Dev Diary Archive

Introducing Treasure Island: The Microgame

Posted September 25, 2014 By Jeff

In late July, Steve Cole of Escape Velocity Games announced a contest he was running for microgames based on classic novels. You can view lots of the entries in the corresponding BoardGameGeek thread. Strangeland Games threw our hat into the right with a set collection game based on Treasure Island. The rules didn’t require a new game (some contests do), but we didn’t have a microgame in the works, so we started from scratch. We thought we’d share the development process with everyone, since it was fairly compressed and thus easier to document.

Initial Concept Phase

We’re avid readers here at Strangeland Games, so we had no problems rattling off different classic works of literature that would inspire a decent game. We settled on Treasure Island because it is a well-known story, the theme is accessible even if you haven’t read the book (who doesn’t love treasure?), and the adventure lends itself well to multiple types of games. A microgame should be easy to learn and quick to play, so we wanted to pair it with a novel that was of similar caliber (the Illiad, while great inspiration, would not have the same light, accessible flavor).

First Prototype

We settled on a set collection mechanic to go with the idea of a treasure hunt. To keep the game small, we went with each card both describing a set to be collected and being an ingredient in a set. Each set consists of three cards and each hand is also three cards in order to streamline the decision-making process. Also, to better stay within the bounds of a small deck, we went with a card trading mechanic to change-up your hand rather than a discard and draw mechanic. With only 18 cards, we realized that your average attentive player could probably keep track of who’s got what, which adds a card-counting aspect to the game. You don’t need to count cards to play well, but it would be one strategy you could pursue.

We worked up our card ideas based on people, places, and things from the book, threw together a quick spreadsheet to list the set that each card would describe, and made prototype number 1.

Treasure Island Prototype #1

Treasure Island Prototype #1

Second Prototype

We playtested version 1 and came to a few conclusions. The first was that we’d made too many sets that had specific card requirements (e.g. “Jim Hawkins”) and not enough sets that had more general requirements (e.g. “Any Character”). The second was that, if we’re going to have variation in how hard it is to collect a particular set, then the sets should have different values. The third was that the game was fun and fit the microgame genre well (quick setup, 15 minutes to play, small deck didn’t feel like it cramped our style). So, the game was worth pursuing and we made prototype #2.

Treasure Island Prototype #2

Treasure Island Prototype #2

After using colored index cards to make the card type more visible, we realized that having the backs advertise what kind of cards everyone had is a great piece of added information. Now, the card counting became a little easier AND you could have a bit of information about the top card of the draw pile before deciding whether to take that card or trade with something out in the open. Great accidental discovery! From the second prototype, we also learned that 18 cards was a few too few, so we bumped it up to a 24 card deck, which can more comfortably accomodate four players.

Print and Play Prototype

Since the contest required a fully ready print and play for submission, I used this as a test case for batch-producing print and play files for card games. We began work on Treasure Island while waiting for Cursed! to ship and neither of us wanted to put together the print and play for that 104-card game by hand. So, we mixed some Inkscape extensions, hand-drawn icons for each card, and some homebrewed Python (that I will be releasing in the near future for anyone to use) and converted an SVG template, a spreadsheet, and a folder full of icons into the PnP prototype featured at the top of the post.

The Jim Hawkins card from Treasure Island

The Jim Hawkins card from Treasure Island

Request for Playtesting

The full rules and the print and play files are linked from this work-in-progress thread. We’d love feedback from anyone willing to read the rules and/or try out the game. You can leave comments on this post, on that WIP thread, or hit us up on Twitter.

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Dev Diary: Design Progression

Posted April 20, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

Simultaneous with our Cursed! Kickstarter campaign, we are doing fairly extensive play testing and refining of the actual product. As we state on the project page, the game is in roughly a beta stage, and we’re really nailing down what it’s going to look like and play like in the final release.

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Tabletop Day Feedback

Posted April 8, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

We made the conscious decision to launch our Kickstarter campaign on International Tabletop Day, with people in the Tabletop frame of mind, knowing we’d also use that day to visit a few friendly local game shops and get some play testing of Cursed! from excited participants.

