How to print on blank game cards: Prototyping tips

Many game designers are going to need to create prototype cards at some point. You have choices about how to do this.

Some people start with index cards and markers – a fine place to begin.

For me, I tend to start with a simple Excel template (no art) that lets me print out a page with a dozen cards, cut them up, and drop them into sleeves with Magic cards.

Paper slips printed in Excel, cut up, and dropped into sleeves with other cards

Paper slips printed in Excel, cut up, and dropped into sleeves with other cards (Chaos & Alchemy Substances playtest from last year)

Eventually, I get to a point where I want to make better-looking prototype cards, but not to the point where I want to order cards from The Game Crafter or anything like that. What to do?

Stickers – too expensive

For several months this year, I went with stickers. You can get Avery name badge labels that are just the right size to stick on a poker-size card (2.5″ by 3.5″ – the size of a Magic: The Gathering card, for instance). These come on sheets that are ready to run through your printer, and you can even get templates that size everything perfectly.

Old Alchemy Bazaar prototypes made with stickers

Old Alchemy Bazaar prototypes made with stickers

There are two problems with this approach, though. The first is cost: Each sticker will run you about 8 cents apiece based on the current Amazon price of $32 for a box of 400 labels (50 sheets, 8 labels to a sheet). That doesn’t even count the cost of ink to print on these cards.

Since I was using blank white cards from the Game Crafter (about 2 cents apiece when I bought them; looks like they’re 2.5 cents now), I wanted to print directly onto the cards. I couldn’t find anywhere that taught me how to do this, so I figured it out for myself. Now I’m teaching you.

Step 1: Create the file you’re going to print

Real designers will use things like PhotoShop and InDesign to make nice-looking cards. I do have an old version of PhotoShop Elements that I use near the end of this process (as you’ll see), but I like using Paint.NET. It’s a free program and I find it to be very user-friendly and flexible.

My template basically consists of a 3 by 3 grid layer to guide my positioning of the cards beneath. The file is at 150 ppi (so, not professional print quality, but plenty good for prototyping), and it’s 10 inches tall by 7.2 inches wide. This means that each card is 2.38 inches by 3.31 inches. I’ve found this to be a good size for cards that I want to drop into sleeves with Magic cards. However, I want them bigger when it comes to printing on the actual physical blank cards.

Grid to overlay card designs for prototyping

Grid to overlay card designs for prototyping

From there, I manually create cards by typing in text, coloring backgrounds, adding picture, etc. Here’s a sample page from the Apprentices mini-expansion for Chaos & Alchemy that I’m currently prototyping.

Sample cards for Chaos & Alchemy - Apprentices

Sample cards for Chaos & Alchemy – Apprentices

Now, the one thing I don’t love about Paint.NET is that I have a terrible time trying to print from it. Thus, I copy the merged image from Paint.NET into Adobe PhotoShop Elements and save it as a PDF. That’s what I’m going to print.

Also, to get a clean printout without grid lines, I want to save a version of my cards without grid lines (just hide the grid layer in your file).

Same as above, but with the grid lines turned off

Same as above, but with the grid lines turned off

PDF of the blank grid

PDF of the card images

PDF of the cards WITHOUT the grid

Step 2: Print a template on card stock

So far when I’ve done this step, I’ve printed the actual full image with the words and pictures and everything, but I’ve since realized that I could instead just print the grid.

As I mentioned, I’ve sized this file so that it works if I want to print on regular paper, cut it up, and drop it into sleeves with Magic cards. But if I’m printing directly onto full-size poker cards, I want the image to be bigger.

Fortunately, I’ve found that if I just tell my printer to use the “Fit” option when printing from Adobe Acrobat Reader rather than the “Actual Size” option, things work perfectly.

Note that the Fit option is selected, not Actual Size

Note that the Fit option is selected, not Actual Size

This leaves me with a piece of card stock with a blank grid on it. I made a little note to remember which side is the top; that’s the side that goes through my printer first (it’s more or less symmetrical, but better safe than sorry).

Printed grid, ready for glue

Printed grid, ready for glue

Step 3: Put a dab of 2-way glue in the four corners of each spot on the grid

This was the piece of the process that I struggled to find: Glue that would hold the cards in place on the template as they went through the printer, but would let them go cleanly afterward. I went to a craft store, and someone pointed me toward ZIG Memory System 2-Way Glue (I use the broad tip version).

When you put this glue on your card stock, it will be blue at first. But if you wait a few moments, it will turn clear. The beauty of this type of glue is that when it’s clear, it forms a temporary bond. Perfect!

You can barely see the glue spots, so I've circled them

You can barely see the glue spots, so I’ve circled them

I’ll note that when I first tried this stuff, I smeared it all over the template. That turned out to be overkill; a bit in each corner of each card does the trick much more cleanly.

Step 4: Wait for the glue to turn clear, then position your cards on the template

Pretty straightforward. Make sure you press on each corner of each card a little bit so that it will hold.

Ready for printing!

Ready for printing!

Step 5: Print the no-grid version of your cards – Use the Fit option again

If you’ve positioned everything properly, this should work like a charm.

Tah dah!

Tah dah!

Step 6: Peel your finished cards off the template

Make sure you let the ink dry a bit first so that you don’t smudge it

Finished Cards

Step 7: Position new cards on the template and repeat

No need for more glue! I’ve done five or six pages of cards in a row without having to worry about reapplying glue. I imagine you could do a lot more than that if you wanted to.


First, let me clarify that this is only appropriate later in the development process, when you want some nicer-looking cards than the scraps of paper in sleeves approach.

Second, this is not the only approach. I know some folks will print cards on heavy card stock and then cut them out, even rounding the corners. I’m sure that’s a great approach; I haven’t done it myself.

Third, yes, you only get nine cards at a time this way. It’s still pretty quick to do, but the process is stick blank cards on the grid, print one page, peel the cards off, repeat. If you’re doing 200 cards, it will get old. 50 isn’t bad at all, though. And it’s no slower than stickers.

Fourth, this works best if you’re okay with a white background on your cards. I’ve tried it with borders, and it can work if you’re really careful, but that’s tricky to pull off. With white borders, even if your card is shifted a bit on the template, it’s not a problem.

Fifth, I recommend printing on “draft” or “fast” quality. Blank cards aren’t the same as photo paper, and even on “standard” rather than “high” quality, things can come out a bit muddy. Also, it takes longer for the ink to try if you go above “draft” quality, at least on my printer.

Sixth, I’ve only tried this with a color inkjet printer. I have no idea if this would work on a laser printer.

The finished product

In the end, I’m really happy with this approach. With stickers, the extra thickness made the cards a bit weird to shuffle; that doesn’t seem to be the case with this approach. It’s cheaper, and it feels less wasteful.

If anyone else tries this approach to making some nice-looking prototype cards, I’d love to hear about it!

Some sample cards from Otters - along with the star of this show, the glue

Some sample cards from Otters – along with the star of this show, the glue

P.S. I’m still eager for people to try the print-and-play version of Otters. Download the cards here, and download the rules here!

Michael Iachini – Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Kickstarter projects I’ve backed: Number 1 through 10 (chronologically)

The first time I ever backed a Kickstarter project was nearly two and a half years ago as of this writing – early in 2011. Today, I thought I’d take a look back at the first 10 projects I backed and note what made me want to back it, what level I backed at, and how it turned out. (Part 2 of this series is at this link.)

