I made something.

I get stuck, sometimes. Creation is hard, and it can feel overwhelming it its scope and depth. Fighting back can be hard, too- because creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Life’s other pressures don’t abate just because you’ve started a new project.

Lots of folks have fought this- and many have come up with workable strategies. Among those I’ve found (that I like), Oblique Strategies is a favorite. It’s a deck of cards, designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, to help musicians stuck in the studio. As much as I like them, they’re not wholly applicable to what I do. Also, Austin Kleon recently posted about how he’s making his own deck (though his, predictably, is made with a Sharpie…).

New thing over at stealstrategies.net #stealstrategies

A photo posted by Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) on

So, today, hungry to be able to create something (as much of my creation-materials are in storage in preparation for my upcoming move…), I lugged my typewriter out of the basement and grabbed the stack of blank cards I use to work on my kids’ game we’re building together.

And to work I went.

Today’s project.

A photo posted by Tim Calvin (@nothingfuture) on

43 Cards later, I have a deck of ideas and prompts. Things to push me in a direction and (hopefully) get me unstuck.

Solving a Problem

So here’s the situation:

Students of all ages are increasingly turning to their mobile device to consume media. And, since part of what I do is deliver content for online learning, this has ramifications for me. Video needs to be optimized. There are a lot of parameters and vectors for this, but it can mostly be boiled down to this:

What is the video trying to accomplish and where will that video be consumed?

So a video that will be seen for 15 seconds at 60 mph on a highway billboard has different design restrictions than something that will be shown during a prime-time advertisement slot. That much should be obvious. But less so is the assumption that all web-based video will be consumed via a screen of some size. This, while (maybe) once was true, the days of our students by default consuming such video on a 20″ screen on a desktop are gone. The best you’re likely to do is a smallish laptop screen, and it’s more and more likely that it’ll be a 5″ phone screen. The question becomes, then, how to best convey video content (in the sense of video lectures and the like) via such little screen real estate.

We can make whatever stipulations we want- We can say that students need to use a “full” sized screen (whatever that means). We can say that things are best consumed on larger screens. But students will do what I do, and use whatever device is at hand. And most of the time, that’s a phone.

I’ve got some ideas in the works that might help with some of this- some methods that might allow greater student choice and better use of the limited screen space a phone has. I’ll be writing about them more in the future here, as it’s something I actually hope to publish and present on. I’m also in the earlier stages of testing some of this- I’m still learning what’s possible and what works/why. There are technical issues to overcome and consider (bandwidth, for example, looks to be an early hurdle), and there are issues of defining best practices and streamlining the workflow into a manageable and scale-able form. Still, the possibilities are enticing.

Anyway. This will be an ongoing thing- I’ll try to keep relatively up to date here with it, but again, I’ll be holding back somewhat, as I need to write a bunch of this up.

Building a Game (Part 3)

It continues.

We’ve covered how we made the board, and the manipulatives (and tools) we used to build out the game thus far- but we haven’t talked about the variables we’ve constructed to keep each round of the game from being repetitive.

We needed things to interact with during the game- Bad Guys, Good Guys, and neutral characters that would give us social interactions. And while I could write these into the notes for each round of the game, I wanted a couple of things:

  • Consistency of characters & attributes
  • Randomness of interactions
  • Input from my kids towards these characters

I knew we’d need at least three categories, and so with that in mind, I had the two girls sit down with notebooks to brainstorm characters we could create. They drew drafts of monsters, and once we had a meaningfully sized pile, they sorted them into “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” I busted out the box of blank cards (mentioned in Part 2), and they made two copies of each monster onto the cards- leaving an area below the monster clear for me to write in attributes.


I also made some “Good” cards that facilitate commerce. These are Wizards and Witches, and what they want is to trade you magic in exchange for coins or jewels. Different characters have different exchange rates (all of which float via dice roll…) so sometimes you get a really good deal (and sometimes things are expensive). The girls added some good characters too- more on that below.


We needed a way to move currency between coins and jewels, so I made a quick stack of “Trader” cards- these characters only move currency between jewels and coins- though I’ve just made some Blacksmith cards (to buys swords from- again, on floating rates), and I’ll be adding a bunch more here as we go on. This category seems to be a good place to introduce new variables.