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Today is TableTopDay and the first day of the Kickstarter for Cursed! We clicked the green launch button at 0930 and headed out for a day of gaming and introducing Cursed! to the physical realm.

First Coffee, then Fun

Our first stop was Staples, where we printed some promotional literature and grabbed some Dunkies from next door. After that we drove to our first event of the day: Battleground Games in Abington.

Gamers are not known as an early bird crowd, so we weren’t surprised to be some of the first ones there. We went for the soft sell and just left a copy of Cursed! on the table while we played Trains (Alderac Entertainment Group) with a fellow who brought it with him. Neither of us had played before and we thoroughly enjoyed it. More details on that in an upcoming game review post.

After Trains, enough people had arrived that we decided to break out Cursed! for its Abington debut. Within minutes we had multiple rule change suggestions and both of us were eliminated from play. This was a humbling, but very informative moment on both counts and established a “gang up on the developers” theme which continued until dinner time.

A Change of Plans

Our original plan had us hitting four area events in a hectic PR blitz of two-hour chunks. Instead, we had fun and spent four hours at Battleground until hunger drove us onward. At this point, a decision was made to skip the other two stores on our list and head directly to Knight Moves Board Game Cafe. Knight Moves is a new-to-us business in Coolidge Corner that provides games and coffee on a membership basis. The atmosphere was great and the patrons friendly. The couple waiting for a table in front of us offered to double up so the four of us could play something together, which was really nice of them and meant more fun for all.

After much deliberation (the games menu is enormous), we settled on Power Grid (Rio Grande Games). It is complicated, but Devin gave us a run down (rumor has it he knows how to play every game they offer) and a few folks found copies of the rules on their phones, which sped up the learning process. (Note to self: when designing a complicated game, include extra rule books so people can read to themselves.) I think we’d have to play this one a few more times before a review could do it justice, but it certainly made us think and gave everyone a challenge. I was glad no one at the table had played before, because a few things from Step 3 caught everyone by surprise. It was fun watching everyone scramble to adjust strategy when we read that everyone loses a power plant at the end of each round. The two frontrunners were neck and neck until the end: both powered 17 cities on the same turn (game ending condition) and the money-based tie breaker was $3 to $2.

We broke out Cursed! as the second game of our visit and got a fifth player to join in. A rousing time was had by all, especially since we were better prepared to introduce the game to newcomers by this point in the day. More valuable playtesting ensued.

Post-Gaming Reflection

Writing all this down after a crazy day seemed like a challenge at first, but it is important to capture this stuff while the experiences are still fresh. By the time we left Knight Moves, our Kickstarter was already past 10% funded and now sits at a respectable 15%. We’re hoping that we planted the Cursed! seed in many minds today while making the rounds, but it also reminded us that we’re in this to play games. Taking time to get to know people, play the games that they like, and see what they think of Cursed! is playing the long game, even if it means fewer tweets or waiting a few hours to thank our Kickstarter backers.

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Kickstart Like Ernest Hemingway

Posted April 2, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

Well, not exactly. Although I do recommend a daiquiri or a mojito during the process. Whatever your tipple happens to be. What I mean is, keep it short. To the point. Direct. This applies to the whole thing.

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Dev Diary: From Senses to Fortunes

Posted March 31, 2014 By Jeff

So, you’ve got a group of wizards sitting around the table, trying to show off their skills in a non-lethal manner. What do they do? They try to screw with each other, of course.

This was the original premise that inspired Cursed! and it is still intact, but lots of the details have changed. We started with each player trying to preserve their senses: Sight, Smell, Taste, Touch, and Hearing. In order to cast a curse on an opponent’s sense of Touch, your own sense of Touch must be curse-free, so you’d want to bless your own fortunes while cursing others and trying to take down everyone else before you are left without any perception of the world around you.

