Chaos and Alchemy: The Designer Reveals the Secret to Making Gold

2 August 2013

About a year ago, I stumbled upon a blog written by a game designer named Michael Iachini. Michael had designed a game and wrote about the entire process from start to finish. The series was extremely insightful to me, and I admired that he had taken the time to share his wisdom with other game designers in such an accessible way. You can read it here.

Michael was a supporter of Viticulture, and I often went to him for advice and feedback. He even let me write a guest entry about manufacturing a game overseas, an area that he had yet to tap into. So when it came time to form Stonemaier’s advisory board, inviting Michael was a no-brainer.

Michael’s game, Chaos and Alchemy, was eventually picked up by Game Salute, and they’re running a Kickstarter for it right now. I wanted to bring Michael in for an interview about the game, particularly since I have actually played this game and enjoyed it. If you’re curious about game design, dice games, Kickstarter, or Game Salute, this interview is for you.

c51.      Can you describe your Kickstarter project and why you’re passionate about it?

The Kickstarter is for the first game I ever designed for publication: Chaos & Alchemy. This was a passion project of mine that really swept me up in the summer of 2012 when I had the inspiration for the core mechanism of the game: the Experiment (rolling dice, comparing each of them with a shared die, getting positive or negative actions based on the results). This was the rare design that mostly worked right from the start (though it needed fine-tuning), and I did a small print run on my own last summer.

Now I’m partnering with Game Salute as my publisher on the Kickstarter campaign, which will fund a full print run of Chaos & Alchemy with color illustrations, a high-quality game box, and distribution to game stores worldwide. I can’t wait to see the game I designed on the shelves of game stores and in the hands of gamers!

2.      The core mechanism of Chaos and Alchemy is incredibly simple to understand, and yet you created so many unique interactions with the cards. Could you name three other games that, if people like those games, they’ll also enjoy Chaos and Alchemy?

I’m glad you like the Experiment mechanism! Yes, I’m really happy with its simplicity, but also the way it creates interesting situations throughout the game.

The first game whose players tend to like Chaos & Alchemy is Magic: The Gathering. I’ve often taken Chaos & Alchemy with me when I drop by my local game store (shout out to Enchanted Grounds!) for an occasional Friday Night Magic draft. I’ll break out Chaos & Alchemy between rounds, since it’s a quick game to play, and teach my fellow Magic players how it goes. They understand it really quickly, and they love the way the cards interact with each other and the speed of the game. Hard-core tournament Magic players probably won’t enjoy Chaos & Alchemy as much (since the dice create a lot of, well, chaos!), but the FNM crowd has universally loved it.

Next is Munchkin. There was a time in my life when I loved Munchkin, and while I’m not as excited to play it any more, I know lots of people love it. Munchkin has a lot of “take that” elements that let you play cards to slow down whoever is in the lead, and while there isn’t quite as much of this in Chaos & Alchemy, it’s definitely there. Chaos & Alchemy is much quicker to play than Munchkin, but they share elements of using cards to build up cool abilities to help you get points to win the game.

Third is Zombie Dice. Chaos & Alchemy isn’t a pure dice game like Zombie Dice (the cards are really the heart and soul of my game), but the tactile sensation of picking up three (or more) dice and having them determine what your turn is going to be like is present in both games. Both are very easy to learn as well, and quick to play (although Zombie Dice wins the crown here for quickness). Like Zombie Dice, Chaos & Alchemy aims to fill that “beer and pretzels, filler game” niche in a gamer’s collection, though with some more interesting decisions in my game.

c33.      How many unique cards are there? What played into the decision to have some repeats? I found with Viticulture that it was frustrating to draw two of the same visitor card, so every card is unique. However, I didn’t find the same frustration in Chaos and Alchemy…I just can’t quite put my finger on what that is.

Chaos & Alchemy has 43 unique cards in the deck (plus five cards that are used to track Successes and Failures from your Experiments). 42 of those cards appear twice, and there’s one singleton. So, 85 game cards in total.

My earliest prototypes actually had three or four of each card in the deck (influenced by my Magic days, probably), but as I came up with more and more ideas for cool cards, the deck became unwieldy to shuffle. I eventually settled on two of each card, which gives players the feeling that they have a chance to get the same cool card that their opponent just played (rather than feeling like they’ve lost their only shot at it). Also, none of the cards are redundant in multiples; having both copies of a card is pretty much always extra-good.

The more interesting question might be, “Why do you have a singleton?” Two reasons for that. First, the print-on-demand company I used for the 2012 version of Chaos & Alchemy printed decks in multiples of 18 cards, which meant that having five Success/Failure tracking cards (one per player for the maximum number of players) would leave me with an odd number of game cards. Second, there was a particular card (called Miraculous Turnabout in the original version; now renamed From the Ashes in the Game Salute edition) that was exciting and powerful in the right situation, but sometimes not very useful. It was cool enough that I wanted to keep it in the game, but not in multiples.