1. ZEITGEIST Adventure Path from EN World – April 2011

This was the first Kickstarter campaign I ever backed. EN World, where I was an active forum member at the time, was getting ready to publish their ZEITGEIST campaign. I was running their War of the Burning Sky campaign at the time for my online game, and I loved it. Furthermore, I had participated in a loose play-by-forum playtest of the first ZEITGEIST adventure run by its designer, Ryan Nock.

Why I backed it: I loved that play-by-forum taste of the campaign and I wanted to support it.

My pledge: All right, this is a little insane, and I’ve never done anything like this since. I actually ponied up a $500 pledge to participate in a game Ryan would be running at Gen Con 2011.

How it turned out: The campaign didn’t hit its funding goal. That’s probably a good thing for me, since I’ve run a grand total of one adventure in this campaign. I would have felt pretty dumb being out $500 on this in the end.

Interesting side note: EN World came back much later to run a Kickstarter for this adventure path, and I decided not to back it because I thought it was too expensive. Times change!

2. Dungeonmorph Dice – May 2011

Why I backed it: I thought the dice looked really cool, and there was an outside chance I might use them to put together a dungeon map on the fly someday.

My pledge: $20, for a set of five dice.

How it turned out: I eventually received my dice. They look cool. I don’t believe I’ve ever rolled them. Still, I feel fine about the experience.

3. Compact Heroes – June 2011

Why I backed it: I liked the concept of the game (an RPG based on a deck of cards – frankly, a little bit like the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game).

My pledge: $50 for two starter decks.

How it turned out: I received my decks, more or less on time as I recall. I’ll admit that I’ve never played the game. Sigh. On a brighter note, the designer, Rod Waibel, was really helpful when I was trying to figure out how best to print Chaos & Alchemy cards a year later.

4. Mutant Meeples – December 2011

Why I backed it: The game looked like a lot of fun – a cool twist on Ricochet Robots (which I had played years before but did not own). I’ll admit that the video was pretty slick, too.

My pledge: $60 for the game and its expansion

How it turned out: I believe that this holds the record for the longest delay between when the game was supposed to be delivered (February 2012) and when it was actually delivered (December 2012, if I remember right) so far. It’s a pretty cool game, but I’ve only played it once or twice.

Side note: I have no idea why I didn’t back anything between June and December of 2011.

5. Gaming Dice in Chocolate and Sugar – December 2011

Why I backed it: Come on, these are cool! D&D dice that you can eat; awesome. Also, the creator was a fellow Coloradan.

My pledge: $25 for a chocolate set and a sugar set of dice.

How it turned out: Delicious! There were some production delays, but I was very happy with the final product.

6. The Order of the Stick Reprint Drive – February 2012

Why I pledged: I love Order of the Stick, and I hadn’t been able to find a copy of War and XPs anywhere.

My pledge: $45 for a copy of War and XPs (I wanted to pledge $60 for a signed copy, but those went too fast)

How it turned out: Awesome! The book is great.

7. Monster Stock Art and Minis – March 2012

Why I pledged: At the time, I had recently put out my free D&D 4th Edition adventure trilogy The Staff of Suha, and I thought that I might want to have some monster art to use in case I published future adventures like that one. Also, the monster art could be useful for the online games I was running in MapTool.

My pledge: $140 for a license to use all of the art that came out of the project commercially.

How it turned out: Until I started putting this blog post together, there was no way I could have remembered that I spent $140 on this art. I’ve barely used any of it in my MapTool games (which I stopped running in mid-2012 when I moved on to board game design), and I haven’t published any new adventures. Quality art, but a waste of money on my end.

8. Admiral ‘o the High Seas – Naval Adventures from EN World

Why I pledged: Largely to support the ZEITGEIST campaign (see item 1 on this list). I didn’t care much about the naval combat rules themselves.

My pledge: $45 for a PDF of the new supplement and the right to name a character or location in an upcoming ZEITGEIST adventure.

How it turned out: I turned the abbreviation for Online Dungeon Master, ODM, into a word – Odiem – that EN World used as the name of a spooky island location in a ZEITGEIST adventure. Cool. I’m happy with the investment.

9. DoubleFine Adventure

Why I pledged: I’ll admit it; I jumped on the bandwagon. I mean sure, I enjoy this type of game, but I’m really not a big video gamer these days and I wouldn’t have signed on if it weren’t for the “Kickstarter phenomenon” part of this campaign.

My pledge: $15 for a copy of the game.

How it turned out: Well, the game isn’t done yet. I guess this is really the most-delayed project I’ve backed (Mutant Meeples, you’re off the hook). They’ve apparently been putting out videos about the process, but I haven’t bothered to look at any of them (I just don’t care). A waste of money for the most part, but only a $15 waste.

10. Prismatic Art Collection – May 2012

Why I pledged: Mainly because I wanted to support a project that Tracy Hurley and Daniel Solis care about (two people I respect greatly). Also because the art might be useful for any adventures I might release on my site (same rationale as for the Monster Stock Art project).

My pledge: $25 for a thank-you on their web site.

How it turned out: Some art has been released. I haven’t used any of it. But I helped Tracy and Daniel reach their goal, so I’m fine with that.

Scorecard for my first 10 projects:

  • Number that were actually funded: 9/10
  • Number that were eventually delivered: 8/9 (and I think that DoubleFine will eventually come through, too, making this 9/9)
  • Number that I feel were ultimately worth it in retrospect: 6/9 (the three exceptions being Compact Heroes, Monster Stock Art and DoubleFine Adventure)
  • Total money spent: $425
  • Money spent on not-worth-it projects: $205 (sigh)

What’s next?

As of this writing, I’ve backed 49 total projects. I like the idea of going through them 10 at a time, so I’ll probably do 11-20 in the near future. (Edit: Here they are!)

What about you – how many Kickstarter projects have you backed, and how many have been worth it in retrospect?

Michael the OnlineDM

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

The importance of imbalance

Update: In my next post, I talk about how I fixed this particular problem for Alchemy Bazaar.

My current primary board game design project, Alchemy Bazaar, has been under development for about six months. I’ve personally conducted over 30 full playtest sessions, and I’ve had at least five other groups elsewhere conduct blind playtests. It’s been exhibited at a local convention, local game stores, at board game Meetups and elsewhere.

An earlier prototype of Alchemy Bazaar in action

An earlier prototype of Alchemy Bazaar in action

Throughout Alchemy Bazaar’s development, I’ve been taking careful notes of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been especially looking for places where the game can be simplified (which I’ve written about before).

I’ve also had a keen eye on balance. This is a game with a wide variety of alchemical shops, formula cards and action cards. Many times, I’ve tweaked one of these that seemed overpowered or underpowered to bring it in line with the others.

Each playtest gave me fewer and fewer of these power level tweaks to make. I was approaching balance across the board. Success?

Well, as the game was becoming more balanced, it was becoming less fun.

This was brought into stark relief for me when my friend Nate, who lives in Seattle, agreed to try a blind playtest with his group there. His group is made up of pretty hardcore gamers, and when Nate called to talk to me about his experience, the news wasn’t good.

