Spell Saga - History of Development
(for scans of design documents used during development see: Notes & Fragments)
The earliest development of Spell Saga began in December of 2009, roughly two weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday of that year. The game was conceived by Todd Michael Rogers during a break from writing a novel. During this time he spent any free moment playing a small handheld Nintendo DS, the screen of which started to give him terrible migraines. Since playing video games had left him bed ridden, and missing his friends who had all grown up and were just as busy as he, Todd decided to turn to a childhood passion--making games for fun using index cards. Only this time, Todd wondered if he cold make a card game that felt like the RPG's that had caused him a migraine.
The first idea was a sketch on a piece of paper about a small deck of cards which would create a garden to capture and train monsters for battle. This idea was disregarded but the notes and sketches continued.
Indexodus Era (December 2009 - December 2010) ~ Versions 1.0 through 2.0 ~
After a week of sketches on various scraps of paper Todd had finalized the name of the one player game as "Spell Saga". He knew he wanted to make many versions of the game, each with different stories, and the very first notes show illustrations for boxes and story ideas. (See Notes & Fragments: The First Week Fragments). For the game he was designing Todd decided on a story about a Lonely Minstrel named "Exodus" and a prostitute named Abilene. The beginning of the story was decided while Todd listened to the band Big Country and drove around in the cold.
Since he planned to drop the idea and continue writing his novel at the beginning of the year, Todd spent all his free time up until Christmas trying to design a system for the game. He wanted it to feel just like a Playstation JRPG without the need of a computer. While taking a shower he hopped out to scribble down a vision of a cassette tape. The deck of cards would start on on side of the table, the right side, and be flipped over and moved to the left of the playing area, creating in essence a deck of cards that moved like the reel of film on a cassette. In order to realize this idea he made the cards of the game double-sided. With no backs to the cards it allowed each one to represent two different cards, one of which would show up when moving it from one deck to the other.
On holiday just before Christmas Todd sat down with a stack of blank index cards, his notes for the game and a rough knowledge of how it should feel. In the course of two hours he had made several cards as he played through the blank deck. These included a lost pixie The Last Minstrel could befriend or eat to gain Armor, a haunted revolver from another story of his, and the crumbling tower still present in the finished version of the game. Between each session he would write a group of friends telling them of the adventures he was having and reiterating their young adult driven plans to form a game company together.
After the holidays and only a week left until he would return to his novel, Todd spent all his time compiling notes for the game and working on ideas for story and it's gaming system. By the end of the year Todd had given a name to the group of friend he kept emailing, referring to them now as The French Toast Gaming Co. See: Notes & Fragments - The French Toast Letters. The last thing he did before putting the game away to work on the novel was meet his friends Sakroka & Paxson of Ashgarden at The Chinese Buffet an Hour Away. He brought his notebook and showed both of them the plans for the game and his excitement at the idea of them publishing it together.
A year passed.
Deck 2: The Forest was also first thought up at this time. See: Notes & Fragments: The First Forest Fragments. These included. a mustachioed male wizard who became a fox who followed during the day, and a full grown man at night. It was originally decided to have a dream sequence/sex scene between the protagonist and the wizard but this idea was dropped in later versions of the game.
There were now new cards to play with in the first deck. As each time Todd found a blank card he would scribble something new on it. The only problem was the game was unplayable by anyone but him. The scribbles and pictures he provided were barely legible at the best of times. In order to move forward with development and share his game with others, Todd used a very crude knowledge of Photoshop to make minimalistic black and white cards. These were designated between types by using different shapes and designs. They were not only more legible, they were also shrunk down so as to fit in standard CCG card sleeves. Using cards from other games to strengthen the paper cards he had made Todd now began playing a new version of the game.
With another month of development and a playable game. Todd put everything away to return to his novel, hoping to finish it and devote more time to Spell Saga.
Gen Con Era (May 2011 - August 2011) ~ Versions 2.0 through 4.0 ~
Todd had spent the previous two years working on his novel. but he had also been thinking about the game. A lot. In a parking lot outside his office he would take long breaks away from his desk walking through gravel back and froth worrying it would never get published. The sheer scale of what he had now planned in these moments seemed to implausible for he and his friends to publish all on their own.
