When it comes to building a board game, some designers start with mechanics: rules or gameplay features that somehow grasp a player’s attention. Others approach from a thematic standpoint, where they establish some sort of real world analog for what is going to happen within the game’s mechanical systems.
Two years ago, Darrell Louder, a graphic designer and dad from Delaware, thought he had a good combination of both theme and mechanics when he came up with a potion-making board game. “I thought it would be cool if the game was about being an alchemist and mixing various things: rat tails, toads, etcetera,” he says. “I was taking my wife to work the next morning and telling her about this idea. She looked at me and pretty much said that it was a stupid theme.”
What his wife, Lesley, suggested was that instead of potions and alchemy, Louder use real-world chemistry — elements and compounds — in his game. “She’s an AP English teacher,” Louder adds. “She’s always looking for a way to get games in the classroom, so I think that was her ulterior motive all along. Man, did it work.”
The game that resulted from Louder’s discussion with his wife is called Compounded, and so far it’s raised over $100,000 on the popular crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Pretty good sales numbers for a game that only exists in a prototype form. But a lot of polish has gone into the game in the two years since its inception.
Much of that polish is a result of the game’s involvement with the Unpub program, a network of game designers, publishers, players, and retailers who all get together at playtesting events and work to improve unpublished games. John Moller, who started Unpub and organizes its events, remembers Louder’s game during its early days. “Compounded was a bit of a surprise. Darrell designed it to help me, since he didn’t think I’d have enough people at the first Unpub. He wanted to make sure that at least one other game designer was there, so Compounded was born. What was awesome was how well the game was received when it was just a week old.”
Game designer T. C. Petty III, another member of the Unpub program, recalls: “Darrell took a pile of index cards, which were admittedly well-designed from a graphical standpoint, that were mixed together into a non-interactive, geeky, chaotic card game idea, and within five months, he transformed it into a high-interactive, gateway Euro game with a realistic and unique thematic edge.”
“It took me only four days to make Compounded,” Louder says. “And two years to perfect it.” And perfect it he did. Louder is a self-described perfectionist, especially when it comes to design. Many board game prototypes are rough pen-and-paper amalgamations, with borrowed game pieces and recycled Magic: The Gathering cards. “I won’t allow anyone to see or play any prototypes until I have the design down. I have to do both at the same time, so you don’t really see any rough versions of any games. It slows the process down a lot.”
Moller, who recently posted a Compounded retrospective on the Unpub site all about the various stages of the game’s development, says that Louder’s creation “has been through a lot of changes and playtesting since that first event, and those same fans still love the game and are involved in it. He’s really got something that connects with people.”
But the playtesting process can be tough for new game designers: “It was my first game, so I listened to everyone. Which is a huge no-no. I would over-correct issues, which resulted in so many ‘dud’ sessions that I started feeling like a man on the ledge. It’s embarrassing when your game flops and everyone at the table seems annoyed.”
Eventually, Louder learned that not all feedback was equal and he started to filter the advice coming in from his playtests. Hey says, “That resulted in a lot less stress and eventually a much better game. If I had listened to everyone, all the time, Compounded would’ve never been made.”
This is one of the many reasons why many independent game designers like Louder are looking to Unpub for guidance in game playtesting. The program connects the designers with the types of players who enjoy playtesting and improving games and have experience with the process. “Unpub gives you another set of eyes,” Louder says. “You’re putting your game out there, outside of your circle of trust and getting raw feedback. These people don’t give a crap about you, they just want to enjoy the product you’re putting in front of them.” After the game is finished, the players fill out a feedback form which provides a paper trail for the designer to keep track of ideas and suggestions.
“Unpub is a must for any aspiring game designer, period,” adds Louder.
Creating a new board game from whole cloth is a challenge for anyone, but Louder is also a husband and a dad. His son, Ethan, is two years old and only recently has started to understand what his dad does for fun. A few months ago, Louder was watching the Elder Sign episode of TableTop when Ethan hopped into his lap and started watching. “He sat there and watched the entire episode with me,” Louder says. “During the game, Felicia Day is shaking her dice and saying, ‘Tentacle, tentacle, tentacle.’ For some reason, that stuck with him. So now when we’re playing a game, he wanders over, gets in my lap, and wants to play with the bits. If it’s dice rolling, we let him roll for us, and sure enough he says, ‘Tentacle, tentacle, tentacle.'”
Louder says that he’s glad to be a part of the crowd-funding movement, and a part of the Dice Hate Me Games family. Carnival, the first game that Dice Hate Me released, was the first game that Louder backed on Kickstarter, and adds, “[It’s] totally coincidental that the publisher of that game would eventually be my publisher. So, needless to say, I think [Kickstarter] is a novel idea and I hope it continues to grow.”
