It was my first week as a senior in high school. I moved to Indiana my junior year and found a place somewhere in the middle of the pecking order. My English Composition teacher gave us an assignment: Describe, from one of your parents’ perspective, their idea of the good old days. So I did.
I described the good old days from my father’s perspective. How, in the good old days when he was young, he got the shit beaten out of him every day, twice a day: once for the things he was going to do and once for the things he’d probably done. I described how his very devout mother and his bible-banging step-father would punish their children for the sins of humanity. Or maybe just to get their rocks off.
I liked pushing teacher’s boundaries in high school. I insisted that they call me Mr. Boyd, since I was to refer to them by their surname, and they did. It was kind of a joke, really. I got along well with all of my teachers (except maybe for my senior English Composition teacher). I also got my whole junior History class to do the Time Warp. It’s just a jump to the left…
I got an F on that paper. Not because it wasn’t good. It was damn good, actually. It is really one of only a handful of assignments I can remember in school and it is the one I’m most proud of. I got an F on that paper because I used the word shit. That’s it.
But the point I’m trying to make isn’t about being flunked on the best piece of writing I did in high school. Or about shocking people. My point is about why that paper was the best.
It was the constraint she had given us.
If she had just told us to write a 500 word paper about anything, I would have written something passable and she would have given it a passing grade. Instead I wrote something that pissed her off. If your writing makes someone feel that intensely… that’s something.
It wasn’t until Botanik that I realized how much constraints can do for you. It was my entry into the 18 Card Microgame Contest in 2014 put on by Odd Hackwelder. The challenge was to make a game that used only 18 cards, nothing else. You could use those cards in anyway you chose, but it all had to fit on the cards. That included the rules.
When I first saw this I thought it was nuts. Then I thought it was genius. Then I thought it was nuts and genius. Then I grabbed a deck of cards and started playing around.
That massive constraint set me off. I wanted to do something people hadn’t done before. My big idea was to have the game clean up after itself. It was just as crazy as the competition and I loved it.
I came up with a way of stacking cards in which players matched colored dots. Players wanted to cover up their opponents color while keeping their own color uncovered. I had no theme but I had mechanics.
My partner came up with the theme. It was a perfect fit and I called it Master Gardener.
I started my WIP thread and then I started playing. It was fun, it was light, it took about 5 minutes to play and that’s pretty much it. I came up with some really ugly designs that I’m really not proud of, but for the sake of posterity I’m going to show them to you.
There they are. See? Are you happy now.
The way the cards stacked made the game a pretty neat puzzle. It was all about trying to find the best spot to play one of your cards. You always wanted to be matching on your opponents flowers so they had fewer showing.
Several people thought the idea was really cool. One of those people volunteered to do the graphic design. He came up with some beautiful abstract flowers. They inspired me so much that Master Gardener wasn’t good enough anymore. I searched and pondered until I came up with Botanik. It’s German for botanic. Classy.
This was the first time anyone volunteered to help me with a game and I felt honored. I felt like I had done something right for a change. I want to thank Dennis Bennett from BGG (he goes by dennisthebadger) for being so supportive of this project and volunteering his time and work to make the game look beautiful.
The game didn’t win any awards. I’ve seen several projects in a similar vein since. It looks as if they’re doing what I wanted to do and doing it better. But if you’re looking for a game that cleans up after itself, you could do worse than Botanik.
Gary Boyd is a game designer and blogger. He was also voted Most Likely To Do His Own Thing in high school. No joke.