Die of the Dead Designer Diary 9: The Ofrenda (1)

For the tokens we wanted to keep the theme of the game and choose items which would be pertinent to the Day of the Dead festival. We chose to use some of the objects and decorations incorporated into the displays and offerings (ofrenda), that are created in family homes. In the game each of these can be used to provide a small bonus to players, 2 different bonuses depending upon setup.

Pan de Muerto, aka Bread of the Dead, is a lovely sweet bread, baked with a distinctive bone shape on top. It is believed the souls absorb the essence of the bread, and after they’ve had their fill it’s time for the family to eat them.

In the game bread is all about getting your souls further in their journey. Both the uses of the bread token gets your souls into the caskets. Side A allows you to add a soul to a casket that another player chooses. This is a great way to jump ahead, but you do need someone to choose a later casket. Side B allows a player to add souls to an empty casket. Being the only player with souls in caskets 2 & 4 is a fantastic plus and can be incredibly beneficial as you’re guaranteed the win on those caskets.

Copal incense is another of the tokens players can gain. The burning of this incense dates back to early Mesoamerica, and is used to draw the souls of the deceased to the home.

In Die of the Dead, incense is used to change results of rolls. When the smoke clears, maybe the results weren’t what they first seems? Side A allows players to adjust the result on one soul up or down by 1. This can prove the difference between ascension or losing souls, depending upon the casket. Side B simply shakes the casket again, helping mitigate any unlucky rolls.

Hopefully this gives some ideas of how we’ve enriched the mechanics by careful thought of the theme. In the next post we’ll talk about the other two tokens.

Quick reminder, our prelaunch page is here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/radical8games/die-of-the-dead where you can sign up to get notified immediately upon launch!

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 8: Nine Steps

The core gameplay of Die of the Dead lies in the caskets. Players need to consider which ones to choose, remember what’s in them, move them forward, and be joyous when the contents are revealed. So there had been a long question about what should happen to the souls once they’ve ascended out the caskets. Initially there was a maze system set up, but thematically it just didn’t fit, and mechanically it was too distracting.

First template of card cutting steps

We wanted something which added to the core gameplay loop, but didn’t distract from it. After trying various area control mechanics, which were overcomplicated, we settled on a simple race system. First to ascend 9 levels wins! It’s simple and effective, and helps reinforce the catch-up mechanism- the more souls you have on the steps, the fewer you have in the caskets. Additionally depending upon where your soul is placed you can gain a powerful boost. This incentivises players to place their own souls, and not let other players place them on a blank space.

It held the dice well…

At first the steps were just flat, but there was an issue with this. After the first few dice were placed, the player sat furthest away couldn’t see what the options were on the steps, and it wasn’t immediately obvious who was winning. So I took the idea of the souls traveling up and made it more literal- what if there were steps? After plenty of card crafting the final steps were made. They had to fulfil 4 criteria:

  • Only be made once
  • Fit back in the box
  • Not require adhesive or complex steps
  • Improve the gameplay
Procession of artistic imporvements

The final design does all those things. It’s made from a total of 12 pieces of punchboard and nothing else. All players need to do is fold each step and insert it into the sides. Once done it won’t come apart again, and will remain sturdy and secure. By removing the back the steps lie flat in the box. All of this is quick, simple and easy to do.

No dice fall off, even when shaken

So does it improve the gameplay? Yes. Thematically it just works, and has a real wow factor to boot. All players can see the options for where to place the dice. And we’ve worked to eliminate some of the frustrations from other games with steps. Our steps have been thoughtfully designed to prevent dice toppling off. Each step is on a small incline, almost imperceptible, but which prevents the dice from moving forward, even if the structure is moved.

Quick reminder: our Kickstarter prelaunch page is now up, you can get notified immediately when we launch! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/radical8games/die-of-the-dead

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Kickstarter Prelaunch Page Now Live!

Quick update- our Kickstarter prelaunch page is now live! You can check it out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/radical8games/die-of-the-dead and choose to get notified as soon as we launch.

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 7: The Importance of the Small Things

Yet another Designer Diary interruption! Our Kickstarter prelaunch page is now live, please check it out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/radical8games/die-of-the-dead You can choose to get notified immediately when we launch the Kickstarter, so you don’t need to worry about missing it! Thank you, and now back to the diary…

For the last post on the caskets, I just wanted to talk a little about their construction. Early on we were using large caskets bought from hobbycraft. These behemoths caught people’s eyes, but were needlessly large. Since then I spent a lot of time designing caskets which were fund to pick up and hold.