Todd finished the first draft of his novel in April of 2011. The writing of which had taken nearly two years. After a month of trying to not work on another big project he felt he might go crazy doing nothing. And Becoming obsessed with the idea of finishing the game and finding a way to publish it he decided to contact someone whom he thought might help him. Peter Adkison was a gaming luminary who was a self made and widely respected publisher. Todd guessed his email on the sixth try, and begged an audience to demo the game in hopes of it being published. Peter agreed telling Todd to come see him during Gen Con, the largest gaming convention in the world, and one which Peter owned. Although the convention, held in Indianapolis, was only two hours away from Todd & his friends in Nashville, the dates of the meeting meant Todd had only three months to create a solid & enticing playable prototype of the game.
At the time of the email, the game consisted of a few cards in black and white, which barely worked together with no understandable system. Three months of rigorous evenings and weekends ensued.
Todd set up shop in his living room, using a dining room table against a wall as his workspace. On the wall were tacked no small number of notes, and homemade calendar increasingly covered in sharpie colored X's. Wanting to make the game look as enticing as possible, Todd quickly set out to emailing family and friends asking anyone who could hold a pencil to help out with artwork. He also began sketching ideas for the packaging, including how the rulebook might look.
The next step was to take the ideas that worked in the deck and expand on them, cutting away anything that didn't feel right. With a finished deck of 100 cards, Todd began to teach himself how to Photoshop the new game as best he could.
After a month straight of work, Todd drove an hour into the country to have Sakroka play the game on his dining room table. Within just a few minutes it was apparent to both of them the game Todd had spent the last month feverishly fine-tuning was not good. Todd drove home to nurse a beer and called Sakroka who had continued playing the game in his absence. The prognosis was not good. The game was clever, but it wasn't fun. And with only two months left until the all important meeting, Todd was nearly back to square one.
It was apparent to both of them the double-sided cards would have to go. As well as the tape deck inspired mechanic. In a heightened flurry of design Todd found himself halfway through another version of Spell Saga before realizing a whole new version of the game. He scrapped what would now be called Spell Saga ~ Version 3.5 ~ and began work drawing up new plans for a finalized version of the game's core mechanics. Within a week the game had gone from broken to a brand new unknown classification.
Todd even created a 20 card "prelude" deck meant to help teach the player how to play the game. (It also told the story of how The last Minstrel found his haunted revolver.)
Todd drove back to Sakroka's house and had their friend John Fly join them with his son Gabriel. This time they played on John's old pool table, which became a sort of hallowed ground of playtesting during this era of the design. Todd excitedly showed Sakroka the new gaming system and how to use it, which would be known years later as Paper Engine. The game was now made of 125 one-sided cards. And unlike it's predecessor, the new 4.0 mechanics were deemed both fun and clever. They were so fun John Fly started playing The Prelude Deck while waiting for Sakroka to finish the rest of the game. After two hours of testing the game the three friends adjourned to the old fashioned front porch of the old Southern home. There they discussed the future possibilities of French Toast Gaming co.
The rest of the game's story was created from the cobbled notes and ideas Todd had kept through the last two years. Deck Two was based on just a page or so of notes. See Notes & Fragments - Gardens of Deck Two whereas Deck Three, intended to be a massive dungeon crawl filled with too many possibilities for adventure, was built from random scribbles on torn paper and keeping track of ideas made on the fly while Photoshopping the cards for it.
With a game that now worked Todd set about to finishing the rest of Spell Saga. This included five decks, a new type of rules booklet, a playmat, and a fully functioning box with a secret compartment and reflective silver sleeve. To construct boxes for each deck, he took apart a cigarette cases and resized them on sheets of silver mirri paper. And although he had heard back from several artists only two had started to send him any pieces for the presentation.
There was even a microchip that played the game's theme song "Grain" when the box was opened, but Todd accidentally snapped the chip in half while working on the box. (See: Spell Saga OST - Grain by Cricket Engine)
The first piece of art was a picture of The Last Minstrel Todd had sketched with a picture of attached of Stuart Adamson, the lead singer of the band Big Country whose lyrics had inspired the feeling of the game and its setting. See: Notes & Fragments - Todd for Weshoyot sketch He sent this to his friend Weshoyot Alvitre, who sketched up a piece that, while everyone agreed was beautiful, did not fit with the aesthetic of the game. See: Notes & Fragments - Weshoyot Minstrel To fill in art on several other cards, Todd used pictures Weshoyot had sent for a momentarily abandoned game by Todd & his friends called Chain-Spell.
