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Black Sonata: Designer Diary Part 4

Game in Progress…

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 4:

12 June 2017

Ugh. I stayed up late last night trying out my idea for the main game mechanism. It worked as intended (after some tweaking) but after a while I had to admit to myself that it just wasn’t much fun.

So I have straightened the spine, stiffened the upper lip and headed back to the drawing board. It is a scary thing to do, but I feel I owe it Shakespeare and his Dark Lady to find the best possible use for this theme (which I am totally smitten by).

My failed idea was based on a shifting labyrinth of tiles through which you and the Dark Lady would move according to a roll-and-move mechanism. Your task was to keep the Lady from escaping off the edges while searching for tiles (books and letters) with clues to her identity.

Now I am thinking it would be cool to use a game board representing Shakespeare’s London and the ten or so significant locations that we know about. I’m not sure yet exactly how to use it, but I’m sure inspiration will come eventually. I suspect it needs to involve a Dark Lady pawn, and it would be good if it also used another deduction mechanism. I’ll go back through all the suggestions in this thread again for potential solutions…

To clarify – I will keep the deduction mechanism with the suited cards, though this still needs some tweaking, and find a new way of earning the clues. Fingers crossed…


Here’s an idea for a deduction/hidden movement mechanic. It is distilled from some of the posts above, particularly suggestions from Jan and Deyan about discovering hidden rules, together with ideas about wheels, moving coordinates and clues on the backs of cards. Actually, I didn’t really invent this at all: it was all you guys – thanks!

Anyway, imagine you have a map of say 10 locations, joined by paths so that each location has 2 to 4 paths leaving it. At each location are some features, like a tree, a church, a water view, a flower garden, a statue etc represented by 2 to 4 icons at the location.

You also have say 30 or 40 tiles (or cards), three or four for each location. Each tile is numbered unobtrusively on one side and also features a dot in a particular position that corresponds to that location (like the clue cards in Outfoxed). On the reverse side is an icon denoting one of the features present at that location.

Now, the designer provides a list of numbers that specify the order that you should stack the tiles at the start of the game. (Actually, there would be several different lists corresponding to different paths that the quarry could travel around the board, but each game would use only one with the rest being for replayability.) After ordering the tiles in a stack, face down (and icon up) the pile is “cut” several times as a magician does with cards so that the player does not know the starting point.

You are represented by a pawn on the board, while the location of your quarry (the Dark Lady) is hidden as the top tile in the pile. Each turn you would take the top tile and place it on the bottom of the pile, so that the Lady has moved to another location (or not!). The tile icons would give clues as to where she might have moved and could be now. Then you’d move your pawn one space along a path OR, if you think you have tracked her down, search for the Lady at your current location.

Each location would have its own “master” tile with a hole bored in a unique position. To search for the Lady you’d place the top tile from the pile onto your location tile and then flip them over as one. If the dot appears in the location tile’s window then you have found her, otherwise you know she is somewhere else on the map, but you still don’t know where.

So the aim is to deduce where the Dark Lady is lurking from the sequence of location icons she passes, then try to get your pawn one step ahead and catch her at that location. If you do, you earn a clue to the main mystery (her identity). But here’s the catch – after searching a location, whether successfully or not, that tile is discarded from the game. This means that the Lady will start to jump around the map more and more erratically as tiles are lost from her initially smooth path, and it will become harder and harder to find her. Your aim would be to find her enough times to get sufficient clues to solve the final mystery before you run out of tiles in the deck (or it gets down to say ten tiles).

(Of course you could use cards and sleeves with windows instead of tiles, but I think tiles might be easier to handle if there’s not too many of them.)

Righto – in my head this sounds like it might just work. Or am I missing something obvious here? Maybe there’s a nifty way to refine this idea before I go to the trouble of building a prototype. And maybe I am destined for disappointment as in my previous mechanic…

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Black Sonata: Designer Diary Part 3

Is it her?