Now, part of the problem was a misunderstanding of the rules, and I’ve since clarified the rulebook so that this won’t happen again. But the main problem is that the players felt like their choices weren’t meaningful. If all of the shops were about as good as one another and the same was true for the formulas and actions, then every turn would be about the same as every other..

Alchemy Bazaar had become too balanced.


Nate had a hard time putting this into words, and it was fortunate that he was going to be visiting me in Colorado just a few weeks after this playtest in Seattle. When he was here in person, we were able to sit down and talk through things. Eventually I hit on this question of whether the game might be overbalanced, and he agreed that yes, that was it exactly.

Nate used to work as a designer on Magic: The Gathering, and he pointed out that this was a lesson Magic designers had to learn, too. It helps to explain why the existence of mana screw is actually good for the game; if you never have mana screw, you won’t have that sublime joy and excitement of curving out perfectly.

Look at any game that has great success; chances are it’s not perfectly balanced. I don’t mean that players have unequal chances of winning at the start; that’s a bad kind of imbalance, in my opinion. I mean that there are some options that are more powerful than others, and players will likely be vying over these and excited when they get them.

A great game will have more situational variety in power level. By that, I mean that some options will be really powerful in certain situations and less powerful in others. That’s a wonderful thing to have in games.

But if you balance your game to the point where every choice is about as good as every other choice, you’ve overbalanced. Choices feel meaningless at that point, which is the death knell for any game.

Make sure your game has some intentional imbalance. Even though this means players will sometimes be disappointed by getting a less-powerful option, this is worth it for the excitement of getting that awesome choice at just the right time. Game design is an art, not just a science; don’t forget that!

Michael Iachini, Clay Crucible Games

ClayCrucible on Twitter

P.S. My first game, Chaos & Alchemy, is going to be on Kickstarter from Game Salute very, very soon. It has an awesome amount of fun imbalance, I promise. 🙂

DIY banner stand

First, a quick RPG note: I did play and run some D&D (4th Edition) at an event called Gator Con a few weeks ago. This was a fund raiser for a high school gaming club here in Colorado, which I thought was pretty cool. I ended up playing my first-ever paragon Living Forgotten Realms game with my first LFR character, Rhogar the half-elf paladin.

I then ran two games, one of which was from my MyRealms series and one of which was a random LFR adventure that my players hadn’t played before. A good time was had by all, but it was a long day!

Now to the topic for this post: Banner stands.

You may recall that many months ago I reviewed a web site called Banners on the Cheap. They were apparently looking to get the word out about their site, so they offered a number of bloggers (including me) some store credit if we would review what we received. I liked what I got (a horizontal banner for Chaos & Alchemy) and reviewed the site accordingly.

My original banner from Gen Con 2012

My original banner from Gen Con 2012

Now I’m getting ready for Denver Comic Con, at which I will be demoing my games (mostly Chaos & Alchemy, but I’m hoping to demo Alchemy Bazaar as well). I’ll have a table as well as space to set up a vertical banner.

I decided to go back to Banners on the Cheap to order the actual banner, which I’m happy with (image file below).

Banner for Denver Comic Con 2013

Banner for Denver Comic Con 2013

But the next step was to get a banner stand. Frankly, I haven’t been able to find good information about the pros and cons of different types of stands, so I ultimately decided to take the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach.

Using my projector rig

Those of you who have been following my D&D posts for a long time probably know that I run games in-person using MapTool and my projector rig. It’s been a fantastic investment for me over the past few years, and I don’t know if I’ll run D&D any other way.

The projector rig, without the projector attached

The projector rig, without the projector attached

Projector mount - rear view

Projector mount – rear view

The vertical pipe from my projector rig is 5 feet tall, and my banner is 6 feet tall. So, all I needed to do was to get a junction, a 12 inch extension, a tee and a dowel, and I would have a rig ready to hold a banner!

The banner stand, without the banner attached

The banner stand, without the banner attached

As you can see in the picture above, I’ve replaced the elbow, the pipe nipple, the flange and the board from the top of the projector stand with a reducer coupling (going from 1 inch diameter to 1/2 inch diameter), a 12-inch piece of pipe, a pipe tee and a 5/8″ diameter wooden dowel. You can see a closer view of the top of the new stand below.

Top section of the banner stand

Top section of the banner stand

Now all I needed was a way to actually attach the banner to the dowel at the top. There are “proper” ways to do this, but I decided to go with a “simple” way: binder clips. Would you believe that the office supply store carries them in gold? Heck yeah!

Note the awesome gold binder clips

Note the awesome gold binder clips

I discovered that just letting the banner hang this way caused the bottom of the banner to wrinkle up, so I clipped another dowel to the bottom, with the bottom edge of the banner wrapped around it.

Banner Bottom

Now everything was hanging the way I wanted.

Complete banner stand with banner on display

Complete banner stand with banner on display

I have to say, I’m really happy with the way this turned out. I spent $12 on hardware and another $4 on the binder clips, so a total of $16 to adapt my projector rig into a banner stand. I might end up taping back the white borders on the side or something like that, but either way, this is going to work.

If you want to build this type of stand yourself, you can skip the big pipe coupled to a small pipe and just go with the following:

  • Base board (about 1 inch thick, about 12 inches by 12 inches)
  • Pipe flange (1/2 inch diameter should be fine) with appropriate screws
  • 6-foot long section of pipe (1/2 inch diameter) – or whatever length you need for your banner
  • Tee junction
  • A pair of 3-foot long dowel rods (5/8 inch diameter) – or whatever width you need for your banner
  • 6 binder clips (large size)

That’s it! I’m guessing this will cost you about $25 or so, all in. Not bad for a DIY banner stand.

Anyway, if you’re going to be at Denver Comic Con 2013 on Saturday or Sunday, June 1-2, come look for me and try out some games.

-Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

Clay Crucible Games

Simplify, Simplify – Streamlining game design

I’m still a relatively new game designer, so I’m learning all the time. One of the best lessons I’ve learned so far about good game design can be summed up by the famous quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.”

Walden Pond

Thoreau was talking about life in general, but I’m talking about game design. My design process tends to have me start with an idea, ponder it in the back of my mind for a while (Chaos & Alchemy had very little pondering, but my other games have had more), put a prototype together, and start playtesting. My first playtests should be solo, followed by a game with my wife (though I admit that I’ve typically subjected my wife to my embryonic game ideas more often than not). After some initial revisions, I’ve historically played with a core group of friends, including my good friend Nate.

Nate is a professional game designer. He has worked on some very well known tabletop games in the past, and he currently works on electronic games. I’m very sad that he and his wife recently left Colorado, where I live, because Nate has a terrific skill for a designer like me: He can see what needs to be cut out of a game.

I’ve almost invariably found that my games start off too complicated. Too many moving pieces, too many decisions, too many things to remember for the players. I want to make games that are easy to learn and intuitive to play, which means that I have to simplify.

Example 1: Chaos & Alchemy dice

Those of you who have played Chaos & Alchemy know the basic turn mechanic: You conduct an Experiment by rolling three six-sided dice. Each die that matches or beats the shared Fortune Die counts as a Success and each die that’s lower than the Fortune Die counts as a Failure. You also get one Free Success per turn. Each Success lets you either draw a card or play a card, and each Failure forces you to discard a card.


