What’s cool/uncool about roll-and-writes? (If you aren’t in deep into hobby games, a roll-and-write is a game like Yahtzee where you roll dice and then make choices on a pad. But the genre has so much more than that.)

Cool: You are solving a puzzle. Generally, how can I put these things into some semblance of order not knowing what will come up next to be able to get the most points?

Cool: Many roll-and-writes can support massive number of players if they all have their own pads. This gets around that awkward 5 or 6 player problem at board game nights where you feel you either have to split the Fellowship or play a less appealing game just because it fits the right player count.

Uncool: Writing numbers on a pad a la Yahtzee, Qwixx, Welcome To, Rolling Realms, etc. is fine. But it is such a small subset of what you can make with the medium. Why not have something where you can use the spatial aspects of your game pad to affect your decision making? Some games like Avenue or Cartographers try to tackle this problem.

Uncool: Most people don’t play a copy of a game they buy 100 times. But even if a roll-and-write ships with a game pad that allows you to play 100 times, you feel anxious about “using it up”.

Uncool: Some roll-and-writes have uneven randomness. It generally sucks for another player to roll the thing you need and then you roll useless garbage. Cool and Uncool? Many roll-and-writes are multiplayer solitaire where players just try to race for the goal before everyone else. That’s fine, but limiting. At the same time, you don’t want too much player interaction because you want the success of a player to come from wise planning and not because they didn’t get attacked.If you agree with these, you might find Scribbletown to your liking:

  • It is about solving an intensely spatial puzzle with just enough uncertainty to require you to be nimble.
  • It supports any number of players, even solo with only some minor tweaks.
  • You will be planning buildings and roads in your city and need to find the optimal layout based on Special Building cards that change every game. No building is always uniquely better than any other.
  • Scribbletown will come with dry-erase markers and boards, so you don’t have to worry about running out of sheets. Additionally, spare sheets will be printable from the game’s website in case you want to run very large games or just prefer paper and pencil.
  • In Scribbletown, all players use the same set of random results. You have the same opportunities as everyone else to make the best of what you get.
  • Most of Scribbletown is done in isolation, but when you reach a certain threshold of waste in your town, you pass the board to an opponent who ruins one of your plots with a junk pile. This means you never want to be completely obvious about what you are up to and you want to time out receiving your Junk Piles so that they do the least damage. I’m kind of bummed that Cartographers came to market with a similar mechanic before this could be released, but it is a great game, so I can’t be too mad.

I’ll be sharing a lot more about the design, components, and Angelica Lora’s clean, excellent art and visual design work in the upcoming weeks and months while I get everything finalized.

Being an Independent Designer

Thousands of games get released every year, and a good chunk of them are bad. How do games even end up getting made?

The standard model is that a designer works in isolation, creating, playtesting, and iterating on ideas. Eventually, they spend a bunch of money to go to conventions to meet publishers face to face to try to convince them to sign their game.

Once they do, then ideally the publisher works with his team of artists, graphic designers, developers, editors, marketers, production folks, etc. to get the game to a shippable state. The publisher takes the financial risk of putting up the fixed costs of getting the project going, so the designer gets only 5% of the proceeds.

Everyone knows that tabletop games is only able to support the few at the very top full-time, so no designer in his or her right mind goes out there just to make money. We do it because we love games, systems, stories, experiences, etc. We have passion that drives us. It’s fine that we get such a small cut if we can get our vision for a great play experience out to the public. Many designers, and especially unpublished ones, don’t particularly care about the particulars of the business model that essentially stack the deck against them getting to do exactly what they set out to do: create a great play experience for the public. We should know better! We analyze systems in our sleep!

Publishers hold all the power over independent designers. They can lock up your prototype for years without you receiving anything for it. They can take your game and change it beyond recognition in ways you disagree with. Or they can release something without any effort in marketing it in order to cut their “losses” when they get cold feet, essentially letting it fall of the radar of a busy release schedule. Many designers are lucky and have great luck with great publishers. I know plenty of them. Perhaps I just rolled critical failures.

But here is what I realized: the only person whose interests are guaranteed to line up with my interests is me. I have the passion. I am already putting in the effort. Many people do this because of vanity; they believe what they are doing is good because they made it. I’ve been creating games since college; I have the experience to be a little more objective. Why spend thousands of dollars to get a gatekeeper to give me the runaround when I have all of the tools to make these great games happen on their own? With Kickstarter and other technologies, the barriers between creators and consumers are the thinnest they have ever been. Middlemen serve a purpose, but they aren’t always necessary.

So here I am, putting money where my mouth is. I believe in Scribbletown. Hopefully I can convince you to believe in it too.

Next time, I’d like to get into the nuts and bolts of creating what you will eventually have in your hands.

Scribbletown: Origins

Hi all, Zack Hiwiller here. I’m the owner of Desultory and the designer of Scribbletown. I’d like to tell you more about it over the course of some blog posts.

When did roll-and-write games really take off? Yahtzee has been around forever, of course. But for me, the game that got me excited about the genre was a free print-and-play called 30 Rails in 2016. That great little game has you roll some standard D6s to indicate the location and track shape to build a railroad line on a tiny grid. I liked that game quite a bit.

In January 2017, I was preparing for an annual playtesting event here in Orlando, Florida called Expedition Prototype. It’s a fun little event, and I’ve been blessed to meet a bunch of new friends there. I had prepared a game for test there, a complex game called Bodyslam Inc. that you will see more of in later posts. But the organizer said she had space for folks to display a second game. I had been kicking around ideas related to 30 Rails and threw together a city building game that kind of merged Suburbia, 30 Rails, along with the “Bingo” style simultaneous play of games like Take It Easy! and Karuba. I threw it together, stickered up some dice and started playtesting.

I really liked it from very early tests. This isn’t usually the case. Often, I start with something I’m excited about and end up really hating it on testing, only by force of will molding it into something feasible later. With Scribbletown, I liked the main mechanics almost right off the bat. I recently had gained limited access to a laser engraver at my workplace, so I thought engraving some dice for the prototype show would be a great draw.

And it was! They turned out great! While playtesting, I met Kelly North Adams (Veggie Garden, Musical Chairs) and she and her husband loved Scribbletown so much that they immediately dragged a publisher friend of hers over. The publisher sent me a contract the very next day!

The ABCs of playtesting: Always Bring Candy

I don’t want to dig into dirty laundry, so I’ll skip over the next three years here. The game continued to get better by my own testing and folks involved in other ways, but the actual getting-the-game-onto-shelves didn’t end up being a priority. Eventually, I reached the point in the contract where rights could revert back to me, so I exercised that option.

The publisher even had a prototype shown (kinda) at Essen in 2019. It was a proud moment, but not to be… yet.

The bad news was that in the intervening three years, roll-and-writes went on a tear almost to the point of saturation. The good news is that I was both able to learn lessons from games on the market and receive validation that elements like the Scribble mechanic (seen also eventually in Cartographers) were well-enjoyed. Additional good news is that I’m great friends with Kelly to do this day and I wouldn’t be without Scribbletown.

So I was stuck: I had a good game that people liked, but I was starting over from the publisher side. And it wasn’t the first time (or the second that I had rights expire on a design with a publisher). What to do? The game wants to be out there, but could I deal with a multiyear cycle with a publisher again?

Next time I’ll talk about my decision to start Desultory and become a fledgling publisher.