Interview with Jerry Hawthorne

When I began working on Sol Rising, I knew I wanted to make a game with a strong narrative component, more randomness than York (my previous design), and a fun take on scenarios. One of my biggest inspirations is Mice & Mystics, designed by Jerry Hawthorne and published by Plaid Hat Games. 

I’m a big fan of the game, which you can see in my review of Mice & Mystics. When I found out Jerry was taking interviews for the new expansion, Downwood Tales, I immediately contacted him. Here is the result! 

My comments are preceded by HG, with Jerry’s preceded by JH.

Hyperbole Games: For those who don’t know who you are, give us a quick introduction. What makes you tick? What’s something we should know about you?

Jerry Hawthorne: My name is Jerry Hawthorne and I am 46 years old. I have a lovely wife and two awesome kids. I work full time as a busy hair stylist, but I also design board games in my spare time (if you can call it that) as a freelancer. My games are visual, very story focused, family-friendly, and usually involve a healthy amount of luck. That’s just how I roll.

HG: Around 2012 you released a little game called Mice & Mystics that was a huge hit for you and Plaid Hat Games. I finished the first book, Sorrows and Remembrance, earlier this year and it was just a delight. I played it with a friend on lazy Sundays. He’d send me a text and say “bring over Rat Zelda.”

Give us the super quick explanation of what Mice & Mystics is so we’re all on the same page.

JH: Sure. Mice & Mystics is a story that you can play like a game. During the game, you will be playing the role of a human that has been magically transformed into a mouse to escape a treacherous sorceress who has placed your King under a spell and usurped his throne.

Play revolves around completing chapters in a bedtime style story book. As you play, you will also read from the story book and discover the unfolding events which will affect your game. The game was designed to give players a unique experience, and has random elements that ensure no two sessions are the same.

HG: To toss in my perspective as a player to complement your note, in addition to all of that, the game is a light, scenario driven dungeon crawler. Scenarios feature unique, thematic experiences driven by the story and these moments are strung together with a dicey combat mechanic.

Heart of Glorm, the first expansion, came out last year. It’s a great, small box with a few characters and a few new chapters. I’ve heard Downwood Tales is WAY bigger. What can we expect for this new expansion?


JH: The new expansion really adds a lot to the game. You get three new characters: A gecko named Jackobe who is hired to guide your mice through the forest. Ansel, a pure hearted warden sworn to protect the forest creatures. And Ditty, a shrew scamp who strums her magical fiddle to help the party. There are new bad guys to fight and new devious bosses, including an arrogant aristocratic bullfrog and a predatory snake named Hesster

The story is somewhat more involved, with an even stronger emphasis being placed on campaign play. There are branching story arcs and many twists and surprises, but it continues the story of Collin and gang as they are strangers in this new land. The heroes bring courage and correctness to a forest filled with dangers and double crossers.

The box is stuffed with 8 new 2 sided outdoor tiles depicting the forest floor, the burrows and tunnels under the forest, and also the trees and branches where the mice will need to go to traverse the terrain challenges in their path. There are also a bunch of new figures, 60 new search cards, and about 30 new abilities.

HG: Can you comment further on the branching play, perhaps with a tiny example? This was something I sought to do with Sol Rising to try to address the comment that scenario games are only fun once. But, also, I wanted to give players a little agency over their story.

How did you tackle this challenge?

JH: It was very challenging because the story has to come around to the same place eventually. I’ll give an example: At the end of chapter 1, there are two possible outcomes. The story splits and there is a chapter 2a and 2b. There are also two possible outcomes for chapter 2a, one will have you playing 2b, the other allows you to advance to chapter 3.

Wow, that sounds more complicated than it is. Anyway, these were very difficult to write because the events have to feel as though they fit story wise. I think we accomplished it quite well.

HG: As a designer and player I love expansions. They are a great opportunity to explore new avenues. What was the number one thing you wanted to do with Downwood Tales?

JH: With Downwood Tales, I wanted to give the players a more epic story that would seamlessly continue the adventure. I wanted to provide more bad guys with challenging abilities. I also wanted to take cinematic game play to the next level.

In Downwood Tales your party might come to an impassable chasm in the forest. There could be a variety of options the players would need to discuss. Do you go around by exploring to another tile? Do you climb a nearby tree and use a leaf to float down to the other side? Or do you have a wild figure in your party who knows which vines might allow you to climb down into the chasm and continue in the tunnels known as the Underwood?

HG: I really like this opportunity for group discussion. It definitely has that “Lord of the Rings” element of “where do we go from here?” Could you give an example of the more challenging enemies? How did you up the challenge with the bad guys?



