For as long as I can remember I have been making my own card and board games. One of my earliest game design memories is converting a box of my father’s old business cards into a random boardgame generator. On the blank side of each card I scribbled simple instructions such as “Move ahead 4 spaces” and “Lose 2 turns”. My friends and I would shuffle the huge deck and then lay out the cards in a long winding trail that swerved along the concrete floor of the basement.
As I grew older I continued making my own games as a hobby. In junior high I made sci-fi games based on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. In high school I designed entire fantasy worlds and adventures for our Dungeons and Dragons group. (I was not interested in role-playing a character; I always wanted to be the dungeon master.)
After college my passion for games led me to a career in the videogame industry, where I am currently employed as a designer. Every day I work with a talented team of programmers and artists, using the latest technologies in an attempt to produce the next hit game that will be played by hundreds of thousands of people. A typical videogame production involves years of work, millions of dollars, and the coordinated effort of more than a hundred creative and brilliant people. But I find more personal satisfaction working alone late nights on my own small games, using only cardstock, an X-Acto knife and a bottle of white glue. Many of these games are designed for an audience of two: my sons.
The first of these games was for my two-year old son. It was a simple color matching game that we made together to celebrate Christmas. I did not know it at the time, but that was the beginning of an annual tradition—what we now call the “Christmas Game.” For each of the next fourteen Christmases I would continue to design and build a new game, wrap it up, and place it under the tree. On Christmas morning I would watch anxiously as my sons opened the present and examined the pieces. Then we would spend several hours on Christmas afternoon playing the game and modifying the rules in response to the kids’ feedback.
What follows is a brief description of the fifteen Christmas Games that were constructed over the last fifteen years. I am not including the actual rules to the games (that would take up far too many pages). Instead I will focus on the design philosophies, production techniques, and core mechanics of each game. It is important to note that these games were not meant to be sold or published. My goal was not profit. The only motivation was to create age-appropriate games that could be enjoyed by the entire family.
My two-year old son, Jordan, was interested in all the Christmas decorations that my wife had placed around the house. To his dismay, he was constantly hearing, “Don’t touch that!” as he explored the fragile ornaments, the blinking lights, and the ceramic Nativity figures. To keep his little hands busy I got out some construction paper, paint, a few bottles of colored glitter glue, and a small wooden reindeer figure. We spent the next hour playing in the sparkling mess.
When we had finished I took three of Jordan’s masterpieces and rolled each of them into a cone. Then I placed the reindeer, now painted red, under one of them and asked, “Where’s the reindeer?” He pointed at the correct cone. “You win!” I exclaimed, as I lifted up the cone. I put the cone back down. This time I mixed them up before I asked him to find the reindeer. I was proud to see him point it out on his first try.
This game was too easy. I decided to add in a few new rules to see if he could handle some extra complexity. We got a second wooden reindeer and painted it green. Then I cut out a small cardboard disk and Jordan squirted red glitter glue on one side and green on the other. After our new pieces had dried, I put the two reindeer under two different cones, shuffled them around and had him toss the coin into the air. “Red!” I exclaimed as the coin landed on the table. “Where’s the red reindeer?” It took him a short while before he understood the relationship between the coin, the cones and the colored reindeer, but with each coin flip his success rate steadily improved.
We played Hidden Reindeers for short bursts throughout the holiday season. Then it was packed up in early January along with the rest of the decorations, stored in the attic, and forgotten for the next eleven months. But every December it comes back out of the box and I am reminded of the simple fun that we had with the first Christmas Game.
The next year I was looking forward to making a new game, but I wanted to do something less spontaneous and more elaborate. I decided to construct a fishing game that Jordan could play from his bed, as if he were fishing from a rowboat out at sea. The game featured a colorful fishing pole (a hand-painted lime green dowel) from which dangled a thin rope anchored with a magnetic disk. There was also an assortment of wooden pieces such as a starfish, a shark, an angelfish, a boot, and a tire. Hammered into each piece was a large-headed nail which acted as an attractor when the magnetic hook was near.
The idea seemed simple enough. I had seen similar fishing playsets in the toy store, but they were cheaply made out of one-colored molded plastic. I wanted to make something more solid and unique. Something durable enough to last for a generation. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that my intentions were far beyond my capabilities. I had neither enough money nor space for a jigsaw. Luckily, my father has a large, well-supplied workshop in his basement and my mother is a whiz with a jigsaw, so I was able to enlist their help. I sent off a copy of my illustrations for her to use as a template and, a week later, the perfectly cut wooden pieces arrived in the mail. That was the easy part.
Fig. 1: The template illustration that was used to create the wooden pieces.
I also had to build the pole, which turned out to be frustratingly difficult. A fishing pole seems like such a basic object until you try to build one from scraps in your garage. I started with the obvious piece – a long length of wooden dowel – but problems arose right away. What is the reel made of? How is the reel attached to the rod? How does it turn without falling off? Is it easy enough for a three-year old to operate? Is it strong enough to survive a play session with a three-year old? There were so many problems that I was still trying to piece it all together after midnight on Christmas Eve.
Despite the mechanical troubles, and the late night crunch session, the game components came out fine. There were no formal rules to accompany them, but that did not matter. That night Jordan and I fished off his bed and we created our own challenges as we played. Who can hook the blue fish first? How many fish can you catch before you catch a shark? Try to catch something while your eyes are closed.
We never did make any official rules for Fishin’, and I am convinced there should never be any. It is a game about experimentation and camaraderie, not score keeping or adhering to rules.
Jordan was just beginning to read and I wanted to make him a game that would help him learn the alphabet. More importantly, I wanted to avoid a big production (and the associated problems) that had tripped me up the previous year. It was time to go back to basics. Armed with a large black piece of poster board and some trusty bottles of glitter glue, I enlisted Jordan as the lead artist for another boardgame art project.
