Project Tidball: Pick Your Skin

As I mentioned before, Evil Hat is looking at getting into making card games, relying on Jeff Tidball to do the design work and share the benefit of his extensive experience with us. We’re trying to start reasonably modestly, and — as with anything — work our way up to bigger projects down the road (assuming the effort leads to enough sales to support that).

One of the interesting aspects of this kind of work is the degree of disconnection between the “skin” of a game (the story-conceit, what it looks like, all that) and the “bones” of it (its rules). If you’re doing a licensed game (we’re not, at least not as our first one), you probably start skin first, and then feel around for a rules concept that can play comfortably inside that skin. Personally, though, I’m a rules junkie — I like the fiddlies — so when I look at a design, that’s where my head starts.

With a card game, you can find yourself skinless to start. You may find yourself with the root of a rules concept you’d like to explore, and it’s only through the exploration that you’ll uncover what your best-fit skin for that might be. Part of it is about fitting the rules, and part of it is about making sure the high concept of the game is something you can explain clearly and succinctly, in a way that piques interest and gets folks willing to sit down and play a hand.

With our first game in development, I brought an idea to Jeff that had been banging around in my head for a few years.

The idea grew out of a drive back from one of the big summer conventions with Matt Gandy and Rob Donoghue, where we devolved into a certain amount of “leet speek” trash-talking: IM IN UR BASE, KILLIN UR MANS. Of course, that phrase right there stuck with me and I got the vestiges of a card game idea, where each player is frantically trying to build his base, while the other players were sending invading DOODZ who might kill his MANS. I didn’t take it very far, but the core idea there stuck with me: each player trying to build a 3×3 grid of cards in front of him as his base of operations, the center card representing the player himself in the command & control center, and the ring of cards around that card forming the perimeter of the base, with various defenses and weaponry in place.

So I tossed that idea at Jeff, and he liked it enough to get off to the races. We gave the prototype the code name SIEGE, knowing we’d be changing it; the design concepts Jeff hashed out (which I’ll talk about in a later post after it’s had a little more development & testing done)  didn’t have a home yet in terms of skin. What was the 3×3 grid of cards going to represent? What about the occupant in the center card of the “base”? We kicked around a few ideas over the course of this, including:

  • Sci fi/future war techno-bases, cleaving close to the original roots of the idea
  • Castles with all sorts of fantasy tropes & flair
  • Video game playtesters at a (collapsing) start-up, holing up in their cubicles in order to fight off the HR goons coming to pink-slip them

Each of these had their charms, but they didn’t necessarily sit perfectly right for some of the rules ideas Jeff was coming up with. Then the idea of treating the 3×3 grid less as a physical structure and more as a formation came to mind. That’s when it got interesting for us. A formation of what?

As a publisher, one of the things worth looking at is what else you have in your catalog that your new product can “vibe” with, hopefully driving some cross-sales traffic. We talked about some of Evil Hat’s intellectual property, too, through the course of this — and when we said “a formation of what?”, pretty damn quickly we arrived at the only possible, the only right answer.

Zeppelins.

Stay tuned to see what we’re going to let fly.

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