4.      Could you speak a little bit to the amount of skill and strategy that goes into playing Chaos and Alchemy well? It played really smoothly for Alan and me, but I didn’t find many tough decisions. I almost always tried to play cards that gave me points, and I avoided discarding cards at all costs. What are a few strategy tips so I can feel like I have more control over my chances of winning the next time I play?

I’m going to come right out and admit that Chaos & Alchemy has a lot of luck in it; “Chaos” is right there in the name, after all! But there is definitely some strategy to the game, too. A good player will probably beat an unskilled player about 60% of the time in a one-on-one game (though I like Chaos & Alchemy best with three or four players, personally).

First, there’s the decision of what order to take your Successes and Failures in. There’s a pretty simple rule that players pick up on eventually: Take your Failures when your hand is empty (since Failures force you to discard a card from your hand). This means that, if you start your turn with no cards, you can take your Failures right away, then start using your Successes to draw cards and play cards. Conversely, if you have one or two cards in hand, you should take your Successes first to play those cards, then take your Failures once you’ve emptied your hand.

Second, if you don’t have the luxury of taking Failures on an empty hand, draw the extra card before taking the Failure. If you have two cards in hand, neither of which you want to play right now, plus a  Success and a Failure, take the Success first to draw a third card, then the Failure to discard the worst of the three (since the worst might be the card you just drew).

Third, try to keep your hand size low. Magic players in particular tend to like to stockpile cards in hand, but Chaos & Alchemy doesn’t really reward this strategy since Failures only hurt if you have cards to discard. Good Chaos & Alchemy players tend to aggressively get cards onto the table rather than saving them up in their hands.

Fourth, look for opportunities to use your Innovations that have ongoing abilities in combination with one another and in ways that interact with the results of your Experiments. For instance, the card Mortar and Pestle (renamed Homonculus in the Game Salute edition) lets you choose one of your Experiment Dice and increase its result by 1. This is clearly nice if the Fortune Die is one point higher than your Experiment Die, letting you turn a Failure into a Success. A more subtle use of this card is to create – or avoid – Chaos (rolling doubles). If the Fortune Die is on a 5 and you have a 2, a 3 and a 4, you might want to consider making that 3 into a 4, thus creating Chaos and giving you the chance to re-roll the Fortune Die before counting your Successes and Failures, giving you a chance at two or even three Successes, rather than making the 4 into a 5 and giving you one guaranteed Success. There are several cards that can give you choices like this.

c25.      I really like that you shared the old art and card layout compared to the new art/layout on the Kickstarter page—it’s come a long way! What role did you play in the art direction for the new art?

I was lucky to work with Dann May, the art director Game Salute assigned to Chaos & Alchemy. Dann did the new layout, hired the new illustrator (Enggar Adirasa) and provided art direction to Enggar, as you would expect. But more than that, Dann did a great job of understanding the flavor of the world of Chaos & Alchemy and refining it to better fit the mechanics.

My original version of Chaos & Alchemy took the world a bit too seriously, and included a somewhat confusing undercurrent of royal favor and intrigue. Dann wisely decided to focus on the alchemy itself and to take a somewhat lighter-hearted approach to the game world (though it retains much of its original feel). This meant that most of the cards were renamed, and Dann also composed all-new flavor text. The new flavor text is designed to read like entries from an alchemist’s journal, which is awesome.

Dann was great to work with, even though I’m in Colorado and he’s in Australia. He took a very collaborative approach throughout the process, and I appreciated that he had his own ideas to offer and was also interested in my thoughts about those ideas rather than saying, “This is how it’s going to be.” Dann May rocks.

6.      What are a few key elements and principles you incorporated into your project that you think future Kickstarter creators could benefit from knowing? You’ll be about a week into the project when this interview goes live—what have you learned during that time about being a part of a Kickstarter? What has your involvement looked like so far?

This is an interesting question that I hope to write a lot more about someday, after Chaos & Alchemy has been “in the wild” for some time. Game Salute is the publisher, and they ultimately make the decisions about everything related to money (funding target, pledge levels, stretch goals, shipping, etc.).

I can say at this point that I think Game Salute and I both learned some things on the fly in the first few days, and I’m sure we’ll learn more as the campaign continues! Some of these points are:

  • Be ready with those stretch goals (exact details and everything, including graphics) before you launch. You might fund in under 15 hours, like we did, and you want backers to know about stretch goals right away.
  • Provide some option for international shipping, no matter what. People are excited about your game; give them a way to get it if they’re willing to swallow the crazy-high cost of international shipping.
  • Have a custom avatar graphic for your campaign available. If people want to advertise your game every time they put up a tweet or a Facebook comment, that’s wonderful!
  • Communicate with your backers! They have so much energy and great suggestions. The Comments section of my Kickstarter campaign has been very active, and I love it.
  • Subscribe to the threads on BoardGameGeek that are tied to your game. People will offer questions, suggestions and complaints there, too, and you want to be proactive in talking to those people.

