A board game designing diary: Witless Wizards

I’ve always enjoyed the ‘I split, you choose’ board game mechanism: one player divides a group of items into smaller sets, but the other players then get to choose one of these sets first.

Its a fabulous and underused concept most famously employed in classic San Marco and more simply in New York Slice (formerly Piece ‘o Cake) – with games such as Coloretto, Isle of Sky, Castles of Man King Ludwig and Biblios using a take on the system in their mechanics.

Of these, I found Biblios most fascinating. One player takes as many cards as there are players (plus one) and allocates one to each player. They give one card to each player and one is put on an auction pile for later – but what makes the decision delicious is that you only see one card at a time, so have to allocate them as they come out – adding a big ‘push your luck’ element to the game (another mechanism I really like).

But while I enjoyed my first few plays of Biblios, this is only about half the game – and I didn’t find the other half very compelling. This drafting is followed by an auction phase which just doesn’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great and well respected game, but the overall package just wasn’t for me. So, as you do when you’re a budding game designer, I set out to try and make something that was.

The first draft (ho ho)

I made the first (absolutely beautiful) cards for the game in December 2013, with the intention of making a very small two-player micro game (hey – they were cool at the time!).

The basic mechanical ideas for the game were already in place and haven’t changed since: player 1 draws a card and either assigns it to themselves or their opponent. The next card will go to the other player – but on either pick the player could spend energy (generated by some cards at the end of each round) to draw one extra card, giving them more of a choice.

After drafting, the drafter would attack their opponent: wounds vs defence, plus a (1-3) dice roll. This would go back and forth, until one player had lost all of their 25 health – and the game was over. A simple use of the excellent Biblios mechanism in a smaller, faster, nastier and sillier little battle game.

For first testing I created a 14-card deck: it was to be a 16-card game for Brett Gilbert’s Good Little Games website, with the other two cards being scoring/health card. There were eight weapons and six armours. Each player could have one of each, and could never refuse a card drafted – any new card discarded the old one. Weapon strength ranged from 2-8, armour 1-6, to ensure players would always be going downhill health-wise – although energy could also be spent to heal at the end of your turn.

I dubbed the game War!Drobe (a title which, pretty unbelievably, would be taken by another game in the following years). The theme was simple: two wizards powering an automaton each, which they were manipulating through time and space into odd fighting machines. Half the cards were medieval, the other half sci-fi.

The first hurdles

Having damage and defence on every card was quickly dropped, as it was a pain to add up each time while offering nothing of real worth to the game. At the same time, two card slots and just 14 cards made for very little replayability – and every time I played, I was thinking of (and being given by opponents) great ideas for new cards.

I made the decision to go to three slots: one weapon, one armour, and one ‘enhancement’ – an idea I’d toyed with as an extra list of things you could do on your turn with energy, but which had proved unwieldy in practice. As cards though, it really helped to add loads of cool special powers.

I also abandoned the idea of this being a pure micro game: there were way too many fun ideas to play with, and ideas for extra sets of cards. But what about a micro game that came in two-set decks? The first could be Medieval and Sci-Fi, but you could also buy Ninjas and Buckaneers, or Crusaders and Magicians.

I moved to eight-card decks, each of which had three weapons, three armours and two enhancements – and each of which had mechanisms I tried to fit to theme (magicians gained and used more energy, sci-fi items did big damage, crusaders healed well etc).

Testing testing testing…

Other mechanical issues included game duration, deck size and card balance. Health dropped to 20 (or a 12-point short game) to stop it overstaying its welcome, while I settled on a three-deck (so 24-card) standard game, or two-deck tactical game where you’d have a much better idea of what was coming.

I also moved away from any thoughts of a micro game as the general gaming population quickly fell out of love with the format (as sales of Empire Engine will sadly testify!). This freed me up to add ‘concentration cubes’ (to replace an energy track), a custom dice for damage and player sheets to keep your cards on.

Card balance was an interesting one. In theory it didn’t matter at all, as it was a shared deck of cards. But many small issues developed in terms of decks clashing with each other in annoying ways. Some deck combinations would lead to way too many concentration cubes, or too few; some would see very slow damage, others ridiculously fast wins. It took a lot of combo plays to ensure they all fell into an acceptable (but still very random and fun) range of results over any given game.

The final big change to the system was to do with healing. It was slowing the game down a little to much and adding an extra decision point to every round that felt unnecessary in many situations. I solved this by making healing a last-gasp desperate act you could only call upon if you had five health or less left at the end of your turn. Having this as a late game decision added a bit of an extra arc to the game too.

The publisher problem

I took the game to Essen in 2015 to show it to publishers. While several found the concept intriguing and enjoyed their play, it soon became clear that the bigger publishers really weren’t looking for a two-player game – while its look wasn’t going to help win anyone over.

The look was perfectly playable, but it didn’t help convey the playful feel of the game. This hadn’t been an issue with other games I’d demoed as they were more ‘euro’, so especially the German publishers were used to seeing that kind of prototype. This time, though, I needed to up my game.

First, I went away and made rules for first a three and then a four-player variant. It was surprisingly easy to up the number of players – a good lesson for anyone who gets stuck in a rut of their idea of their game. Taking on other ideas while occasionally taking a big step back from your game can be hugely useful.

I thought about better ways to present the game, and came up with the idea of locking the cards together to make a picture of the automaton. I didn’t make the whole game into cards in this way, instead doing some example cards to show a publisher how it might look finished.

I hoped this would fire the imagination, without me having to spend an awful lot of time and energy, or money, creating a bunch of art that would probably never be used. I settled on making it of the actual wizard instead, simplifying the theme a little too.

I found some artwork online which luckily depicted a wizard, a ninja and a viking in exactly the same style – three of the themes I’d chosen for card decks. I feel they got the idea across image-wise, without me having to do too much extra. A talented graphic design friend at work (thanks Simos!) helped me with the layout and I was ready for round two of facing publishers, this time at UK Games Expo in 2016. (Sorry, I would have linked to these great images, but I can’t re-find them on Google :/).

War!Drobe finds a home – as Witless Wizards

Unfortunately UKGE wasn’t the best place to meet publishers. While many good companies had stands there, their decision makers were very rarely in attendance (with so notable exceptions). However, a really productive meeting with LudiCreations saw head honcho Iraklis suggest I contact his friends at Drawlabs.

We met up at Essen 2016 and the deal was done. After a frustrating 2017 (for both of us) when progress stalled due to reasons beyond our control, Drawlabs really got into top gear this year. Asterman Studio were brought on to do the art and have done a magnificent job.

Drawlabs also made some changes to the rules, simplifying a few things but largely keeping the original game intact. They also changed the theme slightly, for the better I think, while we worked together to add a lot of humour to the card titles. A close to finished version of the game was demoed at UK Games Expo 2018 and it hit Kickstarter a couple of weeks later: a five-year process that was so worth the wait.

And so the Kickstarter campaign begins…

If you’d like to back the game to help it become a reality, or just find out more, head over to the Witless Wizards Kickstarter campaign before June 28. Pledges start from just £14 for the game, which you’ll get later in the year.

You’ll find loads more artwork there, as well as a link to a rough copy of the rulebook – plus a link to a playable version of the game on Tabletopia. I’m finding the Kickstarter process incredibly stressful, at a time of my life when I’m incredibly stressed anyway, but it is at least a weirdly welcome distraction. But if it sees my first solo design become a reality, it will have been worth it.

So that’s that: how a design concept introduced by the excellent Steve Finn was adapted from a serious hand management auction game into a humorous take-that fighting fantasy game. Any questions, please ask away in the comments below.

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