I marked out twenty-six areas on the poster board and helped Jordan “draw” multicolored swirls that represented planets, asteroids and nebulae. Next to each one I wrote a letter from A to Z. Then we connected the neighboring stellar objects together with a crisscross web of “hyperlines” that were used for traveling through the galaxy. I purchased a deck of alphabet animal flash cards to represent the beasts we were trying to capture for our personal intergalactic zoos. Two matchbox-sized spaceships, taken from a drawer of loose toys, were used to mark our positions on the map.
The rules, as with all of the games described in this chapter, evolved as we played. Jordan’s feedback and opinions were the ones that mattered most. (His younger brother, Dylan, who was now only one, would soon begin expressing his opinion, too.) If the play mechanics were too simplistic then they were made more complex. Features that caused laughter and engagement were strengthened, while confusing and tedious mechanics were rapidly eliminated. This interactive form of game design is the main reason that the Christmas Games are strong reflections of the children’s developing cognitive personalities.
The goal of Alpha Zoo-tauri is to collect the majority of the twenty-six animals. The flash cards are shuffled and the top three are revealed and placed on the matching alphabet letter (Elephant on “E”, Ostrich on “O”, and Donkey on “D”). On your turn you move your ship along one hyperline, moving from one sector to the next. If you land on an animal you pick it up, add it to your zoo, and place a new random animal from the deck into the appropriate sector of space. Players are not allowed to be in the same sector at the same time, so it is possible to block the other player’s path as you swoop down and grab his Zebu one step ahead of him.
This game not only helped teach Jordan alphabetic and phonetic relationships, it was also a way for him to play with the concepts of spatial and temporal relationships. Furthermore, the stricter rule system and competitive score-keeping showed a maturing of his ability to understand fundamental structures of game design.
By now it was clear that the Christmas Game had become an annual tradition so I started working on this year’s game a month before the Christmas deadline. I wanted to make a game that was suitable for both Jordan, who was in kindergarten, and Dylan, who was now two years old. Alpha Zoo-tauri required a lot of counting and planning, and I wanted to make a less cerebral game with more action and chaos. Both kids had been playing with small plastic robot toys called Z-Bots and I thought they would be perfect as game pieces. I had also been thinking about classic kids’ games, and decided that using marbles would be a good starting point. Robots plus marble shooting? The game practically designed itself!
Fortunately, that year my family spent the holiday season at my parents’ home. Being far away from the workplace meant that I had plenty of free time and I was excited to have access to the table saw, belt sander, and paints in their expansive basement workshop. With the correct tools and resources at my disposal, I decided to ramp up the production.
For the next few nights I stayed up late building and painting the RoboBall arena. This was a heavy hexagonal piece of wood, about two feet across, with sloped walls nailed in around the perimeter. A hexagonal grid of small divots was drilled in the arena floor to act as traps that would stop slow rolling marbles.
Dylan did not have the dexterity to shoot a marble the traditional way, so to even the playing field between him and his brother I made two “shooters.” These are eight-inch long strips of wood with a groove down the middle. The shooter acts much like a pool cue. The player places one end of the shooter on top of the arena wall and then angles and tilts the opposite end to form a ramp. Then the marble is placed on the high side where it rolls down the groove and drops into the arena.
The first set of rules was simple and intuitive. Each player starts with six robots that they place in the arena anywhere they want. Then the players take turns rolling marbles in an attempt to knock over their opponent’s robots first.
There were two main problems with this game that we discovered on Christmas afternoon. First, since the plastic robots were all unique, some of them were clearly better than others. The best robots were the short squat ones with large feet and a low center of gravity; the worst were the thin upright androids that would sometimes fall over for no apparent reason. The second problem was that the game lacked replay value and each new play session felt similar to the last.
To fix these problems I made a “trading card” for each robot. Each card had an illustration of the robot on the top and special ability printed along the bottom. The robots that tended to tip over more often had strong abilities (“Can move anywhere on the board”) while the stable robots had weak abilities (“Cannot move”). The game starts out with a drafting phase in which players take turns choosing a robot for their teams. Do you draft a tougher squad of sturdy robots or try to out-finesse your opponent with your powerful abilities? Not only did this fix the robot balance and replay problems, but it also added personality to the robots. Instead of colored pieces of plastic, the robots now had names and unique characteristics. This added an unexpected level of immersion and emotion to the game as the players could now “personify” the robots. In fact, it worked so well that I now try to use this design trick in all my games.
Fig. 2: Three of the Roboball trading cards that described the robots’ special powers.
A few years before the kids were born I had worked on a boardgame called Maze. (This was loosely based on the commercial children’s game, Labyrinth.) When we moved from Massachusetts to Northern California Maze had been packed up and stashed in the garage along with other boxes of seldom used items. Five years later, I decided to dust it off and give it to the kids as a gift.
The game features a seven by seven board made out of ceramic tiles that can slide in horizontal and vertical rows. Each tile has a piece of a dungeon corridor painted on it. Some tiles have T-shaped corridors and others are L-shaped. As the tiles move some of the corridors form connections while others become blocked. In the center of the dungeon lurks a dragon that will eat any hero who gets too close. The goal of the game is to slide the maze in such a way as to form connections to the other players and blast them with your spells. The last surviving wizard wins.
Maze had four fantasy miniature figures (the kind used in Dungeons and Dragons) that the players would use to mark their positions. Even though they looked different they were functionally identical. But based on my success with the RoboBall robots, I decided to give each of the figures in Maze a unique power. The Wizard drew spells for free; the Barbarian moved faster than any other character; the Druid controlled the dragon as a pet; and the Wraith had the power to move through walls. This addition substantially improved the game and helped immerse the players in the experience. When people play Maze it is not uncommon to see them role-playing as if they move their chosen hero through the dungeon.