JH: Sure! We have frogs that leap around, newts that shoot flaming arrows, fearies that fly and they can curse you, bullfrogs who can zap you with their tongue, weasels that clobber you, and Hesster the snake who is this story’s equivalent of Brodie.

HG: I prefer cats to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones.


Expansions are also a great way to address rough spots or merely improve things that, in retrospect, you wanted to be better. Did you have any of those? Does Downwood Tales really improve something from the base game?

JH: I’m not a person who dwells too much on past failings or tries to use expansions as fixes. Mice & Mystics has resonated with its fans because it is an approachable game that really puts the story first. I wanted to give more of that stuff. The game is the same, the environment has changed for the mice. There are a lot of things to discover.

HG: How did you want to advance the story? Was there anything in particular you wanted to accomplish?

JH: I wanted to tell a story about growing up, rising to your expectations, the weight and responsibility of authority. These are very much a topic in my household, but can be applied to global events as well. As always, the story is light and filled with the same silly humor that you come to expect from jokers like Nez and Filch. But there are tender moments and contemplative moments as well.

HG: I’m trying to estimate the percentage of tenderness that came from Lord Bistro…

You have some really clever story and mechanical moments in Sorrows and Remembrance. I loved gambling with the rats and trying to keep Vurst on my side as we went through the sewers was really neat. Do you have any really cool set pieces in Downwood Tales?

JH: Yeah, this is just something you all can expect from Mice & Mystics. Each chapter will have a completely new and different set of challenges, and not all of them will involve fighting. There is an entire stealth chapter that the playtesters were raving about. There is a “Last of the Mohicans” style ambush chapter that is a lot of fun, and even a race down a babbling brook on boats made from fallen leaves.



HG: I like the idea of the ambush. It’s such a unique element to warfare games often miss. It’s usually just a straightforward fight. Finding ways to spice up every battle is really appreciated.

Different games need different testers. For something like Summoner Wars you want someone like James Sitz who is incredibly analytical and competitive. Mice & Mystics is such an experience though, if that makes sense. Yes, balance is important so it isn’t too easy or difficult, but I feel like you’re testing its soul more than its stats. Have you found it difficult to test the game and find the right people?

JH: For Downwood Tales, I gathered a small group who I call my ‘creative core.’ These guys helped me ensure that the chapters had the same compelling quality as the base game and that they offered a play experience that was cinematic and charming. The second playtest phase involved a huge group of volunteers who put in about 500 tests. This helps balance the challenge level. Some chapters may be harder than others (that’s just the nature of designing around a story), but none of them are unfairly tough.

HG: I spent the past year working on a story-driven tactical game, which was greatly inspired by your work on Mice & Mystics. Working on the narrative in a way that made sense and paired with the game was really difficult. What is something you’ve learned working on Mice & Mystics about story-driven games? What were some of your biggest challenges?

JH: Well, I’m glad you see how tough it is. I really have to say that it was an exhausting, grey hair inducing roller coaster. But I have gotten better at it. The trick is to portion out your story beforehand in equal chunks (chapters) that each rise and fall like an independent story within a story.

As an example, the first chapter of Downwood Tales has the mice traveling from Barksburg to a town called Headfall Hollow, that is located deep in the Downwood. This is rather easy. The story starts at Barksburg and ends at Headfall Hollow. What happens in-between gets filled in like using crayons to color the stuff between the black lines of a picture in a coloring book.

HG: I agree to this approach. With Sol Rising I created mini-arcs of about 3 missions apiece that contributed to the entire story. Thinking about the big points was not too difficult, but coloring in the spaces? Not so easy.

What are some of your favorite games to play? How, if at all, did they inspire you?

JH: Everyone knows I love Heroquest, and that Mice & Mystics was heavily inspired by it. Heroscape also holds a prominent portion of my heart.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to play the finalized version of Dead of Winter. I can’t wait to play it again. It is a game that offers an experience so incredibly close to its aim, that I can’t imagine anybody ever getting tired of it. It perfectly creates the same emotional response from players as you’d expect from a real desperate group survival scenario. Every choice seems so important… It’s blissfully agonizing.

HG: I played an earlier version of Dead of Winter when Colby and Isaac visited San Francisco. Pretty entertaining! The pre-order is still available, actually.

This just occurred to me writing the questions, but would you ever want to create another experience within the Mice & Mystics universe? For example, managing the mouse city and the goings on, or playing the game from the perspective of the bad guys. Would that even appeal to you? Have you thought of something like this?

