth the price.

For the first prototype of Our Card Game, I cut out every card with a pair of scissors. There were a lot of cards. One day, my Mom gave me a paper cutter. I have such a great mom.

Finally the first prototype was complete. It was ugly. I played it by myself at the kitchen counter. There was this strange thrill as I placed out meeples stolen from Carcassonne and gathered resources stolen from Agricola to play cards with clipart stolen from the internet. Parts of the game actually worked! I was able to play more than one turn without it crumbling!

There was “something” to the game. Not saying it was fun at first sight or anything, but maybe we could go out together again sometime?


3
play day

Okay, so I had something resembling part of a game on my hands. At this point I still had no ambitions of it ever being published. It was simply a fun challenge and experiment to see if I could create something for my wife and I to enjoy.

We tinkered around with the game, and quickly recognized vital errors. There is no substitute in game design for playtesting. It is amazing how quickly you can recognize problems when you actually start moving things around on the table. Every designer I’ve heard talk about prototypes always says the same thing: get the game to the table as fast as you can.

Every time we played, I made notes at the end of the game, writing down anything that I thought was wrong or needed improving. There were bits of “fun” starting to surface, so that was hopeful, at least.

Players were supposed to be creating something resembling a diverse city in each game, so more cards were necessary, otherwise you were just playing the same cards each game.

The method I used—and still use to this day—for creating a card was to think about theme first, then mechanics. So, for instance, I wanted to have a cemetery in the game. And what do you do at a cemetery? You bury people. So players should permanently place a worker on their cemetery to use it, because that worker is dead now. Then you should get to do something powerful as a result, because you are losing the worker for good. How about draw some cards and play 1 for free? That’s thematic because drawing the cards is like digging, and getting something for free after someone dies is like receiving an inheritance. Okay, let’s try it.


In elementary school, I was a fan of the Star Wars CCG. My own kids played Pokemon for a time. With this design, I wanted to capture something of the sense you get from playing a CCG—that you were able to 1) acquire a powerful and thematic card, 2) introduce that card into the game state to change things to your favor. Over the course of the game, players are drawing lots of cards from a huge deck, and I wanted it to feel like each time your drew cards you were opening a mini booster pack.

I made “Common” cards that were less powerful, but players could have more than one copy in their city. And “Advanced” (later called “Unique”) cards that were more powerful, but you could only have 1 copy in your City. This was fun, and a good step toward that card playing, card comboing excitement I was looking for.

I had these generic resources in the game that players were gathering to build buildings, but I also wanted citizens in the city. It would not make sense to play a citizen with two pieces of wood, so I created “food” as a fourth resource. Food was only used for playing citizens. Idea! What if citizens could be played by paying the cost, or just played for free if you had a corresponding building already?

With these ideas and goals, I shaped the game for many months. There were numerous mundane details to iron out, and I processed them with all the grace of an amateur game designer, still thinking that I was creating a game just for us.

At some point, we played the game and at the end we realized that we actually enjoyed it. We weren’t just playing it anymore to see if we could sort through problems. We were starting to play it because we actually wanted to live an hour of our lives in the game space.

Mmm. Maybe we were onto something here? It was time to get a second opinion.

4
survey says


The catchy title, Our Card Game, needed to grow up and leave the nest. City Builder was the next awesome name, but it did not last long. Hey, using some Latin term was good enough for Uwe Rosenberg, so it must be good enough for me. Finally I settled on Civitas, a Latin term meaning something like the life of the city, or such. Good enough for now.

We enjoyed more games as time went on (7 Wonders, The Lord of the Rings LCG, Troyes, Galaxy Trucker, Defenders of the Realm), and I drew little pieces of influence from anything I enjoyed, sprinkling it here and there into the game. The design was starting to grow up, starting to feel a little more mature, able to stand up on its own.

Finally, two years and four days after I created the first card in the game, I wrote Joel Eddy of Drive Thru Review to see if he would be interested in trying out my game. I was fortunate to discover that he lived nearby, and based on his reviews, I hoped he might like it. Really, though what I was ultimately searching for was a “professional” opinion on whether the game was any good or not.

I sent him a nice little note, asking if he’d be open to play. He responded that same day with, “Sure thing, James”. Thrilled, I emailed back a sample image of the cards. I had put the game through three complete graphic overhauls, and this is how it was looking at the time:



Not too shabby as far as black and white prototypes go (I didn’t yet own a color printer). But who cared how good or bad the game looked if it didn’t play well? Time, and Joel, were about to tell.