The spell deck contained many aggressive spells—such as fireballs and lightning bolts—that a player used when attacking his opponents. When my wife, Toby, saw these cards she asked, “If this game is for the kids then why does it have to be about battles and fighting? Don’t the kids see enough of that on television and in videogames?”
I tried to explain to her that the game would be boring without combat, but my arguments were not convincing to her. She issued a challenge to me, “If you’re a good designer then you could design this game so that it didn’t need combat.”
That ended the discussion. I did not know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to try. The first step was to remove the hit points, damage spells and the “kill or be killed” goal. But what would be left? Over the next several weeks I play tested many different versions of Maze, and eventually came up with a new goal that emphasized cooperation over destruction.
Instead of every man for himself (one vs. three), the game now had two teams of two players each (two vs. two). And instead of fighting, the teams were racing to collect the majority of nine small treasure chests placed near the dragon. The spells emphasized movement (teleport, haste, switch and freeze) instead of attack (the aforementioned fireballs and lightning bolts). Even the dragon lost the ability to eat the characters. Instead, if he entered a hero’s square the hero would just be forced to teleport back to his or her home corner. The end result is a game that feels fresh and plays differently from most games that feature heroes, dungeons, spells, and dragons.
Of all the games I have created, Maze is the one that is played most often. It is enjoyed as much by my friends as it is by my kids and their friends. Even after more than a decade it continues to evolve and improve. Old spells are removed and replaced with upgraded versions. New heroes are added (there are twelve now). Some special powers are made more powerful, while others are weakened based on player feedback. Maze has taught me that there is no reason to ever declare a game “final.” As long as people continue to play it then there will be new ideas to try.
Maze is one of my personal favorite games, but it is not particularly well suited to young children. The turns require deep thinking and it can take several minutes of thought per player. For my sixth Christmas game I wanted to make something with high energy, a lot of noise, and turns that would last less than a minute. As an added bonus, I wanted to the components to be so playful that when it was not your turn you could still have fun fiddling with the pieces. The game that met these criteria is called Junkyard Bots.
In this game, each player is a robot trapped on a planet-wide battlefield of discarded robot parts. The goal is to collect different pieces—arms, wheels, eyes, mouths and bombs—and assemble a custom robot that will either blow up the other robots or teleport itself onto an orbiting space cruiser and escape the planet forever. (The second goal was added later, to make it possible to play the game in a non-violent fashion.)
The robot parts were printed on sticker paper and applied to one face of a wooden cube. The remaining five sides have a varying number of pips, in a fashion similar to a standard die. There are three different sizes of cubes: small, medium and large. Small cubes have either no or one pip per side, medium cubes have one to three pips, and large cubes have two to six pips. As is typical for a Christmas Game, I was overwhelmed by the amount of production work required to assemble the game and I ended up working late on Christmas Eve sticking tiny stickers onto more than 120 cubes.
One of the design challenges was creating illustrations that could be connected together in many different configurations. A robot might have only one eye and a small pair of legs; or it might have five eyes of different sizes, tank treads, and an extended arm with a clawed hand. Above all, I wanted the robots to reflect the personality of their creators. The mouth could be turned one direction and would look like a smile, or it could be rotated 180 and it would look like a frown. Eyes could be placed in a way that made the robot look as if it were sad or angry. As far as the rules were concerned, the position of the parts did not matter. But that fact the robots could be customized in hundreds of different ways adds a lot to the playfulness of the game.
Fig. 3: A variety of robots created with Junkyard Bots dice.
Players start the game with a basic robot made up of mechanical eyes, a body, and small legs. The rest of the cubes are placed face-down in a central “junkyard”. Each turn the player picks a task for their robot (look, grab, eat, throw, or teleport) and rolls the appropriate parts to determine if the task succeeds or fails. For example, the player can roll all of the robot’s eyes to peek at the face-down cubes. Or, a player could roll all the mouths to eat energy. In general, the bigger the part the more powerful it is, but also the higher you need to roll to collect from the junkyard.
Junkyard Bots was a family favorite for many years. The dual victory conditions and the large variety of custom robots gave it excellent replay value, and the rapid fire turns kept everyone engaged throughout the session. Because the core of the game is based on rolling dice, the victor is predominantly determined by luck. This worked well when the kids were young, since anyone could win regardless of age or experience. But as the kids grew older the randomness turned into a negative and the game has not been played for years.
When September rolled around I was already thinking of new ideas for the next Christmas Game. I had a few thoughts, but nothing seemed special enough. Then, while visiting a local comic book shop, I saw what I knew had to be the centerpiece of my next game. High on the shelf behind the cashier was a two-foot tall, hand-painted resin statue of Kongzilla! (According to the box, Kongzilla is a genetically designed monstrosity made from skin tissue found on the ground in the aftermath of a Godzilla vs. King Kong battle.) I immediately pulled out my wallet, eager to buy the statue without even a clue as to what to do with it. Then I saw the price tag: $100! I sheepishly put my wallet back in my pocket.
Kongzilla would make an incredible game token and my desire to go back to the store and purchase him grew stronger each day. I made a deal with myself. I could only buy Kongzilla after I designed the game that would feature him. No design, no Kongzilla. This was all the incentive that I needed.
I had a few high-level design goals in mind. First, I didn’t want a fixed playing field. I wanted a game could be played on any floor, which would allow the players to arrange furniture and obstacles to create custom battlefields. Secondly, movement would be freeform; there would be no grid or measuring tapes. Third, there would be no hit points or damage calculations. In fact, I did not want any numbers in the game; combat needed to be physical, not computational. Finally, I wanted an asymmetric game. One player would control the mighty Kongzilla and the other would command an army of soldiers and tanks.
