My First Three Decades of Design


The very notion that a person could design their own board game out of household materials would have been inspired in me by my dad. When I was just a toddler, maybe even earlier than that, he designed a board game that he called On the Air, inspired by his experience in radio broadcasting. It was a roll-and-movement track mechanic with a card set-collection victory condition—pretty traditional and in keeping with the time period, but we just loved to play it over and over. His hand-drawn board was eye-catching, and he’d made these little slide-rule type of player salary tracks out of stapled and hole-punched card stock that really added to the toy factor. We loved it, and I know this game is what made me believe it was possible for anybody to design their own game.

It’s been three decades. Tomorrow begins my second Kickstarter campaign (for Sans Alliés), nearly a year-and-a-half since my first (for Parenthood), and since I became, for the first time, the designer of a game that was actually published. Much has happened in the interim, and though I can’t say I’ve become a billionaire in the gaming industry, I can truly say that that first campaign did indeed “kickstart” this business endeavor I call Past Go.

In November 2014, I was merely a guy who was finally about to have one of his many hand-made game designs finally printed. There was no web site; there was no blog; there was nothing. There wasn’t even the name “Past Go.” Just a guy and a silly card game. A year and-a-half later, and thanks to having had that silly card game as a tangible thing, I feel I’ve come a very long way in a relatively short time, both as a designer and entrepreneur.  The whole scenario has had me reflecting on my entire life as an amateur/indie game designer, so I thought it’d be fun this week to christen the new campaign with a survey of all the game designs I’ve made in my lifetime (or at least as many as I can remember). The years I’ve provided are the approximate date, as near as I can place it, of initial inception and first-generation prototyping (most of the titles never got past this point).

building business bothBuilding Business! (ca. 1985)
I mention this one in the “About” section on this site; the full board is the cover picture for the article. I have little idea what this game was supposed to do; I had forgotten about it entirely until my mom discovered it among other ancient childhood artifacts in her garage. It looks like a pretty heavily luck-driven and grossly imbalanced game of winning and losing money. There’s a movement track around the perimeter, with designated space-types like Monopoly and its ilk, and I remember drawing those various shapes with this hard plastic stencil I had from school. I’m pretty sure the origami/craft paper in the middle was meant to designate meaningful playing zones, but I don’t know what. I think they correspond to the different “businesses” one might “build.” I do know that, even as a kid, I thought the center of the Monopoly board was a tremendous waste of space and should have been used for something. I vaguely remember creating this game on the floor of my bedroom. I don’t remember designing anything else until high school, but it is somewhat poetic to think that my very first game was called “Building Business,” and now, thirty years later, I am attempting to build a business by making games.

dune jihadDune: Jihad (ca. 1994)
I read the entire Dune series by Frank Herbert over summer after sophomore year, and I just loved it. Still do. By that time, I was already a Dungeons & Dragons player (2nd Edition, boy) and was a blooming Avalon Hill gamer. A buddy of mine had introduced me to Battle Masters, and somewhere in all this, I got the idea that I could make a strategy game based on the Dune brand. (I only later discovered the 1978 Dune game and other merchandise.) The premise of my design was a tactical, hex-based board game with modular scenarios—very similar to how Memoir ’44 is set up. There was also going to be a resource (spice) collection element, similar to the Warcraft board game. Then I started building this deck of cards called the Dune Tarot deck, and these were cards you could purchase with your spice economy that would modify and break rules, impacting outcomes on the battlefield.