We met at a community/fitness center. Isn’t that where everybody goes to play games? There in the corner of the lobby, we shook hands and I opened my little box of printed cards and homemade resources. Across from me sat Joel Eddy, famed video reviewer who had played and reviewed more games than I’d ever touched.

I wasn’t nervous at all.

I briefly explained what the game was supposed to be about and then proceeded to set it up and explain the rules. He nodded, said, “Okay,” a few times, looked at some pieces… This was going well.

Rules explanation done, we began to play. Now, mind you, I had played the game with my wife well over 50 times by this point, but still I wondered if it would actually even work. Was it going to fall apart midway through?

Joel was very amiable, and seemed to be enjoying himself as we played. I remember a teenager stopping by and asking us what we were playing. I told him it was a game that I had designed. He was impressed. Made me feel kind of cool.

The game took as long as I thought it would, and we ended with close scores, but being the seasoned gamer he was, Mr. Eddy took the win.

Sigh of relief. The game actually held up. Now for the moment of truth.

“What do you think?”

His response was immediate. “I think it’s good.”

Really? “Like, good good, or just okay good?”

“It’s good.”

We chatted some more, and he gave me a few ideas for improvements, but overall his response was very positive. I asked him if he had any advice on publishers I should pursue. He did. I thanked him again. We shook hands. That was it.

For Joel, this was an afternoon meeting that took him away from his world for a little over an hour. For me, this was like gasoline on a small flame that I had been tending for two years. Joel Eddy thought that the game was good. He thought I should pursue publication.

Well, okay then.

5
query, tweak, repeat


I went home from my meeting with Joel and worked up a query letter to the publisher he had recommended. This also happened to be the very publisher I had on the top of my list of potentials. To protect the innocent, I will henceforth refer to this publisher as Publisher S. At the time, they were a fairly small company with a couple successful games on their hands. Nobody knew just how bright their future would prove to be.

Now, I was no stranger to how query letters worked; after all, I had been a writer for many years at this time, and had sent countless query letters out into the void. I knew that you labored over your letter, then pushed send, then waited until your kids grew up to hear back.

I typed up what I thought was a good letter, included some sample images, mentioned Joel Eddy, and fired it off. Then I went to paint my laundry room. Not two hours later, I received an email back from Publisher S. They were interested in seeing the game, and would I be at GenCon so I could show them?

I put down the paint roller, washed my hands, and ran to my keyboard. No, I would not be at GenCon—yes, I would love to send them a prototype.

Seriously? Did that just happen? A response on the same day, and they wanted to see the game?

You might say I had high hopes when a few days later when I dropped the game in the mail. Okay, my hopes were absolutely rocketing through the roof. I checked my email constantly, waiting for the big contract to arrive.

Finally an email back. I was going to be as tall as Stephen Feld!

Publisher S. decided to pass. But this was a genuine, thoughtful response, not like a form letter saying “not for us”. They had good things to say about the game, and some advice. I thanked Publisher S., took all of their feedback to heart, and dove back into the game.

I was not disheartened. I was treating the design seriously now, thinking that it might actually have a chance, a real chance.

After about three months of more development and more testing, I felt that it was ready for another round. So another query, and the expected wait.

Surprise!

Again, I got a same day reply from the next publisher (codename Publisher T.), and they also wanted me to send them a prototype. Well, here we go again.

But my hopes had been tempered (a little), so imagine my surprise when about a week after receiving the game I got a response saying they had played five times in the last three days. They were interested in publishing the game, but wanted to do some development work to be sure.

At this point we entered into a development contract. The team at Publisher T. was very insightful, and together we gave the game a somewhat thorough overall. Most of this involved tightening the game down, which resulted in less rounds, less cards that a player could have in their city, and so on.



One of the major changes that resulted from this development was the removal of Houses. At first, House cards were in the deck and players would find them randomly. This was a huge problem because Houses, when built, gave players another worker. And as anyone who has ever played a worker placement game knows, more workers is usually always a good idea.

So the first step was to remove the House cards from the deck and make them always available to purchase. This was better, but then it became a no-thought decision: always buy Houses the first few turns of the game.