After weeks of thought and several dead ends I came up with the basic concept for the game. It took weeks of shopping to find all the necessary components: three plastic office buildings from a hobby shop’s model railroad department; tanks, jeeps and soldiers from the toy store; two laser pointers from an electronics store; small square mirrors from a hair stylist. And, most importantly, Kongzilla himself!
The construction work was fairly straightforward. I removed the plastic turret guns from the jeeps and replaced them with mirrors. They were mounted in such a way that some mirrors could rotate around a vertical axis, while others could only tilt up and down. The laser pointers were mounted on tank turrets and could be aimed in any direction. Instead of solidly gluing the walls of the office buildings together, I attached them together using only small pieces of Velcro. When Kongzilla’s fist or tail connects with a building it falls apart with a satisfying plastic crash (and can be quickly reassembled for the next game).
The goal of the Kongzilla player is to advance across the floor and knock over the three office buildings. (The players are free to place the buildings, and Kongzilla’s entry point, anywhere they want.) The goal of the army player is to shoot Kongzilla with a laser, but the beam must bounce off at least one mirror first.
To move Kongzilla the player chooses one leg to act as a central axis. The other leg is free to rotate around the axis by any amount. By alternating between the left and right foot Kongzilla can be made to walk forward with a slow, shambling gait. As Kongzilla pivots, his arms and tail sweep arcs through the air. If he comes in contact with any army piece then it is instantly destroyed and removed from the game. If he crashes into an office building then it will crumble to the ground.
The army player can either move or shoot each turn. If he chooses to move then he drives his vehicles to any position on the battlefield. If he chooses to shoot he aims a laser pointer at any mirror and fires! If the bright red dot of the laser hits Kongzilla in the face then the game is over and the army wins.
Kongzilla feels like two games, depending on which side you choose to play. Controlling the army is like playing pool. You have to carefully align your mirrors to bounce a shot into Kongzilla. But since you cannot move and shoot in the same turn it is necessary to aim the mirrors on a spot where you think he will be next turn, not where he is now. On the other hand, as Kongzilla there is little reason to strategize or plan ahead. The best option is to race towards the buildings. You do need to be careful not to move too predictably or the army player will surely catch you in a trap.
All these rules work fine…when they are followed. In practice, once the game is set up then the kids quickly ignore the rules. Giving children access to laser pointers (with strict “not in the eye” warnings, of course), a giant monster, tanks and collapsible buildings tends to invoke freeform imaginative play experiences. A rigid rule set cannot contain the awesome power of Kongzilla!
I had been playing a lot of Diablo II and wanted my sons to join in the on fun, but Toby adamantly refused. (Something about corpse explosions, if I remember correctly….) Well, if I couldn’t bring the kids to Diablo then I’d bring Diablo to the kids. Could I distill the essence of Diablo into a family friendly card game? From this idle thought sprung the most labor intensive of all the games I have created: Monster Hunter.
It seemed simple enough at first. I would just download all the weapon and monster statistics (damage, health, armor, etc.) from Blizzard’s web site and print the information onto cards. I soon realized that this would never work. The problem was that the number of stats was overwhelming. When a computer is performing all the combat calculations then a rich set of data is fine, but I did not want to make a calculator a required component of my card game. I wanted the player to experience the feeling of starting out as a regular villager and becoming a god-like powerhouse at the end. I did not want the player to feel like an accountant.
I mocked up the basic elements using index cards and a pencil. The first task was assembling a collection of heroes, monsters, weapons, and potions. In about thirty minutes I had scribbled fifty simple cards and started the first playtests. Combat was fast with a minimal amount of math. (The hero rolls one die and adds his or her speed to the result. The monster does the same. Whoever rolls the highest value does damage to the loser.) Heroes gain gold when they defeat a monster, which is used to buy more powerful items in the store. Powerful items help the hero fight larger monsters, which drop larger amounts of gold, which allow the purchase of even better items. Like Diablo, this cyclical process is repeated until the hero is powerful enough to take down the final boss monster and win the game.
After a few iterations the game played surprisingly well. Now it would only be a matter of cleaning up my prototype art and making the final set of cards. Or so I thought. At first I tried creating my own original artwork, but it did not take me long to figure out that the game would never be finished in time for Christmas. I tried printing art directly from the Diablo web site but the pixilated sprites looked terrible on paper. At this point I decided to abandon the Diablo theme and instead I used art scanned from the Dungeons and Dragons manuals.
Production started out deceptively easy. I would scan in the art, copy it onto a template (nine playing cards arranged in a three by three grid per sheet of cardstock) print it, and then cut out the individual cards. Unfortunately, playing cards made from a single sheet of cardstock are too flimsy and are slightly see-through. This meant that I had to print the backs of the cards on another sheet of cardstock, cut them out, and then glue them to the faces to make the final card. As a final polish step I rounded the corners of each card. The end result was a sturdy, professional looking playing card.
Unfortunately, that level of quality came with a high price: it was taking me over an hour to make nine cards…and I needed over 400! Needless to say, I worked many late nights in a failed attempt to get the game ready by Christmas morning. When the kids opened the box they did not find a playable game, but were instead greeted with many sheets of uncut cards. It took me several days after Christmas to get the game to a point where it could be played. It was a lot of work, but well worth the effort.
Monster Hunter is one of the most popular of the Christmas Games and still gets played to this day. Its main drawback is that a single game can take around four or five hours and usually has to be played over multiple sessions. Unfortunately, as the kids have grown older it has become increasingly difficult to find enough free time to play.
It is worth noting that Monster Hunter helped me get my first job in the videogame industry. Up until this point in time I was working as a programmer at a computer graphics company. When the company went out of business I took several months off to do some soul-searching. What would be the best job for me? Of course, I wanted to make videogames! (In retrospect, it seems obvious. But before that time I had never considered getting paid to make games; it was something that I did on my own time for fun.) Shortly after I made that decision I managed to get an interview at Blizzard North (the creators of Diablo). I took Monster Hunter with me as a portfolio piece and spent an hour playing it with several of the team members. They liked the game so much that I ended up getting a job there and eventually became a designer on Diablo III.
