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Black Sonata: Designer Diary Part 1

To show off the brilliant mind of John Kean, we wanted to share some of his thought process while making Black Sonata. This series of posts are pulled from his Work In Progress thread on BoardGameGeek. Here’s part 1:

29 May 2017

Recently I have been enjoying a range of solitaire PnP games, but noticed that there are very few replayable solitaire deduction games. I love deduction games and it seemed to me there is a gap here. A few weeks ago I posted a thread on this:

Replayable solitaire deduction game – is it possible?

The response was very interesting. At first the consensus was “nope, not possible”. Then it morphed to “OK, maybe possible with the use of a game app”. Then finally a couple of suggestions came out about how it might be approached, using edge-notched cards for instance. Overall, the consensus seems to be that it *might* be possible, maybe.

Well, that’s enough for me – challenge accepted!

I have enjoyed designing games for recent BGG contests, and in this year’s 9 Card Contest, just finishing up now, I set myself an extra challenge as a seed for creativity. In that case it was to design a solitaire deck-builder in just 9 cards, and I’m not sure that the resulting game (Blorg in the Midwest) quite achieved that, but it was a lot of fun exploring the idea with suggestions and input from this community.

So my personal design challenge for this contest is to design a replayable solitaire deduction game (not based on elimination), without the need for an accompanying app. I have been mulling this over in my head for a few weeks now, and I think I have an approach that may work. But more about that soon…


A few days ago a friend introduced me to Dobble, and like every newbie my first reaction was – how the heck do they do that?! The mechanism of every card having one (and only one) symbol in common with every other card seems somehow miraculous. I had to figure out how it works, and once I did I started to wonder if it might be a way to attack the solo deduction problem I had been thinking about…

Of course, you smart people will have figured out by now that it won’t work. Removing one card from the Dobble deck, you can’t possibly deduce what is on it from the remaining cards without comparing every single one of those cards with every single other one. Which would not be fun. And if there is more than one card that you don’t know then there is no way to deduce which of them is the target card.

But what about if you simplified the number of symbols and added a second loop? Well I’ve been playing around with that on paper and I think I have come up with something that is sort of half Dobble and half Mastermind.

It would use 11 cards, and each card would have three mystery symbols. You’d shuffle the cards and set one aside unseen. Your task is to deduce the three symbols on the set aside card from a subset of the remaining ones. There would need to be another game mechanic for how you earn a clue card, but each time you do you’d get more information on the target card, because each clue would say how many of that card’s symbols are present on the target card.

I think it works on paper. Next step is to try it out with some old business cards…

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That’s a Wrap!

Courtesy of Brian Garthwaite

Now that the contest is officially over and we’re putting feedback together for the entrants I thought I’d let you in on the process and how we decided on our jury prize winners.  It was a tough call; we had about 5 games we narrowed in on for the top 2 and played through them again as a group to determine which were the best. Here are my honorable mentions (in no particular order) – all of these were great games and are serious contenders for publication (either by us or some other lucky company!):

Neapolitan Sundaes: Most of my thoughts on this one were captured on my previous blog post.  Definitely fun, probably a better cardboard tile game rather than card game, and the theme on this one could be tinkered with.  Will keep an eye out for it for sure!

Panoramic:  This one is a two player tableau builder where you have the same bidding cards & overall bidding value as your opponent over the course of the game.  The best part about this one is how scoring is determined. As you bid & win cards you can either place them in your panorama (or your opponent’s in cases where they hurt their layout) or you can use the card to lock in an endgame scoring parameter.  On top of that, when you lock it in you lock out another option. Really keeps the game dynamic and puts emphasis on which cards to go after and when. With some cool original art & graphic design this one could be a great light-weight card game.

Repertoire:  In this two player deck-building game about fencing, you are balancing your decisions to either attack your opponent or acquire special move cards to your deck (adding to your repertoire!).  As offensive & defensive skills become available to add to your capabilities, you are trying to balance what you have in your hand to either come in with a crushing blow or defend against the same.  And as you take damage that can’t be blocked you have to permanently dump cards from your deck, and whoever has the fewest cards at the end of the game loses. It probably needs some tweaking as the first portion of the game is a little slow during the build up of your deck, and it feels like there needs to be a little more offense & a little less defense to increase the tension.  But the core mechanics are really good, and the original artwork for the cards turned out great!

Saint Poker & Board Game Smugglers:  These were games that used a standard deck of playing cards.  And they were some of the most fun we had playing! Saint Poker is basically Texas Hold’em Legacy.  After a hand you get to draft cards on the table from other players hands & the community cards to form your hand for the next round.  Each round is worth more and more points, and you can retain some knowledge of what cards are gone to help you plan for the next round or two.  The right kind of brain burn and it worked really well. Board Game Smugglers is all about bluffing and misdirection, which really hit my wheelhouse.  I was just manically laughing about every move, and was yelling at the other guys when they would screw me over. It really didn’t have “take that” mechanics, but it still had that feel.  For some reason that’s what made it shine.

