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Designer Diary: The Crow and the Pitcher

Sean MacDoanld
United States
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As a kid, I loved reading Aesop's Fables: "The Tortoise and the Hare", "The Lion and the Mouse", and my personal favorite, "The Crow and the Pitcher". Here's that last fable from one of many websites devoted to Aesop's work:

A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it. He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life.

Moral of Aesop's Fable: Little by little does the trick.

To this day, I still enjoy reading Aesop's Fables as they are short, thematic, and simplistic. The end result is that the reader is left with a thought-provoking message. How can these fables not inspire someone – including, say, a game designer?

Game Design of a Fable

1.) Narrative = Theme
2.) Length = Short
3.) Content = Simple mechanisms
4.) Moral = Game play (fun or not)

Inspiration and Theme

The main inspiration from the fable is the dropping of stones into a pitcher. In The Crow and the Pitcher, players are the crows trying not to perish from thirst, and they need to drop stones into a pitcher that is partially filled with water, as per the Aesop fable. (Additional inspiration came from my grandmother, who told me: "If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows.")

All my games design start in my head. I will play the game design over and over in my mind before I make the prototype. The last thing I want to do is waste time on making a prototype and find out the game is not worth pursuing.

At the start, there was no question that The Crow and the Pitcher would be a trick-taking card game, along the lines of Günter Cornett's Flaschenteufel (The Bottle Imp). I wanted to create a game in which players could influence each other to score points (and vice versa lose points).

With most trick-taking games, the player with the highest suited card takes the trick. In The Crow and the Pitcher, the number on the Pitcher card – which changes throughout the game – determines the total needed to take the trick. The leading player decides which suit is to be followed, and only the suited Stone cards with values under the number on the Pitcher card are eligible to take the trick.


Once all players have played to the trick, you sum the eligible suited Stone cards to determine which player takes the trick. If the sum equals or exceeds the value of the Pitcher, whoever played the highest eligible suited Stone card takes the trick; if not, then the player with the lowest eligible suited Stone card takes the trick.

If a player cannot follow suit, the player may play any other card, including a Thirst card, which is worth negative points at the end of a round. (Once a Thirst has been played, the starting player can lead with a Thirst card and all players must play one, if possible, with the highest Thirst "winning" the trick.)

As you can see, players need one another to take (or not take) tricks. One other twist in the game is that the trick-taking player does not lead the next trick. Instead the same player leads each trick in a round, and after all players have been the starting player in a round, then the game ends. (Complete English rules (PDF) are available online.)

I have been told that the scoring in The Crow and the Pitcher – with the higher-numbered Stone cards scoring fewer points than the lower-numbered ones – is counter-intuitive. My thought behind this is that the number of blue waves on a Stone card represents the amount of water in the pitcher, and when there is more water in the pitcher, a smaller number of stones (or, to put it another way, smaller stones) are required to raise the water.

Prototyping and Playtesting

The first edition
Creating the prototype was easy as the only components are cards, requiring only a graphics program, heavy card stock, and a paper cutter.

Playtesting is probably the most difficult time during the game design process. I'm very fortunate to be a member of The Board Game Designers Guild of Utah (BGDG), an organized group of up-and-coming game designers based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The format the Guild uses to playtest game designs is focused, straight-forward, and beneficial to the designer.

The Next Step: Publication, and Publication Once Again

After I was satisfied with The Crow and the Pitcher, I entered it into the 2009 ION Award game design competition, held at SaltCON, an annual game convention in Salt Lake City. The Crow and the Pitcher placed fourth, and that placement pleased me enough to publish an edition of the game through my own NoMADS GAMES.

Now fellow BGDGer Phil Kilcrease has breathed new life into The Crow and the Pitcher by making a new edition of the game his second release from 5th Street Games via a Kickstarter campaign. A big thank you goes out to Phil, who has been a joy to work with.

Sean D. MacDonald
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