Drunk Dungeon: the making of

23 May 2012 | 2 comments

This post follows on from an earlier post

Drunk Dungeon really came about because I was trying to solve an age-old live game problem: getting a roomful of people into teams.

Getting people into teams is hard, on almost every level – conceptual, practical, functional. There’s a whole other blog post to be written on why, and people better qualified than me to write it. But, broadly speaking, you need teams that are equally appealing (or you’ll get an uneven split, which you usually don’t want), teams that resonate with people enough that they care, (but not so specific that they feel they’ve got no choice), and that you can visually communicate effectively and cheaply and pleasantly. It’s *hard*. We spent longer designing the teams for the New Year Games than almost any other individual element.

I knew I’d need teams to do a party game, and realised for once, there was an easy out. Everyone at a drinks party is already on a team. They’re either on Team Beer or Team Wine or Team Water. It seemed, for a heartbeat, like a gift from the gaming gods. It wasn’t, of course. Those teams don’t equally divide. People swap between them over an evening. It’s hard to use them without perversely incentivising alcoholism (or abstinence, neither of which things I’m especially fond of). But from that grew the idea that the game should incorporate the fact that people would likely be playing with one hand and drinking with the other.

There were a bunch of other false starts after that – including some digital diversions where it was going to be a 2d/3d perspective-swapping game about fireworks, and the a Dungeon Master clone where your avatar had a sort of Tron light-bike trail and you were trying to find a route through the maze that would result in a top-down 2D drawing of something when you saw the whole dungeon top-down at the end of the level. That one had fireworks in it too, for a bit. These ideas did not last long.

So then it was back to drinks, and playing together-alone,  and there being something beautiful there at the end of the night that there wasn’t at the start.

The Ruleset

A second generation paper prototype, with background pinched from a Marimekko print.

The basic idea dropped into place pretty fast when someone reminded me about how much I talked about The A-Maze-ing Labyrinth. Once you know it’s coasters + player-made dungeon + party then the rules come together pretty fast. The first version was just drawn in biro on cut up pieces of printer paper. I played it on my lap on a big sheet of perspex with the aid of a dried up glue-stick. Two teams (me, and me) took it in turns to draw a random map tile and add to the map. Then they could move their avatar (paper clip). The turn-about structure immediately made you want dead-end tiles, so you could mess with your opponent, so I added them. Dead end tiles immediately meant that the map would get locked up, so I added stacker tiles that could go on top of them to open it up again. The whole thing, however, was entirely boring. There was nowhere to go.

So I added star tiles – destinations and prizes in one. But now the game felt choked. You built a road and moved your piece to the end of it, and then you were stuck, waiting for the next tile. Or, if you limited movement to one move per tile added then the avatar was often meaningless: the road indicated the extent of your progress. Worse, the teams were endlessly locked in sync – there was little sense of racing or rivalry. So I interspersed movement tiles with map tiles. Now you could either move or build, depending on what you drew. Then two problems hit: drawing a movement tile when your team’s piece had no-where to go felt really miserable. And when the two pieces met on the board nothing happened, which felt anticlimatic and flat. So: fighting! Movement tiles became energy tiles – use them to move your piece or add armour to it (tiny strips of paper held by the paper-clips). Two pieces meeting fought, and the one with least energy got sent back to the beginning of the map.

Circulating that intitial design for early playtests and feedback, I got some very sensible advice about trying to simplify things. The more players and the more unsupervised their playing, the more problematic complexity becomes. People raised red flags about how on earth I was going to communicate all this to players without having to hand everyone a four-page rule-book at the door. I hoped that one issue would answer the other – I’d simplify back down and that would solve the communication problem.

In testing, though, pulling out any of those complexities just re-revealed the bald, boring bits of play they’d been designed to cover. Almost everything I experimented with taking out - separate movement tiles, combat, armour points, spawn points – gradually went back in as I tested during production. But that process gave me much more confidence taking the game live: I knew really clear what every rule was doing and why I had to have it.

The visual design

The idiot-proof jig. The stamp you can see that looks like a pi is in fact the T-junction stamp.

The whole game hangs on the coasters and resulting map being pretty which meant I had two pretty big problems. The first was that this wasn’t a big budget project. The second was that I’m horrible at art. It soon became obvious that the simplest approach – getting coasters printed – wasn’t going to work. Big, cheap printers have minimal print-runs that weren’t compatible with having multiple map-tile types, and definitely ruled out alternative colours, which I couldn’t quite face losing, as well as two-sided printing. Small, artisanal presses were too expensive from the get-go, despite promising small runs of deeply beautiful results. There was a brief exciting moment when I thought I could maybe use the gorgeous Gocco home screen-printing kit to print, photograph and then ink the coasters myself, but Gocco is just too discontinued and collectable now to be a viable production method. So basic rubber stamps it was.

But what to put on them? And how many to have? My early thoughts were to keep costs down by having a few small stamps – 1/9th the size of a coaster, and print each map tile shape from hand (I knew I needed a straight road, crossroad, t-junction and dead-end, and could make all of those from blocks). But what should be on the stamp? Solid colour? Something representative (bricks, trees?) Something abstract? Could I use different textures without making it look like the tiles meant different things? Could I use different colours without making people worry about colours having to match? I magpied visual styles wherever I could. Could I build this thing out of bits of Richard Serres prints (I could not). Could I build this thing out of Marimekko fabric designs (I could not). Gradually I started to figure out what some of the rules were for how I wanted this thing to work. 1) For good or ill, I wanted multiple colour. 2)The roadways should be negative space, not positive space. 3) Rubber stamps are best at big, solid graphic shapes (where you can enjoy the uneven, organic textures that the stamping process creates), or high-detail filigree (which emphasises how much they achieve something that drawing/painting by hand never normally could)
You’ll note none of those rules tell me anything about what the damn things should actually look like.