With little to no time left, Todd received more art from an unexpected source, his 17 year old cousin Lauren Rogers, whom he had contacted even though she was busy with her senior year of High School in Florida. See: Notes & Fragments - First Lauren Sketches. Todd was so enamored with the pieces he asked her to do more from the original art list he had sent her. Within a week of late nights emails, Lauren had realized a new art style for the game, and sent Todd the unexpected cover to the game along with several other pieces for the Item cards. See: File:Notes & Fragments - Original Box Art.jpeg.
With only a few days left before the drive to Gen Con, Todd met Sakroka at his house, where they tested the game by having Sakroka ingest an energy drink and play for five straight hours before declaring he couldn't go on. During this time he had reached the very end of Deck 3 and both of them declared the game and it's meticulously designed packaging as exciting and fun as they could possibly manage.
That week they showed the game to their friends, including Paxson of Ashgarden, who had been kept away on business and had not seen the game until this final version. With no time left to play Todd read them the end of the story and everyone hoped the meeting would lead to a production deal and further development. It was time to take three days off after ninety days of work before heading in Todd's car to Gen Con.
The meeting was a disaster. See: Convention Report 01 Gen Con 2011. Todd put the game away, and did not look at it for a year.
Kickstarter Era (November 2012 - November 2013) ~ Versions 5.0 through 6.0 ~
In August of 2012, Todd and Sakroka met for lunch. There they discussed the possibility of self publishing the game, thinking they could raise enough capital between them for a small print run. Sakroka also mentioned using Kickstarter, something Todd was vehemently against. Sometime during this conversation they realized it had been a year to the day of the disastrous Gen Con visit.
Todd drove away with promises of researching production possibilities. On many occasions friends and loved ones had encouraged him to take the game off his shelf and pursue a publishing deal. But the enjoyment of seeking a publisher had died during the mad rush of development in the previous year. And now the original idea of making the game with his friends was a more worthwhile objective. But there was still the novel in the way. And Todd spent his time working on a second draft and wondering what he and Sakroka would do.
It was around this time Todd's fiancée introduced him to a group of friends including Nathan Ives and Josh Rizzo, the latter of which Todd had known years ago. Josh had been only a teenager when Todd had lost contact with him. Now, with Autumn nights spent out on Josh's porch Todd began to tell stories about the game and what had happened at Gen Con. Intrigued Nathan asked Todd to bring the game over.
Sometime in the early December of 2012, Todd sat down on the floor of Josh's house during a party, and taught Nathan to play the first deck of the game. Those attending the small get together watched from the couches above them and passed the box and its contents around. Josh's brother Johnny shouted repeatedly that "Josh would love this". When Josh appeared in the doorway he and Todd sat him down and taught him the rules of the game.
The next night Todd called Sakroka at work and told him they would Kickstart the game. After this two weeks were spent on research. Todd would leave work at the end of his day shift and meet Sakroka who was working a night shift across town. They spent the evenings planning and trying to find the most cost effective way to create the game and ship it. Among these ideas was the idea to have the cards printed on thin cardstock sheets and have their friends help them cut the cards. This idea was eventually deemed disastrous and unfair to both players and the worth of the game. The search for a cheap but effective solution continued.
The next step was figuring out how to finish the illustrations for the game. Lauren's illustrations had become so inseparable from the game at this point that Todd began to wonder how they could achieve the same look. Lauren was in college now, and far too busy to take on such a massive project. Todd decided he would have to do his best in emulating her style with his own uninspired sketches, hoping she would agree to help touch up the pieces and perhaps do a few of her own. One night during a long phone conversation between them, Todd pulled the game form the shelf and read her the prose of the story cards, filling in the missing pieces to tell her the entire story. Afterwards Lauren agreed to help where she could.
The two of them set up art nights together where they could use the cameras in their computers to act out poses and watch Lauren's screen as she drew. They called these get togethers "ArtSkyping". And the first two months were spent with Todd trudging across the street to a neighbor's dining room as he did not have internet at the time. By the end of the first month it was tentatively agreed Lauren would illustrate the entire game, including pieces for the game's Epilogue.
