Category: Making

Articles in this category are about tools and ideas about making things, and my belief that you can make things.

Term: Deck Builder

A deck builder game is one where building a deck of cards is the core mechanic of how one plays the game in play. This isn’t the same as a game where you build your own deck, like Magic: The Gathering, because in that case, building the deck is an experience you (usually) do on your own. In a deck builder game, you are typically doing something that builds the deck as part of the process of playing the game.


Deck builder games are great, because the mechanical structure of a deck builder lends itself to a lot of very satisfying things, while still being thematically really varied. Some deck builder games use the deck to represent short-term limited decisions and combat, some use them to represent the slow process of economic movement of kingdoms.

Deck builder games have a lot of room for variance. You can have games with a very rigid structure, like Dominion or games that do a lot with keeping things freewheeling like Star Realms. You can play with rarity or commonality, you can involve other elements like dice and boards. Deck building is really one of the easiest game types to approach as a designer who wants to make something really large without necessarily having the resources to make a big project.

Also deck builders, if balanced well, provide a lot of variance. If there’s no single best way to play, you can use a lot of things to make your play experience more varied and fun.


It is one of the most glutted formats of games right now.

What makes this glut worse is that most players don’t need a lot of deck builders in their collection. One good one will usually do the trick, and some players will be dedicated Dominion collectors or Legendary collector, or maybe they just want a single big-box experience like Arctic Scavengers. The point is, everyone’s deck builder of choice tends to have a thing that sets it apart.

The other thing is it’s very, very hard to make a small deck builder. You need a certain quantity of cards, even cards that are very similar, to get the mechanism of deck building to work.


So many! Here are just a few.

  • Dominion helped to establish this archetype recently and it has a really large number of expansions. It’s also not the best-edited game in the world.
  • A Few Acres of Snow uses its deckbuilding to represent military communication
  • Legendary is a hugely expanded franchise game with a lot of high quality art and whole storage boxes and whatnot
  • Star Realms is a head-to-head deckbuilder that uses its cards to represent space ships and space stations.
  • Arctic Scavengers uses the deckbuilding to represent scarcity and garbage, and has elements of player interaction


Reversing Footnotes

At some point in my childhood, I remember mentioning something I’d read in a book – which I had, but since I was four, I didn’t realise this was gauche. It was immediately rebuked as ‘not interesting,’ because ‘I just read it in a book.’

Then I spent my entire life trying to hide the fact I read books.

Telling people about stuff you’ve read, ideas you’ve heard, concepts you accumulated, life underscored, was rude, and weird, and gross and boring. You had to act as if you came up with things yourself, unless you were quoting television programs. I made it a habit to synthesise things in my head – it was not so simple as to read something and learn it, I had to find some way to restate it so it sounded like me saying it.

When I hit university, this behaviour, this habit, was proven to be not actually the way you should do things. University was a process of learning that being able to point to your influences, being able to direct where your process came from, to give meaningful context of what you had interpreted and found, was pretty much everything. I did alright in university, but this was overwhelmingly the hardest and most daunting component of my work. And then I started on my Honours thesis, a process that involved literally the opposite.

My thesis, at its core, was showing how I could play a game, interpret that game, then use components of what I experienced in that game to make a new game, documenting the point of inspiration and conception of different mechanisms. And moving on, this seems to be what I’d work on next: showing the process so people can see how it goes and see if they can do the same thing.

Term: Roll-And-Write

Roll-and-write games are games where there are dice and there are ways players can record information. That’s all a roll-and-write needs. It’s dizzying when I realise there’s this kind of design space I literally never considered. Now, I understand this being gamer culture, someone is going to look at me and go get a load of this guy, never played a roll-and-write, thinks he’s qualified to talk about games and to that person I will say, look, that’s very needlessly hurtful and also every day we all discover something new so maybe relax a little and try to enjoy the world we live in in the small ways we can, Chad. I don’t think that person’s named Chad, but the odds aren’t any worse than any other name so let’s go with Chad.