Finally we settled on a nice little system where everybody receives another worker at the same time, with them being spaced out at appropriate intervals throughout the game. This was clean and simple, and took away unnecessary options from the game, allowing players to focus more on the fun.


Publisher T. worked hard on the game for about a month and a half, but ultimately had to pass on it. Though they liked the game very much, they felt that there was too much more work to be done, and that they just wouldn’t have the necessary time with their busy publication schedule.

They sent me off with a long, detailed email explaining some issues they had with the design and some ideas for improvement. I studied the feedback, pondered it all, and dove back into work. A big change was about to happen to the game.

6
now in color!


Up until this point, the game was entirely in black and white. The biggest reason for this is that I did not own a color printer.

When Publisher T. signed a development contract with me, I felt like a real boy. Surely I was destined for the Spiel des Jahres, surely Reiner Knizia would be calling any day to ask me for advice. It was time for me to buy a color printer.

But now I had a gargantuan task ahead of me: redoing the graphic design for the entire game. Mind you, I had already done this twice before, but it was a big transition into color. Also, there were changes I wanted to make based on the extensive feedback from Publisher T.

I was (and still am) an avid Ludology listener (as all game designers should be). Since I was now taking this design thing seriously, I was hungry for anything about game design that I could find. I read articles, listened to podcasts, and tried to develop a critical eye for games. I started to analyze games that I played, looking for cracks in the designs, or noticing where they shined and trying to learn why.

For my own design, I realized that one of the biggest hurdles players had was digesting all of the card text and abilities. This was compounded by the fact that at the time the deck had Event cards. These were powerful cards that required a specific set of other cards to achieve them, and then when played caused something to happen, which was described with more text. Like many games, once you understood everything, you could flow along without too much trouble.

But it was too much trouble to get to that point. So, as part of the Now in Color! overhaul, Events were removed from the deck and turned into common face up achievements for all players to compete for. Rounds were shortened again, card text was cleaned up and simple symbols were used where possible (from the beginning I was cautious to rely on symbology, wanting to avoid the RFTG issue).

When the overhaul was complete, I printed, cut, and sleeved the new and improved prototype. Having the game in color helped tremendously, not just for visual appeal, but also for ease of play. Simply by separating card types into their own colors, I was able to tell players how a card behaved without having to spell it out.


Green cards produce things for you. Blue cards are places you can put your workers. Red cards give you special abilities when playing cards, etc.

I was feeling pretty good about the game. Feeling like maybe it was time to put it out there again…

7
third times the—


Publisher T2 also responded the same day, requested a prototype—yes, I would be happy send one. This was a much smaller publisher than the previous two, but they had two nice games under their belt, and they seemed eager to make a bigger mark.

At this point, my expectations had been so well tampered that I fully expected Publisher T2 to pass on the game. But they thoroughly enjoyed the game, and promptly responded with some feedback, which I promptly implemented and sent back. This is how it went.

We never entered into a formal development contract, but that is what was happening. Publisher T2, though a small team of only two people, was very keen with ideas to improve the game. We worked together for a little over three months. During this time, many significant developments were made to the game.

It was feeling really, really good. I liked it. The publisher liked it. So….?

Well, ultimately, with regrets, Publisher T2 decided to pass on the game. The reason was that they just didn’t feel like they had the necessary capital and market reach to produce the game like it deserved to be produced. This was a nice compliment to the game, to be sure, but that meant that I was back to query days.

At this point, I sat down and considered my situation. I had a very solid game on my hands. Many people from different gaming circles had praised the game and encouraged me to keep seeking publication. Considering my track record, I felt fairly confident that whichever publisher I queried next was going to be interested in at least looking at the game.

I remembered that I had queried a publisher just before sending the game to Publisher T2. This other publisher wasn’t able to respond the same day, so the game went to Publisher T2 first. But they had expressed interest. Would they still be interested? It had been months…

I wrote back codename Publisher S2. They replied the same day (isn’t the game industry awesome?). Yes, they were still interested, and if I could send them a prototype in the next few days, they would play the game at their yearly retreat where they decided what games to publish the next year.

Okay. Here we go again. But maybe the fourth time is really the charm.

I frantically printed and constructed a new prototype, made everything look as pretty as possible, and paid a thick fold of cash to get the game there in time. Now, the wait…

8

August 11, 2016, twelve days after I sent the game, I opened an email from Publisher S2. They had played the game. They…all really liked it.