JH: I’m actually currently working on another game in the Mice & Mystics world. I can’t talk about it yet, but I am very interested in exploring the potential of the Mice & Mystics world.

HG: Excellent! Some of your first design projects were on Heroscape. Mice & Mystics has a similar heft – simple combat, clean abilities, simple movement. What are some of the most important things you learned working on Heroscape?

JH: I learned that theme can be supported with simple game mechanics. As an example, Jackobe the gecko in Downwood Tales uses a boomerang. To convey the odd way that boomerangs work, I wrote an ability for it that allows it to curve around and hit an enemy from behind should he miss with the initial throw.

Simple but thematic, and that is exactly how Heroscape is.

HG: Are you able to comment on when we can expect to purchase, approximately, Downwood Tales?

JH: I don’t have that info yet, but I should have a better guess in a few days.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

JH: I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this Q&A. Also, thank you for your fantastic blog. I really enjoy reading your thoughts on game design. I find myself needing these perspectives from others who enjoy the thematic game sub-genre as much as I do. Most blogs on game design are directed at the more structured nuts and bolts stuff that I find so dry.

HG: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

An Interview with Colby Dauch

Colby Dauch is the owner and chief game designer of Plaid Hat Games, one of my favorite companies that has created two of my favorite games: Summoner Wars and Mice and Mystics. In just a few years, Plaid Hat has grown from a single game company to one with a huge booth at GenCon, two games in Barnes and Nobles, and a legion of fans, err, Dougs.

As an aspiring designer and entrepreneur, I really wanted to interview Colby for this blog. He kindly set aside time to answer my 10 questions. My questions are marked with HG, with Colby’s questions noted by a CD.

Hyperbole Grant: You are overwhelmingly a theme-first designer, which means you approach your games from that of story, the experience, and, of course, theme. What is the most important element in making a game thematic?

Colby Dauch: Keep the theme in high regard throughout the design process. I once heard that a company I won’t name will strip all theme out of a game they are interested in publishing. If it is still a good game, then they will publish it with whatever theme they like.  That’s so against my sensibilities that I find it shocking. I feel like a game that does a good job of transporting you into its world is just doing it right.

HG: Dead of Winter (Pre-Order Here) is a game that, due to its social mechanics and theme, really provides a platform to tell stories. What is one of your favorite stories from the game?

CD: I’m not blowing smoke when I tell you every time I play a new story develops. It is hard to pick a favorite, so I’ll just tell you about the last play I watched. I took the game over to a family Christmas.

I had a full crew of 5 family members playing so I sat out and taught. I watched my family generally work together to overcome adversity — that is until Rod (one of the game characters) had a heart attack. The players decided they couldn’t risk the exposure of carrying him to the hospital where they thought they saw a defibrillator. They instead let Rod die.

My stepfather, who was playing Rod, was not cool with that (Editor’s Note: Players control multiple characters throughout the game). His reaction was that every time someone needed his help, he would ask them where they were when Rod had his heart attack. Morale (a game stat) started to quickly take a dive and they lost that game. I was very intrigued by the drama that played out there around the dining room table. It’s interesting to watch people who you’ve seen interact many times before thrown into a situation where you are seeing a whole new side to their interactions.  And all in the relative safety of a board game.

HG: Bioshock Infinite: Siege of Columbia really opened a lot of eyes to what a video game conversion to board game can be. What are some of your other favorite video games that, due to their themes or mechanics, would also make great board games?

CD: This is a tough question. I think it could be the case that if a video game’s mechanics transition neatly into a board game, then there may not be much reason for that board game to exist. Because you are just giving fans an experience they’ve already had.  This is something we didn’t want to do with BioShock. So I think theme holds precedence here for me.

That said, if you are asking me what my dream video game license is, it’s either Final Fantasy Tactics or Final Fantasy 7. They both had a huge impact on my development.

HG: Having played a significant amount of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I feel that’s a game that’s right in your wheel house. Speaking of…

Heroscape is your favorite game and the one that brought you into this hobby full steam. As a side note, it had a huge impact on me and my college friends as well. What are your favorite things about it?

CD: The game is gorgeous. Its visuals alone pull you in. Put on top of that a fun game and the community that formed around that game and generated so much content and formed so many connections and relationships for me.  It was just all consuming for a period of my life. I never had that experience before or since as a fan, so it remains my top game and I can’t imagine it ever being dethroned. It wasn’t just a game I played, it was a game I immersed myself in even when not playing.