Slowly Todd and Sakroka began setting up a web presence. Todd started a tumblr and began writing a design blog. It was the first time the idea for the game had ever been mentioned in public. The first post on the Spell Saga Design Blog was the game's theme song, "Grain". Sakroka set up a Facebook page with the limited amount of art and information they had. The night it went up Todd found the lack of art so boring he made a very quick logo for the banner of the page. This is the very same logo they still use today.
In January, Sakroka notified Todd that he and his girlfriend were now expecting a baby, and his involvement was likely to suffer. After a night of alcohol inspired deliberation Todd called Josh Rizzo and left him a voicemail, asking to join in on the project. Josh found Todd a few nights later and said he was in.
After many false attempts for the looks of the cards Todd settled on the illuminated manuscript look, hoping to match the nostalgic feeling of the fantasy games he and his friends remembered from their youth. To solve the problem of the Place cards not having illustrations he borrowed the design of the Story cards, using graphically stylized and poetic descriptions to force the player to imagine each Place they were visiting.
In March of 2013, after three months of continual design, version 5.0 was ready for playtesting. A date was set for Todd and Josh to meet Sakroka & Paxson of Ashgarden at the Chinese Buffett an Hour Away. The night before the meeting Todd stayed up getting the cards ready to be printed, only sleeping four hours before meeting Josh to have the cards printed and cut before meeting the other boys.
After lunch the four of them convened at Sakroka's new house to help move furniture and playtest the new cards. For most of them it was the first time seeing the finished cards. The redesign was considered a rousing success between the four of them. The mechanics were fun and functional, the gameplay was strategic but exciting, and playing the cards caused a different story to unfold for each person. But the game also felt wild, and unwieldy. It didn't feel right, and Todd began to have doubts about it. Lauren printed her own batch of cards and began to playtest the game in Florida with her friend Tyler. It was apparent during the following weeks of playtesting the cards could be too easily interpreted. And both Todd and Josh began to worry privately that the illuminated manuscript design of the cards made them hard to read.
The intended launch date for the Kickstarter was May 13, 2013. Todd made the demo of the first deck available to the public and built a rickety website with the help of John Fly, a good friend of everyone involved. (See: spellsaga.com - version history). A small group of interested players began to crop up on the Board Game Geek forums Todd had set up to showcase the game's art and design. As the date of the Kickstarter drew nearer, and Todd finalized his plans to produce the game as cheaply and effectively as possible, complaints in the online community forced him to rethink the Kickstarter and the goals of the game. With two weeks left to launch the game, Todd put a halt to the entire operation, deciding once again to go back to square one and redesign not only the look of the cards, but several mechanics of the game. The rulebook he had spent a month writing would also have to be completely thrown out based on feedback from helpful players. But the biggest change was yet to come: In delaying the game for what was hoped at the time to be another three months,the entire project had now become too important to produce cheaply. Todd began to research manufacturing options. French Toast Gaming Co. would now need three times the amount of money they were originally hoping for. And the project, now delayed until August of 2013 would be completely redone over a very long Summer.
Afraid that taking a break in production would waylay the project forever, Todd & Josh began the long process of rewriting the rulebook based on the copious notes received from helpful readers. It was during this stage of the game the rulebooks were split into two separate entities; a gold rulebook used to reference any rule during play, and a silver rulebook to teach new player's how to begin the game.
During this time Todd went back to redesigning every card. A uniform look with light and clean looking designs was chosen, with each card receiving a standard new rule of design: don't cover the art. The look of the game was now less inspired by the fantasy game's of the mid 1990's, and more so by the high production value in current 2010's Japanese animation.
The cards also received something they had never had before: iconography. The budding fanbase for the game had all requested the game feature icons, in order to make play easier and the cards look closer to other popular games. Although Todd was very reticent, Josh was excited and the two of them spent two weeks figuring out if the game could handle such a change. It was during this time Todd began to sketch the first ideas out for another entry in the Realmwalker series, the fifth and penultimate of the Spell Saga releases. After two weeks of thought and design, both Josh & Todd realized that while using icons in the rules of the cards twisted the game too far away from the feel of a novel, using icons in the upper corners of the cards (to designate card-types) lent a much needed balance to the new 6.0 graphic design. They spent a night designing the new card-type icons for the cards, with Josh himself coming up wit the idea to use a heart for the heroes. (see: Notes & Fragments - Iconography Sketches)
As playtesting continued on the game Lauren discovered a major flaw in the mechanics which led to the creation of the Source Limit. It was during this time Sakroka's continued pleas for more meaningful mechanics to the Story cards led to the 6.0 convention of having each Story card add or subtract additional rules to the game.
