The card game we couldn't make (and then someone else did)
"Our game was depraved, immoral, and filthy," writes Nicole Dieker. "But that's not why we killed it."
At 4:08 p.m. on May 8, 2012, I sent my friend Alice Lee an email, subject line “A super idea for a card game that is SURE TO MAKE MONEY OH YEAH.”
So Dirty Balderdash was fun but seriously all you need for that is an actual game of Balderdash (or, barring that, a dictionary).
But what about a slash fic game? We'll call it OTP for One True Pairing.
Something along the lines of:
Dealer/judge draws one card. We'll say for example Hodor.
Then everyone has to play a card from their hand as their OTP and explain why they ship that slash.
I ship Wheatley/Hodor because you know Wheatley gets off by being carried around.
Bonus X-rated version: players have to do mini sexy fanfics about their OTPs.
Would you play this? :)
By 4:57 p.m. we had the whole thing planned out: the structure, the branding, the inevitable Kickstarter, and a list of action items for both of us to complete before our next meeting. We hadn’t planned to design a game that day, but we both knew that this was a really good idea.
There was one concern, of course: we’d be making a game about copyrighted and/or trademarked characters, and we didn’t know how to do that in a way that would be both legal and fair. We knew that other games were doing it — Cards Against Humanity name-checked everyone from Batman to Harry Potter, and Metagame had a different trademarked cultural reference printed on each card — but we didn’t know how to do it ourselves.
Alice and I proceeded very quickly through the card design and playtesting process. Our first thought was, of course, to hire artists we knew to draw original character designs for each card, but the economics of card printing pushed us towards a simpler design. White cards with character names printed in black ink. The game title — now officially OTP: A /slash/ game for dirty minds — printed in black on white, with the two slashes printed in red.
The playtesting went extremely well. Our game testers “got” the game instinctively. We added a game mechanic by which players could discard character cards if they didn’t know the character. Alice and I began talking about handing out free copies of the game at PAX and San Diego Comic-Con, in order to build grassroots interest before we launched the (inevitable) Kickstarter. We had our LLC forms filled out and ready to go.
And yet OTP never made it to market. It never ended up on any shelves, and Alice and I never stood side by side amidst the crowds of SDCC attendees, pushing our plastic-sleeved card packages at anyone who looked our direction. We never did that Kickstarter, or hit “submit” on our LLC application.
Because everyone we talked to said “there is no way you can make this game.”
I don’t want to include the names of the people we asked, first because they were often giving us personal as opposed to professional advice and second because it seems unfair to call them out, but we talked to lawyers, retired lawyers, game designers, game companies, and people who make a living off sales of pop culture mashup T-shirts. We were thorough.
After all these discussions, I was the first person to say “let’s call it off.” Alice wanted to keep going and find a way to make the game. I wasn’t interested in pursuing an idea that might get us slapped with a cease-and-desist, or worse. When I play games, I play to win. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on a project that we were more likely to lose.
We considered OTP: a /slash/ game for dirty minds dead by June. Only a month to go from “this is an amazing idea” to playtesting and LLCs and talks with lawyers to “okay, that’s that.”
We should have kept going.
In March 2013, Glenn Given and some friends got together at PAX East in Boston and created a new game.
The gameplay was simple: each player got dealt a handful of character cards, then proposed romantic pairings against a card played by the dealer. You already know how this game is played because I have already described it to you; it was as instinctual to Glenn Given’s playtesting group as it was to the groups Alice and I were leading that same spring.
What Glenn did next, however, was different. He, too, knew that his game was a good idea, so he quit his job and started a game company. Games By Play Date called the game Slash: Romance Without Boundaries and launched their Kickstarter in November 2013. Slash immediately took off, hitting websites like Kotaku and Ain’t It Cool News before funding at $21,264, twice as much as its $10,000 Kickstarter goal.
I saw the Kickstarter on November 17. At first I couldn’t believe it. Then, of course, I could; it was a really good idea, after all.
And then, well, I had to tell Alice.
There are a lot of things that Glenn Given and Games By Play Date did better than Alice and I did, that make Slash a better game than OTP:
Slash is a better name than OTP. (Alice and I considered Slash, but rejected it because the word was originally used only to describe same-sex fan fiction pairings, as in the infamous Kirk/Spock fan fiction of the 1970s.)
Slash includes character descriptions printed below each character name, e.g. “Captain Marvel: Ace pilot, all-American girl and taker of no guff from dinosaurs.” This is an excellent way to keep people in the game even if they aren’t familiar with every character on the cards. (Also, if a Slash player doesn’t recognize a character, the player can toss the card back and draw a new one.)
Glenn used his idea to both create a great game and start a game company. Alice and I started the process of creating a LLC, but I was never interested in running a game company. I had very little idea of the actual work involved in game creation.
Slash, when you see it, is also so much more fleshed out than OTP, even though the base game mechanics are similar. It benefited from the attention of a group of game designers — even before Glenn created Slash, for example, he was already very active in the gaming world and had started a non-profit called Play Date New Hampshire to help young people get involved in tabletop gaming.
Alice and I had a brainstorm. Glenn Given had the perfect storm. So I asked Glenn if he would be willing to talk a little bit about how he made Slash happen.
ND: What was the brainstorm that prompted you to create Slash?
GG: At PAX East 2013, my friends and I rented a house in the Back Bay. We were playing tons of games at the time, including Cards Against Humanity of course. Slash developed because we wanted to make a game that was fun, but also allowed you to riff and explore and create something more. We wanted something that wouldn’t grow stale, where every interaction with the game would have more of that kind of improv, role-playing aspect to it.