There were other good ones too: Quilt 54 was a tile laying game simple to teach but got brain burny as you played; in the same vein as Sagrada.  Banquet had a neat way of moving your player card around the board and causing a chain reaction of who goes where. Martian Colony was a cool little eurogame that with a little tweaking on the scoring could be great.  But in the end there were two that really stood out:

Building Blocks:  This cooperative game is really straightforward.  You’re trying to build 4 colored towers from 1 to 7.  There are a few more of the base cards but the top 3 cards of each tower are unique.  You can skip levels (i.e. a tower that goes 1-2-3-5-7 is perfectly legit) but your score drops for every card you miss.  As a group you go through a decision process to see what order you place that round. You then take turns placing whatever cards you can on the tower.  Or you can “pass” by discarding cards. And the entire time you basically can’t communicate with each other… AARRRGGGHHH!!!! It’s so frustrating but rewarding at the same time.  “Why did you take the first player card!?!?!” “Why did you discard a 5!?!?!” “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!” The game shines when you have to decide on which cards to hold in hopes of getting the perfect tower but also avoid being forced to dump them later when someone can’t put down a stupid 4(!!!).  We immediately wanted to play it again when we finished the first time we tried it. And on our last test day we wanted to play it again after we finished… and a 3rd time… and a 4th… It’s just really good!

Fallen Angels:  Surprisingly another cooperative game (as a group I’d say co-op games are lower on our list, which is why we were shocked our top two were those types).  And it’s really clever. I mean reeeeeeeeeeeeallly clever. Once you set it up you have a handful of cards fanned out so you can see either a) a single symbol or b) a pair of symbols.  On the other side of the cards (what your teammate’s see) is either a) that symbol plus another or b) only one of the pair of symbols. On your turn you pick a card and you are trying to deduce what your teammates are seeing on the back of it.  They will rearrange their decks based on what they see in their hands so that symbols that match what they see are on one side of their hand and ones that don’t match are on the other side. You then use that information to figure out what is on your card.  But it’s mindboggling! Because you only see what they aren’t seeing, and are trying to guess what they can see to narrow down on what you don’t see… Confused? Admittedly, it takes a round or two to wrap your head around what’s happening. And at first, once you get a grasp, it seems easy.  But then cards start leaving your hand and the information available starts to dwindle. And then you start having to get help from informants. And then one of your clever teammates saves you by guessing what only you can see based on your “ummmmmmm”-ing and “ugh”-ing. As you can tell, it’s super hard to explain without playing it.  But once you do you a) need to take a 5-minute break to let your brain unravel and b) start a new game. And all of this doesn’t take into account the amazing photos & really cool info that John unearthed as a part of the theme. In any case it’s just a winner.

Enough rambling.  🙂 All of these designers are awesome and I’m so happy we ran the contest.  It was a challenge to get through all of the entries but I think it really helped us hone our judgement skills as far as thinking about which games were marketable, publishable, needed work, were almost there, etc.  I can’t thank the designers enough for putting the hard work and dedication into making their games. We may tweak a few of the parameters for next year’s contest but there will definitely be one!

I’ll be back later this week with some more info on Black Sonata, as well as maybe an insight or two that I’ve run into setting up the company.

Until next time!

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Business is Picking Up!

Hey, remember us? I can barely remember the last few months! It’s been pretty exciting here at Side Room Games. Not only are we wrapping up the judging of the 54 Card Game Design Contest but we’ve also signed 2(!) games to publish – more on them in a bit!

We’re a little over halfway through all of the 54 Card Contest entries and we’re making a big push this weekend to get them all played. We may have to extend our judging by a week but we’re definitely going to get through them all. There have been some really good ones so far and there are some on the to-do list we’re really excited to play.

My personal favorite so far has been Neapolitan Sundaes by Jason Meyers. The basic gist is you’re connecting various sundae cards on a grid and trying to create links of 3 different characteristics on the cards (either toppings, fruit, or flavor). You score in the competitive version by matching a “favorites” card you get at the beginning of the game. When the game starts there are a ton of options and it’s easy to pick out good combos and get your feet wet. But when the board starts clearing out the difficulty level ramps up and you have to start planning moves ahead as well as avoid giving your opponents opportunities to make links. The way the game climbs in challenge as the game progresses really sets it out from similar games. It might make for a better tile laying game than a card game but the simple design, ease of entry, interesting decisions, and quick gameplay make it a real contender.

