by Ami Baio
I’ve been making games since spring 2017, and I can even pin down the day I started! I was standing in my kitchen, and an entire idea for a card game popped into my head. It felt like a little download, a gift from the universe. My son was in the next room, and I immediately told him about the game and how it would be played, a game which eventually became You Think You Know Me.
It was as if, in that moment, everything that inspired my sense of communication, curiosity, and belonging said, “This is how you can share it.” So that’s how it all started.
What I’ve learned over the last seven years is that inspiration can come from anywhere. I spend way too much time on social media. I love art and photography. I love to read, mostly non-fiction, and listen to podcasts. I love anything and everything about how our brains work and how we process emotions. I love language and writing and exploring how we express ourselves. We’re all so fascinating and have more stories in us than we could ever hope to share in this lifetime. I think we’re all precious and special and interesting, and that’s how I approach my life and work.
You never know when an idea is going to show up, and you just have to be ready to grab it when it does.
In late spring 2022, I sent a friend request on Facebook to Eric Lang, a famously prolific game designer who will probably give you bunny ears if you take a selfie with him, even though we had yet to meet in real life. If you know how Facebook works, once you send a request, sometimes that person’s posts will then pop up in your feed.
So there I was, on July 1, 2022, scrolling mindlessly on Facebook when I saw a post from Eric sharing a few things that made him feel “unreasonably excited”: new socks, new soy sauce, and new YouTube reaction videos for his favorite bands.
And…boom! A little lightning strike of an idea hit me that made my heart burst.
We all have these things that make us feel happy, joyful, grounded, and connected. These things are within reach and can give us a lift in a moment, often right when we need it.
My Writing and Game Development Process
Inside the Notes app on my phone, you could probably learn anything and everything you’d ever want to know about me. I always have a list of ideas, a list of words I like, lists of favorite things — you get the idea. So, picture me, singularly focused after reading this Facebook post, furiously typing away, listing all of the things I can think of that I love, that the people around me love, that I can ever imagine people finding comfort in. Type type type, smash smash smash.
This is such a wonderful moment when an idea comes. It’s one of my favorite things and makes me so very unreasonably excited.
But how was I going to make a game around “stuff we love”?
I started writing down all of those joyful things onto cards, hundreds of them. I often do my first rounds of playtesting with my husband, Andy, and our teenage son, Eliot, who are amazing and generous with their time and opinions. They also don’t think like I do, which is very helpful with playtesting. I’m more of a creative-feeler, and they both have very logical brains, along with big hearts!
When I’m making anything, I follow my feelings and gut instinct, and hope that logic catches up along the way. I couldn’t picture myself playing Cloud Nine in anything other than a grid of cards: I was really stuck on this vision of having the cards laid out before me on the table. For weeks on end, I’d lay out the handwritten Cloud Nine cards in front of me, face up or face down, and imagine how they could become a game. I found myself struggling through this process alone.
Maybe you’d collect the things that other players loved, guess what they like, and make collections for them? I thought this was it! It was simple and interactive, easy to understand — but as I tested this first iteration, even with players outside of my inner circle, it ended up feeling too similar to my first game, You Think You Know Me. I felt discouraged and bewildered until, finally one night at home with Andy and Eliot, the design started to take its current form.
My initial vision of making a grid was on our dining room table with all of the cards face up, and Andy suggested collecting the cards you liked best. This 3×3 grid of nine cards became “The Sky”, fitting the Cloud Nine theme, where each player would try to collect their top nine favorite Cloud cards.
We quickly realized you couldn’t just each take one card on each turn because the person who started the game would inevitably be the first to collect their nine cards and win. We needed action cards to create some tension and light strategy, and what if you didn’t love anything that was in The Sky grid? This led to the option for a player to wipe out a row of three cards in any direction on their turn, giving you the option to play the game sneakily or sweetly, keeping other players from collecting something they love by replacing the current cards! (I believe this was Eliot’s idea because he’s the most strategic of the three of us!)
For action cards, I wanted to give them all weather- and cloud-related names to play on the theme. The final action cards that I decided on were Stormy, Hazy, Fluffy, Sunny, and my favorite, The Wind. Stormy skips your next turn, Fluffy lets you steal one card from any other player, and with The Wind, all the clouds are blown away and the sky is replaced with nine new cards. Sunny Day is a wild card, which you can play by naming something unique that you love. Hazy Clouds reverses the order of play.