HG: Listening to your podcast, you really seem to be able to have a vision for the early prototypes you are shown. Mice and Mystics is one of my favorite games, but your first viewing was, from what I understand, a bit rough. What did you see in Jerry’s early prototype that led you to devote years of development and a lot of money on the project?

CD: Easy. I saw Jerry. I believed in him.

HG: I finished the base game over my Christmas break and plan to begin Heart of Glorm shortly. The tidbits you and Jerry have hinted about the next big box expansion sound incredible.

What were some of your favorite games of 2013?

CD: If I can cheat and do a video game, everyone should play Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It was a powerful experience for me.

HG: I didn’t specify, so the judges have ruled this a perfectly suitable answer. For those curious, Brothers is only $15 on the Steam platform for your PC.

2013 was a big year for your company. Summoner Wars Master Set and Mice and Mystics are both located in Barnes and Nobles. You added your first full-time employee (the charming Isaac Vega). Seems you’re working to add a second (graphic designer). You attended Essen, plus a huge Gencon booth. For you, what was the biggest “holy crap!” moment of 2013?

CD: Watching the Mice and Mystics fan base have fun with and spread the word about that game.

HG: Having a full-time staff member must be one of the biggest changes to your company ever. What opportunities and changes have come about by adding Isaac to the staff?

CD: People bring with them ideas and experiences and talents all their own. People, not one person, make a company. I have long dreamed of having a community of people working on games together in the same place. Isaac was the beginning of that and I’m looking forward to where it leads.

HG: You guys are testing machines. Summoner Wars has always had a steady testing team (and it shows in the product) and Dead of Winter had a small army of testers, which Isaac covered on the Podcast. What tips can you provide to aspiring publishers to create such an infrastructure?

CD: It’s hard to do for an aspiring publisher. Prospective testers need to be excited about what you are doing. With so many aspiring publishers and prototypes out there, it is hard to do unless you’ve got some kind of track record that has created a fan base you can tap into. When I started out, I was just relying on friends and there was no real infrastructure to speak of. You’ve really got to keep your nose to the grindstone and find ways to keep your friends interested in continued playtests. Because friends and family are the ones who believe in you at that stage.  It also helped that I was so involved in Heroscape. I had made many gamer friendships through that. Heck, I turned my local friends into gamers though that game.

HG: You’ve surrounded yourself with a great team of frequent freelancers who almost seem to be family. As an outsider, that team really seems to be one of your competitive advantages. What advice do you have for hopeful entrepreneurs to create and foster such a team?

CD: Much of that team comes from the Heroscape days I’ve mentioned multiple times here. I guess I mostly feel lucky. Fostering it comes pretty naturally if you are working together on great stuff and everyone’s doing great work then the projects themselves are motivators. You keep being excited about the project and let that rub off on others. It is a lot of work to publish a game, but in the end, you are bringing something into the world that a group of people will really appreciate and enjoy. Hearing those stories from people motivates the team on the next project.

Be passionate and when you attract passionate people, appreciate them. I guess that’s my formula. Or, like I said, maybe I just got lucky.

I want to thank Colby again for taking the time to answer these questions. Good luck in 2014. If you’re curious about Plaid Hat and their games, visit their website. I also recommend their weekly Podcast.

Review: Mice and Mystics

Me playing solo.

Review by: Grant Rodiek

You can read my review policy here.

Quick Notes: Mice and Mystics is a game for 1-4 (arguably 5) players for which you should set aside 2 hours to play. You may not need that much time, but the play length is highly variable based on the scenario played and the way things proceed. This is a game to sit back and enjoy. It’s not one to rush! I’ve played the game solo, with 2, and 5 players a combined total of 7 times. I have completed Chapters 1-4 (out of 11) in the base game.

The game’s rules are well written, but they are quite broad and you should set aside some time to parse them. There’s a great tutorial video provided by Plaid Hat Games, so they really do their best (and succeed) at teaching the game.

I think the gameplay is identical regardless of player count, but I think this game is better with more people playing. It’s an experience for friends to enjoy. The more people who participate, the more silliness and ridiculousness. Once, I played with 5, where I acted as the keeper of the rules, storyteller, and the enemy AI, while my other 4 friends played the heroic mice. It was great. Truly, one of a kind. One of them even played as the rogue and did his own thing while we desperately fought the rats. He was a jerk, in character, and it was hilarious.

The Review: Mice and Mystics is a cooperative dungeon crawling game with a heavy focus on designed scenario gameplay (as opposed to random events) and a story driven campaign. The base game ships with 15 meaty chapters, 4 of which I’ve played. They aren’t simple and they aren’t brief — there’s a lot of game to be found here. The story always progresses with significance.