It’s a format ripe for print-and-play. You don’t need anything but dice, which can be standard dice or random dice or any old garbage you want. You could make it build off a literally random assortment of dice, or you could make it care about your specific D&D dice

It seems it could scale well. One player could roll a handful of die and then a whole table of people could all react to it with their own little territory. This makes it useful for games with simultaneous play, but also means the game could be a solitaire game that can be shared!

It lets players make individual choices! Players don’t just have to write standard game information on their board – it could feature rooms for things like a name for your space-ship or the character’s interests!

It’s got a lot of space for assets! Cards have to do a ton of work in a small amount of space and because cards are small objects, text and symbols have to be pretty large. But a sheet you’re meant to look at can use a lot of contiguous space to look pretty!

It can have memory! You can have sheets that give information about what to carry over to the next sheet!

I’m pretty interested to explore this space. One thing that struck me researching the genre is how many of these games are theme light and system heavy. I’d like to see if I can do something that works differently, that has a strong, meaningful theme that lets people feel connected to the thing they’re building.


In the end, if you’re writing on pads, they want to be disposable or they want to be dry-erase. That’s not an easy cost to overcome. There’s also kinda a sad undercurrent when you print out pads for roll-and-write games – I mean in a lot of cases people play a game 2-3 times and that’s it. If you provide a pad of 80 sheets for a game that’ll only ever use 8, you’re paying extra money for your own optimism.


Castles of Burgundy, Yahtzee, Pass The Pigs to an extent.


Making Tattered Paper

A thing I do a lot of in making card faces is making regular shapes look a little irregular, but not too irregular. I could lie to you and tell you this is an artisinal process that involves the most delicate of careful cutting and a modular straightedge device, or I could show you how I do it in GIMP.

Start with your shape. Margins are for another time, but basically remember that you want to make it a bit bigger than the text it’s going to rest under. The background in this image is that grey, so it’s not part of this equation. Heck with that grey.

Next, use the filter NOISE > SPREAD and set that value to something high enough you can eyeball and notice it. Like 2-3 will be visible if you’re dealing with a very small shape, but on a bigger shape like this one (520 pixels by 400 pixels), you want a larger value. I use 35 pixels here.

Next up, set your background colour in the palette to black, and choose the layer, then choose Remove Alpha Channel. This gives you something that looks like this.

Next up, you go to the filter ARTISTIC > OILIFY and play with those sliders. They’ll turn that noise into an edge. Now in this case you’ll notice it’s still got some softness, a bit of blurring, which we don’t want.

Then go to COLOURS > Brightness-Contrast. Adjusting the contrast up gets rid of that greyness and turns it to white or black.

Next up, you go to COLOURS > Colour To Alpha. That lets you turn one of the colour values in your layer to the alpha channel – which is to say, it just strips it out and makes that transparent. Now you just got a whiteness, see?

Next up, filter LIGHT AND SHADOW > Drop Shadow. That filter will put this shadow underneath it, and you can play with those settings.

Then grab a paper texture from the internet – you can find them on google image search while looking for pieces that are Labelled For Reuse. Put it into the document…

Then put that layer over the white image and set it to Multiply.

Now, if you do this by default, that paper texture is also going to lay over this grey background I have here, but I didn’t let it do that because I care about you. The way you keep a multiply layer under control is you put it in a folder, like this:

Anyway, the short list of steps:

  • Draw shape
  • NOISE > Spread
  • Remove Alpha Channel
  • Artistic > Oilify
  • Colours > Brightness/Contrast
  • Colours > Colour to Alpha
  • Light And Shadow > Drop Shadow
  • Add Paper Texture
  • Multiply Texture Layer

Hope this is helpful!

Flip It Or Rip It: Breaking The Taboo

Last year’s disgusting abuse of Christine Sprankle did throw up one interesting topic of conversation: The folk game Flip It Or Rip It.

The actual process of play is a bit ambiguous to me – there are a few variants of the play form, but the basic central mechanic is that players choose whether to quit the game and keep their cards, or rip up a card and keep proceeding through the deck of cards. It’s often compared to Russian Roulette with Cardboard. The game doesn’t have a lot of play to it – there isn’t much strategy beyond deciding if you want to keep going and what that, individually, means to you.

