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Designer Diary: Where Ideas Come From – Designing Mirror Mirror

Jacob Davenport
United States
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Board Game: Mirror, Mirror
In 2008 I was given a plastic flower, two eye patches, two earrings, a bag of colorful cotton balls, and a full year to turn those things into a game. It came to me all at once, in seconds. I created Garden Variety Pirates, in which scurvy pirates invade a citrus garden and compete with two gardeners for Leaves of Wisdom, Flowers of Despair, and a Ring of Power. In 2009, it competed against two other game designers in the Game of the Afternoon competition at Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends, and lost.

In 2009, I was given a bunch of small round mirrors, a bag of wooden balls, a paint tray, and another year to turn those into a game. I knew exactly what to do, all at once, in seconds. I'd add lasers and stick the mirrors on pieces on a board, and the lasers would shoot opposing pieces using the mirrors to aim them. I'd work in the balls and paint tray later.

A little research, and it became clear that my idea had already been done. Khet did what I wanted to do, did it better, and was still not very popular. So, for eight months of that year, the mirrors and balls sat in the paint tray on my desk and mocked me. It's embarrassing to be mocked by a paint tray.

Staring back at the paint tray one day, I thought, "I'm going to cut you, sucker." I had already decided to cut the paint tray into lots of pieces, and use the pieces somehow. Then, all at once, in seconds, another game came to me. The pieces would all have a wooden ball stuck to the back, so that the opponent in this two-player game would be unable to see them. Above the ball would be a mirror, so if you got your piece behind the opponent's piece, you could look in the mirror at the hidden ball. I put the pieces on a chess board and made the object to capture the one piece that has the green ball. That would work, right?

The paint tray had eight sections: four round and four flat. It also had an edge. So I cut the edges off and each section apart, and used foam core to make 18 pieces – nine white and nine black – that would stand up, looking just like large Stratego pieces, or Confrontation pieces if you prefer. I glued the round and flat pieces to 16 of them and cut the edges to look like parts of a crown and stuck them to both of the last two. The game had four knights, four ladies, and a queen on each side because that's what the paint tray told me to do.

The ladies jumped like powerful checkers, both diagonally and orthogonally, because I needed pieces that would quickly get beyond the opponent's pieces. Knights also jump well, and, hey, they are the coolest pieces on the chess board. And queens are fun.

Each piece had a wooden ball Velcroed to its back, and four balls were red, four were blue, and one was green. Your job is to capture the opponent's piece with the green ball. Why? Uh, because, uh, the pieces are courtiers and each has a secret letter, and you want to intercept the green one that the opponent has while keeping yours secret. Why not? I believe a great theme will not save a bad game, so I usually focus on mechanisms first and theme later.

"At the beginning of the game," I'd tell players, "you take your pieces and rip their balls off." I thought that line would play well with the female players and get a groan from the males. "Then you reattach them to whichever pieces you want, and place the pieces on the second and third ranks of the chess board. Finally, the game begins with the Germans moving first."

Germans? Well, many of the players at the Game of the Afternoon are German, and all the pieces had names to make it easy to take notes on which pieces you had seen with which colored balls. So the white pieces were all named after famous Germans, and the black pieces after famous Brits, specifically people who had been knighted. I picked Queen Victoria for the black queen, and Kaiserin Friedrich for the white queen. "Kaiserin Friedrich" is actually Queen Victoria's German name, which I thought was very clever, so the same person had two pieces on the board. Only I thought it was clever. Ah, well.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Queen Victoria prepares to sneak a peek – image courtesy of Henning Kröpke

I playtested it quite a bit with friends, several of whom said that it was a new design that would be worth publishing. Aw, shucks, I just wanted to win the Game of the Afternoon, playing to the audience and showing them something neat.

I named the game Mirror Mirror, and it did win the Game of the Afternoon in 2010 against three other excellent game designers. I was awarded a cake, which I immediately shared with everyone. At the end of the convention where this competition happened, one of the designers put his game on the prize table, so I decided to put mine up there as well. I was done with it.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
During the convention, I happened to be sitting with Rick Soued, who published a game designed by my friend Kory Heath called Uptown, and was reintroducing it as Blockers!, with a small but important rule change and a very different set of pieces. Rick introduced me to another designer who had a game that Rick was planning on publishing, and the three of us sat and discussed how to improve that game. Rick and I traded solutions to the game's problems, and we seemed to work well together. And working with smart designers is always a lot of fun, which is why I do it whenever possible.

Rick got an early pick from the prize table and picked up my game. He brought it over to me and said, "Can you teach me this? And if it's good, can I publish it?" Hell yeah. I taught it to him and his wife, and they enjoyed the game, so I took the game back from him to tighten it up.

Now the real work began. Ideas are actually pretty easy. They spring from our intuitive mind, which links disparate patterns into something new, and I've been practicing for most of my life to listen to my intuition and encourage it. But once you have an idea, the hard work is presenting that idea in its best form. In this game, that meant changing the pieces, the board, and nuances of the rules to make the original idea shine best.

Finding the queen too powerful, I changed it to a chess king and switched one knight to another king, giving a pleasing four lady, three knight, two king set. I changed the balls to "letters", the important one being a red love letter to some princess, with the decoy letters being blue and green. I needed an odd number of pieces so there are an even number of decoy letters, which makes a blind guess as to the letter color worse than a break-even play, although sometimes necessary when desperate. I tried out these combinations, among others, to see what played best. I spent a lot of time trying the endgame to see whether two knights could corner a single king, or two kings could corner a single knight. Eventually I decided that if you got down to just one piece, you should perforce lose, so I simply made that the rule. As fun as it may be for chess players to do the endgame, I doubted that it would be fun for most players.

Speaking of chess, I get to throw out the rule about "check", which I submit is a bad rule in chess. In my experience, you don't need a rule to stop players from making bad moves and not being allowed to move into check causes stalemates, which is dissatisfying and not fun. So when making a chess-like game, I get to fix chess.

After more playtesting, often with myself or with my twelve-year-old daughter, then with many game designers whom I admire, I felt the game was ready to send back to Rick. I made a wooden model for how I thought the pieces might be created, packed it with the original pieces (now modified for the new rules), and shipped them off.

Board Game: Mirror, Mirror

Since I have no eye for art, I enlisted my friend Alex Bradley to do the art. I believe he did more work on the game than I did, and it shows in his great characters and the cover. Rick and his group also did enormous work, figuring out how to make the pieces, working with Alex on the art, designing the box back, and making the rules look good. As expected, it was easy to work with Rick: he'd suggest something, and I almost always agreed that it was genius, and when I suggested something, he'd say I was a genius. Egos were stroked, good decisions were made, and a lovely game was created – which is running as a Kickstarter project through August 10, 2011.

In 2010, I was given four game spinners, a bag of suction cup hooks, a square of fake giraffe skin, the theme of "espionage", and a year to put them together in a game. The idea came to me all at once, in seconds.

Jacob Davenport
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