Two of my favorite characters.

At the start of a scenario you select (typically but not always) 4 characters from the standard fantasy archetypes: warrior, archer, rogue, magician, healer, and leader. Each begins with pre-defined gear. Characters have 4 stats that dictate movement speed, the number of attack dice to roll, defense dice to roll, and dice to roll for special lore events. They also tend to have unique passive abilities that are simple but really tend to be meaningful.

Following the scenario instructions is quite simple.

Scenarios specify a level layout of (typically) 3 or 4 double sided square tiles. This system is fantastic and a brilliant piece of design. For example, one tile is the tunnels under the kitchen on one side and the kitchen on the other. There’s a way to climb up from the tunnels, at which point you remove your guys, flip the board, and place them on the newly flipped side. With only a handful of double sided tiles there are so many creative combinations of levels. It’s really delightful and simple to understand.

From the arrow my mice and “climb up” to the other side of the board.

The beginning of a scenario comes with a story for a narrator to read to the group. I recommend you bring forth your best (see also: worst) British accent and bold, narratory Jazz hands.

The game revolves primarily around combat. Either due to specified enemy spawns or well-tuned random spawns (based on a drawn card), every room involves some number of enemies. Until you best them, you cannot proceed, but once you best them, if you linger you’ll be slowly penalized. Players take turns in order using a simple and effective initiative mechanic with the enemy taking turns as appropriate.

To segue briefly, I strongly dislike “AI players” in board games. This was a worry of mine and I’m glad to say it’s not a problem in the game. Let’s say you have 4 enemy rats, which share a turn. On their turn, you first roll a die and move them the appropriate spaces. You always move them towards the closest player character — in the case of a tie, choose (this doesn’t happen often, surprisingly). If they are in range to attack, they do so. You check their attack number, roll the indicated dice, and they deal damage. They don’t have special powers to manage or complex routines. They are trying to stop you, so like the guards in every movie ever created they charge forth and try to stop you. It’s simple, easy to understand, and it works.

Turns typically revolve around the following choices:

  • Where do I go to put myself in the best position? If you’re a ranged mouse, you may want to get out of the fray. Or there may be a certain enemy you want to defeat first, how do you get to them in the best way?
  • Who do I attack first? And do I use my default weapon or a special ability?

Every character begins with 1 class-based special ability of your choice (fun!) and these have a big impact on the game. You can also gain more throughout the game. Abilities are activated by spending cheese, which is the game’s version of mana. A side of the combat die is cheese, so when this side is rolled, you gain a token. There is a downside! When the enemies roll cheese in combat, you add these to the center board. When 6 are dded, a surge occurs! This pushes the game one step closer to an untimely end (which happens when bad events occur) AND adds new, more powerful enemies to the board. It’s the thematic equivalent of a guard shouting for backup and the backup arriving before you manage to escape. It’s great and really adds tension.

Attacking isn’t all you do, however. You can also search for items, which involves a lucky die roll (which some characters can mitigate), after which you draw a card from the item deck. I love the items. You may draw new armor or weapons, which increase your combat effectiveness. You may draw one-time-use items, which sometimes seem useless, except they aren’t. As an example, I drew a levitate card, which lets me climb on bookshelves and chairs (remember, you’re a mouse) without penalty. “Okay,” I thought. “I guess this is neat.” Then, I entered the final room with 5 elite rat archers on a bookshelf and only 2 melee mice left to fight them. I used levitate, sprinted atop the bookshelf, and eeked (squeaked?) out a win. It was great!

I also love that items are relatively easy to trade among the mice in your party. I often have Lilly, the archer, hang back, take opportune shots, and use her ability to search more effectively. When the gang’s all settled, she’s like “hey guys, I found some new stuff!”

Were this just combat and item optimization I think Mice and Mystics would fall flat. Luckily, after only 4 chapters I think it’s an absolute showpiece for good scenario design. The designer cleverly uses neat map setups, configurations of bad guys, forces you to use (or not use) certain mice, and even introduces silly and fun mini-games to vary the experience. At one point I happened upon a posse of “off duty” rats playing a dice game for cheese. I just so happened to have a disguise (items are awesome) to infiltrate their game. I ended up winning a pile of cheese and scared them off without fighting once. Had I screwed up, I would have had to fight it out. This was great.

Just playing dice with rats.

I should also note the scenarios sometimes have alternate paths and side-quests. I really appreciate this small detail.

