Stuff Story: Circumventing Poor Thematic Design


(This post is geared towards those who are familiar with the original Fairy Tale game. If you are not one of those select few, you may want to watch this super short video first.)

A few months ago, the lady and I became enamored with drafting games. We were told that one of the finest examples of the genre was a filler from over a decade ago entitled Fairy Tale. The game had it all: set collection, fantastic player interaction, simple game-play. It was hate-drafting perfected. But while the mechanics were smooth, the visual and thematic efforts were anything but. Cards jam-packed with needless symbols and text, cliched anime style fantasy artwork, and most taxing of all, card interactions with little to no thematic relevance (Vampires kill faeries?).


Our challenge was simple: design a version of Fairy Tale that was clean, compelling, and logical.

DSC_0070.jpgThe first step was to define our own factions. The original game chose the fantasy staples Faeries, Dragons, and Knights, opposed by Shadowy Evil Dudes. We decided on something more mundane: common household objects opposed by mischievous toys. Our final factions were the three C’s: Candles, Condiments, and Cleaning Supplies.

Next we went about establishing an internal logic among the three factions. Candles wanted to shed light, Condiments wanted food to taste good, and Cleaning Supplies wanted to, well, clean. These definitions allowed us to quickly flesh out our preliminary card list. Continue reading “Stuff Story: Circumventing Poor Thematic Design”


Ten for the Heathens: an Introductory Gaming Sample

Because I love games, the uninitiated often ask me about what tabletop wonders they should bring into their own homes. Below are my most frequent recommendations, vaguely arranged in ascending necessity of play. Letter: The portability of Love Letter is one of its great strengths. Housed in a tiny drawstring bag, it consists of only 16 cards. This, along with its play time—less than five minutes per round—and low player count makes it the perfect game to throw in your bag for deployment during various down times: waiting for a table, before a movie, over coffee, etc. Players compete to deliver a stream of sweet nothings to their lady love, the Princess Annette, in an effort to win her hand, inciting an intricate dance of courtly deduction and cat-and-mouse intrigue. The game often culminates in raised voices over failed ploys and heated discussions concerning gender roles and casual sexism. Like beans? Like trading beans? Like planting beans? If so, master game designer Uwe Rosenberg‘s fast-paced bean-based German-laced micro-economy game, Bohnanza, was made for you. Bohnanza is the sophisticated prodigal son of the popular stock market emulator: Pit. The ingenious hand management mechanics make for a game  unlike anything you are used to and leaves room for flagrant misuse of your fellow players. It pits (!) players against one another: in a fevered battle of negotiation and bribery, it is decided, once and for all, who among them is the best beanist. I include this in the list only as a sad replacement for the devilishly complex Agricola (my favorite game). I’ll admit I have grown a bit tired of Catan. But, some things are not for me to decide. History has made Catan a mandatory feature on nearly every gaming list of the past decade for one reason: Catan was the game that drudged the American gaming world out of the dark age of Monopoly and launched it, heaving, onto European shores. It brought us to a new world, a utopia rife with tabletop treasures yearning to be discovered. Is it a good game? Yes. Great? That’s debatable. It can run long, become repetitive and be positively nasty if the robber is abused. But it provides a fairly good time, and honestly, despite its shortcomings, it is a game that deserves to be played. Hive shares a similar root with abstract strategy games such as Chess or Go, but it tries to oust these classics by presenting a more streamlined package: lower learning curve, faster game play, and higher portability. Despite it’s relative simplicity, the game is not without stakes or depth. Players use their individual bands of creepy crawlies to dominate the shifting board, and carry out nuanced strategies to stoke the tension between the two warring colonies. A great way for chess players to convince their weary friends to lose in a brand new way. This game triumphs over other party-style games like Apples to Apples or Charades (and especially Cards Against Humanity) by allowing you to connect directly to your friends, flattening the boundaries of structure, embarrassment, and social distaste. I haven’t tried this wonderful new edition personally, but I’ve found home-brewed versions of the game to be equally thrilling. The fun I’ve had playing the game has been rivaled only by the fun I’ve had balking at the dark inventive reassesses of my friends’ minds as they come up with new cards. Also, bonus: making up your own cards costs you nothing! Up: Have you ever wanted to dive into a trading card game like Magic: The Gathering, but lacked the time, money, or intellect? Then Smash Up is the game for you. Self-contained, combo-filled and wonderfully chaotic, Smash Up is as addictive as it is fun. The unique set up lets you choose your two favorite fictional factions of fantasy fighters (ninjas, pirates, zombies etc.) and shuffle them into one heaping deck of awesome. Players then deploy their custom decks to do battle against one another. Chaos abounds. I’ve pulled all-nighters based exclusively around exploring the dozens of deck combinations possible with only the base set. SMASH UP!!! If Smash Up is the raging bionic hulk charging over an arid mesa towards a wall of dynamite, then Coup is the gorgeous courtly maiden poised to stab you in the mouth as you sneeze. Coup is both nasty and wonderful, both subtle and brash. It takes the thrill of a glorious round of poker and refines it down to only its essential parts: lying and scooping up chips. This game is often astoundingly tense. I’ve witnessed triple layered bluffs seem to crumble, only to be revealed at the last moment to be devastating quadruple bluffs in disguise. The game’s infamous mantra, “Three with my Duke,” has inspired a countless number of pitiful groans and dancing eyebrows. Island: Cooperative games tend to have a bad rap. I played a good deal of them as a kid, and they all seemed to present something either condescending or easy, clearly pandering to its young demographic. Fortunately, Forbidden Island shrugs off all preconceptions that you might have about cooperative games. It is terrifying. It is difficult. It is good. The game conducts a perfect symphony of challenge building to a crescendo: rising tides, shrinking options, and crumbling islands. The players are explorers who must find the four treasures hidden throughout the island and fly to safety before the very ground they’re standing on disappears forever. An excellent family bonding game. Wonders: I’ll admit, this suggestion is of a complexity that most uninitiated readers might find daunting. But, boy, is it worth it. I find empire building games fascinating and 7 Wonders is a lovely little distillation of that theme. Players are each offered the opportunity to take on the role of one of the great civilizations responsible for the seven wonders of the ancient world. As eons progress, players vie for increasingly scarce resources, clash with neighboring forces, and attempt to solve the world’s problems one cuneiform tablet at a time. It is also unique in that it plays perfectly with anywhere from two to seven players.