In the earliest prototype of the game, players were only rolling two dice. They also were allowed to draw one card for free and play one card for free each turn, in whatever order they wished. This allowed for a lot of flexibility, but it was hard to keep track of.

My first solution to this tracking problem was to create three tracker cards for each player: Draw, Play, and Roll. When you drew your card for the turn, you flipped the Draw card over. When you rolled your Experiment dice, you flipped your Roll card over. When you took your free play, you flipped your Play card over. It worked, but it was still fiddly.

Nate’s suggestion was to eliminate the Roll card, since it was usually easy to remember if you had rolled yet. Simple enough.

He then suggested getting rid of the Play card and adding a third die to the Experiment. There was still a free Draw, but we were down to one tracker.

Naturally, Nate then suggested eliminating that card as well… and I tried it. Ultimately, though, the most fun solution was to have the Free Success that I ended up using. It’s only one thing to track, and it uses another die, so it works just like other Successes. Also, as a fun side benefit, you get doubles (Chaos in the game) a lot more often with three dice than you do with two (4 out of every 9 rolls instead of 1 out of every 6), and rolling Chaos is cool.

Example 2: Alchemy Bazaar tile ownership

I know that I haven’t blogged in detail about Alchemy Bazaar very much, but it’s in active playtesting now and going very well. I’m excited about this one!

The basic idea is that players add shop tiles to an ever-growing bazaar of alchemical goods and formulas, then send their apprentices through the shops to get the things they need to conduct alchemical experiments. It was heavily inspired by Lords of Waterdeep (one of my favorite games).

Playtest game by my brother Danny, at the end of the game

Playtest game by my brother Danny, at the end of the game

In the initial version, whenever a player added a tile to the bazaar, they would put a small token on the tile to show that they owned it. Whenever another player’s apprentice would later use that tile, the owner would get a benefit.

It was fun, and it made sense to anyone who has played Lords of Waterdeep (its building tiles work the same way). After the first play-through with Nate, his only suggestion was to eliminate tile ownership.

Now, this required that I revamp the economy of the game somewhat, but Nate helped me see that the core fun of the game came from moving the apprentices around the bazaar. Shop ownership worked, but it was a bit of a distraction.

And you know what? Removing it hasn’t hurt the fun of the game one bit.

Example 3: Alchemy Bazaar walls

Another inspiration for Alchemy Bazaar was originally Alhambra, which has specific rules about the way the walls on the tiles can be played. Alchemy Bazaar’s shop tiles originally had walls, too, which created various passageways through the bazaar. It was kind of interesting, and it allowed for cards that would let players pass through walls or rotate tiles and such.

My first blind playtester for this game, as with Chaos & Alchemy, was my brother Danny, who lives in Pennsylvania. He was a real trouper, creating his own print and play version of the game, and most of his confusion came about with the rules for walls. Clearly, I needed to write the rulebook better.

Later, I took the game to Genghis Con, a local gaming convention here in Colorado, and ran seven games over the course of a couple of days. Feedback was fantastic, and I usually asked players what they thought about the walls. I was noticing that these games usually ended up with the walls not really coming into play very much.

I received two suggestions. One was to add more walls. If there aren’t enough walls to matter, then make more of them! This could work, and would make those tile manipulation cards more interesting, too.

The other suggestion: Do away with walls.

I decided to try the latter suggestion. And you know what? I don’t miss the walls one bit.

Yes, I had to get rid of the cards that only matter when walls exist, but that wasn’t a great loss. And now the game is much easier to teach; the wall rules took up more time in the explanation of rules than they were worth.

A game about moving around a bazaar could be very interesting with walls as a major component. But as it turns out, Alchemy Bazaar just doesn’t need them.

Keeping it simple

Now, there are certainly cases where an overly-simple design needs an extra mechanic or something to make it interesting. But it’s my belief that more often than not, what makes a good game design into a great one is the ability to simplify the game to the core of what makes it fun. With Nate no longer here in Colorado, I guess I’ll have to take that lesson to heart myself!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Online DM’s Kid-Friendly RPG

For Christmas 2010, my wife’s brother and his family stayed with us for a couple of weeks. We introduced my brother in law and his wife to Dungeons & Dragons, and they became big fans, continuing our game online via MapTool over the next couple of years.

My brother in law’s family also includes two kids, a girl who is currently 8 years old and a boy who is now 5. They’ve been really interested in D&D, so when the family came back to visit for Christmas 2012, I knew it was time to introduce them to role playing games.

Now, I love playing D&D 4th Edition, but I knew that there was no way my 8 year old niece and 5 year old nephew would be able to handle the game yet. I went searching for a version of D&D that could work for the children, and I took a great deal of inspiration from Newbie DM’s RPG Kids. Ultimately, though, I ended up going with something of my own creation, which I’m uncreatively calling my Kid-Friendly RPG (KFRPG if you need an acronym).

The rules

Each player has a half-page character sheet (see below). When you’re not in combat, the Kid-Friendly RPG works just like any other role-playing game – you tell the game master what you want to do, and the GM tells you what happens.

Character sheets

Feel free to use these character sheets yourself (note that there are two characters per page). I’ll note here that I do not own the character illustrations; if you own these illustrations and want me to take them down, just let me know. If you’re creating your own character sheets, I highly recommend having a big picture of the character on it for the kids.

Character sheets for half-elf ranger and human druid

Character sheets for halfling thief and dwarf paladin

Character sheets for human barbarian and wolfman warrior

Character sheets for zombie wizard and elf cleric


If a character tries something that might not work, the GM will ask for a d20 roll. In most cases, a 10 or better will succeed, but the GM is free to set the target higher or lower for harder or easier tasks.

If the character is trying to do something that’s connected to one of the three skills on their character sheet, they can roll the d20 twice and take the best result.


When combat breaks out, the party chooses a player to roll a d20 and the GM rolls a d20. If the party’s representative wins, their team will go first. If the GM wins, the bad guys will go first. Ties go to the party (ties always go to the players rather than the GM).

Rather than tracking initiative, each member of the party takes a turn, starting with the player to the GM’s left and proceeding clockwise around the table. The GM has the monsters take their turns in whatever order the GM wishes.

On a character’s turn, the character can move up to its speed (measured in squares on the board) and take an action. Most of the time, the action will be an attack, but other options include administering a healing potion to themselves or a friend, using a special power or trying something creative.

Attacking and Defending

Each character has an Attack die and a Defense die, ranging from d4 to d12. When you make an attack, roll your Attack die. Your target will roll its Defense die. If a player character’s Attack roll matches or beats the enemy’s Defense roll, the enemy takes 1 damage. Most enemies only have 1 hit point, so this is usually enough to take the enemy out.

When an enemy attacks a player character, the enemy rolls its Attack die and the player rolls the character’s Defense die. If the Defense roll is at least as high as the Attack roll, then the attack misses. If the Attack roll from the enemy is higher, then the player character takes 1 damage.

Note that in both cases, Attacking and Defending, ties go to the player character. So, if the player is attacking and rolls a 3 and the defender rolls a 3, it’s a hit on the enemy. But if an enemy is attacking a player character and they both roll a 3, it’s a miss on the player character.

Hit points

Each player character starts with 3 hit points, which are tracked with some kind of physical object (I use red poker chips). When the character takes damage, the player gives one of these chips to the GM. If the player has no more hit point chips, then the character is knocked out (not dead, just not able to act).


