There is a common question among board game designers when it comes to starting a new project: mechanisms first, or theme first?
Oddly, the design for Dead Man's Cabal started with a component. I'd seen someone on social media post a photo of tiny skull beads, and I immediately wanted to create a game using them. I ordered some, and when they arrived, I started to think about what they could be. I'm drawn to the absurd as well as the macabre, especially in themes for games, and my first thought was that I could somehow use them in a game about necromancers having a tea party. The contrast of sorcerers raising the dead doing something so genteel made me chuckle.
Thus, "Necromancer's Tea Party" was born! It was a deduction game, and it was pretty terrible — but I had come up with an circular board reminiscent of the occult with lines and nodes (okay, it was pretty much a pentagram), and I felt like something was there that I could use with a different system. I had been playing a lot of Stefan Feld's games and liked the idea of attempting a Euro in the vein of Trajan but with a really unusual theme. The skull beads were replaced for functionality by tokens with skulls on them: four different colors for four different actions. The skulls could be used both for selecting an action as well as for conducting "rituals" to score sets.
From there, I devised what the different actions should be and which actions needed to feed into each other: gain cards for the rituals, place skulls for the rituals, collect tokens to augment the rituals, and procure more skulls. My hope was that these actions all needed to be done but could be done in any order so that turns were not necessarily prescribed.
Lastly, I needed a way to give players more decisions as to what to do when. I had recently played Ulm and loved the action selection grid. I leaned on that a bit and came up with my own that both gave the active player a new skull for their supply and determined an action that all players will take. Follow actions are a great way to keep all players engaged when it's not their turn to decrease the feeling of downtime.
This version just WORKED so much better than that first deduction attempt. The pieces started to fall into place quickly, and I got great feedback from playtesters. One of them suggested I change the name to "Dead Man's Party", after the Oingo Boingo song, and I loved it so much that I did so on the spot. (In fact, I started listening to the album regularly shortly afterwards, and it has inspired another game or two since.) "Dead Man's Party" was shaping up to be my favorite game I'd designed so far, and I got really excited to start pitching it to publishers.
I had booked an appointment with Pandasaurus Games at the Origins Game Fair, but wasn't quite sure what I was going to show them. Before I left for the convention, I didn't know whether the design was ready to pitch, but after a couple of tests prior to my meeting, I realized it was actually in good shape. They had also just released Wasteland Express Delivery Service and Dinosaur Island, so I knew they were likely into Euro-y games with offbeat themes and it could be a really good fit.
The pitch went really well! I could tell they were into it. I explained where I was in the process and ideas I had to smooth out some rough edges, but they were interested in looking closer at it and asked that I send them a copy when I had a couple of things straightened out, which I did, then they signed it at Gen Con later that summer.
The icing on the cake was that they brought on Jon Gilmour to do development, which meant the design would be in capable hands. Between his insights and the amazing art they commissioned, I knew this was going to be the best possible version of the game it could be. The name was changed to Dead Man's Cabal to avoid any confusion that it might be a party game — it is definitely not a party game — but everything else about it is consistent with my vision. It's been an absolute pleasure working with Pandasaurus, and I can't wait for folks to summon the dead in the comfort of their own homes!