Not surprisingly, Jordan, now age eleven, had become an avid gamer and loved to play strategy games. At the top of his Christmas list that year was the PC game, Masters of Orion 3. I was also looking forward to playing it since I had enjoyed the previous two games in the series. Unfortunately, the game had been delayed and was not going to release until several months after Christmas. As a consolation present—and based on my success at translating Diablo into a card game—I decided to try converting Masters of Orion into a board game.
Masters of Orion is a space conquest game that follows the “4X” formula. First you explore the planets and stars nearby your home system. Then you expand your empire by colonizing the best planets. You exploit your neighbors as you build up territory and technology. Then you exterminate everyone that gets in your way as you race toward galactic domination. It is also a game of numbers: technology levels, planetary output, fleet sizes, travel distances, etc. Some people refer to it as “playing a spreadsheet.”
I knew that boardgames and mathematical calculations are not the best of companions, so I gave myself a design challenge: Can I make this game without any numbers? To achieve that goal I needed to concentrate on the feel of the “4X”s and not on the computational data prevalent in the videogame.
The final game, Hyperline, consists of a nine by nine board divided up into sectors. Each sector is blank when the game starts, but gets filled in with a random tile as the “explore” phase progresses. Some tiles contain planets, asteroids, or black holes, while others have “hyperline” connections, which are like train tracks through space and dictate how spaceships move from planet to planet.
Next, you “expand” your power by moving your ship along hyperlines to visit neighboring planets and acquiring their technologies. Each planet offers a different technology such as a weapon (lasers or torpedoes), engine (warp or combat), or shield (armor or energy). These new systems are also printed on tiles that are pieced together to augment your ship. One player may opt to build a ship with a lot of engines, while another one adds extra weapons. Ships can never lose parts so the power level continues to grow throughout the game. Simple scouts evolve into weapon-studded battlecruisers as the game progresses.
Fig. 4: A Hyperline ship made up of several components.
As the ships increase in power the “exploitation” phase begins. The stronger ships are able to hold territory while the weaker ones must dodge around them. Finally, as the game nears the end, the players race to “exterminate” each other to determine the ultimate winner.
Hyperline was a hit with the boys. They especially enjoyed building up powerful spaceships. (Sometimes they would purposefully delay the ending of the game just to have more time to add new pieces onto their ships.) But it was not a hit with Toby, who did not like the “fight and die” goal. To address this problem we altered the victory condition. Instead of battling for the win, the players now had to research Nexxus, a radioactive planet in the center of the board. A new part, the scanner, was added to the game to make research more effective. Now it was possible to win the game in a peaceful, scientific race, without ever firing a shot.
A few years after I had created Hyperline, I was cleaning out a closet and I came across the Alpha Zoo-tauri game, forgotten and unplayed for more than six years. At first glance I was struck by the huge gap in production quality between the two games. Alpha Zoo-tauri was made in one afternoon with glitter glue and poster board, while Hyperline took months of work and featured crisp, full-color, laser-printed artwork on precise 1.5 x 1.5 inch tiles, all framed by a wooden board. But after a bit of nostalgic reflection, I realized that the games were, surprisingly, the same at the core level. In both games you traverse a web of connections in an attempt to acquire items (alphabet animals in one and interphasic shields in the other) before your opponent gets to them first. While I was working on Hyperline I had never consciously thought about Alpha Zoo-tauri, but somewhere in the back of my mind my old designs were still exerting their influences.
It was my responsibility to drive the kids to school each morning. Jordan was now in junior high and Dylan was in fourth grade. The trip only took about ten minutes but—as would be expected for boys that age—there was plenty of time for them to get into petty fights in the backseat of the car. For Christmas I thought it would be interesting to make them a game that could be played during our brief morning commute. The design parameters were fairly rigid:
It had to take less than ten minutes to play so that it could be finished in one car trip.
It could be suspended at any time, and resumed in the same state at a later time. I did not want the kids to stay in the car upon arrival if the game was not quite finished.
It could not have loose pieces that would be lost in the cracks between the seats.
All the rules had to be printed onto the game itself. An extra rules sheet would quickly be lost.
It had to be small enough and thin enough to fit in the seat pockets in front of them.
I thought back to the old Car Bingo games I used to play with my siblings when we were on car trips. Each player had a cardboard grid of windows with pictures printed in them. If you saw an object outside the car that matched one of the pictures you would slide down a small red piece of plastic to mark it. (“I see an airplane!”– “I just found a fire hydrant!”) When one player marked a complete line across the board then they shouted, “BINGO!” and won.
I made a quick trip to the toy store and was surprised to find that these Car Bingo cards were still being made. I purchased a few and took them home to dissect. The construction turned out to be simple in principle: three layers of cardboard, with the middle layer acting as a series of guides to keep the red plastic windows in place. Unfortunately, it turned out be extremely hard to duplicate on my own using only a straight-edged metal ruler and an X-Acto knife. But despite the construction difficulties, I knew this was the right direction.
Over the years I have learned the importance of playtesting thoroughly before jumping into final production. (I was still working at Blizzard at this point so it was easy to find people that were eager to help me with my designs.) So before I began to work on a complex paper-cutting project I mocked up a version of the game that used beads and a hand-drawn board. By necessity I knew the game had to be easy to play, so I started with a basic rock-paper-scissors mechanic. Each player would simultaneously choose an action, reveal it, and determine the outcome. To give the game more atmosphere and depth, I wrapped a spell-casting fiction around the game and made eight different spell choices (four attacks and four defends). The initial playtests revealed that the game was too random and lacked any strategy. But it took less than an hour of iteration before we homed in on an interesting game.