We hammered out this huge list of characters, and then I drove back to New Hampshire the night before PAX East, printed up cards, and brought them back to PAX the next day so we could take the game around the convention.
When did you realize the game might be a really good idea?
Everybody we played it with wanted to buy it. We played it with a couple of lawyers who said this was “the best worst idea that had ever existed.”
How did you decide to quit your job and start Games By Play Date?
In addition to my job at the time, I was — and still am — part of a non profit called Play Date New Hampshire. We have a tremendous library of board games, and we take the games to libraries and teach kids how to play them. The feeling being, since games were what kind of saved my life in high school, learning these games might be good for other kids too.
In October 2013, I realized that there was no more “up” in my current career. So I had to think of something else to do. There’s a program that the state of New Hampshire runs called Pathway to Work, which is a way for the state to help people start new businesses, and so I started Games By Play Date with two of my friends, Daniel Brian and Meg McGinley.
Daniel and Meg are both really great designers and great gamers, and we all wanted to make games that were not only enjoyable, but also really accessible. We didn’t want anyone to think they weren’t good enough, or didn’t have the cultural knowledge, to play our games.
That’s why Slash was really important. It’s a game that inspires creativity from everyone. You can make it really dirty and risque, but you don’t have to. Young people can play it and make it about dating or best friend pairings. Our fourteen-year-old intern was one of the game’s first evangelists. It’s also popular among underserved gaming audiences, including women, couples, and the LGBTQ community.
Can you talk about the legal thing? We heard “you cannot sell this game” from every side, but it’s clear you didn’t get that message.
When we first started developing Slash, we called it “the bag of lawsuits.” It was something we were really worried about and we went through a bunch of different lawyers. After a lot of research we learned that the way we use characters in the game is called de minimis usage.
It’s the same reason that Trivial Pursuit can use trademarked characters. There are tons of characters in Trivial Pursuit, but it’s all de minimis usage because the characters are the answers to questions.
We’re also not using any trademarked character images in the marketing, and the game isn’t about any specific character. It’s not a game about “The X-Men Do Things to Anne of Green Gables.” It’s about taking what’s put in front of you and making up a story.
It’s a variation of the remix culture that the internet is really awesome at.
How did you develop Slash’s look?
I’ve been doing design for 10 years, so I knew I wanted something simple and clean. My design principles have always been about clarity of communication. If something isn’t needed to get your point across, you had better have a really compelling reason for it to be there.
When I go into my local gaming shop, Double Midnight in Manchester, and I look at the shelf of games, I see dragons and robots and Cthulhus and it’s like this visual chaos. I wanted to make something that, when you put it on the shelf, is going to look like a bright hole in the middle of the rest of that.
What advice do you have for other game creators, especially people who haven't ever created a game before? Should they go straight to “creating a game company,” or can they do it another way?
The publisher system in board games right now looks like the music industry of the ’90s. It’s a growing industry, but there are a number of gatekeepers. The people who are doing really interesting things are often designers who start their own companies.
I don’t think you have to do that, though. There are a lot of resources out there for printing prototypes, there are a lot of gaming festivals, and there are a lot of programs like Cards Against Humanity’s Tabletop Death Match. Right now I’m the tabletop producer for the Boston Festival of Indie Games.
If you want to create games, the space for tabletop games exists more than it ever has. There’s no easier time to get in to it. All of the things you need to bring together to make a board game, like graphic design or playtesting, are all solvable by a person or by a small group of dedicated people.
Don’t let roadblocks stop you from making your game. If an idea doesn’t work, come up with another idea. Ideas are super cheap. Execution is really the hard part.
We’ll close this out with a chat with Alice Lee:
ND: How hard are you kicking yourself right now?
AL: Pretty damn hard. When I first heard of the Slash kickstarter, I immediately knew what it was and that they had succeeded where we failed. I actually got invited to the first playtest of Slash at that PAX East, it was a little surreal to hear a friend describe the exact same game we had brainstormed nine months prior, but I assumed they would run into the same roadblocks we had encountered.
Should we have talked to just one more lawyer?
Probably, or paid for an intellectual property attorney to give us a professional opinion. I am not sure we would have come across de minimis usage without that.
Do you think we would have come up with the character description piece on our own, after more playtesting? It’s such an elegant solution to OTP’s biggest game mechanic problem.
I doubt it, given that we were super gun-shy about even using the names of characters and what series they were from. It was really frustrating to keep hearing "you should not [make this game], you will get sued out of your minds" from everyone we asked, when you see plenty of examples of other people (and companies) taking copyrighted characters and remixing them into t-shirts and other stuff.
Why do you think that we both had this nearly identical idea? It makes me think that if neither you nor I nor Glenn had been able to take the game to market, someone else would be launching something like “Fanfic: A Game Where You Make The Pairings” right about now.
I think it is an incredibly compelling idea, one that was begging to be made into a real game. The concept adds a storytelling layer onto the groundwork that Cards Against Humanity and Apples to Apples have laid. What those games do well is make you feel creative and funny by taking the heavy lifting out of the process, and once you get a taste of that, you want to have more freedom to be creative within the confines of the game. so a game like Slash is the next logical step. I feel like there has been a lot more interest in collaborative storytelling, and the success of other games like Machine of Death proves there is a market.
Also, everyone loves to imagine their favorite characters fucking. That is a tale as old as time.
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