All in all, the concept was pretty solid, and I feel like it was a great homage to the Dune universe, but it was my first major design project, and I put the cart WAY before the horse in many ways. I did zero playtesting, assuming everything was going to work just as I had written it in the first draft of the rules, and I spent countless hours hand-drawing and painting all the components. It all looked pretty professional, actually, but I was ignorant as to how something like this was actually translated into a finished, marketable product. And I did waste about $700 on one these bogus “invention-patenting” companies you see on late-night TV, who did absolutely nothing to advance the game. Many years later, I did get a chance to pitch the idea to Wizards of the Coast, who owned the Dune IP for a while, but they turned me down right at the gates, just due to permissions/licensing issues. It was a project that was far more ambitious than I could have possibly realized, but it was fun to work on.

boxing[Lightweight] Boxing (ca. 1995)
This was a stupid, boxing-themed dice game with almost zero decision-making on the part of the players. I designed it as something entertaining we could do during our extremely brief high school lunch sessions. You rolled up all of four stats for a boxer in the manner of generating an RPG character, and then there were these basic rules for rolling and landing punches on the other guy. The game required no thought at all, but it was something hilarious for us to do; we had the most fun drawing cartoon characters to illustrate the bizarre and uneven statistics our boxers ended up with. There was supposed to be a sequel or an expansion called Heavyweight Boxing, and we were going to make the rules a little more complex and thought-based, but it never happened.

cold warCold War (ca. 1995)
This was an idea that didn’t go very far at all. It was something of a game-within-a-game. The main game was to be a kind of espionage, pseudo-RPG, where the player(s) would be spies in modern “dungeon crawl” scenarios trying to accomplish covert missions. Then, the results (success/failure) of those missions were supposed to impact the movement of military units on a grand-scale map of the Soviet Union, so there would be different layers strategy. Thinking about it now, and with the experience I have, I can see ways that I might be able to make this work and experiment with it. However, at the time, the concept was even more complex than I could figure out myself, so I didn’t get much farther than drawing a map of Russia on hex paper. Maybe I’ll tinker with this again some day, starting from scratch.

solitaire 500Ortega’s Solitaire 500 (1996)
I wrote this solitaire dice game as a birthday gift for a friend of mine (the same friend who introduced me to Battle Masters). He’s a huge fan of Formula-1 auto racing, and in the years since, he and I have played many a game of Formula Dé (now Formula D) together, though I had yet to even learn of the existence of Forumula Dé at the time. Using index cards cut into quarters, each having one incomplete quadrant of a race track drawn on it, I devised a modular course-creation set-up, where different lengths of road (straightaway, gradual turn, sharp turn, hairpin turn, etc.) had different difficulty values, and the player rolled different polyhedral dice to manage the turns. There was also a scorecard type of system to track your place relative to the other imaginary drivers. It was relatively simple, and it had actually had much in common with Formula Dé, coincidentally. It goes to show you that different designers often solve similar problems in similar ways. I think my buddy got a handful of plays out of my gift, and he had a good time with it, though ultimately it did not have much staying power.

Solitaire Hero Quest (ca. 1996)
This was something I worked on at home with my Hero Quest set: it was essentially a system for randomly-generating dungeons that you could then play through without needing a GM. It never really reached a full, functioning level, and ultimately I got rid of my Hero Quest game—a decision I regret to this very day.

Axis Powers Risk (ca. 1996)
This was a solitaire variant of Risk I wrote, using a WWII theme. The board had a pre-designated set-up, and the player controlled the armies of two colors, starting in Europe and East Asia (representing the Axis Powers). The other colors were controlled by bot rules and represented the Allies. I also added cards to the territory deck that represented triggered events, like “Invasion of Normandy” and “Development of Atomic Bomb,” which added a timing mechanism to the game. The whole concept worked really well as a solitaire game, actually, and I even sent a draft to Hasbro for their consideration, but per their standard legal behavior, they turned the submission around sight unseen (or so they claim).

Toy Soldier Risk (ca. 1996)
This was a different variant of Risk I wrote so I could play the game with my younger brother, who was about 6 or 7 at the time. Nothing too involved, but it basically reduced the board to a two-player variant, using only North and South America, and we either eliminated the territory cards altogether or used them in a different way.

submarineSubmarine Battleship (ca. 1996)
This was a variant of Battleship that (1) took the game back to its paper-and-pencil roots, and (2) expanded the game into three dimensions. Players had four surface boards instead of just one, each representing a different depth level. They plotted five ships of five coordinates each anywhere about the four planes (no “diving” was allowed—the entire boat had to be level on a given plane). Shots were called using a three-coordinate system. Since this naturally increased the length of the game tenfold, we added two “special moves” to counter balance it: one was sonar “pings” to help locate an enemy boat without causing damage; the other was “depth charges,” which attacked cubicle areas 3x3x3.