Combat and resolution throughout the game is solved through dice. It’s a well implemented, consistent use of the dice. There is some luck, for sure, but I find the tuning is such that it never feels plodding. You will sometimes get screwed, just like you’ll sometimes have incredible rolls. But, the course of the experience is one of great tuning and enjoyable outcomes. This isn’t a “play 2 hours to get hosed by bad luck” type game. If you’re okay with some luck, you’ll have fun. If you’re not, lighten up! And why did you buy a co-op game with mice on the cover in the first place?

Mice and Mystics isn’t a cheap game, but if you look inside the box you’ll understand why. The game is full of beautifully detailed miniature sculpts.The boards and cards are jam packed with unique illustrations beautifully crafted by John Ariosa. There are tons of tokens, some for just a few uses, and nothing was spared. I think it’s a good value, especially considering I have about 15 hours of gaming in already and am only 25% through the campaign. I don’t want every game to have this price tag, but when a special one comes along, I’ll buy it and do so with a smile.

This is a co-op game, so I feel I need to bring up the point of “dominant players.” This isn’t a really deep strategy game (though there is strategy). It isn’t like Pandemic where you’re weighing probability and optimal choices. Here’s my suggestion: Don’t play this with people you don’t like. Get some beers, some pizza, and take over a huge table with all the cool stuff in the box. Set aside a few hours on the weekend and play a few chapters. If you complain about the dominant player problem here, it’s maybe because you need better friends? To quote Viper in Top Gun, call me. I’ll fly with you.

The Conclusion: I really enjoy Mice and Mystics, but I also think for the price, time commitment, and style of game, you need to enjoy this type of game. It’s not just a well-woven set of mechanics, but a story and experience that need to be read aloud and with gusto to be enjoyed to the fullest. If you want brain-burn, or competition, or super elegant euro-stylings, you should look elsewhere.

I don’t think Mice and Mystics is trashy, because all of its components serve a purpose and are distilled, clean, and well-designed. But, the game is full of content, often to support the variety in scenarios, and you may find yourself checking the rules even 4 games in to find out what the grape or fish hook do, for example.

As a side note, I’d love for Plaid Hat Games to release an expansion full of short stories, small, 60 minutes or less stories for those of us who want to game at lunch, because it would be a blast for my lunch crew. Regardless, I’ve already pre-ordered Heart of Glorm and will hasten my play through the base game so I can enjoy it!

Here’s how the story ends: Mice and Mystics is really delightful. If co-operative storytelling with awesome mice miniatures and combat is your thing, consider a purchase.

What do you think of this review?

Designing for Joy

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Please keep in mind that the below piece, largely based on a single game, is NOT a review. I’ve played it only twice. As a designer I was inspired by our experience last night and I’ve spent the past few hours thinking about how I can attempt to bake that experience into my own designs. So, please take this anecdotal reference as such, not my hyperbolic and premature review. 

Four of my friends came over last night for pizza, wine, and the first chapter of Mice and MysticsIn case you’re not familiar, this is the latest release from Plaid Hat Games. It is a highly story and scenario driven cooperative adventure that features minis, custom dice, cards, beautiful illustrations, and tons of boards with which you explore the castle…as humans changed to mice.

If I had to summarize it, it’s a simplified tactical combat game, like Heroscape, that’s cooperative and scenario driven.

Designers design for different purposes  Some purely for self-fulfillment (i.e. I don’t care if this gets published), others for mechanics, others for theme, and some do it to appeal to a specific demographic. Some designers want to create a brain puzzler and some just want a dice fest. While playing Mice and Mystics last night, I was reminded that one of the most powerful emotions and experiences we can craft as designers is joy.


Simple, pure, smile and laughter inducing pleasure. At times we can get so caught up in chasing the mechanics or the theme or the whatever that we forget that we’ve been given the opportunity to be Willy Wonka in a Chocolate Factory of our own creation.

If joy is a desired outcome, how do we sew the seeds to make it a reality? I think there are some obvious, tangible mechanics and themes we can look to for inspiration.

Classics include dice, or a mechanism by which the possible outcomes are understood but not precisely known. Probability is comfortable and uncertainty builds tension, surprise, and thrilling moments.  In our game last night, we missed 9 sequential 50/50 rolls in a row. This is absurdly improbable! This almost cost us the game and there was no mechanism by which to mitigate this. In many games this would be infuriating. We almost became frustrated, but at some point we collaboratively developed an attitude of c’est la vie and it became a point of laughter and tension with every roll. And when it was finally hit? Exuberance!