Each character starts with 1 healing potion, tracked with a green poker chip. One of the actions available in combat is to drink the healing potion or administer it to a friend. If a character drinks their own healing potion, they regain 1 hit point (the GM gives back a red chip). If a character administers it to a friend, the friend regains 1 hit point. However, if a character has the Heal skill and administers the potion to a friend, the friend regains 2 hit points. Note that a character with the Heal skill who drinks his or her own potion still just gets the 1 hit point (your Heal skill only helps friends).

If a character is knocked out, a character with the Heal skill can use an action in battle to try to heal the knocked out character, even without a healing potion. The healer can roll the d20 twice, and if they get a 15 or better, the knocked out character regains 1 hit point. A character without the Heal skill can try this, too, but they only get one roll and still need a 15 or better.

If a battle ends with one or more player characters knocked out, those characters regain 1 hit point after laying there for a few minutes.

Special Powers

Each character has a special power, which starts charged up. This is represented by a blue poker chip. If the player wants to use his or her character’s special power, they give the blue chip to the GM and then carry out the instructions.

Range of attack

Most attacks are melee attacks, which means that the character needs to be next to the target. If a Range is specified, the character can be that many squares away from the target and can still attack.


If two player characters are both adjacent to an enemy, they have the advantage on that enemy (they do not need to be in flanking positions, just both adjacent). A player character with the advantage gets a one-size bigger die for attacks (if the attack die is a d12, just add 1 to the result of the roll). Having advantage doesn’t help on defense.

Enemies can benefit from advantage at the GM’s discretion (a good rule of thumb is that you need 3 or 4 adjacent enemies to get advantage for them).


Each character has a Speed number, which is the number of squares they can move on a turn in addition to taking an action. The default is 5, with fast characters having 6 and slow characters having 4.

If a character doesn’t take another action, they can move their speed twice on a turn.


Most enemies have 1 hit point and a d6 for both attacking and defending, and they only attack in melee. They do not have special powers or healing potions.

A tougher or easier enemy might have bigger or smaller dice for attacks or defense. They might have a ranged attack (generally with a range no more than 5 squares). They might have a slight twist to their attack, such as an attack that grabs a character and doesn’t let it get away until the enemy is destroyed.

A boss enemy might have 3 hit points and a special power, just like a character (though no healing potions).

Optional rule: Charging

If a character wants to charge a far-off enemy, the character can move its speed and then move its speed again with an attack at the end of the second move. This attack uses a die that’s one size smaller than the character’s usual attack die (since it’s hard to attack while running).

Optional rule: Opportunity attacks

If you want to teach your players about tactical movement, you can rule that moving past an enemy without fighting it will let the enemy take a free attack at the character (which can work both ways for player characters and enemies).


So, that’s the game. I ran this with two kids and three adults (which later ballooned to five adults as more people joined in). We played a short adventure that involved three fights and a trap (note: the kids just didn’t get the trap at all), plus a bunch of role playing at the tavern at the beginning. The game lasted somewhere between an hour and a half and two hours. The kids had a blast, as did I. The rules are simple and they encourage lots of improvisation all around.

If you end up trying this out with your own group of kids, please let me know how it goes!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Making the Game part 9 – Production

Previous entry: Part 8

Welcome back to my blog series Making the Game, in which I talk about the process of creating my card and dice game, Chaos & Alchemy. This is the final part in the actual making of the game – getting the physical item produced.

Chaos & Alchemy is a fairly simple physical object as games go. It consists of:

  • A box
  • A baggie full of dice
  • A label for the box
  • A rule booklet
  • A deck of cards

Each of these items needed to be sourced in a way that met my standards for quality but was as inexpensive as possible.


I have one word for you when it comes to boxes: Uline. I spent time thinking that I was going to use a little jewelry box from the Container Store, or possibly getting something custom printed from All Packaging Co. or something like that, but no. It was Uline. They have tons of choices, and they’re even happy to send you samples if you’re trying to decide among different options.

My own personal copy of Chaos & Alchemy (#1/125) in the box

Now, I did have to buy my boxes in a case of 500 even though I only needed 125, but that was okay. Uline. They’re awesome.

I’ll note here that I also got my dice baggies from Uline. Did I mention that they’re awesome?


As a role-playing gamer, I’m very familiar with Chessex when it comes to dice. I liked what they had to offer, and they offer discounts for bulk orders like mine, too. I didn’t want to only talk to one company, though, so I also reached out to Koplow.

Koplow was good in that they were willing to send me some samples (I had to pay for my sample dice – and shipping – from Chessex). However, their selection isn’t as broad as Chessex’s. Specifically, I was able to get some really sweet black dice with gold spots from Chessex, which went perfectly with the color scheme of the cards in my game (the card back and the dice go beautifully together). Koplow didn’t have that color combo.

Even though Koplow would have been a bit cheaper, I went with Chessex, and I think it was the right call for me.


My graphic designer, Bree (I’m telling you, game designers – hire her!), knows her stuff in the graphic design world, and she found some high-quality glossy label paper that I could use for my box. She designed the label itself, too – using the awesome cover art from Chris Rallis on the front, with a blurb about the game on the back, the ages / time / number of players on one side, and legal info / credits on the other side.

We had considered lots of different packaging options; for a long time, I thought I was going to be using a two-piece box with a belly band. Ultimately, though, the 4″ x 3″ x 2″ flip-top box from Uline was the perfect size for the cards, dice and rulebook, and a belly band made no sense. The sticker option was perfect.

The tricky part was actually getting the darn things printed. I wanted the quality to be excellent, so I wanted them done on a color laser printer, which I do not happen to own. After calling some different print places, I decided to go with Staples.

Staples had a little trouble with the PDF I was using for printing, apparently because Bree had created it on a Mac and their system was Windows. I was getting slightly off-color backgrounds to the text boxes on the label (and the rules sheet). The solution was for me to open the PDF in Photoshop Elements on my Windows computer and save it as a new PDF. Voila – no more weird background colors.

The PDF is formatted to do two labels per 8 1/2″ x 11″ page, which meant that they needed to be cut out using a paper cutter. My awesome wife Barbara handled all of the label cutting. I applied the labels to the boxes (very carefully) myself.

Rules sheet

There was a point after we had decided on the compact box that Bree and I thought we might go with a tiny little rulebook with a whole bunch of itty bitty pages. Ultimately we thought better of this and went with a single 11″ x 17″ sheet of paper that would be folded in half to form a four-page booklet, which could then be folded into ninths that would slide perfectly into the game box.

Bree designed the rules sheet in color, but did it in such a way that it would still look good in black and white. I really wanted to have color rulebooks for Chaos & Alchemy, but boy howdy is that expensive to print! I went with black and white here.

I had Staples print these, too, and we had some miscommunication about the price. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone with Fedex Kinkos for the black and white rule sheets. Live and learn.

For folding, my wife and I each got a bone folder (something I previously knew nothing about; apparently it’s used in scrapbooking) to make nice, precise folds. After doing one right, we had a template to work from, and things went swimmingly. We knocked out all 125 of these things in about an hour and a half.


I saved the big one for last. Chaos & Alchemy is fundamentally a card game, which meant that I needed to have some high-quality cards printed. I wasn’t sure how to do this, so very early on I reached out to Rod Waibel of Sacrosanct Games. I had backed Rod’s Kickstarter for Compact Heroes last year, and I figured that he might have some suggestions for me.