I eventually rejected several of the action card ideas, such as trading cards with another player, which felt like it didn’t move the gameplay along, and taking two cards on your turn, because it was too similar to my previous games’ action cards in Lost for Words. (Some rejected action card names: Breezy, Icy, Wispy, and Puffy.) The Sunny Day card also had a revision: I had originally entertained the thought of having another player guess what you love to get a point, but that took away from the core mechanism of collecting your own sky.
Each Cloud card includes optional conversation questions related to each card. The questions I wrote for each card allow the game to be used in a variety of ways, as writing prompts or even as an oracle! But most importantly, the questions give the option for players to go deeper in conversation.
To my surprise and delight, the questions on each card also became an extremely important element in gameplay, too! While playtesting, one player tried to cheat to win and just grabbed a card from the sky to finish his top nine, and his partner was like, “Wait, you hate that!” So we challenged him to answer the questions, and he quickly retreated and put the card back on the board. It then became clear that this would be really interesting when you didn’t know someone well, and if you suspected any player was trying to lie or cheat!
Cloud Nine Art
Choosing an artist to work with on each game is truly a daunting thrill. The need to get it right: to match up with the mechanisms, the game experience, the shelf presence… There’s so much to consider, and so much riding on getting it right: having a clear idea, creating a mood board, being able to concisely convey what your vision is, honoring how the artist wants to communicate with you.
I’ve worked with artists who prefer to work only over email, artists who want to have video calls, with and without contracts in place.
I’m flexible, but I’ve learned to always have a contract in place; it benefits everyone at every step of the way. Having a contract helps you know how many revisions you’re able to have the artist make as well as when you’ll have to pay for more, not to mention the timelines as you both need to know when you’ll receive the art you need.
In the past, I’ve sent my own renderings as inspiration for the artist. I’ve picked out color palettes, I go through their social media to screengrab my favorite pieces so that in the clearest way possible, I can let them know why I chose them and what I’m most drawn to.
But in the end, it’s all about trust and respect for the artist, so pick wisely and thoughtfully. I feel really lucky to have worked with such talented, kind, and generous artists for my previous projects.
For Cloud Nine, I could only picture the art being made by one person: the super creative author, illustrator, and fine artist Lisa Congdon. I had admired Lisa’s work for years before meeting her in real life at a small dinner party outside of Portland before the pandemic. We became friends, and I had a little one-day holiday pop-up at her studio and storefront in December 2021.
I sent an email to her in late July — super early in this process, btw! — hoping she’d be interested, but when I didn’t hear from her by September, I thought I needed to look elsewhere…but I just couldn’t bring myself to even think of anyone else. Lisa’s use of color and lettering were all I could see for Cloud Nine.
Then, to my surprise and delight, I received an email from Lisa, braced myself for rejection, but learned that I had emailed the wrong address, one she didn’t keep an eye on! Her response was an excited and enthusiastic yes! I was elated, I cried, and if you know me, you are 100% not surprised. Such happy tears.
Making it Real and Expressing Gratitude
In February 2023, we launched the Kickstarter for Cloud Nine: A Game of Wonderful Things, it was successfully funded, and by the end of August, all of the games were sent to our backers. Cloud Nine was exclusively available at Barnes & Noble through the 2023 holiday season and is now available everywhere in 2024.
It means the world to me that people are spending time together while playing my games. Every time I receive a kind message about a player’s experiences, it feels like a “pinch me” moment — I can’t believe this is all real. To top it off, Cloud Nine, along with most of the other games I’ve made, are actively being used in therapeutic settings, which is so humbling and cool.
Cloud Nine has now officially joined the Pink Tiger Games collection, along with You Think You Know Me, Flatter Me, Rabbit Rabbit, and Lost for Words. My heart just keeps happily bursting, and I’m so grateful to make games.
In early December 2022, the night I arrived in Philadelphia for PAX Unplugged, I was a bedraggled mess from flying all day from the west to the east coast, and Eric Lang was standing in the hotel lobby while we were checking in. I was able to tell him in person how he had inspired the game I was working on, and he was so gracious and kind. It was a lovely moment, and I was so grateful to be met with such warmth, and now I’m very happy to call him a friend in real life, as well as online.