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Designer Diary: Banjooli Xeet, or The Sorcerer Apprentice's Diaries

Diego Ibañez
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1. How to turn seven dice into ostriches

January 2009 was passing. The Third Granollers Contest (Los juegos de Granollers) had been announced, and even though I had been working on two games – one about museum management and another about a wargame in a supermarket – the results weren't satisfactory. I felt the need to submit at least one game to the contest, so declaring an ultimatum, I challenged myself on a bus journey to design a game, a game with easy mechanisms, with a short game length, and with few components, including six white dice and one black die. The main mechanism around which everything was built: Secret bets about the first three ostriches in a race.

Over the next days, with the help of my girlfriend and mother-in-law, new ideas gradually arose about how to fit these mechanisms into a game. We made a first playtest on a drawn sheet of paper with plenty of spaces and with small pigs from a Carcassonne expansion as ostriches.

After checking that the main mechanism worked, I began to create (while being clueless to graphic design) the tiles and ostrich tokens – despite the game having elements that I didn't like – and I started to play the prototype with friends. The best thing of all was that my non-gamer friends loved it! They even wanted to play again! During one of those plays, a new idea arose which gave the game new strategic possibilities and allowed for more hindering between players: The player who guessed the last position in the bet would double his score.

2. How to create illusions and crocodiles from thin air

After submitting the prototype to the contest, now with proper ostriches, a few days later I received the exciting message that Banjooli Xeet had qualified for the final round of the Granollers Contest. When I arrived at Granollers, the excitement was growing when Oriol Comas i Coma (the contest organizer) and the rest of the jury members who had played the game congratulated me, but they were not the last to do so as a great number of fans and buddies from LaBSK (a Spanish game reference forum) who had played the game liked Banjooli very much! Aside from them was Matthieu d'Epenoux, the Cocktail Games publisher, who marveled at the game and asked for a prototype to test.

Two months later, Cocktail Games decided not to publish Banjooli as the game could not fit in its common format: the metallic pocket-sized box. With the same excitement I had previously, I sent the game to some Spanish publishers with mostly unfortunate results. One of the publishers that answered me was Asmodee Ibérica, and in addition to becoming friends with Haritz Solana (a.k.a. Lady Halcón), we worked together shoulder to shoulder to make game improvements. Among them was the idea that the board interacts with the ostriches, making it not so static as the prototype, then we turned one of the race tiles into a river full of crocodiles, something that the design has kept until now.

Time passed, and Banjooli made its way into several contests. In the old Córdoba Contest, Banjooli did not get through to the next round, but it received second place in the Tona's board game creation contest, which provided a new rush of excitement. A member of that jury, the great board game author Josep M. Allué, suggested that I send Banjooli Xeet to an Austrian agency, White Castle, which works with prototypes to improve them and introduce them to German publishers like Pegasus Spiele.

At the same time, a graphic designer appeared who was looking for new and interesting projects to redesign so that he could create a professional portfolio. From the first moment the connection with him was fantastic! I am talking about the great Chechu Nieto, who selflessly created a new look for the game before the ostriches traveled to Austria.

3. How to transform an ostrich into a troll (or not)

The White Castle team playtested the game, and a close collaboration with two of its employees, Anita and Joker, soon began from which good ideas arose about how to reduce the game length; at that time a game could last more than 45 minutes, and that was too long for a light family game like this. I decided to sacrifice ostrich #6 (R.I.P.), but the sacrifice was not in vain as the 6s on the dice became jokers, adding speed and strategic possibilities to the game. Also thanks to White Castle, prediction sheets came into place, with the number of possible ostrich combinations limited to ten; this change would result in a price reduction during manufacturing (money talks), in addition to avoiding the possibility of the game being unbalanced from two players making similar predictions.

However, not every idea fit well with what Banjooli Xeet was. I don't remember why, but the ostriches turned into hideous racing trolls at one point, and the game was so simplified that the initial premise had nothing to do with my game. Even so, I kept working with White Castle for a while and that version (which I could name Chutes and Ladders Xeet, or better, Troll Xeet) was shown to two big publishers at Spiel 2010, but without success.

After so many comings and goings, the initial excitement had vanished. I asked myself whether the game was worth it and uploaded a free print-and-play version while debating whether to forget about the possibility of ever seeing it published.

4. How to read an ostrich's mind

Between late 2010 and early 2011, games with mates took place regularly at a home in Castellón owned by "El Hombre que Ríe", a.k.a. "The Man who Smiles", and while today those gamers have been dispersed all over the world, at one of those meetings I encountered Nacho Góngora, who I had first met at a Club Dreadnought meeting in Valencia some months earlier. At that time he was with Haunted Lives magazine, but he had wanted to found a new games publisher.

Asylum Games was founded several months later with the intention of publishing Spanish games and focusing on a growing passion for games in Spain. Nacho had two games at that point: Polis: Fight for the Hegemony and 21 Mutinies Arrr! Edition. During a break for lunch, while Nacho and I were sharing time with two gamers, the word "Banjooli" come out and they asked me: "Are you the designer of the ostriches game?" While I was searching for the hidden camera (I could not believe it), I was delighted to know that at least two people of the five hundred who downloaded the print-and-play version had not only assembled a version, but also liked it. Moments afterward Nacho confirmed that he was going to work on Banjooli.

Asylum Games had introduced itself at the Granollers Fair with two new games and now Banjooli was going to be the third. My spirit, like a roller coaster, had returned to a high point because I saw that a new era had begun for the ostriches, who by that point had grown tired of wandering around.

5. How the Noamomi learned from their ancestors to elect a new sorcerer in a fair way

With Asylum Games confirming its interest in publishing Banjooli, I took advantage of the next two years to improve the game, playing a lot with different players so that I could decide with elements to include in the final version.

One of the first changes to make the game more dynamic was to disallow ostriches from jumping other ostriches (a movement like Checkers), which improved the game by adding more strategic possibilities and removing blockades – some questioned whether this was an improvement as they enjoy blocking – and as a result the games are shorter, which allows more time for rematches!

Following the line of thought that began with the crocodile river tile, we started to redesign course tiles so they could have more interaction with the ostriches, such as fixed rock spaces on the board (whereas previously the rocks were randomly place tokens). After a ton of games testing new course tiles, we introduced a lava river, a narrow pass, and a magic element that fascinated my mother-in-law when we tested it. The wormhole vortex brings a nice balance between chaos and fun!

Artist Pedro Soto, well-known in the Iberian gamer community, joined the project and aside from contributing a cartoonish style (a good choice for the game), he got involved in writing the rules and contributed thematic changes, the most prominent change being the replacement of egg tokens – which in an old version added or subtracted victory points – with bushes that now hide a variety of things from special powers to a terrible snake.

Another significant change was using colored dice instead of numerical ones, a change that will surprise people who have played the game previously, but this change makes the movement more intuitive and helps the little ones to better understand the game. Something that has not changed in Banjooli Xeet is the lion, but this is still a secret.

With Banjooli Xeet now reaching the finish line, I have tried to summarize four years of comings and goings with the ostriches and wish to thank everybody who has taken part in the project in one way or another. Thanks to you as well of course because you have read this diary until the end. Ideally the next chapter takes place on your table in May...

Diego Ibañez

Ibañez at Feria Jugar X Jugar VII in May 2013
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