Each player begins with five life and zero power. The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent to zero life or for you to increase your power to five. The eight spells are arranged in a circle and alternate between attack and defend. Each turn you can only choose a spell if it is adjacent to your previous spell choice. You can also “center”, which means you are selecting no spells this turn, but next turn can then select any spell of your choice. You can also spend one power point to select the same spell again. So unlike rock-scissors-paper, where each player always has exactly three options to choose from, Spellbind alternates between eight options, three options, and four options, depending on the circumstances. This breaks up the repetition, decreases randomness, and allows for longer term planning.
While it only took an afternoon to design the game, it took months to actually build it. I not only needed to figure out how to make the red plastic windows slide up and down, but I also needed three spinning dials (one for life, one for power, and one for selecting your spell), and three sliding tabs (to track the monsters each player summons). After studying a book on “paper engineering” I learned several tricks of the trade and—with much frustration—was able to glue together two cards, one for each player.
The game worked great and it occupied the kids’ attention on numerous car trips. Surprisingly, after a month of playing with the game cards they had memorized the game to the point that they could play it in their heads. Instead of spinning the dials to keep track of life and power they would count, “One…Two…Three…Blast! One...Two…Three…Reflect! One…Two…Three…Bind!” and use their fingers to keep track of their power and life. The game cards that had taken me weeks of intricate cutting and meticulous gluing were no longer necessary.
Each year it seemed that the Christmas Games were taking longer to design and produce. Sadly, as the kids grew older we were also playing them less. The family members’ schedules were always full. Piano practice, soccer games, karate tournaments, and business meetings all started taking priority over our family game nights. What was the point of spending weeks (or months) working on a game that would rarely be played? This thought sparked the idea for the next Christmas Game.
Would it be possible to design a game in which players could take a turn even if no one else was around? What if it was designed in a way that accounted for the fact that it might take days (or weeks) to play? I did not want a game that would monopolize the dining room table for extended periods of time, but also I did not want the hassle of continually setting it up and taking it back down again. How could I get around these issues? The answer came to me at dinnertime when I looked over at the refrigerator.
Like most family refrigerators, ours had accumulated years’ worth of junk. Stuck to the door with magnets were expired pizza coupons, yellowed cartoons ripped from the newspaper, and the children’s elementary school artwork. What if I cleaned off the refrigerator and used it as a game board to hold magnetic pieces? The game would be located in a prominent spot in the house (we would see it every time we ate a meal) and it would not be in anyone’s way. It was the perfect gaming surface!
Now I needed a theme for the game. Rather than make a simulation game that would require a lot of artwork I opted to make a purely abstract game. I also wanted the game to have an organic feel to it, with no map grid to constrain movement. The final concept was that each player would start with a home base and grow “tendrils” out onto the playing field in an attempt to touch circular targets. The more targets you touch, the higher your score.
The tendrils are actually colored Popsicle sticks, painted in four different colors (one color per player). There are thirty sticks per player, ten each in three different sizes (short, medium and long). Glued onto the bottom of each stick are two round magnets that hold the stick firmly to the refrigerator door. Each player also has a resource pool of twenty extra magnets. These can be used to lift a tendril higher, which allows a player to bridge over top of an opponent’s blocking tendrils instead of going around it.
Each turn a player must place a new tendril piece next to an existing tendril piece of the same color, forming an ever-growing chain that links back to the player’s home base. As the game proceeds the refrigerator door slowly transforms into a work of abstract art. The brightly colored tendrils weave chaotic patterns as they reach out from the bases and head towards the targets in the center.
A key component is a special star-shaped magnet which is used to mark the current player’s turn. When you finish your turn you place the marker on the next player’s base to signify that your turn has ended and his turn has begun. This means that you can take your turn whenever you happen to notice the marker is on your base. You do not need to have the rest of the family in the kitchen with you; in fact, it is advantageous to take your turn when no one is watching, since you can experiment with different tendril patterns without giving away your strategy.
Fridge is surprisingly strategic and requires long-term planning, bluffing, and careful resource management. Since it never gets put in the closet it is always in play. When one game ends the next one usually starts a few days later. A full game lasts only thirty rounds (each player places one tendril piece per round and the game ends when no pieces remain) but some rounds have taken months, especially during the summer vacation period. Fridge is the perfect game for our busy family.
Six months before the twelfth Christmas, I started working at Maxis on the PC game Spore, as the lead designer of the Cell Stage. The Cell Stage is the introduction to Spore in which the player controls a simple life-form that grows and adapts to new challenges as it progresses up the evolutionary ladder. While working on the game I had generated a lot of art for the project and I thought it would be fun to transfer the assets over to a boardgame version.
The Cell Stage has a lot in common with Hyperline. In both games you start with a central body and attach new parts that provide additional functionality. Some parts are good for attacking, some provide better movement capabilities, and some are purely defensive. The kids and I love to play Hyperline, but the game can take two or more hours to complete so it had not been getting much play time. My idea for this year’s Christmas Game was to replace the spaceship parts with cell parts (engines become flagella, scanners become eyes), remove the exploration phase, and make a fast-paced game focused on combat and survival.
I had already spent months designing the Cell Stage for Spore, so I felt like I had all the mechanics that I needed. In theory, the game was going to be a simple “port” from computer to paper. But problems started appearing immediately. An obvious issue was that the computer version had realtime physics calculations which allowed the cells to accelerate, rotate, and bounce through a chaotic environment. The last thing I wanted in a boardgame was for players to calculate momentum and velocity vectors. Other changes were necessary to increase gameplay variety. For example, I decided the boardgame would be more interesting with long-range attacks but these do not exist in Spore. To give myself more design freedom I changed the game’s setting from the distant past to the far future and recast the cells as “nanobots:” manmade microscopic robots that battle it out for supremacy in a drop of water.