Rod came through like a champ (hence his credit as a “production consultant” in the rulebook). He pointed me toward Superior POD (print-on-demand) for small print runs and a company in Asia for a large print run if I get to that point.

Ah, Superior POD. I have such a love-hate relationship with them.


  • Great web site that gives you automatic quotes for any size order of any size card deck
  • Templates for print jobs are easy to download and easy to design to
  • Great product – the cards themselves look and feel really nice
  • Occasional bursts of great customer service – when they had printed the wrong sheet the wrong number of times on one of my early test orders, they reprinted the right sheet and got it out to me right away
  • Reasonable prices for a small print run
  • Ability to shrink-wrap the decks
  • Ability to print card boxes and rules booklets (though I didn’t use these)


  • Card boxes are very flimsy (which is why I didn’t use them)
  • A little unpredictability in lining up card fronts and backs (some cards come out a bit crooked)
  • Atrocious communication 80% of the time

Ultimately, I went with these guys, and I got my cards, and they look great, and I could afford them. I didn’t go with their card boxes, but that’s okay – I found another source (there’s this place called Uline…). The card crookedness isn’t a deal breaker; it’s a little less professional than I’d like, but it’s way better than I can do myself.

The customer service, though… wow. As I said, I had an awesome experience with my first one-off order when they fixed an error they had made very quickly. But ever since then, it’s been a nightmare.

My second one-off order, with the final card images, was a mess. I paid extra to have one-day turnaround, and two days later I got an email in the afternoon telling me that there was a problem and that I’d have to re-do my files. This meant that I ended up getting three-day turnaround, and some snippy emails from customer service in the process (granted, I was a bit snippy at that point myself).

My main order was nearly a nightmare. I don’t want to go into all of the details here, but suffice it to say that I went out of my way to try to do everything perfectly, and I was met with absolute silence until it was too late. I got my cards almost a week later than I should have, and then there were issues with the shipping charge…

But you know what? I got my cards, and they look awesome. I had a lot of stress along the way, but the final product is great, and I’m a happy customer.

I would recommend Superior POD as a company to work with for small print runs like mine, but I would caution you to build it plenty of extra time to the process. Fortunately, I had left myself eight days of wiggle room, and while I needed six of them, it all worked out.

This game comes with everything you see here!


Since I did so many pre-orders, I’ll say a few words on shipping. Single copies of the game are shipped in bubble mailers. Multiple copies (2-4) are shipped in cardboard boxes I have lying around (I’ll often make a box that’s the right size by cutting down a larger box). More than that (5+) go in a medium flat-rate box from USPS. Single copies weigh only 9 ounces, so I use first-class mail. Multiple copies are over 13 ounces, which means either parcel post or priority mail, so I’ve been springing for the priority mail option. It seems to have gone great, too, so I plan to stick with it.

And there you have it! The nitty gritty of production. I’ve shipped out about 50 games, delivered a few more to friends in Colorado, consigned some to an FLGS in Colorado, brought a few with me to Indianapolis to deliver to folks who pre-ordered for GenCon delivery, and brought the rest along to try and sell here at GenCon.

Wish me luck!

Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

P.S. If you’re at GenCon and want me to demo Chaos & Alchemy for you, send me an email at or watch my Twitter feed for updates on where I am at what time!

Making the Game part 8 – Marketing

Previous entryPart 7 / Next entry: Part 9

Welcome back to my blog series Making the Game, in which I talk about the process of creating my card and dice game, Chaos & Alchemy. Today, it’s time to talk about getting people interested in the game.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a natural salesman. I have a good head on my shoulders and am easy enough to get along with, but I’m not someone who will naturally draw people in and make them want to buy whatever I’m selling. Still, when you run your own company and have a good product (even if it’s a game), you have to be able to get the word out if you plan to actually get people to buy it.

Because I had so many parts moving at the same time, I had to figure out marketing while I was still developing the game itself. It’s not an easy task to market a product that you don’t yet have available for sale! But it can be done.


Frankly, the blog series you’re reading right now is a form of marketing. Those of you who read my blog regularly and like my style might be interested in a game written and developed by me. I don’t want to force Chaos & Alchemy on my blog readers, and I do intend to keep writing about Dungeons & Dragons, but I realized early on that I was putting a lot of my gaming energy into my new card and dice game, which meant that there was little left over for D&D.

Also, I write my blog because of passion, not because of some goal of being hired as an RPG writer or anything like that. Since I’m passionate about my new game, I’m writing about it! No one has complained so far, so I think I’ve done an okay job of balancing “Here’s something else I’m passionate about, even though you probably started reading my blog for D&D stuff” with “Here’s some D&D content, too.”

Web Site

With a new game and a new game company, I was going to need a web site for it. I did the first part of this fairly early on, registering a bunch of domain names related to my game, but I didn’t start a real site right away. Once I was ready, I called up the company I use for hosting here at and learned that the simplest approach would be for me to upgrade my existing web hosting account to allow for multiple sites on the same account.

The web site for Chaos & Alchemy came in fits and starts. At first I was hosting it at, since the name of my game company is Clay Crucible Games. However, I made a marketing decision that I didn’t really care so much about the Clay Crucible Games brand, at least not now, since the focus should really be on the game itself. Thus, I migrated everything to

At first, I just had a simple home page. Since I’m familiar with WordPress from this blog, I installed it for use on the Chaos & Alchemy site as well. I used the logo that Bree, my awesome graphic designer, had put together for the banner at the top of the home page. I wrote a few lines describing the game and left an email address as a “for more information” link.

Then, as I started getting actual content, I started adding pages to the site. When artwork for the cards started coming in, I added an Art Gallery page. When I was ready to accept pre-orders, I added a tab for that. Sample cards. Rules. Print-and-play cards. FAQs. Even a page with a link to all of these blog posts for people who want to read about how the game developed over time.

The web site is obviously important from a marketing perspective because it’s the only way I have right now to let people actually buy the game. It’s also the way for people who are curious about the game to figure out if they want to buy it or not by letting them see the rules, the cards and the artwork.

I should note here that I intentionally decided to take a very open approach to my game on the web site. The full rules are available for download with all of their glorious formatting, as is a set of print-and-play cards for people who want to try the game out and don’t mind a little arts and crafts work. The print-and-play cards don’t have the artwork and formatting, but that’s intentional – there has to be something special you get for actually buying the game aside from a box and dice! 🙂

The rules look beautiful; this is the inside of the booklet.


I don’t have a ton of Twitter followers; I just passed my first demi-milliwheaton (250 followers), but I have enough that makes it worthwhile to let folks know about the development of my game. I try to make sure that my Chaos & Alchemy related tweets are something I think will interest my followers; stuff about game development, calls for playtesters, announcements about new stuff they can check out, etc. I try to be sensitive not to flood my feed with marketing, but I know that I have followers who are interested in the game.

As with lots of marketing, it’s a fine line.


I have a personal Facebook page for friends and family, most of whom are not gamers. Still, I popped onto Facebook with the occasional post about my game, mainly focusing on how excited I was about it. I did let people know about pre-ordering, and I was surprised to see how many non-gamer friends and family did so, just to support me. I have awesome people in my life.