In the end, writing saved me. My solution to the communication problem of my stubbornly complicated rule set, was the split the rules up across the back of each tile, with each tile carrying a relevant instruction and fragment of the ruleset. So I needed a font. I’m also horrible at fonts. I asked a friend for help, and while browsing, he happened across this lovely thing. That’s right. The beautiful coasters that made it look like my claims to be horrible at art were false modesty, are actually just typed out out of someone else’s artistry.

So FR Minta saved the day. I briefly toyed with typing elaborate hidden messages into the tiles, (which future generations of scholars* would puzzle at), but it turned out too many of the characters I wanted were non-English and also that it was a terrible idea.

Stamping the full set was pretty epic. I did 800 or so coasters for the event, assuming 250 people and 3 drinks each. Choosing Minta meant that the   multiple approach to stamping out each map tile shape just wasn’t going to cut it. Everything had to line up perfectly. So now it was one big stamp per tile, and that decisions probably kept me out of hospital. 800 tiles, front and back, with some overstamped (with stackers, multiple energy bolts etc) meant over 2000 individual print impressions, and by the end of production I felt like I had two iron pegs hammered into the very tips of my shoulders. The idea of doing five times that many impressions is not one I can comfortably contemplate. Even with one single stamp, things tended to come out crooked, so I built a little jig out of bits of picture frame and clamps to keep things square.

It was about then I realised I didn’t know anything about stamping or inks or drying times or any of that jazz. All the websites said not to use pigment ink, because pigment ink never dried ever. But the non-pigment ink seemed wishy-washy and I knew this couldn’t afford to not feel dense and lush. All the specialist stores said to use waterproof archival ink, in case things got wet, but it only seemed to come in pretty dreary colours. I experimented a bit with screen-printing ink to see if it would do, but it was slightly too thick and I didn’t want to mess with it. So, in the end, I broken all the rules, dumped the ink-pads, and used pigment ink refills squeezed onto a spare bit of lino, and applied to the stamps with a brayer, which turns out to be a fancy name for an ink roller. I’ve no idea if it’s a generally accepted approach, but it turned out to work great.


The original idea for Drunk Dungeon was that it would be played up on a wall. I was very determined to design a game where there was something beautiful left at the end of the evening, and it felt natural for that beautiful thing to be on the wall. I was hopefully for a bit at the beginning about whether or not this might be an excuse to buy a LOT of REALLY STRONG magnets, but it turned out not to be. Cork seemed to be the answer, and Game Center gamely started drawing up plans for a massive 14 foot stand to accomodate it all. I was wrestling a bit with good ideas for how the player pieces and armour points etc would manifest, and sort of pretending not to notice that the whole thing was getting pretty precarious.

And then, through the magic of playtesting, a better idea came up. Playing it on a table, and casting around for a good candidate for some make-shift avatars (having moved on from paper-clips), I thought of using a drinking glass. And then it all starting to fall into place. This was, after all a drinking game. And games are more at home on table-tops, where people can touch them, rather than gallery walls, where they need an assistant to help. And a drinking game should be a bit about drinking. So the avatars can be glasses. Which means the armour points can be swizzle sticks. And we you start shopping for swizzle sticks, you discover the forgotten piece of physical culture which is the ‘hi-jac’ - a decorative glass cosy which enjoyed the briefest of heydays in the sixties. The final piece of the puzzle was needing a way to put people into teams, and suddenly little plastic cocktail swords were the perfect solution – what could more efficiently say drinking and dungeoning in one little token than a plastic cocktail sword? Turns out cocktail swords are sharper than they look, so I distributed them inside little coin envelopes – an Area/Code design staple which can always be relied upon to add a little drama and excitement.

The last and most unexpectedly crucial design turned out to be the lighting – too bright, and it was too obvious just how much white there was still to be seen on those coasters. To dim and it was hard to read the road. Just right, and the gold tiles had the perfect burnished glow and my pigment inks looks bright and rich. And then, as often happens when you accidentally land on some good decisions, lots of little benefits and exploits started happening. The flat cork proved a perfect, hi-tack surface to keep the cards in place. Departing players stabbed their little swords into the board, adding to the sense of a real dungeon battleground. A wall of bottles accumulated at the end of the table, as the surely should if you’re playing a game called Drunk Dungeon.

There’s an awful lot I got wrong with Drunk Dungeon – I’ll do a follow-up post on exactly that – but an awful lot seemed to go right. It was incredibly precious to get an opportunity to make something so lavish and baroque and impractical. Thanks again to Game Center and to everyone who helped and played.

*i.e., no-one

2 comments on this post.

  • On 1 Jun 2012, Morgan DeVoe said:

    .. Please sell me these coasters….

    Or, rather, i hope that you start to sell them or find someone to print them for you or something.

    It sounds like a blast.

  • On 8 Jun 2012, Scott W. said:

    This is a brilliant concept and it is clear that you poured a great deal of love and labor into the effort.

    Please, please, please explore the possibility of making this game available to the public. I would LOVE to run this as a charity event in my home town. We have a huge geek/gamer community here and I’m sure it would be a hit.

    Even a .pdf of the rules and a quick DIY guide to creating our own coasters would be fantastic!

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