Being on the other side was a challenge, though. Funding a game requires patience. “Lots and lots of patience,” Louder says. “Don’t do it without advice. Talk to those who have done it multiple times before, and get their input. Keep in mind the reason you are on Kickstarter. What frustrates me about a lot of projects are stretch rewards that don’t add to the value of the game. You’re giving us your money so we can make a specific product. You want us to make the final product the best it can be. Don’t start offering handbags, cars, and puppies. Keep the focus on your product.”
Stretch rewards are incentives that many Kickstarter projects include when the funding reaches specific amounts. As with any production, the more money a project makes and the more units in demand, the cheaper it costs to produce them in bulk. Louder and Dice Hate Me Games’ Chris Kirkman both believe in ensuring that these additional bonuses aren’t wasted on frivolities that don’t improve the quality of Compounded. That’s why all of the stretch rewards apply to everyone who is pre-purchasing one of the games at the $42 level, and include upgrades like a wooden Lead Scientist key, a built-in expansion to the game, a larger folding scoreboard, and even real test tubes for storing pieces.
For board game geeks familiar with the terminology, Compounded employs worker placement along with trading and press-your-luck mechanics. It’s a game where the players take on the roles of lab managers trying to create chemical compounds before their rivals do. In this game, the “workers” are the elements, which are randomly drawn during the “Discovery” phase of each turn. Next, during the “Study” phase, the scientists can pick which spots on the nine compounds available they’d like to claim. Then, during the “Research” phase, each player decides what elements they want to assign to their claimed spots. They can build on other players’ work, or strike out on their own. Combine two carbons with two hydrogens and you’ve got yourself Acetylene, but be careful: it’s flammable, and the longer you wait to complete it, the more volatile it gets, until eventually it explodes and you lose your progress on it.
Each scientist also has a “Work Bench” where they can upgrade their abilities after successfully completing a compound. Bump up your Research level and you can place more elements on claimed compounds than before. Increase your Discovery level and you can draw more random elements from the element bag. If by some stroke of luck you complete certain compounds, you may also find yourself with improved equipment, like safety goggles, which allow you to discover more elements, or the Bunsen burner, which grants those scientists with more villainous streaks the ability to increase the volatility of flammable compounds.
For a full rundown of how to play Compounded, check out the rules on the Dice Hate Me Games site or watch the video below.
“I thought open trading was dead to me in board gaming,” Petty says, about the free-form mechanic of trading elements in Compounded where gameplay can be interrupted at any point by the players making deals with one another. “Any game could be broken by adding open trading, allowing players to catch up and gang up on the leader. Compounded changed that for me. The way it sets limits on abilities, and keeping resources, and encourages a constant flow of creation. That was an inspiration. It reminded me that any game concept, when well-executed, can be changed from something stale and possibly broken, into something vital and new.”
For a theme so inextricably linked to real world science, Louder made great effort to ensure that it was accurate. The compound configurations in the game are all as close to current ball-and-stick models as possible. Element colors use the same CPK coloring scheme as modern computer and physical molecular models. The correct chemical bonds are shown on the cards. Even the score track board is a periodic table of elements.
“We’ve run these through three chemists,” Louder says. “Before the game goes off to print, we will run the components by our advisers one last time to ensure they are as accurate as possible. With Compounded I wanted to break the educational game mold. Usually, educational games are boring, dry, and very repetitive. People may think Compounded is the same way, but I can’t stress enough: it’s a game first. You don’t have an advantage if you’re a PhD.”
What’s up for Louder now that Compounded is successfully funded and the Kickstarter is nearly over? More game designs, of course. He’s currently working on a new game with Petty about pirate fleets and accountants, tentatively titled Pirates of the Carbon Copy. “You’re trying to plunder goods to store at your island fortress. The trouble is, you need to make receipts for all the goods you have aboard your vessel in case you get audited.”
“He’s amazingly talented when it comes to throwing out ideas and graphic design,” Petty says of Louder and their partnership. “I’m more of the ‘how does this rule make me feel‘ type… A very good mix, although I tend to bounce from one game design to the next and Darrell sticks to one, singular, game and sees it through to completion.”
Pirates of the Carbon Copy premiered at Unpub3 in January and went really well, according to Louder: “We’re taking it back and streamlining a bit now. Going from seven decks of cards to two. Making it more adventurous. So yeah, we are hoping to have that version ready to play at PrezCon next weekend.”
For the next few hours, though, Louder will be watching Kickstarter as the Compounded campaign comes to a close. At 11:59 PM EST, everyone who wants a copy of the game should be sure to have their $42 pledge locked in at Kickstarter.
“The support and friends I have made through this hobby, and the community, has been just amazing,” Louder says. “I’m still in a state of shock over it all.”
If you’re interested in buying Compounded, get to Kickstarter quick, because the campaign is over at midnight. For more from Darrell Louder, check him out on Twitter.