I’ve put some other notes on the rest of the entries on our Facebook page as well as via Twitter. As we finish up the testing process we’ll continue to update folks on our progress.

On top of the contest, we’ve been working with two designers and have officially signed their games to publish. The first is Black Sonata by John Kean. The game was created as a part of the 2017 Solo Print & Play Design Contest on BoardGameGeek and won 1st place in Below is his (amazing!) description of the game:

For more than four centuries scholars have argued over the identity of the mysterious Dark Lady of William Shakespeare’s sonnets. According to the sonnets, the Dark Lady seduced the poet and held him in an agonized thrall while also conducting an affair with the Fair Youth who Shakespeare also loved.

In Black Sonata you will find yourself in Shakespeare’s London, circa 1600, in pursuit of the shadowy Lady. A specially ordered deck of cards determines her hidden movements from place to place. You must deduce her location and then intercept her to catch a glimpse and gain a clue to her identity. You will need several clues to deduce her identity, but with each clue gained the Lady becomes harder to track. Black Sonata combines hidden movement and logical deduction into a unique solitaire steeped in literary history.

Can you finally solve English literature’s greatest mystery? Or will the Dark Lady elude you, melting from your grasp like a curl of smoke and promises?

I’ve never played a game like it and I knew I wanted to get it from a print & play version out to the community. John’s design is fantastic and his graphic design is really impressive. It’s basically a finished product – all that’s left is to push to get the Kickstarter ready to launch. We’re planning for a summer launch so stay tuned!

The second game we signed is Pocket Landship by Scott Allen Czysz. The original version is a solo game set in World War I where you command a landship (the original British term for tank) to clear a sector of enemy infantry, artillery and landships. On your turn, you roll dice and allocate them to your landship equipment to make attacks, heal damage, or utilize special abilities. On the enemies turn the dice are allocated based on the enemy set up and you resolve their actions. The really clever mechanic is that each enemy is trying to maneuver the battlespace throughout the game to get into a better position to attack you. A really fun game that’s challenging, tense, and an easy set up & tear down.

The original version was an entry in the 2017 9 Card Nanogame Design Contest on BoardGameGeek where you were limited to 9 cards, up to 9 dice and 9 tokens. Since his original design, Scott created an expansion to increase the number of enemies and player options. For what we plan to publish, he’s been working on coming up with some new enemy and player powers, as well as creating a 2-player cooperative variant. We’re also looking to re-theme the game with all new art and graphic design. I’m really excited about this one as well – the look and feel when we’re done is going to be awesome!

If you want to stay up to date with the progress of these two games and the 54 Card Contest results, sign up for our mailing list in the side menu. We plan on sending out monthly updates as well as notifications when our Kickstarters launch.

Until next time!

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Getting Closer…

We’re only 12 days in to the 54-Card Game Design Contest and we’re already at 16 entries! So far they run the gamut: solo games, 4-8 player games, eurogames, “take that” games, games with awesome original art & graphic design, games that use a standard deck of playing cards. The team and I are working our way through the rules & cards of all of the “Component Ready” games and quite a few of them have gotten some great feedback in the less than two weeks they’ve been open to the public.

I’m continually amazed by the BGG community! Everyone is contributing to other designs in the contest. Whether it’s providing feedback on the rules, walkthroughs of how their plays went, ideas on how to improve/tweak/balance games, or graphic design & art suggestions, people just want to help make great games. I’m happy that we went this route to find games to publish – even if we don’t publish every single one, I’m confident that the feedback designers get on their games will help improve them and get them signed with other publishers.

Speaking of signing games… I think we’re dangerously close to signing our first game! One of the submissions we received was actually in a BGG design contest earlier this year (I won’t name any names since nothing is official yet…) I remember seeing the design during the contest and it seemed interesting but I didn’t get a chance to play it then. The contest was wrapping up right around the time Lorelai was born. So when it came in I started digging around on the design forums and looking into it. At first it seemed clever so I watched the playthrough video for it. Then I actually tried the game out (print & play files were available). And then I played it again. And again. And then I had Mike (one of the co-founders of SRG) play it. He was able to confirm my suspicion – the game was fantastic! We’re getting it in front of the rest of the team as soon as possible but I think this one is a keeper.

It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time! We’re going to find a game that we love, make a commitment to publishing it, and do everything we can to get it out to the community. Hopefully we can do the game justice and put together something that the designer and the team can be proud of. I’m nervous, but I’m also confident that we can make it happen.

You should start seeing some more blog posts coming over the next few months. I plan on testing out contest entries as they become component ready so I’ll put some of my thoughts here. I’m sure the rest of the team will have inputs as well. Plus, if/when we sign a game we’ll update everyone and keep you in on the process of publishing.