Avalon boxAvalon: As I’ve said before, Avalon is a special slice of my obsession. It has a lot to give, and its strategical depth is well worth the time it takes to master. Try it. If you dislike it, fine. If your friends are appalled by it, fine. But please, give it a chance.

That’s all I’ve got. If you’ve never played any of these games, I urge you to try one that appeals to you. Board gaming is a very rich hobby: even if you lack the passion to become obsessed with it, the connection gained through playing a game with a group of friends or family is hard to gain as easily through any other means. If you have any questions about what game is right for you, don’t hesitate to ask.

Pocket Arthur: The Quest for a Portable Avalon

Avalon Cards 1

I struggled with how to fit the large print Avalon mission trackers in my game box. In a previous post, I mentioned the modular track that I was developing. The design was utilitarian, the color scheme gray-scale, and the functionality limited. After two concentrated weeks of work, alongside my grandmother’s fabulous printer, I finally have something to share:

The Portable, Modular, Customizable Avalon Mission Tracker.

The PMCAMT (pithy title pending) is a set of four double-sided playing card-sized boards that, when combined, can form any of the six player boards needed to play The Resistance: Avalon.

Anatomy of a Card-01


Each of the four card faces corresponds to a certain number of players (from five to ten), while the reverse of each holds every permutation of numbered spaces required to assemble the remainder of the board.

Track Anatomy-01-01

The spaces can be tracked, as usual, using the tokens provided with the original game (though I use the Agricola tokens from my game box to track rejections.)

Assembly is as follows:

  1. Find the card face that corresponds to the appropriate number of players.
  2. Turn the remaining cards over. Find the three numbers that correspond to the set-up diagram in the lower right hand corner of the face card.
  3. Overlap the cards to expose the correct numbers, making sure that the reject track falls in numerical order.


The idea came to me while attempting to brainstorm a solution for my problem with the Avalon boards. I’d tried everything: photocopying and folding my originals, designing my own more compact editions and drawing copies of them on my box. Eventually, the thought of overlapping cards from a small deck came to mind. I realized, however, that this would waste a great deal of paper, so, at 3:00am, I set about finding a way to employ more efficient cards. The first prototype emerged on thumb-sized scraps of notebook paper:

Avalon Prototype Faces

Avalon Prototype Backs

I recognized two things: first, the last two missions for every player count are unique from any other board; and, second, the remaining missions are comprised of permutations of one of three integers: One, Two, or Three. It was a convoluted process to figure out which numbers needed to be paired with which face. Using the same process of elimination I was able to perfect the design by incorporating the rejection tracker. With these discoveries, the meat of the cards fell directly into place.