Despite the changes, the core theme remained intact. Each player starts with a basic nanobot body. Scattered around a hexagonal board are different types of food that the nanobots eat and convert into new mouths, limbs, eyes, and methods of propulsion. Every part has a special ability that increases the power of the nanobot and makes it unique. Ultimately, the player with the biggest nanobot dominates the battlefield and wins the game.
Nanobots was a very difficult game to produce. The hardest part was figuring out how to get the parts to connect together in a satisfying way. I tried a variety of hooks and snaps but nothing worked well enough. I started making the parts out of wood but there were too many pieces with too many intricate cuts and I soon realized it would take months to finish at the rate I was going. Fortunately, a friend of mine has a wood-milling machine and volunteered his time and garage space to help me out. We spent the next two weekends cutting and sanding approximately 100 small pieces of wood. When that was finished I stuck hand-cut illustrated stickers onto the surface of each part. The entire process required hours of repetitive and tedious production work. Looking back on it, if I had known what I was getting into I never would have started the project. In the end, the effort was worth it though because the pieces are solid, durable, and colorful, and the game has an excellent tactile feel that is unlike anything you could buy in a game store.
The kids enjoyed playing Nanobots and loved making custom battle machines. Unfortunately, the original design goal of making a fast-paced combat game was a complete failure. The game plays out slowly and requires an almost Chess-like thought process. Each turn takes several minutes of study before the optimal move can be determined. While it managed to capture the high-level theme of the Cell Stage it did not manage to capture any of the energy.
As the kids grew older they were spending an increasing amount of time playing videogames. Consequently, it was becoming more difficult to get them interested in card and board games. High-budget videogames offered so much more entertainment value. Why play a boardgame when there are dozens of adrenaline-filled, surround sound, action-packed shooters in the next room? How could my wood and paper creations compete?
A design technique that I have learned over the years is to concentrate on tactility, because it is the one area in which videogames are inferior. They may be better at stimulating the senses of sight and sound, but are definitely lacking when it comes to the sense of touch. When you play a videogame you are separated from the experience by a pane of glass. But when you engage in a boardgame you are touching the pieces as you play. So the trick to making a compelling boardgame is to make sure to provide pieces that begged to be touched. RoboBall with its plastic robots, Kongzilla with its giant resin monster, and Nanobots with its thick wooden components are all examples of this philosophy.
But this year I wanted to go all out and compete on theme, too. If the videogames that my kids were playing featured futuristic weapons, undead mutants, and cyborg warriors then so would this year’s Christmas Game! At that point in time I did not have any ideas about the game mechanics, but I knew what pieces were needed: robots and zombies! The game, titled W.Z.D.:Weapons of Zombie Destruction, would feature 100 zombie enemies and the players would control high-tech robots racing against each other to wipe them all out.
My first task was to find suitable zombie figurines. It is possible to buy a cheap bag of 100 zombies but they are small and unpainted and I wanted higher quality pieces. I eventually decided to use zombies from the Heroscape game. Booster sets of six pre-painted plastic zombies could be purchased for about $10 a pack, but finding the seventeen packs that I needed turned out to be a challenge. I bought every pack I could find in local department stores, online game shops, and eBay auctions, and eventually obtained a full horde of 100. (Curiously, these zombie sets are now rare and sell for $35 on eBay. I like to believe that I personally caused this hyper-inflation in the zombie market.)
I have always wanted to design a game that could teach my kids basic programming concepts and this was the perfect opportunity. In the game’s fiction, the players are scientists who are programming the zombie-killing robots using a deck of instruction cards. There are twelve different instructions split into three categories: Move (jet burst, strafe, stomp, flame trail); Rotate (scythe, generator, shield, memory coils); and Attack (flame thrower, ripsaw launcher, auto-turret, lightning). The robots can only carry out commands in a strict sequence and will end up shooting at walls or bumping into each other if the cards are in the wrong order. Each turn the players can add one new command or replace an existing one in an attempt to “debug” any problems in the robot’s programming. The player with the best program will kill the plurality of the zombies and win the game.
From the moment that the kids opened the box on Christmas day it was clear the game was a winner. It is hard to describe the smiles on the boys’ faces when they lifted the lid to reveal a large shoebox overflowing with zombies. The videogames could wait! They wanted to learn the rules and start playing this game immediately.
W.Z.D. is one of my favorite games and is enjoyed as much by my friends (many of them programmers) as it is by my children and their friends. Despite its grim subject matter, it is light hearted and evokes much laughter as the giant robots blast, slash, fry and electrocute all the zombies in their paths.
I was disappointed that Nanobots had not turned out the way I had originally intended. It had become a strategy game, not a fast-paced action game. I liked the customization and the interaction of the special part abilities, but I wanted to reduce the number of rules and prune the decision tree down in size. My desire was to shorten the game down from two hours to twenty minutes.
Both Jordan and Dylan were in robot clubs in their schools that year. Dylan was also on the school’s soccer team and was constantly dribbling a ball from room to room as he walked around the house. These events inspired me to create my fourteenth Christmas Game, Soccer Bots. In many ways I was trying to capture the feeling of the ten-year old RoboBall game, while at the same time appealing to two boys that were now both in high school. (Jordan was in kindergarten when he first played RoboBall.)
After Nanobots’s lengthy production process I was not in the mood to make handcrafted parts again. I needed a faster way to make the pieces. A friend at work suggested I try Ponoko.com, which is an online laser-cutting service. You pick the material (wood, plastic, or metal), upload an outline of the image you wish to cut, and a quote appears instantly. If you like the price you can pay by credit card and sit back while you wait for the precision cut parts to arrive at your doorstep. I was instantly sold on the idea and went to work on the part design.
