Almost exactly nine years ago, I got sick. I had a wicked fever, and I needed to call out for most of a week. Isolated, bored, and possibly hallucinating, I needed something to keep me busy. So, I ordered up a blank game board and some blank cards, and I designed my first board game.
It was a game about whispers on the dance floor at a great ball, where you need your rumors confirmed before you could take action. Without pairing your cards with another player, you couldn't do anything. It was even timed along with some classical music I marked out with gongs. And, it was completely terrible. Truly bad. It played like fifteen different mechanics got hot glued to each other during an earthquake. I playtested it exactly once with my friends, and midway through a round, I could see three of them in a corner negotiating over “who is going to talk to him, because he is not okay, and I’m worried.” It was intervention level bad.
It’s under the bed somewhere. Exactly where it belongs. And it has quite a bit of company.
A few months later I made The Woods. I was sitting around thinking about how many “scary” games there were. There are probably hundreds just in the Greater Lovecraftian Universe alone, but none of them really seemed truly scary. Sure, the first time through, with good art and theming, you got the sense that you were paranormal investigators clinging to sanity as you hunt down the truth of an unknowable evil. But by the second or third time through, you were just playing Eldritch Yahtzee. (Don’t worry, Fantasy Flight, I love you to bits, and my full suitcase of Arkham Horror The Card Game will attest to that.) I tried to think of what would make a game truly scary. I mean, what really scares board gamers? Other than a spilled beer at the table, or finally getting your Kickstarter, and seeing a corner of the shipping box jammed up and torn.
The thing I settled on was not knowing the rules.
I made a game where you’re trying to escape the woods, but you don’t know the way, and you don’t know what’s after you. One person, called the Wraith, would write out their own rules before the rest of the group sat down to play. They’d decide if the wolves were helpful or hungry; whether a torch lit the way, or burned down the trees; and whether your goal was really what you thought it was. And my twist was that the Wraith never talked, simply nodded yes or no. Half the time, players would move a little to their right, and the Wraith would do something completely inexplicable. This usually resulted in players screaming “But what does that mean” at the Wraith’s silent smile. At the end of the game, the players would vote on whether they would want to play the Wraith's version of the game again. If so, the Wraith’s rules would go in the box. If not, they went right to the trash.
I honestly still love it. I hand crafted a copy of it that I have in my apartment in a cigar box. I actually did all the art myself. I even sewed the component bag. I’ll keep it forever. And it’s terrible.
First of all, It requires finding someone who's up for squatting down with the box by themselves for at least an hour to set up their scenario. That's a rare breed that could be off designing their own TTRPG scenarios. On top of the problem of finding a willing Wraith, most people didn’t respond to the vague rules with fear and excitement. They reasonably responded with frustration and impatience. Every other game, the players needed to be shoved across the finish line because they’d either given up on working out what happened next, or they’d figured out what was going on, and there wasn’t much point left playing out the string. A massive amount of time in, and not much fun out. I always threaten to bring this one out, but I never do. I know better.
After what felt like a big idea that never settled into anything playable, I wanted to make something simpler. I decided to try making a kid’s game. I kicked around some childhood memories trying to knock something loose, and that’s when I remembered my days sledding in the woods. We didn’t really have a good hill for sledding where I grew up. Anything resembling a hill was dotted with trees and rocks, so getting in a run over six seconds was seriously difficult. And that’s what queued up the game idea.
In Sleds of Glory, you and another player raced down a snowy hill trying to avoid trees and rocks that could slow you down, or damage your sled. You rolled dice in real time, trying to pull the right combo to move the sled out of the way of oncoming obstacles, only plowing forward when you were clear. Whoever made it to the bottom first won the game.
This one didn’t make it through day one of playtesting.
I brought it out to our local game store to give it a shot, and every game ended the same way.
“You were cheating the whole time.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“You pulled a hairpin turn in one roll?”
“It was on the dice.”
I’d never seen a real time dice rolling game that was competitive, and I quickly learned why. Every single game ended with both players accusing the other of fudging their rolls. At speed, there was no way to check, and the game only worked at speed. Done in turns, the game became either random, or just a slog.
This is another one in a cigar box at home.
After my sledding failure, I was frustrated, and trying to think of some concept that would be interesting enough to iterate on. Sometime around then, I had a game night with friends and we played The Resistance. Immediately, my friends called me out as the spy. They always do. It’s a bit of a running joke that I’m always the spy.
In that first round, I pulled a Resistance card. I was one of the good guys, but everyone was already treating me as the spy, and I thought, “If they’re so convinced, I wish I could just be the bad guy.”
And there was the idea. Could I make a game where players chose to be the bad guy? I sat down and gave it a shot.
The game was called The Pit, and it revolved around a demon sealed in a well. The seal was breaking down, and a bunch of monks had to contain the demon’s influence and keep him from escaping. But, when a monk captured some of the demon’s magic, they became more powerful. Completing the seal and pushing the demon back meant letting go of that magic, and making your character weaker. Unless of course, you decided that completing the seal wasn’t really the thing to do. With the right plays, you could absorb enough magic to become the demon’s master and rule the land all on your own.
It was the worst game I’ve ever made.
Containing the demon’s magic was this slow puzzle that felt like a janky Pandemic on quaaludes, and the protracted power struggle at the end felt just awful. Anyone trying to win on their own had to do so with these small but obvious moves, so the whole table knew you were gutting them, and you all had to watch the knife twist in slow motion. It made the person winning feel dirty, and the people losing wish for the damn end to come. Even winning as a group was boring. Giving enough game space for people to betray each other meant the sealing process took forever. There was literally no part of this game that was fun. It was a long wait for a fun train that never came, and you spent your time on the platform slowly kicking your friend in the stomach.
Good lord, it was bad. I buried it after one test.
Two years later I went to GenCon for the first time and picked up a trick taking game called Fox in the Forest. I fell in love with that game, and absolutely adored the mechanic of trying to win a good number of tricks, but not all of them.
It pinged in my head, and I thought back to that idea about making a game about deciding to be the bad guy. What if I made a game where everyone needed to win an equal number of tricks to win as a group, but if someone got a big enough lead they could win on their own.
I started writing out rules for that idea, and it became The Last Summit 1.0.
It was terrible.
Nine versions later, The Last Summit isn’t even a trick taking game any more. It doesn't bear much resemblance at all to that first version. But this one isn’t under the bed. I'm even told it's not terrible. In fact, this one’s on Kickstarter.
And even though it’s funded already, I cannot tell you how much the fact that it’s even up there still freaks me the hell out.
Take a look at our new game, The Last Summit.