The would like to publish it.

Wait, did I read that right?

They would like to publish it.

But, but, what about a development contract? What about months of consideration and deliberation and a rollercoaster of hopes and dreams and that kind of stuff?

They would like to publish it.

They felt like the game was further along in development than most prototypes they usually received, but due to a full schedule, they wouldn’t be able to publish the game until late 2018. If I was okay with their terms, including that long wait, they were happy to publish the game.

Was I okay with the wait? I had been working on the game for five years. I could wait a little longer.

I said yes. We signed an Official Contract.

Starling Games was going to publish my game. I was going to be a published game designer. I celebrated.

Part Two of this diary will be posted January 8th, the day before the official Kickstarter for Everdell!

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Jack Francisco
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James, that's an amazing story. I'm sure it's a dream come true! Good luck! Everdell looks like it's going to be great!
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James Wilson
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Thank you, Jack. Yes indeed, it is a dream come true. Hope you get a chance to try the game and enjoy it.
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Mark Robinson
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I concur. A wonderful story. All the best on your endeavour to bring Everdell to the public.cool
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James Wilson
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Thank you, Mark. This has been a long, exciting journey for sure, and should Everdell survive the fires of Mount Kickstarter, it will be the successful result of many more creative people than just me: namely the awesome team at Starling Games and artist Andrew Bosley.

See you in Everdell.
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Starling Games
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Everdell is now live on Kickstarter!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gamesalute/everdell-a-b...
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Flavio Furquim
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Nice story, just finished reading it, will jump to part 2 right away!! Best hopes for Everdell.
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James Wilson
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Flababoo wrote:
Nice story, just finished reading it, will jump to part 2 right away!! Best hopes for Everdell.

Thank you so much!
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SHAWN WHITE
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This was a great read! Thank you so much for sharing. I just got a newsletter about the Everdell KS today, and I'm very interested.

Cheers!
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James Wilson
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doodlezook wrote:
This was a great read! Thank you so much for sharing. I just got a newsletter about the Everdell KS today, and I'm very interested.

Cheers!

Thanks Shawn! Hope you get a chance to check out the Kickstarter.
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Joel Mann
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Looks like an awesome game. Just backed on KS, collectors edition!
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James Wilson
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Thank you so much for your support, Joel!
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Big Tom Casual
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I feel a connection to this story! Our game collection and early obsessions were VERY similar. We went Carcassonne->Race->Agricola and then just played those three CONSTANTLY for two years.

We still play Race. Such an amazing game.
 
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James Wilson
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CasualToast wrote:
I feel a connection to this story! Our game collection and early obsessions were VERY similar. We went Carcassonne->Race->Agricola and then just played those three CONSTANTLY for two years.

We still play Race. Such an amazing game.

Oh, that's really cool. Considering your gaming history and taste, I have a good feeling that you're going to love Everdell. Thank you so much for your support!
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Tom Lam
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I too enjoyed your write up, thank you. Also...Backed!
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James Wilson
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Hakka Games wrote:
I too enjoyed your write up, thank you. Also...Backed!

Oh, cool! Thanks, Tom. See you in Everdell!
 
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Dominik Schneider
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Looks realy good. Game Mechanics and also the Design. The Idea with the Giant Tree I love. I took the Collectors Edition and many do so. Every few minuits more Peopple pre Order. Congratulations.
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James Wilson
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Domokus wrote:
Looks realy good. Game Mechanics and also the Design. The Idea with the Giant Tree I love. I took the Collectors Edition and many do so. Every few minuits more Peopple pre Order. Congratulations.

Thank you, Dominik! And thanks for supporting!
 
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Jonathan Tornabe
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greycloak wrote:
[center]1

Part Two of this diary will be posted January 8th, the day before the official Kickstarter for Everdell!


Great story, where's part 2 though?
 
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Jonathan Ramundi
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GamerGhost303 wrote:
greycloak wrote:
[center]1

Part Two of this diary will be posted January 8th, the day before the official Kickstarter for Everdell!


Great story, where's part 2 though?
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1915897/designer-diary-part...
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Jeff Pearce
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This was... really exciting. I quite enjoyed the read - you are a great writer.
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James Wilson
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Senno wrote:
This was... really exciting. I quite enjoyed the read - you are a great writer.

Ah, thanks!
 
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