As time crept on and the Summer continued the rulebooks still weren't finished being written. And although the 6.0 cards were now finished and playable the rules began to become mired in rewrites. There were dozens of pages printed and scribbled on. Todd would share these with the others and ask for opinions. Helpful advice was given by everyone, including Joe Rizzo, Josh's older brother who was in town visiting family.
August and the intended relaunch date was now only a month away. Todd had spent the previous months well, researching everything they would need to legally start a business, advertise correctly, and even going so far as to requesting contracts with printers and taking meetings. But time was running out. With less than a month to go until the Kicktarter and a rulebook still in tatters Todd and Josh realized they would have to push the date of the Kickstarter even further. This time no date was given, only the mandate that the game would be ready when it was ready.
This seemed to be the final blow to everyone's spirits. After eight months of grinding work every night and every weekend, the group, held only together by Todd driving, Skyping, or inviting people over. Now even Todd wanted to quit, and put the game away for another time. Several small breakdowns followed over the rest of the Summer. People became often unreachable. Sakroka even regretfully tried to quit the project until Todd said he couldn't.
Things changed when Lauren Rogers came to visit in early August. Todd spent an afternoon talking with her in the upstairs guest room of their Aunt Cindy's. Together they went over the plans for the eventual Kickstarter and what they hoped to achieve with the game. That night Todd drove her to a dinner party at josh's parents house so the two could meet each other. Having talked with Lauren about the future of the game, and having nearly completed the rulebooks over the Summer, he and the rest of French Toast Gaming Co. found a renewed fervor toward their goal.
It was Sakroka who solved the problem of the rulebook. After deciding not to quit the project he and Todd made plans to meet once weekly during his night shift, just as they had at the beginning of the project. During the first of such meetings, Sakroka suggested the game was missing an order of operations, he split this group of operations into two categories which were named Mandatory Actions & Free Actions. With the puzzle of how best to explain the rules taken care of, the rulebook was ready for a final draft. This took several more weeks until finally, after four months of writing, the rulebooks were designed with graphics and nearly finalized instructions. The bulk of this was edited under the watchful eye of Sakroka.
Additional help came from an unexpected source. In hopes of getting the game professionally reviewed, Josh and Todd reached out to as many reviewers they could find. Professional critic Jonathan H. Liu was one of the few people to respond. And although he did agree to review the game for the Kickstarter, first he sent them an embarrassing but extensive list of typos and reworded phrases. After four months of continual work, they rulebooks for the game were complete.
Having developed a web presence for almost nine months, Spell Saga was now growing a small but dedicated following. One of the chief concerns of this new populace was the website for the game. Todd shared in those concerns. now that the game was on its way to being a much larger project (with manufacturing in China and a Kickstarter price tag of well over 10,000 dollars) the need for a professional looking website became apparent. Much of the time spent not rewriting a rulebook or playtesting was used in learning how to design and code an attractive website from scratch, using only the barest pieces from the original site design by John Fly.
But Todd was not alone in learning new technology. Having realized early on the game would be easier to learn if a person could watch instructional videos, Josh bought an iPhone and set about learning to film and edit gameplay footage. The first video they filmed was a test of Todd holding a mirror while he introduced the both of them in a teaser for future videos. It was meant to showcase a clever and professional face for the company, but ten minutes into editing the footage Josh & Todd kept laughing at the mistakes and decided to cut those together instead. (see: Welcome to Spell School video) This accidental montage set the tone and standard for all future videos. They named the instructional videos "Spell School."
Todd's Dad, enamored with his sons project offered to help pay for the business license, and even pitched in when the power chord for Todd's computer--the only computer with access to Photoshop or the card files--finally died.