After playing a few rounds with our alpha prototype (a.k.a yellow index cards with illegible scribbles), we learned a few important lessons:

  1. Having just two plays to make, one offensive and one defensive, made the gameplay simple and too luck-based for our taste
  2. The ratio of bless cards to curse cards is the main component in determining game length
  3. It is really hard to think of multiple exciting ways to say “I curse your sense of smell!”


We worked on the complexity issue by adding choices to the game without changing the fundamental mechanic. We created a third card type (Neutralize) to allow for a bit more flexibility. They are fairly rare, but since you can use them both offensively (remove an opponent’s blessing) and defensively (remove a curse from yourself), they’re good cards to keep for a rainy day.

The other element we added is the sacrifice. In addition to its major action (Bless, Curse, Neutralize) each card has a sacrifice effect and every player must make a sacrifice each turn. The sacrifice cards change the rules of the game with varying degrees of magnitude roughly corresponding to the card type (Curse cards have small effects, Bless cards have medium effects, and Neutralize cards have large effects). We really enjoy playing any of the Fluxx games from Looney Labs and the extra strategic element that comes in when the rules of the game can change at any time.

Game Length

We decided that a two-player game should take roughly 30 minutes, with less being better than more. Cursed! is a casual card game, so anything over 30 minutes for just two people would be a bit much. We took a brute force approach to the problem: play the game a few times, change the ratio of cards, play again. We think we’ve reached a sweet spot of about one hundred cards supplying the right proportions for between two and six players, but that is not set in stone. We’ve done plenty of small group play testing, but those six player games have been harder to organize.


Since the senses weren’t great for trash talking, we brainstormed for a while and came up with fortunes as something with a bit more variety and a topic that we think people will find more engaging. At this point, we were far enough down the balancing and rule refinement that we wanted to keep with five categories, so we chose Luck, Love, Wealth, Fate, and Health. Coming up with a unique curse, blessing, or neutral saying for each card was a community effort and a bit of fun (though that last curse could be challenging sometimes).

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Dev Diary: Creating Game Mechanics

Posted March 24, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

One of the primary goals we have as developers is to bring something unique to each game we develop. While Cursed! is certainly influenced by previous games in the tabletop card game space, it was important to us to create something different.  Read the remainder of this entry »

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Dev Diary: On Starting Small

Posted March 7, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

Since the original conception of Strangeland Games, we have had the idea that for the company to succeed, we would need to remain independent. (Whether that makes us “indie” is a whole can of worms not worth opening).

This desire for independence was in part inspired by those of us in the conversation being laid off from a video game developer which had expected a certain relationship with a publisher to continue, which didn’t , leaving the company with no means to continue. At least, that was the perception to those of us in the ranks and we didn’t want to have that happen to us again.

Partly this explains the (very) slow process of getting this company actually moving but it’s been a theme of many of our company meetings and is worth exploring.

Originally, starting small meant we’d try to make an iOS game, which would leave us with a low initial cost, a potentially large audience, and no need to have a publisher relationship.

The plan was to then (hopefully) turn the profits from that into a larger iOS game, then move into the PC/Steam space, and maybe eventually into consoles if the company grew enough. We knew (and still know) what we’d like to create as our first big budget game.

Largely, the plan is unchanged, but in the intervening time we have learned a great deal about starting small. While an iOS game is certainly well within our capabilities, we have rediscovered a passion for tabletop games, and the rise of Kickstarter has made developing one in an independent fashion feasible.

Even within that, there are scale factors. We knew we didn’t want to start with a board game, and so of our many concepts we chose Curses!, a card game. It started out as a larger-scale card game with player mats and more cards and rules, but every step of development has made the game leaner, and better.

Now, the player mats remain only as a free printable add-on, possibly with an option to buy high quality printed versions in the KS. The game has gone from a largeish 6×9 box format to a card pack format. And for all of this, there’s still a sometimes overwhelming amount of work. But we know it’s work we can do, and that we shouldn’t have to ask Kickstarter for much.

And maybe, as I think about it, we can ask for even less.

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