Detail view of the 1st (top) and 2nd (bottom) versions of the Lebensraum map. Both depict Aryan/HImalayan regions.

Detail view of the 1st (top) and 2nd (bottom) versions of the Lebensraum map. Both depict Aryan/Himalayan regions.

Lebensraum (ca. 2001)
Some years after high school (and after the general failure to launch Dune: Jihad), I decided to try my hand once more at a massive undertaking. Lebensraum was a game of global warfare, set on a hex-based map of the world that was nearly 6 feet wide and three feet tall. There were multiple hex types: sea, river, agricultural, mountain, frozen wasteland, and desert wasteland, and scattered hexes were designated as iron and oil sites. I based these all on studying an atlas of the world and trying to recreate actual, real-world conditions. In fact, the first version of the map even had Antarctica, which you just don’t see anywhere in games. Players built cities and collected resources to build 20th century military forces (infantry, armor, navy, and air), and players expanded their political boundaries to envelop swaths of agricultural hexes in order to feed an ever-growing population statistic. A card drawing mechanic represented the players’ economies, espionage efforts, and research-and-development on weapons upgrades, including a kind of ICBM that would allow extremely long-range attacks on enemy capitals.

The idea was to make a massive game of modern war that wasn’t area-control but was hex-based, so the players really felt the magnitude of “global” warfare, unlike Risk, where the earth seems so small. We wanted a game where you needed those long “war-room sticks” to play it. (As I understand it, there is now a gigantic variation of Axis & Allies that consumes this same kind of table space. If I still had entire weekends devoid of responsibility like I did when I was 16, I’d totally play this.) As another reaction against Risk, in Lebensraum I wanted different regions of the world to behave realistically; it didn’t make sense in Risk that frozen Siberia had the same difficulty level in combat as equatorial Mexico. So the idea of “wastelands” was born.

This was the first game that I took to a convention (Strategicon) and exhibited, and we did have a handful of people sit down to play. However, although my design prowess had grown ten-fold since Dune: Jihad, I was still doing many things in the wrong order. Too much work had gone into the prototype, which discouraged me from changing rules or changing the board layout as needed to be done. The same thing was true even after I redrew the entire board by hand and made a second version. It still needed more playtesting. And frankly, it was just too damn big and too damn long. Not that big damn games and long damn games don’t exist, but the audience is comparatively small, and the undertaking was much too complex. Ultimately, I moth-balled this project and moved on to different, more reasonable endeavors, but it was not for nothing. I learned very much about what it takes to properly prototype and test a game, as well as how to go about exhibiting at cons. Most importantly, some of the essential elements of this game ended up being recycled and compressed into the design and prototyping for Sans Alliés. And some of the artwork from the second-edition board is what now adorns the trim of this website and the background for the Past Go and Corner Space logos.

parenthood bothParenthood (ca. 2008)
I first conceived this game on a camping trip with some friends and when our first son was just a baby. We had been playing lots of Catan and Milles Bornes that weekend, and after a given session of the latter, I was struck by three thoughts: (1) there needs to be more lightweight, social interaction games like this (Milles Bornes) that still have a bit of strategic thinking in them (what I would later come know are called, in the hobby, “gateway games”). (2) A game like this should have a theme that is universally relatable, and (3) I hate how in Milles Bornes, once you get stuck, that could literally be the end of the game for you, and you just sit there and watch everyone else play. The answer to these three thoughts ended up being Parenthood, a social, gateway game with a theme that is universally relatable, and with a “take that” mechanic like Milles Bornes, but with the ability to have multiple kids so you can still be engaged in the game even when one of your kids is stuck. We expanded quite a bit on the “hazard/repair” dynamics, adding a wider range of combinations, but this is how the game was born.