Following the gray-scale prototype, I sought a minimal design to emphasize the simplicity of the concept. I’m happy with the layout: the base frame it lends itself to background and color customization. These special edition Arthurian illustrated cards are an example:

Castle Display 2 Castle Display

However, the true portability offered by these cards is not best revealed through a multi-game travel box. With just the PMCAMT, ten role cards, ten success/fail cards, and a handful of tokens, you can pack a full game of Avalon into a simple deck box:

Avalon Portable box top Avalon Portable box Display

If you’d like to print your own set, download the links here. I printed mine on separate sheets of paper then hot-pressed them together.  Enjoy!



Arthurian Connections: A Pseudo-Review of the Resistance: Avalon

Much has been said about the wonderful social deduction game The Resistance: Avalon. Here, I have decided to provide some anecdotal evidence of the game’s success before commencing with a short review. For better or for worse, the few words I have to say in way of evaluation fall closer to the category of ode than review, as my fondness for the game transcends the usual measure of board game acclaim.Avalon box

[TEN-SECOND GAME SUMMARY: Avalon is a 5-10 player social-deduction game that claims to take about half an hour to play. Players portray members of King Arthur’s round table who are trying to complete quests to ensure the triumph of Good over Evil. Unfortunately, said Evil is hidden directly in plain sight, as a number of your teammates are, in fact, not really your teammates but evil bastard minions of Mordred. Players use deduction, lies, and careful voting to ensure their team’s victory.]

My first experience with Avalon was a happy disaster. A dauntingly large group at the local game store invited my friend and me to join a round. We happily agreed, having read about similar games. What we didn’t know was that Avalon is a game with a modular structure, which allows a group to adjust the complexity of a round of play to suit their needs. One may add characters with specific abilities, use action cards and implement various game rending side powers. For this particular round, the veterans of the game misguidedly decided to include not only the game’s upper limit of ten players, but also the full pantheon of the Arthurian court. As my friend and I remained stuck in the bare preliminaries of the game—such as how, when and why you should vote—Merlin, Morgana and Mordred were free to traipse blithely about, wielding game-shattering powers we couldn’t hope to fathom.

And we weren’t alone in our amateurism; it soon became clear that over half of our playgroup was new to the game, which, I have come to learn, makes the game exponentially harder: This game relies entirely on the player’s ability to read the patterns of the proceedings and the tells of their colleagues. Hence, when half the players have no idea which tells to hide, what information to convey, or how to convey that information, confusion reigns.

And reign it did. Loyal servants of Arthur took it upon themselves to claim they were evil. Players subverted the purity of democracy by voting randomly. Newbie henchmen forgot to sabotage the very quests their battle-hardened cohorts had spent so much time contriving to get them on. It was messy. The ending was brutal. We were hooked.

Unfortunately, the large requisite number of players kept me from playing the game for a while after that. The second time, however, was the session that cemented the game forever as a staple within my play group.

We were on a brief coastal retreat, and I had brought the game along in the hopes that I could muster the seven troops at my disposal to crack open the fortress of strategy. The group was skeptical: the sight of the dashing maiden on the cover became a running joke, my cabin mates refusing to believe that a game themed around the round table could be any fun at all.

That night, we played a round. The frenetic game play was followed by silence. Then, someone softly asked, “Can we do another?”

We played a total of seven rounds, putting off sleep until well past 3 am.

This experience wasn’t an anomaly. Avalon has led me through countless nights filled with backstabbing, team euphoria, bridges razed and rebuilt, moments of innovative strategy and hours of laughter.

That’s what I love about this game. It presents the players with a set of guidelines, then leaves them to connect with the things that games are ultimately designed to connect us to: each other. As such, I am no more able to rate Avalon than I would be able to rate a dear friend. It’s like an inebriated mentor, dishing out wisdom and abuse in equal measure. Avalon has taught me more about my friends—and myself—than any other game in my collection.

And that’s why this game is perfect.


01Caleb BoxIn writing this blog I am inspired by three things: my admiration for the fantastic board game journalism of Shut Up & Sit Down; the apt timing of my obsession’s upswing paired with the beginning of my year abroad; and lastly, my fascination with—and subsequent modification of—this game box as a way to efficiently unleash games.  The latter is what I would like to dissect today.