Another solid tool for us is humor. You often see the best writers weave humor into even the most serious of stories. It’s a wonderful thing. One can obtain this through funny card art (Farmageddon, Munchkin), take-that mechanics (schadenfreude can be rather enjoyable), or a generally silly premise. The rules for Scallywags explicitly state you should read the cards with a pirate’s emphasis. But, without prompting, my friends quickly jump into these roles and before long we sound like idiots of the Caribbean.

Let’s not forget the humor of Dixit, Apples to Apples, and Cards Against Humanity. Even boring people can be funny if you give them the chance.

I’m not entirely sure Mice and Mystics sought to be a funny game, but we, being horrid adult males, turned it into one. For one, I read every story moment with awful Cockney, Scottish  and Monty Python-esque “accents” and one character’s name in particular became a recurring crude joke. I’ll just say his name is Maginos and leave it at that. Big moments like the cat chasing us were, despite the circumstances, rather entertaining. And every time my friend paid the cheese to use his special ability and STILL missed we laughed.

How can your game latch onto such a thing? I’ll try to approach this with a practical and personal example. How can my area-control strategy game Empire embrace such a concept? It’s pretty important as the game is fairly dry!

If I quickly think about it, there are quite a few little details and embellishments I can make to provide players a canvas for mischief. Or at least a more interesting war.

  • The factions have names. One in particular, the Yorkan Clans, always causes a smile as it’s a weird word to say. Can I lean into that more without going into full-on Harry Potter vibe?
  • The Tactics in game that have more dramatic, active names evoke a response from my playtesters. The player who plays “Dig In!” often shouts and slams his cards down with confidence. Not so with the player who plays “Encirclement.” Fun verbs > boring verbs?
  • One playtester suggested I add phrases, like “Come and Take It” or the rebel yell to the faction boards to help people get into character.
  • I should spend a little time creating characters. When you play the General, should it be “General,” or “Sir Lord Marshal Haversham, Order of the Bath?” And I could name a weak Infantry Unit (in Empire simply a card with an Infantry symbol with a 1 as opposed to a 2 or 3) as the Yorkan Militia, or Yorkan Volunteers. People will draw that card and think “Ugh, not the militia!” instead of “Oh I see a 1.”

Beyond the tangible tweaks, the obvious things that just seem to be widely accept best practices, how do we approach the pursuit of joy from a philosophical level? After all, there are some things that just work, but less because of something we can point to or write speeches about, but a certain je ne sais quoi (I’m finished with the French).

There is something about Mice and Mystics that made coming to the table and sitting down just really enjoyable. It’s something that games that are arguably better mechanically, or arguably better from a game sense, often seem to lack. It is easy to point to mice being cute, miniatures being awesome, and the well-crafted stories all being primary factors. I’m also a really big fan of Plaid Hat, but honestly nobody else in my group shares this fanboyism so it’s not entirely that. Maybe it’s the art by John Ariosa that everyone kept praising?

All I know is, I will be spending the next few days improving Empire in ways that make it a richer, more vibrant, and exciting experience for a group of friends without compromising its mechanics. For Innie, my new design that’s being fleshed out, I’ll take a step back and re-examine my current assumptions in light of potential opportunities to do the same from the beginning. The value in doing so seems quite obvious.

If I can help someone create a moment, a story, or a time to remember, doesn’t that supersede the value of just making a good game? I think so.

What are some games that provide the je ne sais quoi for you and your group? Where do I make the wrong assumptions? Let’s discuss, shall we?

Summoning Favoritism

It is only fair to note I stole this image off of Games & Grub’s review of this game. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m keen to remind folks that I’m not a reviewer and this isn’t a review site. However, from time to time, articles like this that are eerily close to reviews appear. I’ve played 75+ games of Plaid Hat Games’ Summoner Wars on iOS and a handful more on physical copies. After all that, I still love it and want to play it so much more. This is a great game and, if I may be so bold, my favorite game.

I think there’s value in breaking down what it is about the game that I love so much. The game embraces so many things that are core to my philosophical approach to design. I also think it is a brilliant game for a small publisher.

Simple: Lately, so many games impress me as a designer and delight me as a player for streamlining and focusing their designs. One of my goals for Empire was to make a strategy/war game without all the familiar trappings and complexity of these games. 1812 distills so many elements with simple dice symbols and focused rules. Summoner Wars does this wonderfully.

Firstly, every turn follows 6 simple steps that I can recite by memory.