Suffice it to say, this is not a marketing channel I plan to use much any more now that the game is done and I don’t have tons of exciting announcements about the thrill of development. But if anything changes with the game (expansions, etc.) I’ll mention it for folks who might be interested. I’d rather my customers be mostly gamers rather than just kind friends and family in the end.


This is one that I knew about but that I waited to get involved with until the game was done. I’m glad I finally jumped on board, though, because BoardGameGeek is a community that’s great to be a part of. I’ve found it enlightening just to read the forums over there.

Once I was ready to talk about Chaos & Alchemy on BGG, I started a thread in their Board Game Design forum where I mentioned the game, talked a bit about it and linked to the site. I was encouraged by the folks on that forum to submit my game to the BGG database, where it has now been accepted and even expanded upon by other users (another kind user submitted a link to the game rules).

Intriguingly, BoardGameGeek was also how I was contacted by a person from a well-established game company asking if I would be willing to swap a copy of Chaos & Alchemy for a copy of one of their games. Having a game publisher approach me to say that they wanted to get their hands on my game… well that’s pretty cool! My game was also added to a list of “games debuting at GenCon.” Which brings me to…


As I mentioned in an earlier post, once we realized that Chaos & Alchemy had actual potential, my wife told me that I should go to GenCon to show it off. While I plan to find open tables and drape my banner over them, demoing the game to anyone who’s up for it, I thought it might be good to spread the word a bit more as well.

The banner I’ll be displaying at GenCon


First, I happened to hear about the GenCon Social on the Jennisodes podcast. This is an event that’s mainly for RPG podcasters rather than card and board game players, but it sounded like a fun event. If I were to pay some money to sponsor the event, I could put some kind of advertisement in the goody bag that will be going to folks who come to the dinner. I thought it might be fun to put a card from my game in the bag, and I hit upon the idea of creating a special GenCon promo card. Every attendee at the GenCon Social will get two Chaos & Alchemy cards – one random card from the game with normal black and white art, and one special GenCon 2012 promo card that has the web address in the flavor text. The promo card also has color art (which looks amazing, I must say), but I’m going to hold off on showing you that card until GenCon itself.

I’ll mention here that anyone who buys a copy of Chaos & Alchemy at GenCon will also get the promo card (while supplies last).

The other sponsorship I decided to participate in for GenCon is the This Just In From GenCon podcast. I’ll be appearing on the Thursday evening podcast from the convention. I’ll be curious to see if this actually results in anyone discovering my game!

Also, if I get the chance to see Wil Wheaton while I’m at the convention, I’m totally giving him a copy of the game.


Past GenCon, I have no idea what I might do for marketing Chaos & Alchemy. If the game doesn’t really succeed, I probably won’t do much. I’ll leave the web site up, and that will be it. If it does succeed, well, who knows? A Kickstarter to do a bigger print run with color illustrations would be my dream, but I have no idea if that’s going to happen. We shall see!

– Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Making the Game part 7 – Playtesting

Previous entryPart 6

Welcome back to my blog series Making the Game, in which I talk about the process of creating my card and dice game, Chaos & Alchemy. Today, I’m going into more depth about the playtesting process over the course of my game’s development.

I came up with the idea for what would become Chaos & Alchemy on the last day of May, and within a week I had made the decision that I wanted to have this game available for sale at GenCon in mid August. This meant that I had to start moving on a lot of different projects all at once in order to make this happen – legal stuff, graphic design, artwork, production details. And since the game had only existed for a week at this point, I still had plenty of playtesting to do.

In an ideal world, it would probably be best to completely playtest a game before moving forward with any of the production details, but I didn’t have that luxury. That was okay, though, since I had the basic framework of the game nailed down and could start ordering art and graphic design right away. If the text of the individual cards changed somewhat, I would still be able to use the illustrations and design elements I had ordered.

Early playtests

The first wave of playtesting was purely internal – me and my wife. We played just a handful of games, enough to convince me that the game was worth investing more effort.

The second wave of playtesting was with close friends – especially my friend Nate, who is a professional game designer. His feedback was particularly useful in helping me focus on what makes Chaos & Alchemy fun and what was getting in the way of that fun. Playtesting a game is a lot like editing written material; the goal is largely to cut out the crappy parts to let the good stuff shine through. Yes, you’ll occasionally need to add something entirely new as the result of playtesting, but if you’ve got a fundamentally good game you’ll probably spend more effort getting rid of what’s not working.

My brother Danny was also pivotal in this second wave of playtesting. He was very excited about Chaos & Alchemy even before I had the whole alchemy flavor, and he took it upon himself to print out updated cards as they became available, trying the game with multiple groups of players with varying levels of game experience. This helped me to figure out who the target audience for Chaos & Alchemy is (basically, people who aren’t gamers at all probably won’t want to start with this game, but anyone who likes games already will probably grasp it immediately).

Side note: This past weekend I was in Pennsylvania at Danny’s wedding; please join me in congratulating him and his beautiful bride, Jill! We had a blast, and it was awesome that Danny and his friends and our family could be the first to see the final Chaos & Alchemy cards in print with me.

Broader playtests

The third wave of playtesting was with a broader swath of people online, plus some in-person testing with strangers myself. On my end in Colorado, this mainly involved hanging out at the friendly local game store (thank you, Enchanted Grounds!) and seeing if anyone wanted to try my game. A few of my D&D players were up for it, as were some other random folks I met at the store.

The online part of this playtesting involved some friends in New York and Florida plus some hearty Twitter volunteers who expressed interest. I had five Twitter followers who said they wanted to be playtesters, and I ended up getting actual playtesting feedback from three of the five (not a bad rate, frankly, given the level of effort required to print out the cards).

Lots of evolution. Top: Two cards that were later cut/drastically rewritten. Middle left: Evolution of success/failure tracking. Middle right: Evolution of card back. Bottom: Evolution of a single card.

Goal of playtesting

So what was I looking for from playtesting? I kept my requests broad. Fun was the focus. I asked folks to tell me what they liked and didn’t like. Were there cards or rules that were especially confusing? Was any part of the game just pointless? Were there any cards that felt bad to have in hand? What suggestions did they have to make the game more fun?

I received tons of great feedback, most of which I incorporated in subsequent iterations of the game. My New York friends suggested some kind of playmat to keep track of Successes and Failures, which evolved into the Success/Failure cards included with the game. Lots of folks asked questions about cards that were unclear in play, which became edited (or rewritten) cards and FAQ entries. I received ideas about how to make the endgame less abrupt and more fun, which became a succession of different endgames before finally ending up at the simple “race to 10 points” base rule plus an optional “Transmutation for the King” advanced rule.

The Success-Failure tracking card, inspired by a playtester’s suggestion.

Bottom line: My playtesters were awesome. Friends and family and helpful strangers all took the time to build their own card sets, try the game, and provide detailed feedback. It made a huge difference, and the final game is much better for it.

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

P.S. I’ve now made the “print and play” cards for Chaos & Alchemy available to anyone who wants to try them, just like my playtesters did! These cards don’t have the fancy formatting, illustrations or flavor text of the actual cards, but they have the rules that you need to try out the game to decide if you want to buy it. The pre-order period will last until the morning of July 24 – one more day from the time this post goes live! After that, the 10% discount will go away and I’ll take orders at the regular $25 price, still with free shipping to US buyers. Check it out, and place an order if you like the game!