02Caleb Box 03Caleb Box 04Caleb Box

After many revisions, the final box holds the following:11Caleb Box

  1. Pairs
  2. Avalon*
  3. Love Letter
  4. Coup
  5. Red 7
  6. Get Bit!
  7. Bohnanza
  8. Skull

*[DISCLAIMER: Even though I have stolen the majority of the components from its mother game—The Resistance—I will refer to the social deduction game included in this game box simply as “Avalon”, as my game group refuses to call it by anything else.]


05Caleb Box

Component Overlap
Component Overlap

Brittanie Boe‘s original travel box is simple, varied, and accessible, but—as she points out at the end of her post—it suffers from one weakness: the untapped potential in component overlap. Her example—the lack of necessity in including Love Letter tokens when Council of Verona tokens could have served just as well—inspired me to take things a step further. My own design achieves component overlap in every way I can imagine, perhaps gratuitously. However, this attention to detail not only allowed me to fit an extra game, it allowed me to pack games with more components—and therefore, more depth—more efficiently.

12Caleb Box 09Caleb Box

Avalon and Pairs are the progenitors of the box: they lend the majority of their components to other games. I’ve modified the Pairs deck, shown right, (which is triangular: 1xA, 2×2, 3×3, 4×4, etc.) to have all black sevens, each inscribed with a green skull. These, when combined with the plethora of red nines and tens, provides the ability to construct: 1) up to seven player’s worth of Skull hands, and 2) a variable number of role card sets for Avalon.

05Caleb Box

Nearly all of the Avalon components have been switched out for more portable alternatives: Stone/Reed disks from Agricola as Approve/Reject tokens, Grain disks as mission participant markers, and my own unpatented modular Avalon board cards. The black, white and gold tokens lead a double life as the 1$, 2$, and 3$ coins for Coup, as well as replacements for the 13 Love Letter “tokens of affection.”

06Caleb Box 08Caleb Box

I’m also quite proud of the efficient distillation of the Red7/Get Bit! combination. The Dismember-men find crannies to sleep throughout the box, and their original cards are replaced perfectly by those found in the Red7 deck.

Bohnanza is the only stand-alone game. It could have been replaced by any number of ~100 card-decked games: Innovation, Sushi Go!, Star Realms, etc.


04Caleb Box 07Caleb Box

There are two innate secrets hidden within the Twin Flip’n’Tray Box that I uncovered during my exploration of it. Both are simply ways to fill the air pockets—inherent to the box’s design—with useful odds and ends.

First, the numerous places for post-it notes: I have found four areas where, if deemed appropriate, the user might adhere a number of post-it notes. The user can use these as a means to keep score, or, as I have chosen to do so above, as a cheat sheet for games with player number dependent variable setups, such as Bohnanza. On the other post-it is a list of the eight games housed in the box.

The second secret is pictured above and to the right. The two swivel compartments in the box come together to create a sliver of negative space between them, broad enough to house ten or so cards. I built upon this by gluing a cheap magician’s card wallet to the top of the drawer section. This provided me with a simple and fast way to access the reference cards for both Love Letter and Red7, as well as the Get Bit! shark card.


I believe this to be a worthwhile evolution upon Bebo’s original #travelgamebox, an example of the individualization possible within the limits of the medium. To leave the door open as Bebo did, I will say that this box could be optimized to sit at any point on the scale between content and efficiency. I do not claim to have the most efficient box ever, nor do I claim that my box has the best games ever. My only hope is that some lost soul will pick up this idea where I left off and create something even grander.

Photos by Sean O.

Set Up

My name is Caleb, and I’m addicted to board games.

I realize this claim is trite, but I mean it, with all it’s implications: no other phrase could explain the suffocating bleakness I feel when starved of new material; the tumultuous rise and fall of my pulsing need; the intolerable want, sated only by the purchase of  another incremental stone along my hopeless path to finding a better—easier, denser, fresher, truer, grander, newer—jumble of cubes and rules and boards and cards to unleash, unforgiving, upon my friends and family. I hope, with this blog, to find a justification spending so much of my limited everything on this, my least lucrative of hobbies.

The quest begins at the end of my senior-year summer. Goaded on by guilt, horror stories, and unadulterated apathy I have chosen to postpone college in favor of a gap year, a portion of which will be spent abroad in the most remote of continents: Australia.

But first, a test-run foray: a month with my Grandmother, Judy Tuwaletstiwa.