Sometime in the late 1990s I started designing games, mostly card games with the occasional board game popping up here or there. I even came up with a few I was proud of. I was new to the board game hobby, and Eurogames were just starting to make their way to the U.S.
In 1997, I was given the opportunity to spend the summer traveling with The United States Playing Card Company to work its X-Files CCG booth at conventions. Fresh off of a Magic: The Gathering addiction, I was discovering our hobby. Each show I was trying new games and finding new exciting themes and mechanisms. I was meeting all sorts of interesting people and – most importantly – dreaming about working in the industry. I can credit one show, one game, and one person for planting a decade-long desire in me to break into the industry.
That show was the 1997 Origins Game Fair. I may have worked more at that show than any other on our tour, but I also discovered far more amazing things in my brief moments of free time. One of those things was the person who has inspired me the most: James Ernest. You see, James had this idea – let's make games that are cheap to produce, leave out all the expensive little bits that you likely already have lying around, and sell them for under $10. So he founded Cheapass Games and set out to make his mark on the industry.
At Origins that year, James was mostly an unknown. He had a small booth with a single table directly across from the demo station I was manning. In his booth, he had a little rack with four or five games on it and a couple of signs. Nothing fancy. I watched his booth all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and there was very little traffic. He sold a few things here and there, but his non-imposing style didn't seem too popular with the crowd, so he took matters into his own hands. While I was doing open gaming on Saturday night, in walks James with a briefcase. He sets up shop and immediately starts asking people to play his games. It was a magical night. In a few short hours there was a crowd watching and waiting to play Give Me the Brain. The next day, his booth was swamped. He sold out of everything he had and was taking orders to ship games when he got back to his shop.
I watched all of this in amazement. His games weren't deep with strategy, but they were engaging. People like engaging. I thought to myself, "I could design those games." I was sure of it. I just needed inspiration. I found my inspiration during the car ride home from that show and immediately set about getting a playable prototype up and running. I drew on the back of business cards and started playtesting. I had designed something that was akin to two-player Lunch Money. It worked, it was fun, and I was certain I was going somewhere. My friends and I played it and everyone loved it. I was convinced it was ready for production. I started mailing letters to publishers and sure enough, I got some interest. I sent out rule sets and prototypes and waited to hear back. Slowly but surely, rejection letters and returned prototypes started coming in. That hurt, but I kept trying. I kept designing games and I kept trying to get published. Eventually, I gave up on that dream and just designed games for me, things I wanted to play.
My first design, on the backs of business cards
Fast-forward a decade to my next source of inspiration: I was surfing the Geek one night when I came across a neat little game called Zombie in my Pocket. Before I found ZimP, I wasn't even aware that print-and-play was a thing. The game looked awesome, so I made up a set and tried it. It was awesome! Designer Jeremiah Lee had achieved something I had always wanted. He gave his game to the world, and the world responded. Soon, users were re-designing it with beautiful art. They were re-theming it and making expansions. There was quite a bit of buzz, and it was all over this free game. Again, I thought to myself, "I can do this!"
So I did. Inspired by a family vacation to the beach, Treasure Island, and some dusty tourist traps, I created a card game titled Doubloons!, a light game with a unique scoring mechanism. The game includes forty coins with different values on their face and the same pattern on their back. At the start of the game, the coins are dumped on the table and are left either face-up or face-down as they landed.
On a turn, a player plays cards that distributes these coins around the table. Cards allow you to take coins for yourself or give coins to your opponents; you can steal coins, trade coins, and peek at face-down coins. Once everyone has an equal number of coins, the game ends and the player with the highest total value wins. Just as James had done with Give Me the Brain, I incorporated player interaction into the game itself. I didn't want players to be able to turtle up and play their own little game of solitaire. As it turns out, this was a pretty good decision as it really made the game exciting and fun!
I had decided that it was time for me to share my games with the world, and I was going to give them away. I didn't care anymore about being published. I just wanted people to be able to play my games. I set about drawing the artwork and getting a printable version ready as quickly as possible. I hadn't even playtested the game at this point! I was convinced that it was good and that people would love it. Who doesn't love pirates after all!? After a few test sessions, it was deemed to be playable and I submitted it to BGG. It was done. I was finally a game designer in my own mind. I was certain that it would receive praise and support from the community.
The game did receive praise and support – just not as much as I had dreamed of. Everyone dreams of being a superstar, and I was no different. I thought for sure I could duplicate the success Jeremiah had with ZimP but that just never happened. Yes, it got downloaded. Yes, it got played. Yes, awesome users even set about making it look better. It just never really took off like I had dreamed. Every now and again, Doubloons! would get added to someone's GeekList. Every year on "Talk Like a Pirate Day" it would get mentioned, but really, it was mostly overlooked. It wasn't a bad game, but it wasn't a great game either, and it was difficult to make. Thankfully, however, I had some great fans who begged me to try to get it published. I was jaded by that whole process and reluctant, but eventually I gave in. I had already started on other print-and-play projects, so I wasn't attached to the game anymore. I could let it go.
I decided to give myself one shot. I'd do some research, pick a publisher, and that was it. If they published it, great; if not, I would update the art and fix some of the rules to make it better, then resign it to print-and-play forever. I spent quite a few weeks picking a publisher. I wanted a company that would treat it right and make nice components. I also wanted a company that was familiar with family games and could help bring it to that market. After some debate, I picked Gamewright. The company already had a pirate game, and I wasn't sure if that helped or hurt my odds, but I really liked the toy value that Gamewright added to its games. I didn't want cardboard coins, and I knew that if they produced it, they would make something awesome.
After a lengthly review period, I got great news! They loved the game but needed time to fit it into their production schedule. That was all fine by me. They were the only publisher I was ever going to submit this game to. If they wanted to take ten years, I was more than willing to let them. Luckily, it didn't take that long. I received news near the end of 2011 that they wanted to license the game! I cannot begin to explain how that felt after so many years of denials. There was finally going to be a point in the future when I could point to something I had created and be proud.
The only problem was that they had asked me to take down my print-and-play files. I was conflicted about this request. I wasn't in this for money. I had embraced the print-and-play community and wanted to continue giving away games, but I also realized the complexity in manufacturing forty custom coins at home. I conceded that in order for a larger audience to be able to enjoy the game, it really needed to be produced. We reached an agreement and the production process began.
One of the most asked questions I receive from aspiring designers (and just those generally interested) is how much did Gamewright change the design. The answer I like to give is not a lot, but a great deal. The game is not very far from what I hosted here on BGG, but at the same time it is much more refined and polished. The developers at Gamewright did an amazing job fixing some of the quirks of the game; I had intended to make many of the fixes myself in a future re-design, but thankfully I don't have to worry about that any more! The most notable change is the name. I had no particular attachment to the name Doubloons! so I wasn't bothered that they wanted to change it. They wanted a name that captured the humor I had built into the cards, something that sold the pirate theme more. We went back and forth with many different ideas, but in the end, they picked Scallywags and I absolutely love it.
After many years, I have finally arrived at the point where I get to share my game with the world. The emotions I felt when I first opened a case of Scallywags cannot be explained. Watching my daughters explore the game for the first time was priceless. This one game has made all the years of denial and frustration completely worth it. I urge each and every person reading this: If you have an idea, do not give up on it. Fight for it. You will eventually win and I promise you, it will be an amazing victory.
Thank you BoardGameGeek for your support and encouragement! I would have never tried if it weren't for this community.
Overseeing the game's debut at Origins 2012