To keep these three (ever-growing) stacks of cards organized, I color coded the backs. Simple. And expandable, because I’m sure we’ll be adding more types of encounters. For storage, each stack gets a binder clip and is put in the same case as all the other gear.


I’ve been really impressed with the creativity the kids have shown- we’ve got cards that add points to your dice roll to move around, cards that make you invisible to a bad guy, and (my current favorite) robot cards you can program to do your bidding in your absence. Those are pretty cool.

There are all manner of bad guys, and I try to write in a single “Boss” or “Big Bad” per round- it’s not on a card, and it’s attributes can (and do) change. This character is usually the last bad guy on a round, and it’s usually guarding a stash of loot- which you’ll likely need, as you’ll be hurting after fighting it. I also try to plan games so there’s a “healer” shortly after this character, as I don’t want them headed into the next game deep in a hole.

There’s a lot still to do- there are always more cards to add, for one. And I’m learning that hard-written numbers for damage/coins/jewels/whatever are less interesting than dice rolls to determine outcomes. I also would like the game to be more group-oriented. Right now, it’s very everyone-for-themselves, and as things get harder I want to push it towards a collaborative effort to reach some higher goal. I’ve not entirely figured out how to accomplish that, but I’ve got some ideas. I also want to make more boards- and I think I’ve got a good idea for easily-made boards. That’d be great because then the kids can help with making maps, and I’m sure they’ll like that. Eventually I also want to try making a modular board that can be shuffled (a la Settlers of Catan…) so every round can be based on the same pieces, but each assembled board is “unique.”

Each “round” of the game takes between 30 and 45 minutes right now- and that’s the sweet spot for the girls in terms of attention and enjoyment. I’m ok with that length right now, but I’m hoping to grow that a bit as they become more and more invested.

All these notes at the end should have made it clear that there’s very likely to be a Part 4 to this series. That’s not a bad thing.

Building a Game (Part 2)

We’re back to this. I’d been waiting for an Amazon order to make it’s way to my house, and that finally happened.

As we had been playing, there were a few things that were starting to box in some of the more creative play I wanted to be able to allow. We only had 6 sided dice- and we likely could have made that work for a bit longer, but I was trying to bring an every-growing degree of complexity to the game, so… I bought some dice. A big bag, actually- it had about 100 dice in it (D4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, & Percentile). Those should give us a better ability to modulate tasks- a monster you need to defeat can exist on a difficulty scale of 1-20 now, instead of just 1-6. That will help as I start to make the games serialized.


Yup. We’re starting to carry data from one game to the next- so weapons you amass come with you, money carries with you (more on this in a second…), and attributes your character uses exist over a scale longer than a single sitting of the game. I’m hoping the longer narrative structure helps to maintain some of the enthusiasm the kids currently have- it also allows us to not have to re-built resources for their characters. Every. Time. We. Play.

I’ve also introduced money into the game. I wanted to build it in for two real reasons- the first is to introduce some of the most basic elements of economics. Rare things cost more. Common things cost less. You only have so much money- and when it runs out, you need to make choices about what to do. And so on. Also (point 2!), MATH! Right now, coins are just coins- pennies in our case- and you have however many you have. But soon, as the amounts increase, we can introduce nickels, dimes, and quarters to the mix. Some good experience with the math of money.

Besides the coins, I wanted something less linked to a numerical value. That is to say, a nickel carries the value of 5 with it- and I wanted “money” for which the value could change- it could be worth more or less at any given time. Clearly, what we needed was jewels. Did you know Amazon sells jewels? Yup. Nice, big, colorful “pirate jewels” made out of plastic and sure to please. Got a big bag of those too.

Clearly, we’d outgrown our previous modest box’o’stuff, and I needed to upgrade. Home Depot sells these lovely small part boxes, and I picked up one- the girls really enjoyed sorting the different (and exciting) types of dice into bins. Heck, that was an activity for a night on it’s own. All that looks like this:


That mostly took care of the manipulatives we needed (so far), and I moved on to making the game more modular and unpredictable. What I needed, really, was a stack of interaction parameters that we could draw from- when the map says “monster here,” you’d draw a card to see what sort of monster you were fighting and what their properties were. Amazon sells big boxes of blank playing cards that are totally awesome for this- they’re just the right size, they have rounded corners and the right finish on them, and they take sharpie just great. Got a box of those, too. Cheap! And there’s like 500 in the box, so we’re good to go for a bit.