My involvement has been to respond to comments everywhere I see them (note that I’m just posting as a backer, not the project creator – that’s Game Salute) and to offer my take on backer suggestions/requests to the publisher. Like I said, the business decisions ultimately rest with Game Salute (it’s their money in the end), but they’re interested in my ideas, which I appreciate.

c17.      Last, I’m sure many readers have seen the Game Salute name on dozens of Kickstarter projects at this point. As more game designers look to companies like Game Salute to help out with their campaigns, what advice do you have for them? Is there a certain type of person you’d recommend work with a company like Game Salute and a different type of person you think should run the Kickstarter campaign themselves?

It’s a question of whether you want to be a pure game designer or whether you’re interested in being a game publisher.

If you’re willing to be a publisher and you know that you can do the work, then I’d recommend going it on your own rather than working with a company that focuses on publishing games via Kickstarter. Now, that’s a LOT of work, to be clear! You have to be willing to do all of the following things:

  • Find a manufacturer
  • Deal with detailed price quotes (including various stretch goal versions of your game and varying prices for varying order sizes)
  • Be your own art director (find artists, handle contracts, provide art descriptions, deal with revisions, pay the artists)
  • Figure out the finances (including manufacturing cost, shipping from the manufacturer, shipping to backers, art costs, marketing costs, taxes, etc. etc.)
  • Get set up with distributors (convince them to carry your game and sign contracts with them)
  • Handle advertising / marketing
  • Put together the Kickstarter page (including video and graphics)
  • Run the campaign (updates, comments, spreading the word. customer service, mid-stream changes, etc.)
  • Get your files properly formatted for manufacturing
  • Shepherd your game through the manufacture / shipping / customs process
  • Deal with warehousing and Kickstarter fulfillment
  • Deal with sending games to and from distributors and (to a lesser degree) retailers
  • Handle post-Kickstarter web sales
  • Continue customer service support (damaged games, replacement parts, etc.)
  • And many more things that I’m forgetting at the moment!

If you know that you have the time, talent and desire to handle all of these things yourself (or to hire people who can handle them), then you should go it on your own. If not, then you should try to work with a publisher.

It’s important to note that money matters here. If you publish on your own, then you are the “residual claimant” (to use some lingo from my economics days). This means that you are the one who reaps the rewards if your game turns out to be really profitable, but you’re also the one who takes the loss if your game doesn’t succeed. If you work with a publisher, then you’ll likely get a percentage royalty, which means that your reward for a big success is a lot smaller, but your financial risk is basically zero.

It’s not an easy decision, going it alone versus working with a publisher, but I hope that the points above can help other designers think it through and make the right decision for their own situation.

***

If you’re interested in backing Chaos and Alchemy, you can view it on Kickstarter here.

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11 Comments on “Chaos and Alchemy: The Designer Reveals the Secret to Making Gold

  1. Thanks for giving me the chance to answer some questions for your readers! If anyone has more questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me on Twitter (@ClayCrucible) or email (claycrucible@gmail.com).

    1. Actually, check the Shipping section of the Kickstarter page. There’s a link for non-US backers to get the game, paying whatever it costs to ship to their address. And those pre-orders will count toward stretch goal progress!

      1. The problem, Michael, is that it’s very expensive shipping methods the way they’re doing it now, i.e. a $35 game has $35 shipping to the UK via their website.

        It appears to me that GameSalute have decided that sending games to fullfillment centre’s and getting cheap shipping for EU/Elsewhere is just too much effort and that they can’t be bothered over using more expensive easy methods.

        I’m not happy with it, and won’t back backing any more of their games unless they change back, but best of luck to the designers getting their products out there nontheless.

        1. Christopher – Yep, that’s pretty much what they’ve decided. They’re trying to keep their Kickstarter campaigns very simple, and they’re not counting on having enough demand to take Jamey’s approach of having pallets of games shipped to the EU for fulfillment from there.

          Now, from what I understand, Game Salute does ultimately sell games via normal distribution channels worldwide. So, once Chaos & Alchemy is published, they have the infrastructure to get it onto store shelves in the EU and Australia and Canada, etc. But for the Kickstarter, they’re definitely trying to keep their administrative costs to a minimum, which does have the unfortunate effect of making it really hard for non-US backers to get involved in the Kickstarter campaign.

          As the designer, who wants to see Chaos & Alchemy do really well on Kickstarter so that we can hit stretch goals and make the game the best it can possibly be, this is obviously a bummer to me. But it’s ultimately Game Salute who is the publisher, and it’s their money on the line, and their business decision to make.

          For what it’s worth, I’m on your side. But I have no influence on business decisions!

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