It’s not often that a game gets signed for publication, it’s rarer still for a game designed AT an Unpub event should join the ranks of the Unpub Alumni. The post below, from designer Michael Kelley, is the story of how his game Dark Dealings went from idea to Nevermore Games; check it out!

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MVP Boardgames (Peter Gousis and I) came to Unpub 5 this year with several of our designs, including our new card game Dark Dealings. The game is played in three phases, which worked as follows (at the time):
First, players drafted heroes by assigning them to other players.Second, players bid, using gold, on defense cards to fight those heroes, using a variation of the For Sale method… if you have to drop out of the bidding, you get last choice of the defense cards available.Third, players used the defenses to fight the heroes, seeing who could last the longest.Nevermore Games had contacted us before the convention (we’ve worked with them before, and they are awesome) with interest in trying the game. They played the game on Friday, the first day of the convention, and the reception was a bit lukewarm. They loved the combat, but the drafting and bidding… well, it felt a little slow and dull.We were hoping to get Nevermore to commit to publishing the game, and signs were not looking good. Where could we turn to improve the design before the weekend was out? Lucky for us, we were at a convention with some of the friendliest, smartest, most awesome designers on the planet!

First, Richard Launius played the game. I had to walk up to him and ask, but he was super friendly and immediately agreed. He had a ton of great ideas, some a bit too heavy for the game I was envisioning, but his biggest suggestion was to cut the money, and cut the bidding. Get defenses some other way.

So yeah… great idea, but crap! Half of the hero abilities were based on money and bidding. Heck, the only balancing mechanic between a strong hero and a weak hero was money! The game was doomed.

But no, we weren’t giving up that easy. I worked with Peter, playtested some more, came up with new hero abilities… I worked until 3am that night making all new cards.

But how would bidding work? How would players get defenses? Unpub designers came to the rescue again! I played a game, with some weak attempt at removing bidding, with Paul Owen and Keith Ferguson (and someone else? Sorry if I forgot you!). One of them had a great idea… what if the HEROES had bidding numbers on them, and you used the heroes you drafted in the first phase to gain the defenses in the second phase. And what if it was a straight draft instead of a screw-fest of assigning heroes to each other.

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I wrote up numbers on all my heroes right then and there. No time for testing like the present!We played with Nevermore again. And they loved the idea, they loved the concept. But the balance was horrible, and the defenses were boring. Could we have more defenses with special abilities? Some awesome Unpub playtesters were only too happy to oblige, giving ideas left and right.

After another 3am design session Saturday night, I had the heroes balanced using some crazy math algorithm I designed in a feverish haze. I had defenses with wild and wacky powers to add variety. We played the game Sunday with playtesters, and with Nevermore again, and everyone loved it!

The game sang. It went from a 40-minute playtime to a 20-minute playtime. But despite quicker play, every decision mattered MORE. Unpub turned coal into a diamond.

There is no convention, no gathering of minds in gaming I have experienced that is quite like Unpub. Bring your designs, rough or nearly finished. They helped my game shine, and they can do the same for yours!

Cheers, and good gaming!
-Michael Kelley, designer

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