Designer Diary: Feeling Squirmish, or How the Card Game of Brawling Beasties Came to Be

I recently wrote the below article on the making of Squirmish on BoardGameGeek.

Back in 2013 or so, my oldest daughter got into collecting Pokémon cards. It seemed weird that while so many kids we knew were getting into collecting the cards, few of them seemed to be into actually playing the game.

I can appreciate being a collector of things as I’m a comic book collector. However, I’m the sort of comic book collector who buys comic books to read them, not just gaze at them in shiny plastic bags, so naturally I wanted to actually play Pokémon!

I endeavored to help my daughter learn how to play. I was surprised to learn how complex the game was, and I found myself thinking that a lot of this complexity got in the way of it being much fun to play, at least for me. I know there are many, many people who feel differently about this.

I appreciate the ingenuity and humor of all the strange characters that have been created for Pokémon, and the deck-building is a lot of fun, but I felt the game itself was extremely clunky. My daughter and I found ourselves stripping out some of the rules that did not add to our fun. (We never play with weakness or resistance, for example, as the way they are implemented just bogs things down.)

While I have had many fun games of Pokémon with my daughter, generally it seems like this is in spite of the game rather than because of it. The truly weird characters are awesome, though!

I secretly love Magikarp enough that I carry this card in my wallet. Please don’t tell anybody.

In any case, the things that I saw as broken in Pokémon were the initial inspiration that got me to start thinking about what a fun character-battling game would look like to me.

My existing interests made this a natural pursuit for me. While I had dabbled a bit in game design for my own amusement in the past, I’ve been a cartoonist for as long as I can remember. I’ve been self-publishing comics and putting them online for for many years.

Basically, I can’t help drawing goofy characters all the time for my own amusement, so making a character-fighting game seemed like a fun way to fit this pursuit into a larger project.

What Is Squirmish?

Squirmish is “The Card Game of Brawling Beasties”. It takes about a half-hour to play a game, and it is designed for 2-4 players. Players place cards on the table into a mass of cards known as “The Squirmish” and battle them against each other. While the sequence of play is simple, every card is unique, with a different silly character with different attacks and abilities. A great deal of strategy and a great deal of luck is needed to win the game, which players accomplish by knocking out three of their opponents’ cards.

 

You can learn more about the game by reading the rules (PDF). (Both the new Gamewright edition rules (PDF) and the self-published edition rules (PDF) are downloadable for comparison.)

This article is a general overview of the experiences and thoughts I went through creating Squirmish, testing it, self-publishing it, finding a publisher for it, and improving it.

Inspirations for Squirmish

Initially, I had no particular intention to publish Squirmish; I started making the game as a fun thing to share with my daughters. Since I was creating this game for us, I saw no reason to limit my character creation to any one kind of character and just created whatever I felt like drawing or thought was a funny idea. The characters ended up including monsters, bunnies, blobs, kitties, cryptids, and anything else that appealed to me at the time.

Early original art for Squirmish; the initial cards were drawn pretty much to final size, which I do not recommend.

I have always had a great affinity for weird and grotesque characters dating back to childhood. A big inspiration for Squirmish (and my art in general) are the Basil Wolverton-, Wally Wood- and Norm Saunders-designed Ugly Stickers published by Topps that I was lucky enough to have my neighborhood ice cream man give out when I was a kid.

Examples of Ugly Stickers published by Topps.

Basil Wolverton is a particularly large influence on my work, and hilariously ugly characters have always been a favorite thing of mine to draw. Other inspirational artists of fine ugly would include Robert Crumb and the Zap artists, Big Daddy Roth, and Jim Woodring.

 

Paradoxically, I also adore drawing exceedingly cute animals and other characters. Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, Dr. Seuss, and George Herriman would be my main influences in that arena (all of whom could draw ugly wonderfully as well).

 

Before creating Squirmish, I had not realized it was an uncommon thing for an artist and a game designer to be the same person as it seemed pretty natural to me. In addition to being a cartoonist, I have been a long-time lover of games.

As happens with many gamers, my game playing had atrophied a bit as I had gotten older and lost touch with many of my gaming friends. (One of the many great things about having kids is always having a good excuse to play games!) When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent many weekends in dark basements and coffee shops playing RPGs (notably Call of Cthulhu, Champions and Paranoia), strategy games (Diplomacy, Axis & Allies, Illuminati), and plain old Chess. For many years I had played Steve Jackson’s Illuminati every Thursday with a group that was hardcore enough to have a traveling trophy that we would battle to keep at the end of the year.