Magic players seem pretty split on this game. Some engage with it, and don’t seem to comment much on internet forums, and some don’t, and think the first group are monstrous. Not only do they find the process monstrous, but they cite it as a moral failure, and compare it to a variety of related failings – comparing it to overwhelming wealth and privilege, blaming it for raising prices in the secondary market, and comparing it to drunk driving of all things.

I’m not here to advocate for it, but I’d like to present an alternate take, a take that maybe kinda gets lost:

Magic cards are things.

I can understand if you want your cards to be safe and sanctified and cared for. I can understand if you want to make sure that your cards, in your possession, are extremely well kept. That’s okay. But the cards, themselves, are not $50 bills. They are not gold or stock or precious gems. They are things, objects, and part of their thing-ness is that they can be destroyed, that they have the meaning to which we attach them.

And, the big reason why I talk about this… when you start to remember these are things, you remember that they’re things you can play with.

Magic is a rules-based game with a truly dizzying amount of complexity. It’s about fine inches and a rules structure that is absolutely massive. It’s a really, really interesting game, but that game is a game you can play with Magic cards. Know how I got started making card games?

I started making card games by taking Magic: The Gathering cards and modding them. By writing on them with a pen. By defacing them, by rendering them valueless. It was a way to make proxies, a way that was fluid and flexible and fast. Some cards got thrown in the recycling. Some cards got cut into tokens. And this was the dark magic of that sanctity: It stopped me viewing Magic Cards as cards, as pragmatic objects that can be used for things. It made them into Magic Cards, cards that were… well, magic.

And that magic kept me from seeing that the boundary between what I can do and what Magic does was a lot thinner than I thought.

And that creativity started with a quiet act of destruction.

In The Tank

There’s this term used for describing when players are thinking a great deal about their choices in games, and it’s called being in the tank. During this stage, players are prone to lapse into quiet as they concentrate on a complicated game state.

I don’t think it’s a problem when games let you go into the tank, or that games require you to go into the tank. Some games like Chess, are basically built out of tank moments, where players do everything in their power to give as little information about what they’re doing as they can while still engaging with the game, even if that’s something of an optimistic myth.

Still there is a problem that comes up when games, I feel, regularly lapse into protracted silence, where players are quiet purely because they feel they have to be silent, when they cannot play or communicate or make deals or interact with the board state in the interest of courtesy, of not hindering other players’ play. Magic has these moments on the pro tour, but games that are less formally structured, with less on the line, sometimes get infected with this experience: A player needs to concentrate very hard, and the whole game lapses into that silence.

I think the problem, inasmuch as this is a problem, is how the game is designed, and what the designers and players value. It’s not a problem if games in general have quiet moments, moments of rising tension, moments of quiet, but some games – such as Imperial Settlers send players into the tank as quickly as their third decision – in a long game full of decisions! What makes this really awkward is these are games where players, largely, can’t interact much with one another – there’s the razing in Imperial Settlers but for the most part these really quiet thinkfests are games that keep players segregated from one another.

This isn’t a good thing or a bad, per se – but if your game sends people into the tank ask if that’s something you want them to do. Ask if you want the game to be moments of long, intense thinking and decisions that can result with an unhappy outcome. You might be making the play a bit too arrested, or you might want to start introducing reasons for players to talk to one another. You gotta remember, gaming is a social activity – and if you do it well, it’ll give you a chance, more than enjoying the game, to enjoy the game with your friends.

Term: Roll-And-Move

Roll-and-move refers to a mechanic where players are given a field to move in, and roll dice to determine how and where they can move. They might be moving freely in a grid, or the dice values might determine where they can or can’t go. The basic mechanic is simple, though: Roll any number of dice, and use that information to determine your movement in some way.


Roll and move is effective as a starting point mostly because it’s really, really well known: Most people know a roll-and-move game and they get it quickly. It also has a lot of underexplored space: most roll-and-move games these days tend towards moving in one direction, like Monopoly or Trouble, but there’s a lot you can do with it – roll and move could be useful for representing things like the pull of variable things, or weather patterns, it could be useful for acceleration or deceleration effects.