My wife and I collaborated on the playtesting and on the artwork, and I feel like this is the first game that I designed properly: by which I mean we used cheap, ugly, and easily replaceable parts for the prototyping, and we changed rules hundreds of times over, playtested with strangers, exhibited at shows, and took advice from people already experienced in the industry. It still wouldn’t be until the advent of Kickstarter and not until the year 2015 that the game actually got published, but its growth and development followed a much more professional and successful approach than my older, “serious” designs like Dune: Jihad or Lebensraum. Of course, Parenthood could not have been possible without the lessons I learned from those other projects.

sudden deathGridiron/Sudden Death (ca. 2009)
This is a project I still consider “in progress,” though I haven’t touched it in awhile. I thought to make a tactical board game based on American Football, but I wanted the gamed to focus on individual athletes and their athletic abilities, not simply on the “grand-strategy” view of plays and yardage. The problem was that zooming in to the tactical level of a football game makes the strategic view of the entire playing field much too massive to fit on a reasonably-sized board. The solution was inspired by the game Up Front, a WWII infantry-combat card game. In this game, the “battlefield” is abstracted and largely imaginary, and what is measured is not where the soldiers are on the field, but rather how far they are in relation to each other. In this way, the battlefield itself could be infinitely large, but the game remained the right size.

Thus, Gridiron (as it was originally named), used a gridded board that represented only that portion of the football field where the play was happening (the area surrounding the line of scrimmage), and the relative distance from the goal zones was measured using a track on the board’s edge. Each athlete, then, was at first a card and later a smaller square chit, marked with his individual stats. We exhibited this at Strategicon as well, and got some great feedback from one of the agents at Rio Grande Games. Of course there were (and are) a number of bugs that still need to be worked out, but the biggest problem was that the game went too long. He suggested to us that your typical “sports simulator” game player isn’t going to want to sit there for more than about 90 minutes max. So I revamped a number of the rules to streamline and speed the game up, but the biggest change was instead of having the game represent all four quarters of a full-length football game, it would simply be the last, overtime quarter, which ends immediately (barring certain exceptions) upon the first team scoring. Fans will know this is called “Sudden Death,” and so the name of the game was changed accordingly. In this way, the players could still get the satisfaction of being a tabletop quarterback, but it wouldn’t take as long as an actual game of football. (Coincidentally, last year, Darrell Louder and Mike Mullins solved a similar problem in a similar way with their baseball sim game, Bottom of the 9th.)  Sudden Death is still a game I want to come back to and polish, but it’s taken a back seat to some other projects for awhile.

to end all warsTo End All Wars (2010)
I have variously called this game “wargame for dads” and “Diet Axis & Allies.” This is an area-control, dice-chucking war-themed game, themed with the historical events of the First World War in Europe, more complex than Risk, but not as complex as Axis & Allies. The goal was to make a game that scratched the armchair general itch, but which was playable by exactly two players in no more than two hours. Our second son was literally one-month old when I started drawing the prototype board and coloring it with crayons (I had been writing the rules to this game on my laptop during the days leading up to and while we were in the hospital after his birth). It was by this time that I had really begun to appreciate fatherhood, especially how little gaming time you have, and how hard it is to coordinate even three different fathers’ schedules. My teenage days of entire weekends lost to Axis & Allies or Dungeons & Dragons are long gone…

To End All Wars is, in my opinion, a finished game. I’ve farmed it out to a few publishers at this point, though no one’s biting just yet. It could probably use a few tweaks before anyone wants to publish it, but it does hit the table in my house from time to time. Usually when one of my buddies (also a father) and I only have about two hours.

industryCaptains of Industry/Robber Barons (ca. 2012)
This is my first serious attempt to “fix” Monopoly. I wanted to keep the essence of Monopoly: playing the role of a big business baron of the early 1900s, while getting rid of all the random chance and imbalance that plagues that game. I devised a kind of dice-drafting game where players still own various industries (represented by property cards), but on which the players secretly set their prices and try to undercut each other, drawing customers (from the giant pool of dice) away from one another. The dice were meant to be rolled to yield “income.” The game still has potential for fans of dice rolling mechanics, but the biggest problem we were running into was that no matter how we adjusted the rules, simply due to the quantity of standard, six-sided dice in the pool, sooner or later, they were generating ridiculously large and incalculable numbers. Results that were totally inconvenient for players to work with in their heads.