 

Steve Jackson’s Illuminati actually ended up being probably as much of an influence on Squirmish as Pokémon, although it is not really obvious. I always liked how the cards in Illuminati branched out in tentacles of cards. That was an inspiration for how the cards in Squirmish are in a mass in the middle of the table, where cards face the player who controls them, and attack cards that are adjacent to them.

Another influence from Illuminati was on the group abilities in Squirmish, which I’m sure was partially inspired by the secret societies in Illuminati and their unique victory conditions.

The biggest influence from Illuminati, though, is in the balance of the game. I always loved that Illuminati involved so much strategy to win — but simultaneously involved just as much luck to win, to the degree that you could rarely fully ascertain whether it was more your skill or your luck that won or lost a game for you. That said, it was clear that both were important. This sort of a game balance is probably kryptonite to a lot of gamers, but many of my favorite games have this sort of dynamic. Squirmish has this element in spades.

While Pokémon was another huge influence, as I said, it was as influential in what I did not like about it as in what I did like about it. What I did like about it primarily was the huge range of wild and interesting characters to battle with, which Squirmish certainly attempts to emulate.

I had never liked the “bench” concept from Pokémon, where you had one card attacking while the rest of your fighters waited in the wings and often were never even used in the course of the game. Rather than Pokémon‘s sort of “tag-team wrestler” combat, I thought a “Spain Rodriguez illustration of a biker bar brawl” combat mechanism sounded more fun. In Squirmish, you can choose to attack with any card you have in play on your turn.

The crazy brawls drawn by Spain and S. Clay Wilson in Zap comics where everyone seems to be attacking everyone else were a big influence on how I wanted battles to work in Squirmish.

Also, as I mentioned before, I really disliked the (in my view) extreme and unnecessary complexity of Pokémon. So many of the rules in Pokémon seem to add complexity without adding any fun to the game.

I tried to keep the mechanisms of Squirmish as simple and easy to learn as possible. While Squirmish has a lot of complexity, the complexity comes from the effects the individual cards have on the game rather than the simple mechanisms of the game itself. Keeping this distinction in mind does a lot to help make the game accessible to kids, I think.

One thing I liked the most about Pokémon — the deck-building — is not a part of Squirmish. In Squirmish, cards are drawn from a single deck to make the player’s hands.

The other game that was a large influence on Squirmish was the Adventure Time game Card Wars — not the actual card version of the game, but the phone app. (The two are utterly different from each other, and the video game is much better, in my opinion.) The main influence from Card Wars on Squirmish was in the wildly inventive modifiers that different cards had on the game mechanisms, often altering the larger game in unforeseen ways. Along with its sequel Card Wars Kingdom, the Card Wars apps are definitely some of the most fun video games I have ever played. It was a much more successful character card-battling game than Pokémon, in my view, in spite of the cards being virtual.

Finn and Jake sit down to do battle in the Adventure Time Card Wars app from Cartoon Network

 

Creating Characters

Character creation is the easiest part of making a Squirmish card (and probably the most fun, although I enjoy the entire process).

Sometimes I will have an idea in advance that I find funny that I want to create. Many of the best characters started as a literal scribble on a piece of paper that I just messed around with until a character came out of it. I love to create characters from scribbles because they are wide open to interpretation and are likely to trigger character ideas I would not come up with otherwise. I find trusting your subconscious to guide you through this sort of chaos is a great asset to an artist. In any event, it seems to work for me!

Occasionally I will come up with an ability that sounds like fun, then come up with a character who seems appropriate for the ability. Usually it is the other way around, and I will figure out what sort of special ability makes sense for the character. I have come up with a lot of abilities that seem pretty novel to me by just thinking about how a particular character’s characteristics make sense interpreted into the game mechanisms.

I also come up with characters that work well for a particular group concept, with the Spooner Valley Cryptids being the best example of this. All the characters in that group are cryptids with spoonerisms for names (Figboot, Quazscotch, The Knockless Monster, The Snowbomnible Omen, and Dendwiggo), so those ones were pretty premeditated before they were drawn.

The Spooner Valley Cryptids from Squirmish.

One thing about Squirmish that I think is unique are the cards’ battle cries. If you say a card’s battle cry in a goofy voice before making your first attack with that card, it gives you +1 damage or +1 healing on your attack. This is probably the most fun part of the game for a lot of kids. It is always a hoot for me to watch kids crack each other up saying silly things from the cards to each other. I usually come up with the battle cries after I create the characters and have a better idea what they are all about.

Heed the mighty battle cry of Killgor the Conqueror!

Once I have created the characters, their abilities, and their battle cries, I lay their card out in Photoshop. I draw all of the characters on paper initially because I am old-school like that. I have kind of a weird process for preparing the artwork digitally:

• First, I scan the art into the computer.