With everything now ready French Toast Gaming Co. set the date of the Kickstarter and alerted the budding fanbase. The manufacturing had been set, the cards were ready, the demo was now downloadable as a print and play file and being played by strangers. The rulebooks received little complaint, and Todd was beginning to understand how to build the website. Lauren and Todd finished the last few pieces of artwork needed for the Kickstarter in a ten month sigh of relief. (this had tken much longer than anticipated, as Todd pushed to have illustrations for the first of the planned Realmwalker relases, as well as a group of Kickstarter exclusive cards he had started referring to as Collectible Content) Josh and Todd began to film all the videos necessary for the presentation. With everything in place the Kickstarter was launched on October 21, 2013 with a intended goal of 35,000 dollars. French Toast Gaming Co. would have to reach that goal in exactly one month, or they wouldn't receive any of the funds raised in that period. (see: Kickstarter campaign page)
Funding for the project stared rising rapidly, growing over $5,000 in the first twelve hours. Very quickly a small but growing community began to spring up both in the Kickstarter's comments, the Facebook page, and the original Design Blog post in the Board Game Geek forum. People began to share pictures of their printed cards, and describe the stories of their games in long detailed comments.
Todd and his friends wouldn't have time to celebrate. They had just been asked to attend their first convention, with only a week to prepare and no funds to pay for signage or banners. Both Josh and Sakroka pitched in to pay for the demo decks that would need to be printed. To solve the lack of any banners or visibility, Todd made a video of the artwork and set this to play repeatedly on his computer full screen. They put this at the edge of the table to entice new players with the only moving imagery in the room. They also designed card stock place mats reminding player's of the Mandatory and Free Actions. This was the first official public unveiling of the game. Both Jesse Paxson and John Fly, after having spent the last year forced to the sidelines with other commitments, came to support the rest of French Toast Gaming Co. The convention lasted two days and people seemed to enjoy the game. (see Convention Report - GMX 2013)
As the Kickstarter began to reach its halfway point in November it was becoming apparent the funding goal would not be reached. Todd kept a steady stream of updates on the page in much the same manner he had done on the Design Blog. These were readily received by a growing community of player's from all around the world. Most of whom started to ask what would happen in the Kickstarter failed.
With one week left in the fundraising campaign Todd wrote out his plans for the future of Spell Saga, and started to post cryptic updates of a "Plan B". Behind the scenes he had contacted several friends and fans of the game, including Dual Pistoleiro and Nathan Ives, who had each mentioned wanting to translate the game into Portuguese and Japanese, respectively. Meanwhile research was conducted on alternate ways to produce the game in a far more expensive, but still attainable "zero edition". Studies were also conducted on how best to harness the growing fanbase to move past Kickstarter and into a longer more attainable fundraising scenario. But the most important theory behind Plan B, which would soon become known as "Plan (B)ulletproof" was the realization that people were enjoying the game, and wanted to play it, even if that meant printing the cards out themselves. French Toast Gaming Co. took notice and shifted future plans to include digital downloads as a first priority. Now the game would be available to anyone regardless of fundraising.
On November 22, 2013, with just a few hours to go before the end of the campaign Todd uploaded a one last detailed entry to the Kickstarter page. (see: Kickstarter Update: Plan B)This update unveiling the details of the game's future. The news was well received and fans of the game were given the option to join a mailing list with a chance to sign up for the weather guard. Portuguese & Japanese translated cards were previewed to excited acclaim. The foreign language cards went over so well several other players from around the globe offered to help translate the game into more languages. At the end of the update Todd mentioned French Toast would be taking a holiday during December, to spend what little was left of the year relaxing with friends and family.
It had been exactly a year since the project had started. French Toast Gaming Co. had raised 12,000 dollars and failed to fund their campaign after 12 months of working days, nights, and weekends. But they didn't mind. The game was a success. People enjoyed it. Reviews had been kind. And now they had a new plan, one that would give them the best shot at physical production, while making sure the game would have a chance to be seen and played no matter what happened, with the use of digital Print & Play files.
Happy to be free of a year's worth of work, Todd stopped working on anything. But after only a week of forcing himself to relax, he began to design a new type of card game. This was inspired in part by a holiday trip to the deserts of California. For his part, Josh couldn't relax either. By this point he had started working on his own form of tabletop novel. Together they discussed their games and waited for the new year and the end of their self imposed Spell Saga embargo.