Since I knew that a computer controlled laser (with a .001 mm tolerance) would be doing the cutting I was excited to design the intricate pieces. It took several weeks of iteration to get the final shapes perfected but I would rather spend my time in front of the computer than doing mindless assembly line work.
Fig. 7: The basic components needed to build a Soccer Bot.
I was determined to keep the game fast so I purchased a sleek digital chess clock to force the players to move quickly. As a game design technique I consider the use of a timer to be a blunt hammer solution. Given the choice, I would prefer crafting a set of rules that intrinsically encourages fast play. But in this case I justified my decision by convincing myself that real soccer has a timer, so robotic soccer should have one, too.
To win Soccer Bots you must score points by pushing a “ball” across the other side’s goal. What makes the game interesting is that before the game starts each player secretly creates a team of four robots out of a collection of arms, engines, repulsors, and tractor beams. This leads to many different configurations and strategies. Do you want a fast team? Then put on a lot of engines. Want to control the ball? Then you will want a lot of arms. Want to shoot from a distance? Then make sure your robotic players have repulsor beam weapons. During your turn you have only thirty seconds to make as many moves as possible based on the part configurations. Then play immediately passes to your opponent.
The final game got a lot of play after Christmas and both boys quickly created dominant teams of custom robots (which, sadly, consistently beat my inferior squad). Unfortunately, they both lost interest in the game within a couple of weeks and it has not been played since, despite my prodding. I often wonder whether it was a flaw in the game itself or if the theme no longer lacked appeal. After all, why play simulated soccer on the tabletop when you could be outside kicking a real ball? Why piece together plastic robot shapes in the living room when you could be in the school workshop building real robots?
A former Blizzard co-worker, Ben Boos, had just completed his first book, Swords. The book features page after page of beautifully illustrated medieval weapons and armor and I instantly knew that it would be a perfect topic for a game. Ben and I began discussing the possibility of making a Facebook game based on his artwork and we agreed to move forward with the idea. While mocking up some simple ideas on paper I realized that the subject would be perfect for a Christmas card game.
The game of Swords started out as a simple collection game, with each card representing a different weapon. But it soon became apparent that collecting weapons was not nearly as much fun as using them. The game needed some monsters!
Dylan had been asking to play Monster Hunter for several months but the family could never find sufficient free time to play. With Swords I had the opportunity to create a faster version of Monster Hunter, but I did not want to resort to using a game timer. Instead I wanted to make a rules system that supported simultaneous play. My theory was that a four-player game of Monster Hunter would only take one quarter of the time to play if every player took their turn at the same time.
I began the design process by looking at other games with simultaneous turns. In particular I was attracted to casino games like Craps, Roulette and Blackjack in which an entire table of participants remains engaged in the action. These games all feature a central shared element (the dice, the wheel, the dealer’s hand) that affects all of the players at the same time. Based on these ideas I made Swords into a type of gambling game. But instead of betting money, the players are betting the lives of their heroes and peasants.
At the beginning of the game four random monsters are placed in the center of the table. Each monster has a special ability that makes it unique. For instance, some monsters fly and can avoid melee weapons, some convert dead heroes into undead skeletons, and some breathe fire at the start of battle. Every monster comes into play with a random number of hit points and a bounty of one gold piece.
Players secretly “place a bet” on which monster they wish to attack. The more players that attack a given monster the more likely it is to die, but since the bounty is split the reward is relatively low. Conversely, attacking a monster alone is more risky, but offers a better reward. Since players do not know who is attacking which monster there is a period of discussion, negotiation, and bluffing before each player commits their army to battle.
The army is made up of small wooden people (affectionately called “meeples”). Instead of rolling dice or playing cards to resolve a battle the players toss the meeples onto the table. Meeples that fall on their heads will die, meeples on their sides do a regular attack, and meeples that land on their feet trigger special abilities (dependent on the type of sword they are carrying).
After the attack the winners split the loot and the dead monsters are replaced with new monsters. Any monster that survives has its bounty increased by 1 gold. The effect of this is that the difficult monsters gradually become more enticing the longer they are allowed to remain on the table. No one wants to risk their entire army fighting an acid-spitting dragon for only one gold, but a ten-gold reward is quite attractive.
Money is used to buy swords that convert peasants into heroes. There are a variety of different swords that have their own special properties. For instance, a paladin’s shining broadsword has the power to heal other heroes in the battle, while a necromancer’s unholy dagger has the power to create zombies that will join your army.
The game is fast and noisy with a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” as heroes rise and fall in the face of adversity. An entire game can be played in under an hour which makes it a good choice when time is short.
Over time, each of the Christmas games has become a yearly marker along the paths of my children’s lives. The games are like photographs that have captured not their images, but their interests and developmental progress as they have grown from toddler to high-school graduate. In response to these changes I have had to continually adapt and evolve my designs. Each year brought a new challenge as I struggled to create a game experience that was novel, entertaining, and developmentally appropriate for the wildly different stages of their lives.
Jordan is now in college and has moved out of the house. (Our Fridge game continues; his last move was at the end of Christmas break and his next move will occur when he returns to visit during Spring break.) Dylan is in high school and will soon be getting his driving permit. I wonder, how many more Christmas games will there be? When both of the kids have left the house will I still have the motivation to stay up late on December nights, rushing to beat an immovable Christmas deadline?
And what new technologies will I have at my disposal? Over the last fifteen years paints and pencils have been replaced with a high-resolution laser printer. Saws and sandpaper have been replaced with a precision laser cutter. Some year in the not too distant future will I be making games with a 3D printer and programmable animatronic robots?
I know one thing for certain: I will continue making games. (Given my history that is easy to predict.) I look forward to the challenges and changes coming up in the next fifteen years. It is likely that one of those games will be a simple reindeer matching game with my first grandchild.