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 3:

5 June 2017

William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets were first published in 1609, possibly against his will. The first 126 sonnets are outpourings of homosexual love and admiration to a “Fair Youth”, probably one of Shakespeare’s patrons: Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. The subsequent 28 sonnets, however, document a stormy relationship with a “Dark Lady” who seduces the poet and holds him in an agonised thrall. In a bizarre twist, sonnets 144 and 145 reveal that the Dark Lady has also seduced the Fair Youth and the subsequent love triangle sees the poet spiral into a deep and melancholy madness of fire and syphilis.

For more than four centuries scholars have argued over the identity of the mysterious Dark Lady. At least eight plausible candidates have been suggested, plus a plethora of less convincing ones. But like so much of the great poet’s life little documentary proof remains, so we shall probably never know…

At least that’s what you had been taught as a young student of English literature. And it springs to mind now, years later, as you discover a forgotten cache of letters in the basement of the National Archives. For among them are two penned by Augustine Phillips, a known associate of Shakespeare, that hint at the identity of the Bard’s shadowy mistress.

Suddenly with fresh eyes and thumping heart you find yourself catapulted into a labyrinthine web of hints and allusions scattered through the remaining fragments of the lives and works of Shakespeare and his associates. From document to dusty document you will chase the ephemeral shadow of the Lady, gradually collecting clues to her identity as she darts teasingly just out of reach.

Can you solve English literature’s greatest mystery? Or will the Dark Lady elude you, slipping away like smoke to be lost forever from the pages of history?


Once I decided to theme the game around Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”, I needed a name that would evoke a shadowy pursuit.

Shakespeare repeatedly refers to the Lady as “black” (both in colouring and deeds) so that part was easy. “Black Sonnet” didn’t sound right, but somehow “Black Sonata” did. It carries echoes of noir mysteries like the Black Dahlia videogame and Black Vienna. Plus, I like the allusion to music, whitch is another of my passions.

Or her…

The term sonata has a very precise meaning in Classical music, but in Shakespeare’s time that was not the case. Then, sonata could refer to any instrumental music: music that was “sounded” rather than “sung”. Sonata and sonnet share the same word origin, and the clincher is Shakespeare’s sonnet 128 which concerns the poet’s feelings as he watches the Dark Lady play the virginals (an early keyboard instrument):

How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand.
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.

Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

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Black Sonata: Designer Diary Part 2

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 2:

30 May 2017

It’s 2am and I’m awake thinking about one of the suggestions posted above…

Say you had ten locations labelled 0 to 9. There are two pawns – one representing you and the other a spy with whom you need to rendezvous. You have a “code wheel” with two circles of card, slightly different sizes, pinned at the centre so that you can rotate them relative to each other. Each circle has the numbers 0 to 9 spaced evenly around the outside, and the top (smaller) circle has a small window cut into it.

Each turn you must place your pawn where you think the spy will go next. Then align the number corresponding to your pawn’s previous location (outside wheel) with that of the spy pawn (inside circle). Now a number is visible through the window, and determines the next location of the spy pawn. If you got it right, you and the spy will be in the same location and a clue is exchanged.

So your challenge is to deduce the pattern underlying the wheel. I’m guessing it will somehow involve modular arithmetic but will need to check that out… (not now – it’s 2am). The game could include several different wheels of each size and you’d choose some combination at random at the start of the game. Maybe there could be more than one window. Maybe the locations would be named rather than numbered, to make it harder.

This could work, I think, as long as the underlying maths is sound. I have no idea if it is yet, but will investigate further…


OK, I have put together a simple one-page PnP prototype for a deduction mechanism that seems to work (I think!). I have wrapped a simple pseudo-game around it, mostly as a way to test how many clues are needed to make the deduction (it seems to vary, but I haven’t had a chance yet to look at it more systematically).

I am excited because this seems to create a nice “if that then this OR that” logic puzzle that is not just about eliminating possibilities.

NOTE: Do not study the cards and try to discover the patterns or memorise their symbols! This will ruin the deductive element and spoil the game for you.

Please, if you do try it out, can you report back on how you got on. Useful data would be the “suit” of the hidden card and how many clues it took to correctly deduce its symbols. In lieu of that, your score would be almost as helpful. Thanks!


Meanwhile, I need to start thinking about a theme. I have a couple of off-the-wall ideas, but I need to digest them for a few days (and do some research!). More news soon…

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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…