So the next step in this game’s evolution is to test it out with custom dice faces that would result in more manageable numbers and much easier math. Haven’t gotten back to it in awhile. In the meantime, Michael R. Keller has created a great game with a similar theme, which has also called Captains of Industry. It’s a completely different mechanic that what I was working on, but of course, at least one of my working titles for this project is off the table! In similar news, I have also recently begun sketching out an alternative approach to “fixing” Monopoly, which I’m tentatively calling Industrial Monopoly.

buddhaBuddha (ca. 2013)
This is nothing more than a variant of Patience (what most people call “solitaire”) I invented to be played with a standard deck of playing cards. It has some thematic relationships with Buddhist concepts; hence, the name. The rules require the player to use some sort of pawn or token to mark certain card positions. A joker card works just fine for this purpose; I like to use a little Buddha figurine.

arms raceArms Race (2014)
My wife hates war-themed games. I love them. But my wife does enjoy economics and Euro-style games. So what if I could make a game that functions as a resource-management game but has the skin and theme of a war game? This is how Arms Race began. This is still very nascent in its development, but the basic gist is this: each player controls a fictional “nation,” concerned with keeping track of select abstracted resource levels, including “precious goods,” “food,” “population,” “machinery,” and “innovation.” Players expend resources to engage in trade or conquest relations with each other and/or with non-player, “tribute” states (“villages,” represented by cards in a draw deck), thereby attempting to build an engine of sorts. As the players reach certain thresholds of innovation, they force the game through five technological “ages”: stone, bronze, iron, powder, and industry; each of these tech levels improves the player’s machinery level and introduces new potential tribute states into the draw deck (“towns,” “cities,” “urban complexes,” and “metropolises”), each of which makes older states increasingly obsolete and easier to conquer.

The goal here was to make the game very tight in its arithmetic and in the players’ decision-making, and to have almost no random interference—almost pure information. My “economic model” for this is a fantastically balanced game called Navegador. However, as of this point, Arms Race is still missing… something. It’s that je ne sais quoi that takes game from being a boring ritual of pushing cardboard bits around and turns it into an interesting contest of cunning. There’s no telling when that breakthrough idea will come to me, but it will probably be in the shower. The prototype has been in the closet for a while as a result.

The train game with the changing name (2015)
There’s not much to say about this here that I haven’t said already. I have fully articulated the inception and entire progress-to-date in the Design Diary Series of articles.

Wahoo: SS-238 (2016)
I’m just going to leave this right here.

So that’s basically everything I can remember, with the exception of Sans Alliés. I conceived this game at my desk, in May of 2015, at work when I had some down time and wanted to play “something like Risk or Axis & Allies,” but all by myself on a small space. The development on this game actually moved really fast, given that it is solitaire. I was able to run through dozens and dozens of playtest games without having to assemble other players and sometimes late at night when I couldn’t sleep. This allowed me to get through a lot of natural evolutionary stages of development in a short amount of time, and to be able to present a really strong beta-testing game to blind playtesters. This game is in many ways the culmination of everything I’ve learned about game design and hobby/industry standards, including marketing and promotion, and there is so much of it that is informed by elements of previous designs, including Arms Race, To End All Wars, and Lebensraum.

I’ve come an extremely long way from that strange, “Building Business” game, and over the past year, I’ve put a great deal of work into becoming the best game designer I can be, and to grow that into a company entity that I’m proud of.  Sans Alliés is the fullest realization of all of this so far. Tomorrow we launch, and I wrote this super-long chronicle to “christen” that launch. I don’t know what will happen. It might be the Great White Fleet, or it might be the Titanic. But no matter what happens tomorrow and in the next 29 days, I’m really happy with and proud of this project, and sink or sail, there’s still more to come.

Bon voyage!

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