As a sign of considering the smaller things in the game, the caskets (and the steps, which we’ll get to later) stand out. They have a height of 3cm, with the dice having a height of 1.6cm. This means the dice will shake well, but they will never stack. One of the most annoying things in a dice game is having to unstack dice, inevitably knocking one, and the having a do-over. So the height of the caskets was intentionally made to prevent this.

Precision engineered

The second thing is the height of the bases. Most containers have a short lid and large base. We’ve reversed this, and used the skull to emphasise it. This is so that when the dice are revealed, everybody can see the result straight away. The base is just 1cm high, large enough to keep the dice securely in, but short enough so we don’t have people peering into the casket. Just really nicely designed with thought and attention.

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 6: Deep Dive into the Caskets (2)

Before we finish our deep dive into the casket mechanics (which won’t make sense if you didn’t read the last post here: https://radical8games.com/die-of-the-dead/die-of-the-dead-designer-diary-5-deep-dive-into-the-first-caskets/) I just want to show off a photo of the game by Ross from moregamesplease. It’s an absolute stunner, and really helps highlight the beauty of the game:

Photo by Ross Connell (moregamesplease)

Now, on with the blog…

In the last blog post I spoke about how all the caskets had to offer a genuine choice, reward the current player, and offer something to keep the other players invested. I also mentioned that the first two caskets were about getting dice, representing the souls traveling back to the land of the living, into the caskets to begin their journey. The last two caskets still offer a genuine choice, and still reward the current player whilst keeping all other players engaged. But now the theme has changed to one of overcoming and finishing a journey, and so the mechanics do all they can to support that.

The final casket was actually one of the first ones we came up with. This casket is the final one, and player’s souls leave this casket to ascend towards the land of the living. The primary action here actually depends upon the roll of the dice in the casket, with the best roll having two of their souls ascended. The current player can also ascend one of their souls, so even if the dice beat them, they still get something. If they chose this casket without having any souls in it, they can take a power soul instead. This incentivises players to choose this casket as a guarantee of ascending a soul, and even has the possibility of ascending three! It’s not too harsh if players choose it when they shouldn’t, but it needs to be chosen in order to win. Finally there is also the option to move the caskets as well, putting this casket back to the first position. This is entirely down to the player, and gives them some control who can ascend next.

That left the third casket. This proved to be the most difficult to design for. Initial designs had variants on the 4th casket, with souls ascending, but it felt unthematic to stop the journey ¾ of the way through. After a number of different tests we came up with the idea of the journey being difficult, the obsidian cliffs of the journey to the land of the dead. This also solved a problem we were having with players overloading caskets with their dice to almost guarantee a winning roll at the end. Casket 3 would remove dice from the casket, forcing those souls to restart the journey over again. Any player’s dice which are a double (or triple etc) are removed from the casket, leaving at least one dice from that player. This only punishes players who get to greedy, and can still be mitigated by clever play, but prevents players from dumping dice into caskets. Again, some of the biggest laughs can come from a player choosing this casket and removing loads of dice from the other players (and sometimes themselves!). In gameplay this casket has acted exactly as that obstacle to be overcome, with players holding their breath when they have a load of souls on this space. Of course, we still need the current player to be rewarded, even if no souls leave, so they get to take either a Candle, Incense, Marigold or Bread. Powerful tokens which can be used to change the state of the game.

So those are the 4 caskets. One for beginning, preparation, disruption and ascension. Each one rewards the current player, but offers something to keep all other players invested. Each is distinct and unique, making the choice purposeful. And each of them is stunning to look at and fun to hold.

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 5: Deep Dive into The First Caskets

This is the first of 2 deep dive’s into the mechanics of Die of the Dead’s caskets. I’ve tried to focus on why we made decisions rather than just explain the rules. However, some understanding of the rules are needed, so a brief summary: in the game players are trying to get their dice (representing souls) from their player board, into the caskets, then from the caskets to the steps. On a player’s turn they choose a casket to help with this. Now the blog…

As Die of the Dead centres around the caskets, the actions they do is key to the game. Given that a player’s turn is choosing a casket, we needed the following things to be true:

  • Each casket represents a distinct purposeful choice
  • The current player is rewarded on their turn
  • All other player’s are still invested in the outcome  
The casket and token boards

For the first point we wanted each casket to perform different yet useful actions. Some may be more useful than others, but rarely did we want it to be a forgone conclusion which one to choose, or make it so it didn’t matter. Therefore each casket does something different.