  1. Draw
  2. Summon Units
  3. Play Events
  4. Move
  5. Attack
  6. Discard for Magic

This simple order makes learning the game easy. They avoid the pitfall of games that let you do things in any order or have really complicated steps. To move, move any 3 Units. How far? 2 spaces. To attack, you attack with any 3 Units. How? Well, they are either melee (adjacent) or range (up to 3 straight spaces). It’s so simple and demonstrated with very clear icons.

You also have a ridiculously simple and straightforward combat mechanic. Roll one D6 for every attack number on your Unit. Rolls of 3 and up are hits. That’s it. No defense or any of that.

By simplifying these elements, they can go deeper with other elements. Every Unit in the game has a special ability or behavior. Essentially, these merely break or manipulate the few core rules. They allow for additional movement, shooting through friendly units, moving enemy units, and more. This allows for combinations and tactics that let players feel clever and have really dynamic, exciting games. Plus, because the core rules are simple, learning these one-offs isn’t difficult or overwhelming.

Board games are really niche. Some of the things that keep them from grabbing new players are cumbersome and confusing rules. With Summoner Wars, Plaid Hat has made a GAMER’S GAME that isn’t exhausting or tedious. You have real heft and meat without having to be Alpha Nerd. It’s not surprising then that the game is so well regarded on Board Game Geek.

Plays Quickly: This feeds into my previous point, but it’s so important that I want to call attention to it. Yesterday, my friend and I played 2 games in 2 hours. My friend had never played before and neither of us had played any of the four factions we used. The next time we play, that hour will drop to a half hour. I can finish games on the iPhone in 15 minutes easily.

Summoner Wars respects my lack of time and plays well with my busy life. The few times when I do have many hours to play we can easily play several games. This lets us try new factions, new strategies, and generally have a great time with quick setup.

Allows for Player Creativity: The game does this most obviously with its Reinforcement packs. For $10 or less (depending on where you buy it), you can buy Reinforcement packs. These include new champion and common Units for 2 Factions PLUS the Mercenary faction (which can be played as a unique faction or mixed in with all other factions).

The game has very strict rules on what constitutes a deck. This might bother really hardcore Magic players. However, for me, it gives me a very finite box in which to be experimental. This simplifies things, makes it more accessible.  I love creating new decks and trying out new strategies. I love discovering synergies between common units and champions. I love finding killer strategies to counter my friends’ killer strategies, then tweaking again as they tweak.

The game also allows for creativity in how you play. The game begs you to be clever with how you place walls, the strategies you employ, and how you manipulate and wield your Units’ abilities. The game has a subtle bluffing element, rewards a good flank, and allows for spectacular finishes.

Infinitely replayable: You may counter this by noting one must spend money to have this level of replayability, but I have no such problem about continuing to pay. But, let’s set expansions aside for a moment.

For $20 you get two Factions that you can expand. For $40, you get SIX Factions and a really slick board, not to mention a huge box to accommodate many many cards. Both of these provide great value without another cent spent.

Let’s say you spend $15 (I spent $10 at my FLGS) to get a Reinforcement Pack. You now have cards to modify and tweak 2-3 Factions. There’s no CCG collection nonsense. You get everything in that pack. For $6 you can add an entirely new Faction.

There are so many combinations of content available for very reasonable prices. Even if you never buy anything more than the Master Set, by mixing any two of those six, changing your opponent, and changing how you play the factions, you can play for such a long time. Also, and this goes back to my first point, because the new Faction content largely involves slight modifications to the simple core rule set, it isn’t difficult to learn the new content.

Easy to learn, tough to master. Infinitely replayable.

Expandable: You may be thinking, “didn’t you just talk about this above?” Yes, I did. I’m not going to repeat myself. But, I am going to quickly note that I think the Summoner Wars’ business model is brilliant.

They get you into the door at a low price and provide a great value. 6 factions for $40 is very reasonable. Then, for those interested in doing so, they sell small expansions at a low cost. These expansions are a great value as they can work in any combination with the existing content of whatever base set you purchased.

Also, these expansions help Plaid Hat drive additional revenue without hugely increasing their costs. Printing new base games with new IP (like Mice and Mystics) is very expensive. Printing faction packs for dedicated fans? Not so much. Because Plaid Hat has carefully and consistently released new content for their fans, they have earned enough to print not one, but two big new games. That’s awesome!

I’ve love to release new factions for Empire. Granted, it needs to be finished and published, first. But, the business model set forth and demonstrated so successfully by Plaid Hat Games is one I’d love to emulate.

Do you agree or disagree? What’s your favorite game? What makes it your favorite? Care to write a companion post? Comment below!