Making the Game part 6 – Hiring artists

Previous entry: Part 5

Welcome back to my blog series Making the Game, in which I talk about the process of creating my card and dice game, Chaos & Alchemy. In the earlier entries in this series I’ve discussed the inception of my game idea, my first outside playtests and the development of the game’s theme, the point where I decided to actually produce the game, the process of working with my awesome graphic designer, and legal stuff including the formation of an LLC to publish my game.

Once I had decided that I was actually going to produce my game, I started moving on a lot of projects at once. I’ve written about some already (legal stuff, graphic design) and will write about more in the future (playtesting, production details). Today I’m focusing on artists.

Sadly, I have poor skills of an artist. And since stick figures weren’t going to cut it for Chaos & Alchemy, I knew I would have to hire some artists to illustrate my cards. There’s a delicate dance here, though; I wanted art that would look good, but I couldn’t afford to pay tons of money for it.

Also, I don’t know any illustrators. This could be a problem.

I started by putting out a call online for suggestions of artists on Twitter. My network isn’t all that big, but a response from Michael Olsen led me to one artist: Beth Sobel. I think Beth’s art is really outstanding and a great fit for Chaos & Alchemy. She was one of the last artists I contracted with, and she asked if she could sign up for all 10 of the remaining illustrations I needed at the time. Thank you, Beth!

Adjacent Laboratory by Beth Sobel

I next thought about places where I might find artists online, and I came up with the folks from the Prismatic Art Collection, which I had recently backed on Kickstarter. I think the project is a great idea, and I know that part of the whole point is to get exposure for these artists so that they could get more paid work. Since I was offering to pay, this seemed like a good place to find artists.

I started by pinging Tracy Hurley just to make sure I didn’t need to go through her or Prismatic Art before contacting the artists (nope, I could go straight to them), and then I started emailing artists. I looked through the stuff they had submitted to Prismatic Art so far as well as stuff on their web sites (for those artists who had web sites) and picked a few people to email.

Saboteur by Andres Canals

Some of them got back to me quickly, but were unfortunately too expensive for me to work with. Some never replied. One replied over a month later, by which point I had already contracted out all of the art. But one, Andres Canals, did get back to me promptly and was willing to do black-and-white illustrations for a price I could afford (which turned out great).

Going through this process with the Prismatic Art folks helped me crystallize my plan. I would hire a bunch of different artists for low-cost black-and-white illustrations for the cards themselves. I would also hire one artist to create a single full-color illustration that I could use on the cover of my game. Each time I contacted an artist from here on out, I would ask for two quotes: One for black and white card art and one for a full-color cover illustration.

Volatile Solvent by LochaBWS

I found one artist in-person in Colorado at the friendly local game store. She goes by LochaBWS professionally, and she spends a fair amount of time in the store with a sign on a table offering to draw character portraits for RPGs for $10 apiece. I noticed her there in my first week of creating Chaos & Alchemy, and I approached her after I was done running D&D Encounters a week later. She would indeed be interested in doing sketches for my cards, so I had her flip through the cards and pick out a few that she had ideas for. I hired her to illustrate four of them, with more to come if she did a good job and was interested in more work. She delivered her work on time, and ended up illustrating a total of 13 cards.

One artist came to me directly via D&D. I have been running a Friday night online D&D game for a couple of years, and when development work on Chaos & Alchemy took off in earnest I had to step away from running the game. During the last session that I ran, I was talking about Chaos & Alchemy, and a few people in my game mentioned that they might be interested in doing some illustration work for it. One of these, Lana Gjovig, latched on to the physical objects in the game that needed illustrations and offered to take those. She also recruited J.J. Mason to illustrate another card. Networking!

Fun side note: Lana uses an alias for our online games; putting together a contract for her illustration work was the first time I heard her real name.

Replacement Codex by Lana Gjovig

Royal Inspector by J.J. Mason

Another artist came via networking in a different way. LochaBWS (the artist from the local game store) had gone to Denver Comic Con in June and brought back a business card from an artist who worked fast and who she thought might be a good fit for Chaos & Alchemy. I contracted that artist, and she was far, far too expensive for me, but she in turn put me in touch with another artist, J. Embleton, who was interested in the work I was offering at the price I had in mind. J is primarily a comic-book artist, and you can see that in the work she’s done for Chaos & Alchemy, but I think we came up with a style that fits the game nicely. J also signed up to do the sole full-color card illustration in the game, which will appear on my GenCon promo card (to be revealed later).

Call for Knowledge by J. Embleton

Each artist had to sign a contract (put together with the help of my lawyer, Rob Bodine) that specifies:

  • Our respective names and addresses
  • The work they’ll do
  • The dates they’ll do the work by (including proofs if applicable)
  • The fee I’ll pay them for the work
  • The fact that they’re assigning my company the copyright in their art once I pay them for it
  • The fact that they’re an independent contractor rather than an employee

I used the same contract with all of my artists (except the very earliest art, which came before my lawyer had drawn this contract up), which worked out nicely.

With all of the individual card illustrations contracted (43 unique cards, plus the one promo card), that left only the cover illustration. This one would be more expensive, I knew, but I was willing to splurge a little bit to make the game look good on a shelf (and to have some awesome art to use in marketing on a web site or a vinyl banner, for instance). I had asked a few folks involved with Prismatic Art Collection about cover illustrations, but it didn’t seem like that was going to be the way to go.

I next turned to deviantART, a web site where all kinds of artists can display their work. I searched for “alchemy” and other similar terms and started putting together a batch of favorites.

My absolute favorite piece among those that were already created was “The Alchemist” by Jena DellaGrottaglia.

The Alchemist by Jena DellaGrottaglia

I could see this piece being used as-is as the cover art for Chaos & Alchemy, so I reached out to Jena to talk about buying or licensing the rights to the art for my game. Unfortunately, Jena was busy with other things at the time and couldn’t get back to me until I had already passed the point where I had contracted with another artist. Also, apparently Jena is much more established in the art world than I realized (doing book covers and such) and her rates were too expensive for someone like me. But she’s a heck of an artist, you have to admit!

With Jena not able to get back to me in time, I turned to another artist I found via deviantART, Chris Rallis. He had created this piece for a video game called Spellchemy:

The Alchemist by Chris Rallis – For Spellchemy by Mind Juice Media

I thought that Chris’s style would fit very nicely in Chaos & Alchemy, so I inquired about fees and timing for creating something similar for my game box. Chris was very professional and said that he would be able to create artwork in a little over a week’s time (full color and all), but his rate was on the high end of what I could pay.

I talked with another artist about creating something similar, and while the other artist’s rate was lower than Chris’s, I definitely liked Chris’s style the best. So, I bit the bullet and paid for some awesome artwork:

Chaos & Alchemy cover art by Chris Rallis – Logo by Bree Heiss

Seeing the results, I have zero regrets! Chris did an amazing job.

And with that, the art for Chaos & Alchemy is complete! You can see all of the card illustrations over on the Art Gallery, and you can see an illustration from each artist in its final form within the card frames on the Sample Cards page. I hope you like them – I sure do!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

P.S. Pre-orders are still open for another day or two for Chaos & Alchemy at 10% off the regular price plus free shipping.