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Block and Key – Design Dairy, I mean Diary of a Dyslexic Designer

by David Van Drunen

“Love who you are, what you are, and what you do. Laugh at yourself and at life, and nothing can touch you.” —Louise Hay

TLDR: Words and spacial directions are hard for me. My dyslexia focuses my designs on images versus text. Designing Block and Key took years. Thank you to everyone that supported me and Block and Key.

There are many things I cannot do, like spell “beautiful” without thinking, “BEE~Aa~UUU-tiful”. Or use the subway without making the right direction with my hand: W = west. Or spell “dyslexic” correctly the first try. But now I see my little tricks and way of thinking might actually help me as a designer to find creative solutions.

Block and Key was born in a Value Village toy section. A random bag of wood blocks, stairs, and arches hung like a smiling invitation. I’d never seen such architectural blocks before. The idea struck: Too many cooks in the kitchen, but for architects! Everyone would have to build onto the same structure, but with different goals.

The goals would be simple, e.g., X on top of Y, but having only one color wasn’t interesting enough. I painted the blocks and made goals like “red stairs on top of black arches”. It gave the prototype a great mismatched, colorful aesthetic.

My first goals cards were not intuitive and caused a lot of problems. I designed them to be read as a vertical tower, stacking up toward “Expert”. Most players thought it was a top-down view or just a row.

Changing to show each three stage separately helped show you could stop early or keep going, but the idea of a tower never clicked. After testing the game at ProtoTO, a Toronto playtesting event, the different rewards were simplified into just “money”, and the goal was to have the most.

Now players got money by completing goals by stacking blocks, but how to make getting the blocks interesting? My first attempt was a sliding market in which the last block was free. Players had to balance spending more to get first dibs, or try to make do with the free one.

Restocking the market was a complicated system of “if…then and if…then”, e.g., if the last block is stairs, then the new block must be pillar, and if the last block is white, then the new block must be black, so the new block = black pillar. This was replaced by a deck of cards that set the market. Overall the market did not give enough choice and the cards felt like an extra component.

The market was eventually replaced by a 3×3 grid that was randomly restocked from a bag of blocks from A to I. Player could choose a row or column, meaning they would get 1-2 blocks they actually wanted and probably one they would have to make work.

There was a nagging problem: It was very easy to make an unstable structure. While it was interesting to press your luck to get the better placement, sometimes people would just knock it over.

I tried making a “pay to demolition action” that you could use on purpose or by accident. If done by accident, it became your action automatically, and your other action was removed — but then some players just knocked down whatever other players did for quick small points. I increased the fee, but then everyone got scared to accidentally knock it down. The balancing blocks element was keeping the design down.

Feeling stuck, I shelved the game for while to focus on other designs.

Getting back into it, I started with the simplest block: a cube. Single-colored cubes weren’t very interesting, so I colored each side differently, hoping for a sort of patchwork puzzle to solve. Then I had a Eureka moment: What if you couldn’t see any other side of the structure? What if you were locked to one perspective?!”

Using only one perspective was key, but it was still too easy. I started hot-gluing cubes together to make more interesting shapes. I quickly realized I was just making Tetris shapes, but they worked great! Now each block had natural placement restrictions and unexpected influence on what other players could see.

The stacks were way more stable, except when they got too tall, so I set a height limit of six. The starting block stayed a multi-colored cube, (seen in middle) to make each player’s starting viewpoint different.

The new goal cards for the new blocks and single perspective made understanding them much easier. I got rid of the three goal levels on a single card and simply made three different goal cards: easy, medium, hard. This helped a lot! Adding the white grid spaces around the colored squares helped players understand the patterns.

Using only one perspective was fun, but during testing players had to bend down to see their 2D view, so I started putting the play space on top of a stack of game boxes, which worked but wasn’t very practical.

Since I already glued the play space to a box for support, it made sense to me to just give the box some legs. Later, players noticed in a four-player game that one player couldn’t see the available blocks because they were behind the leggy-box-tower. I stuck the 3×3 grid to the box lid and put it in the middle of the tower. Now the whole box was the board!

The goals made sense, the structure was stable, and the puzzle of getting blocks and completing goals clicked. I tested it a bunch at Snakes & Lattes board game café, and the design felt good.

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to attend Origins Game Fair, and I pitched the game to Conor McGoey of Inside Up Games. Conor loved it! Later they signed the game and made it come to life!

The game now features amazing art by Edu Valls. I’m so proud of the whole IUG team and so thankful to everyone who playtested it, backed it, and shared it to got us to where we are now. Thank you!

If you have any questions, ask me anything.

Thank you, and be well.

David Van Drunen


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