The second and third points are connected. Initial playtests had some caskets which only rewarded the current player, and other caskets which only rewarded the player who rolled highest. Both of these were unfulfilling to players- having dice rolled but no outcome was counterintuitive and missed a gap were an element of surprise could be. Taking your turn and receiving nothing because of an unlucky dice roll was demoralising and harsh. So each casket has two actions, one which rewards the current player, and one which uses the dice rolls.

The first two caskets are both centred on the beginning of the journey, with a primary action to help players get more dice in the caskets, and a secondary action to engage all players.

The first casket is always open, and how dice enter the caskets. A player who chooses this can add dice into the casket. Because this casket is always open, players don’t need to remove the lid to do so, and can always see who else has dice in the casket. This casket is the beginning of a player’s dice traveling to the land of the living. Therefore the second action is to shake the casket and move all caskets along one, depending upon the result of the dice. Initial tests with different outcomes were difficult- either too complex, or occurred too often. One of the most powerful things a player can have is a casket with only their dice in it. To resolve this we tried different methods, but the simplest was just to only allow this secondary action if there are at least two player’s dice in the casket. A simple change which made a massive improvement. And can be summed up as “You never travel alone”.

The second casket is also about helping players on their journey, but we had to be different to the first (keep each choice purposefully distinct). This caskets primary action is to prepare dice to be added to casket 1. This allows players to add more dice at once rather than one at a time. The secondary action lets a player prepare a die, but this depends upon the roll of the dice in the casket. This keeps all players invested in the outcome, you can gain on another player’s turn, whilst rewarding the current player.

Casket 2 can also cause the caskets to move. Both of these caskets are about progression and starting the journey. And we’ve found the mechanic supports the theme which goes back to support the mechanic. In our next blog, we’ll look at how the last caskets are about overcoming trials and ending journeys.

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 4: Casket Case

From the initial conception of the game, the caskets have been a massive draw. With beautiful artwork they have captured people’s hearts before the game has even been played. James’ early version of the game, before it was themed or had a consistent scoring mechanics, were centred around the caskets. You could say the game was born in these coffins. So why have they proven to be the backbone of the game?

Early prototype caskets trialled

There is a tactile joy in shaking them. Everyone who has played the game has loved shaking the caskets. Often tentatively at first, but we have designed them in a way to make sure they feel comfortable in a player’s hand, and sturdy enough to be shaken with vigour!

They are eye-catchingly gorgeous. Especially with the art by Rusembell, they stand out like nothing else on the market.

They allow for new & unique game mechanics which entwine in the game’s themes.

  • Because they are small they can move, and this movement of caskets is what the game hinges on. They are small and sturdy enough to be moved, and so there is a literal journey and sense of progress in the game.
  • They keep information hidden. There are 4 caskets, one of which is opened throughout the game. So players only need to track what’s in three caskets, all of which are highly distinct. This amount of hidden information is just enough for players to feel relatively confident in what is where, but not so much that it ever becomes trivial. Indeed, some of the biggest laughs when playing have come from players forgetting which caskets is best for them, and helping their opponents instead!
  • For those players who dislike hidden trackable information, there are ways to mitigate this, such as always being able to shake a casket to see if it’s empty, or playing a token to help. There’s also a variant which removes this entirely, so players can always see what’s in each casket.

So the caskets aren’t just stunning to look at, and a joy to hold and play with, they also serve the gameplay in both theme and mechanics, allowing Die of the Dead to give play like nothing else out there. In the next post we’ll look at what each casket does when it’s chosen.

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 3: Unapologetically Dicey

Die of the Dead is a dice game. Obvious statement is obvious, but acknowledging what being a dice game means and how it feels to play is fundamental to designing one. There’s going to be a lot of randomness, and we need to know when to lean into it, and when to mitigate it.

The joy of the game revealed itself in early playtesting. People shaking a casket and revealing a roll against the odds. Tables don’t erupt in cheers and laughter when the expected happens, it’s when the unexpected happens- someone with just one die rolls higher than a player with four. When designing a dice game it’s about taking those moments of output randomness, and embracing them without making them too punitive or punishing for players on the losing end.

One of the earliest decisions was about what type of dice to have. Original playtests of dice numbered 1,2 & 3 had less output randomness, but also less variability. If you had more dice then another player you were much more likely to win, to the point it was almost a given. This also didn’t allow us to do much more with the small amount of values on the dice. When we changed to 1-6 a new problem emerged- maths. As much as I love maths (and I do), going by totals on the dice slowed things down to the extend we needed to change it.


