Designing My First Game: Flee the Greywood! (Part 1)

Original concept/character art for ‘Flee the Greywood!’ comic, created by Ian Struckhoff, art by Daniel Govar

With a mission to create spaces where geeks feel at home, and everyone is welcome to play with our cool toys, The Fourth Place is mostly about helping people throw the best board game nights. Even so, when I started the company last year, I didn’t expect to be working on any games of my own— at least not any time soon.

When I went to a local game design workshop, to playtest game prototypes and meet local people in the board game industry, I should have suspected I might catch the bug. Now that I can’t stop thinking about my first idea for an original board game, I’ve decided to open up the entire process, and turn it into a regular series on this blog.

Flee the Greywood!

The idea behind “Flee the Greywood!” began almost a decade ago, as a comic book pitch that I put together with my friend, artist Daniel Govar.

The comic book series would have followed a newly-orphaned kid from a medieval village, his mourning interrupted by the ceremony where the mysterious and magical elves from deep within the forest would take him away to live a fantastic life in their silver castle deep in the fabled Greywood.

As you can imagine, things deep within the forest would be less terrific and awesome, and more terrifying and awful— more horror than fantasy, leading to the story of his escape from the elves’ living palace and beautiful, monstrous queen, and flight through the dark and dangerous forest with small group of other orphans, including a dwarf, a human from another village, and a half-elf servant with shifting allegiances.

Humble Origins

The rich artwork and design of the first ‘Flee the Greywood!’ game prototype is normal for games in development. Tokens borrowed from Vast: The Crystal Caverns, © Leder Games

At my first game design workshop, I was lucky enough to play three different prototype games. I learned a few things that made perfect sense after my years as an avid gamer, and running a business focused on tabletop gaming, but that I really hadn’t thought much about before.

Chief among these: that most games have a long life before the illustration, graphic design, and sculpting that make the board, cards, tokens, and pieces come to life. They begin as hand-written cards of paper, dice borrowed from other games, and a whole lot of testing and experimenting. Testing isn’t a late stage to make a game perfect, it’s a constant process intrinsic to developing the game as it ends up.

That’s when it hit me that, while I don’t know whether I can create a grt game, there’s really nothing stopping me from designing a game of my own. I can cut up some paper, hand-write cards and rules, glue together a board, and run through a bunch of tests. (So can you!)

As soon as my eyes opened to that possibility, my mind went back to my many comic ideas, and immediately settled on Flee the Greywood! I haven’t played many games based on a chase or escape, and I love games with fantasy themes… before one thought finished, game ideas were bouncing around my head.

The Game So Far

And so, over the past couple of weeks, I let those ideas fly around my head, I took notes, and started assembling the materials I might need: Illustration board, card stock, pencils, a cutting board, tape, glue, and index cards.

Prototypes terrain cards, strips including five squares— Thicker forest, darker forest, clearings, and rocks blocking the path.

Then one night, I sat down and glued together the relatively unique game board: The base board acts as a sort of track, designed to hold a series of long skinny cards, each of those representing one strip of terrain in the young heroes escape. The strips are five squares each, and eight of them line up to make up the terrain of the game, which progresses every turn— Each turn the cards slide back, and a new one is added to one end, to represent the escapees moving forward towards escape, while the deadly elven guards follow just them.

At the moment, the game combines elements from games I like with mechanics that try to create unique gameplay that fits the narrative: The escape motif, cooperative play, an automated threat (from the board movement and simple rules, and asymmetrical roles designed to work best together.

Today alone, I played through almost a dozen test runs, using a half-dozen different sets of rules. The first goal is to make the different movement mechanics for each player balance well against the pace of movement, keep each turn quick enough to feel like a chase, and make sure there’s enough challenge so the game is neither too easy to win, or impossible.

Ever Forward!

Tokens from Vast: The Crystal Caverns, and a d2 from PolyHero’s Wizard Dice, which I’m currently using to test the game

At the moment, the gameplay is as simple and unfinished as the prototype that you can see in the photos. Over time, testing with that prototype will hopefully lead to gameplay that starts to get ahead of the materials.

I still need to smooth out this iteration, then test with more and fewer players, both for balance and fun. There’s no way of knowing which ideas will work, and which will need to be left behind. From there, I suspect I will add a random element (perhaps event cards), more tactical options (perhaps items), and even additional roles— new base roles, plus variations to add unknown elements and difficulty options.

There’s a long way to go. The game won’t be done until it’s one I can be proud of— One I would enjoy playing, that feels unique, and (in fitting with the mission here) one that is great to play with friends, as part of the best board game night I can assemble.

This blog will be the place to watch, and see how (or whether) that happens. I’m going to be transparent as I can, which means I won’t keep the game mechanics, my mistakes and lessons, or anything else, secret. Watch this space!