Roll and Move is a bit of a pariah mechanic in games because there’s been a lot of really bad roll-and-move games made that were distributed. What’s more there are some games that would be pretty good if they didn’t use Roll-And-Move and instead came up with some better, more thematically appropriate scheme to handle movement. Basically, Roll And Move is something of a Default and it shouldn’t have to be, nor should people feel obligated to consider it as such.


Some roll-and-move games include Hero Quest, Monopoly, and Snakes and Ladders. It’s obviously not a well-regarded mechanic but that doesn’t mean you should consider it unusable – it’s also the basis of the game Camel Up, and is explored in Formula D.

Term: Builder

A BUILDER game is simple to explain: It’s a game where you build something. That makes it sound silly to describe, but it’s a place to start. Most games can qualify as builder games. Dungeons and Dragons has you build a character, Betrayal at House on the Hill has you build a house, and Fiasco has you build tension. But those aren’t really games that fit the term ‘builder,’ because ‘builder’ is really a term about how the game feels.

Builder games are games where your primary focus is on building things, and those games tend to be games with a sense of material to them. You’re building a thing that you can look at and watch grow, and the feeling of that thing growing is meant to feel rewarding. In Betrayal At House On The Hank Hill, there’s no personal connection to the growth of the house, and in Dungeons and Dragons the building of a character is of a slightly immaterial thing. Magic: The Gathering requires you to build a deck to play, but unless you’re drafting, you’re not building the deck on the spot.


Builder games are games with a lot of inherently obvious value to them. Making things is very satisfying. You can use building to be part of the challenge of a game, as with Junk Art or you can use it to be the reward for playing, like in Dominion.

There are a lot of things you can use Building for, representing a whole host of different themes. It’s almost too broad a term, but I want to put it in this little dictionary of terms because when I refer to a builder, or refer to builder mechanics, I want it eaisly conveyed I mean a game where making something tangible is core to the experience.


The biggest limitation of builders is that the bigger the thing you build, the more difficult it is to easily mentally parse it. Builder games often inherently increase in complexity! If the building components don’t increase in complexity it can be unsatisfying to watch the builded thing grow!


Games with good ‘building’ feels to them are often deck builders, like Thunderstone, Star Realms or Dominion, or they’re about building up a thing in an empty space. Some games like Dream Home have an element of builder to them, but that’s filling out slots on your board, and may feel less rewarding. Some games like Barenpark have that same effect, but the process of building is more difficult and may feel more rewarding. Same to with Galaxy Trucker, where you’re building within a box. A game that has more of an open builder feel might be something like 51st State or Imperial Settlers or Seven Wonders.


Lazy Stuff!

I tweet a lot. Sometimes I tweet things that, in hindsight, I feel should be blog posts – to be more readily searchable, and findable by people later on. It serves to put what I have to say on the record a little more cleanly and also lets me do nice formatting and position pictures prettily.

With that in mind I’m going to start turning some twitter threads I liked or feel I want to reference later into blog posts. I do recognise this is less work, though, and so they will be labelled Lazy Stuff, just to keep it honest that I’m working from a draft.

2018 Going Forward!

Let’s mark out some clear, distinct, achievable goals.

  • One completed game design a month.
  • One t-shirt design a month.
  • Daily blog posts, with weekly entries for:
    • a Magic The Gathering article
    • a Game Pile article
    • a Story Pile article
  • A video a month

That seems doable to me. What makes this complicated, though is that I’m also going to be doing a PhD. So… that might transform my workload. We’ll have to see.

So why do I bring this up? Well, first, laying it out like this is a good way to make sure I have a plan. I’ve found making something of what I do accountable is important. The other thing is, I’m going to spend January looking into launching a Patreon, which will be about:

  • work-in-progress stuff on game designs
  • group sales of games where if I can get 20~ people interested, I’ll send out bulk copies of games without postage
  • voting and contributions directly on future game content
  • raising money to hire artists!

There. That’s it. Stated. A plan.

I can’t necessarily weasel out of this easily. Weasily? We’ll see.