Which colour has the highest total?

However long that took, it slowed the pace, and that’s not something we wanted. It also still allowed for more mitigation of dice than we liked. We wanted a game where a player with 1 dice still has a chance of winning, no matter how many dice the other player has.

So we switched the dice comparisons from total, to the most of the highest number. Whoever’s dice show the highest number wins, and if it’s a tie, whoever has the most of that number wins. This became an elegant and efficient solution. A player with more dice has a greater chance of winning, but it is never certain, and it’s easy to see at a glance who has won the dice roll.

We had our output randomness, and some mitigation- simply have more dice for a greater chance to win. This led to needing a way to stop players simply loading up the caskets with all their dice, but we’ll get to that in a later diary. For further mitigation we used tokens which can affect dice rolls in some way, but we also have power souls!

You can’t have a dice game without custom dice, so here are ours. The 3 & 4 have been replaced by Dia de Muertos skulls, which are wild. Why not just replace them with 6’s? Well, for that answer we need to see what the caskets do, and understand why a player might choose for them to not represent 6 at all. These power souls can be gained by a player and used to mitigate the luck in each of the caskets. But, as with all good dice games, you can’t guarantee your luck will hold out.

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 2: Theme and Cultural Consistency

By the time I saw the game, the theme of Dia de Muertos was already there. James, the designer, had repurposed the caskets from another prototype about the mafia. As soon as he put a little stock art in then people wanted to play it. And of course they would, Dia de Muertos is criminally underused as a theme, but it has so much beautiful imagery it draws players in. The two games people think of when thinking of Dia de Muertos, are Skull, which is a fantastic game but light on theme, and one of my favourite videogames- Grim Fandango.

Recognise these?

Early on I read “The Skeleton at the Feast”, a fantastic book about Dia de Muertos customs. It was increidbly interesting, and started moving my thinking away from what we only learn in pop culture.

One of the first agreements I had with James was on hiring a cultural consultant. If we are theming around an occasion from a different culture we needed to hire somebody to help us get a deep understanding of the culture. There are some high profile games out there which have hit the headlines for having embarrassing cultural mis-steps and blindspots. We wanted to take every opportunity to make the game as rich and culturally consistent as possible. We were also incredibly fortunate to hire a Mexican artist, which again helped provide insight and suggestions to improve the game.

So our boards for the caskets became papel picado, the 4 aids for the players were bread, incense, candles and marigolds. The marigolds were also on the path which guided the souls back to the land of the living, which was 9 steps to represent the 9 levels of the underworld. Caterina is on hand to help each player. The whole game developed, and as the theme got richer it meant we could think about how it meshed with the mechanics. I can honestly say it’s been a fantastically rewarding experience, and I’m so glad we did it.

Footnote- I’d never actually had any Bread of the Dead until a friend brought me some last year after playtesting the game. So thanks Angel, it was delicious and I can heartily recommend some.

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Die of the Dead Designer Diary 1: Colour

A celebration. Dia de Muertos is a colourful celebration of those who have gone, and we wanted our game to reflect that in kind. Before lockdown, aka 1000 years ago (4 months), a friend asked if it was wise to release a game called “Die of the Dead” given the global pandemic. “It is” I replied “because it’s themed around a celebration, not a mourning”. And the best way to represent that, it with colour.

“The Skeleton at the Feast” (top left) is a really interesting book which helped a lot with the theming of the game.

Everything is colourful, the dice, caskets, tokens, boards and steps. We really wanted a sense of vibrancy and we hope you find the result looks different to many other boardgames. I’m going to post about theme and culture next update, but for now I want to draw the attention to the Papel Picado inspired boards. These beautiful decorations are commonly displayed during all sorts of occasions, and thousands can be seen during Dia de Muertos celebrations. Using these were suggested to us by our cultural consultant when we were discussing casket tiles, and it was a perfect suggestion. Thematically rich, and so colourful, and below you can see some of the art we went for, from a more traditional look, to one which stands out more (necessary from a gameplay perspective).

Papel Picado in Mexico

You might be wondering if everything is so colourful, then why are two of the dice sets black and white. And that’s simply because we’ve chosen the dice colours to be as accessible as possible.

So hopefully you’ll agree we’ve made a uniquely colourful game, with colourful gameplay to match.

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