• Then I take the art into Adobe Illustrator and convert the art from bitmap to vector art. You can lose minor amounts of detail in converting to vector, but I find it well worth the trade-off, especially since I am the only one who would ever notice the slight, annoying smoothing of my wiggly lines. Converting the art to vector makes it much easier to clean up and color, and makes it so that the image can be scaled to any size.

• Then I take the vector art into Adobe Animate and clean the art up and color it with flat color. Many people would use Adobe Illustrator for this as well, but Adobe Animate is much more intuitive for me. Often I use the handy online Adobe Color Wheel to help me find pleasing color palettes.

• Then I usually export three files from Adobe Animate as .svg files: one containing the line art, one containing the color, and one that contains the entire shape of the figure, usually in black (which fills in any gaps that may appear in the vector art between colors).

• Then I import those files as different layers in Adobe Photoshop as smart objects, line art on top, color in the middle, full shape on the bottom.

• Then, between the line and color layers, I do shading and highlighting on different layers over the color with the brush tool. Usually (but not always) I set the main shading layer to multiply, and the main highlighting layer to overlay.

Like I said, weird process, but it works well for me.

Playtesting Squirmish

Much of what I learned playtesting the game involved stripping things out of the game that added complexity without a lot of benefit.

The initial Squirmish cards I created were actually quite a bit more complex. Many characters had two or three special abilities instead of one. I quickly found in playtesting that it was too much information to keep track of. It was hard killing some of those abilities that I found funny or interesting, but it made the game much better overall to have less information to read on the cards. Now the only cards that have multiple abilities are group cards, and their group abilities are activated only when more than one member of that group is in play.

Different iterations of the Mr. Bottom card, from original art, to testing prototypes, to the self-published version, to the Gamewright version; the original art suggests one special ability (KA-POOT), the first prototype has two (BOTTOM DOLLAR and ROYAL FLUSH), and the rest have one (BUTT OUT).

Similarly, I initially had no limits on how many cards you could have in play at a time, or how many cards you could have in your hand. This was completely overwhelming, and I eventually found it seemed pretty balanced limiting it to five-card hands and a maximum of five cards in play.

Complexity is definitely necessary to make the game fun, but it really requires a careful balance (especially in a game where all the cards are unique). Too much complexity, and the players get bogged down reading cards before they can even figure out what to play (which is especially noticeable in a game aimed at relatively new readers). Too little complexity, and the game is uninteresting.

I like to think I’ve achieved a pretty good balance in Squirmish. While it is certainly a big advantage to have learned the cards and to know what they do, it is hopefully not too hard for a new player to get their heads around what all they have in a five-card hand.

One weird thing I had done utterly wrong in my initial layouts was to have it so that the layout was not consistent. Sometimes I put characters on the left side of the card, sometimes on the right, according to what I thought looked best. All I can say is it seemed like a fun thing to do at the time!

Not having a consistent layout just made all the information on the cards much harder to take in, so that was quickly scrapped. Hand lettering these also had to go. Thoughtfully considering font, text size, text legibility, font kerning, font leading, general image balance, empty space, color, contrast and other layout concerns is not useful simply to make game cards look good. It also makes an enormous difference in how easy or difficult a game is to play. If you take design decisions lightly at the outset of a big game project (as I sometimes did), it leads to a whole lot of work down the road, believe me.

Some design issues are harder to predict until you sit down and playtest a game, though. Early on I had no symbols to indicate whether a special ability was offensive, defensive, or just weird. Adding icons for these different kinds of abilities next to the abilities made it much easier for players to quickly analyze whether an ability might be useful at a particular time.

Publishing Squirmish

I initially did a Kickstarter for the game that failed, which, in hindsight, was a good thing. Since I was not able to fund a print run, I instead opted for self-publishing through The Game Crafter website, which makes it easy for game designers to manufacture high-quality print-on-demand versions of their games. It is a pretty amazing resource. In addition to being able to print your designs on all sorts of things, they also have a huge selection of parts and pieces that can be included in your published game.

The box for the self-published deluxe edition of Squirmish.

I’m really glad I went the print-on-demand route for a lot of reasons. While the cost-per-unit is higher in print-on-demand, there is little money needed up front, and you do not risk having a bunch of unsold games filling up your basement. You can print as few as one copy of a game, so print-on-demand is especially great for prototyping and game testing. Also, it makes it so you can easily send polished copies of a game out to reviewers and potential publishers.

The contents of the box for the self-published deluxe edition of Squirmish.