Until next time!

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Patience is Hard…

I like to think that most of the time I’m a patient person. But when I step back I realize that it’s a constant struggle for me. Sometimes I’m too quick to anger when my kids do something they shouldn’t, even though I’ve told them multiple times to not do it. At work, I’ve caught myself getting frustrated when someone doesn’t reply to a message I sent a few minutes ago (I know you’re at your desk, answer my question!!!).
I’ve also noticed my impatience on the hand full of game designs I’ve worked on. I get an idea in my head for a game concept, spend a bunch of time putting together a nice prototype, and get it to the table expecting it to work like a charm before the first playtest. I’m even trying to price out the manufacturing costs, shipping costs, and potential backer levels! And within the first 5 minutes of the very first playtest it’s broken. I want it to work! Why isn’t already done!?!

I’ve been consuming lots of game design media & content and it’s become much clearer that you can’t afford to be impatient when it comes to design. Playtesting constantly, iterating and reiterating, tweaking, getting feedback – these all take time. With so many great games coming to the market today, you have to do the work to ensure that your game is worth it. And the only way to do that is to be patient. You have to understand that 99% of the time a design just won’t work the first time. Or the second. But gradually, through an actual design process you can start to see progress. And that progress is what takes a game from an idea to something playable to something good to something great.

As a new publisher, I’ve found that patience is still important and still a challenge. We’re running our contest on BoardGameGeek starting on December 1st. Why isn’t December 1st yet!?!? I want to see some awesome designs that we fall in love with and just have to publish. Some of the submissions we’ve received through the site have been interesting enough to seek out more info. And with those as well, we have to be patient. We want to find the best designs out there and make them products. But we can’t publish them all and we have to be selective. And this is even more critical for us starting out since we can’t afford any misses in our first few published games.

Again, patience is the best and patience is the worst. 🙂 Until next time!

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Our First “Board” Meeting

This weekend the guys got together to hold the first official Board Meeting of Side Room Games. Most of our planning efforts have been through email and messaging so we thought it made sense to get together to discuss business. And… Mike just got Gloomhaven in the mail so it made sense to get some “research” in and start a campaign. ?

On the Gloomhaven side, that game is a magnificent beast! Without question the biggest board games I’ve ever seen. We started off watching the extremely helpful how to play videos on the Cephalofair website; if you’re about to start a campaign I’d highly recommend checking them out. I went with the Brute for our party and my inexperience as a “tank” in an adventuring party was quickly discovered. Opening the door to the second room and seeing 6 baddies I just assumed I could jump in and start crushing dudes. I was immediately met with volley of arrows from the 3 archers in the back of the room, turning me into a meat pincushion. After losing me so early in the scenario, the rest of the party was slowly overcome and we failed miserably.

My poor Brute was toast…

You would think such a rough loss would poorly color my judging of the game, but it didn’t. I loved it! I loved the fact that your decisions mattered and if you did dumb stuff you were going to pay for it. I loved the need for general planning on how to approach new rooms and villains. I loved the fact that the hidden goals and motives allow you to grow & mold a character into more than just stats & cards. And the story that gets told through the components as well as the gameplay was very cool. We’re itching to get a second crack at the first scenario; hopefully that will be sooner rather than later.

That is a lot of monsters…

On the business side, we’re still feeling out what the core responsibilities are going to be for the founders. I have ideas on where folks fit, but we’ll be working out a partnership agreement soon to formalize the roles and officially forming an LLC. Be on the lookout for future posts on how to do this, as well as any how-to’s/issues we ran into.

We also had an initial handful of submissions for game designs. A few of them seem promising so we’ve reached out to the designers to get more info and some video pitches with more details on how the game flows.

And finally, lots of questions on the 54-Card Design Contest that kicks off on December 1st. Check it out on BGG if you’re interested in entering a design, playtesting and providing feedback, or just seeing what happens. I know we’re stoked for it and I can’t wait to see what folks come up with.

Until next time!

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Up and Running!

Welcome to Side Room Games!  It’s almost like we’re professionals… We have a website, a blog, email addresses, and a Facebook page.  Pretty exciting stuff!

We have big plans for 2018 so I wanted to start a blog to track our progress from start up to publishing our first game.  I plan on using the blog to let everyone know how things are progressing for us, what we learn through this process, and what colossal mistakes to avoid (we’ll try to keep that one to a minimum).  Hopefully folks find it useful, or at the very least entertaining.  🙂

In case you weren’t aware, we’ll be running a contest on for a 54 card game design.  You can check out all of the details here.  We’re also accepting design submissions so if you have anything check out our Submissions page.  If you have any questions send us an email or hit us up on our Facebook page.

It’s going to be an adventure!