The next step is to sit down and actually make the cards– I think I’m going to have a brainstorming session with the girls about types of monsters and baddies and whatnot, and then I’ll spend some free time (HA!) making a stack of cards and attributes based on those notes. I suspect those stacks will be a constantly changing and evolving sort of thing. There are always new types of monsters (and good things, too- Wizards and Elves and whatever else they think up…) to be added, and the properties are always up for debate. I’ll need to figure out how to keep the stacks organized- though for the short term, a colored dot on the back of each type of card category should do the trick. Pics of those to come, as, you know, I actually make them.

I also want to build out a couple of other stacks of cards, too. Items (and they’re properties) and Interactions (and their rules) should probably get made, and I’m still working out a reasonable (and adaptable) economy for things like “Health” and whatever other things we can work out.

Looking over this (and the last) post makes me pretty sure there will be a Part 3 to this. Dunno when, but there you go.

Building a Game (Part 1)

I have young children, and for reasons I won’t delve into here, they need some special attention paid regarding their vision. As such, and in an effort to enrich their play, I’ve embarked on a project to introduce them to RPGs. Roll Playing Games are exactly what you think- you assume the roll of a character in a game and play from that perspective. The most famous of these is likely Dungeons and Dragons, but there are many, many others. Think of it this way: if you were to play Clue from the perspective and in the roll of Colonel Mustard¹. THAT’D be a RPG.

My kids are small, and even the most stripped down version of DnD has a rule book 100 pages long (the full version, near as I can tell, is 320 pages). So it should come as no surprise. Indeed, when researching what game I might introduce, the general consensus was that we should build our own. Fair enough. I wasn’t sure about their ability to grasp some of the more abstract concepts, so I chose to test the concept with a game structured around our house and our family.HouseGameProto(crop)

This is the first game board we made. The layout of based (roughly!) on the floor plan of our house, “x” on a spot makes it “special” (and you draw a card for that…), and mostly, you go about the tasks you do in real life- go to the living room or kitchen, walk around, make messes (lose points!), be polite (add points!). And that’s it. There’s no narrative or ending, but it was enough to gauge their interest in the format. Time to get more ambitious.

I wanted to keep a few things in mind:

  • These are little kids, and as such, the game should be of a finite length²
  • The game should be re-useable
  • The game should be adaptable
  • The game should be as familiar as possible
  • The game should be hackable

With all that in mind, I drew up this board:


It’s not perfect at all- and that’s ok. It shouldn’t be precious, because I don’t want any hesitation to change it all around. I made it a fairly generic “maze” layout, and I added a coordinate system. That will allow me (as I run the game) to place obstacles and rewards in various spots, to be discovered as they play. It’s a sort of miniature quest. The complexity of the journey can be dialed up or down based on the nature and frequency of these additions- a few easy monsters with copious resources at first, then more monsters and scarcer resources. Speaking of resources…

I opted to stay fairly low-tech with much of this. That’s a recycled chunk of foam core for a board. The manipulatives- the pieces- needed to feel familiar to the kids, but also be versatile enough to function not only for this game, but for future variations and new games. So…


This is the start of the collection. This will grow a ton in the next week or so, as some Amazon orders or parts come in. But for now, that’s a pile of Lego Minifigs, some counting bears, a handful of tiddlywinks, some small treasure chests, and a home-made die. I’ve got a bag of “pirate jewels” coming (for treasure…), 100 dice (D4, D6, D8, D10 (and percentile), and D20), as well as a couple hundred blank cards. Most of what that’s for is obvious, but the blank cards are key: those will get turned into set of stacks, each stack on a theme. For example, in the “Monster” stack, each card will specify what kind of monster and any other parameters (how strong it is, what kind, etc…). If you hit a “monster” square in the game, you draw a card to find out details.

I’m excited. From a learning perspective, there’s a lot to do here- the kids are not only going to play the game with me, but they’re also helping me to build it. That’s a lot of cutting and glueing and talking and making lists and and and. It’s a proper project.

Updates as we make progress.


¹ Why don’t we play Clue this way? Sounds WAY better.

² I’m looking at you, Monopoly. And Mousetrap.