I had a mostly-good experience getting Squirmish reviewed. First, I researched which reviewers were out there who were aimed at the right audience for my game (kids and adults who like shorter games). I contacted reviewers before sending out copies to them to confirm they were interested in reviewing the game.

I probably sent out over a dozen copies, and only two of the reviewers did not write a review or do a review video. I learned a lot from the reviews. Many of the comments in the reviews directly led to me making improvements in the current version of the game.

As far as promoting the game goes, in my experience, reviews seem to have much more of a long-term than immediate benefit. I expected to see a significant increase in sales after a review came out, but it was not noticeable. However, I put pull-quotes from the reviews and links to them on the Squirmish website, and I suspect they do a lot to interest people in the game and help people learn about the game long after its initial publication.

I was extremely lucky sending Squirmish out to publishers as I had to send out only one copy. My first choice of publishers was Gamewright as they have made many games my kids and I greatly enjoy (such as Rat-A-Tat-Cat, Pyramix, Sushi Go!, Forbidden Island, and Dragonwood), they market their games to the same audience I was interested in getting my game to (short games that are fun for kids and adults), and they have a wide reach (with five or six games in the Target up the street from me).

I sent Gamewright a copy of Squirmish, and, to my delight, they offered to license it from me for publication.

Collaborating with Gamewright on Squirmish

It has been a great experience collaborating with the folks at Gamewright. Jason Schneider, the vice president of product development at Gamewright, has been a wonderful collaborator to work with. His many years of experience in making games has given him a pretty impressive eye for spotting what is working well and what is not working in a game.

The Gamewright edition added square cards, googly-eye hit counters and custom dice to the game, along with a host of other more subtle improvements.

The most obvious improvement in the Gamewright edition was the frequently-requested change from the rectangular cards of the self-published version to square cards. That made the mechanism of cards being able to attack only cards that are adjacent to them work much more smoothly visually, and the mass of cards in the middle of the game (the “Squirmish”) looks much neater.

A game in progress.

The other obvious improvement was changing the damage counters to googly eyes. Self-published copies of the game had encouraged players to use cereal for damage counters (inspired by growing up playing poker with my Grandpa for Cheerios), and the self-published deluxe edition had included tiddly-winks for damage counters. I had sent some early review copies of the game out with googly eyes, which was my first choice for them since kids had fun putting the googly eyes over the characters eyes for an amusing effect. However, it had not been an option to do this when I was doing print-on-demand so I was excited to have this change.

 

Many of the changes are less obvious. The sequence of play change we made was the biggest one, and that came entirely from Jason. The sequence was changed from:

• Draw a card, if you wish.
• Place a card, if you wish.
• Move or attack.
• Resolve any abilities.

To:

• ATTACK!
• Resolve any abilities.
• Place a card (or move) if you wish.
• Draw a card, if you wish.

This was initially a hard sell for me as my kids and I were so used to playing with the old sequence of play, but I have come to realize it was probably the single biggest improvement we made. In particular, it made movement a much bigger strategic part of the game than it had been in the earlier version since people were much less likely to move when it had meant not attacking. Also, moving the attack to the beginning of the turn gets the action going right away, which makes the game more exciting.

Jason also had a lot of good suggestions for balancing the game. Many cards had their hitpoints lowered and attacks increased to speed up the game. The number of cards in the deck was reduced from the pretty overwhelming 108 cards I had in the self-published version to the streamlined 70 cards in the Gamewright version. We also improved the balance of the deck, making it much more likely for multiple cards of the same group to come up in a game (which activates their special group abilities). This is a particularly fun and exciting element of the game, and increasing the likelihood of group abilities being activated greatly increased the fun and strategy of using group cards.

One other change was that in the self-published version of the game the stinkiest player goes first. That was amusing enough, but Jason suggested instead that all players place a card from their hand face-down at the outset of the game, and the player who puts out the card with the fewest hit points goes first. This is another huge improvement in my view as it makes some of the lower hit point cards that a player may be reluctant to play at other points in the game more strategically interesting.

The Future of Squirmish

I’m pretty far on working on an expansion to Squirmish, although whether it will get published of course depends on how successful the initial game is. (The game was released by Gamewright in mid-2018 and is having its official premiere at Gen Con 2018.) I’m currently compelled to make more Squirmish cards regardless of whether they get published as I have so much fun making them. I’ve created a heap of new cards for the expansion, and I am currently in the process of testing out a new prototype deck of them along with some new game mechanisms.

A sneak preview of prototype cards I have been working on.

I’m also hoping that sales will be good enough to justify the publication of booster packs, which I think would do a lot to help Squirmish reach a different audience. Hopefully kids will do more with them than just collect them, though!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.