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Designer Diary: Heckin Hounds

by Mattie Schraeder

Board games have always been a part of my life. Whenever my extended family got together, we’d play the likes of Euchre, Hearts, Spades, Phase 10, Tripoli, Mille Bornes, and Sequence. In college, I got deep into Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. While waiting for games to start, my friends and I would pull out Munchkin and Guillotine.

At some point, I bought a copy of StarCraft: The Board Game for cheap when a friendly local game store closed, mostly because I thought it was neat. It sat on a shelf for several years until a friend of mine saw it in 2011 and insisted on taking the rules home to read, with the intention to play it the next weekend. I have him to thank for getting me into the hobby.

Three of us got together to play and instantly fell in love. It became a weekend ritual that went from StarCraft to CATAN, Carcassonne, and Dominion. In 2013, we went to our first board game convention, Geekway to the West. I got to play Fantastiqa with the designer. Terra Mystica had just come out, and to this day is one of my favorite games of all time. I was hooked. Board gaming had gone from a family gathering event to a special interest. I had to play as many games as possible.

Fast forward to 2017: I’m sitting at a table at Geekway to the West and talking to the friend that got me into the hobby about how cool it was to have so many designers at Geekway and in the St. Louis area. I thought it would be really amazing to have something on a shelf, to work on something and have people enjoy it, and most of all, to have a game in Geekway’s “Play and Win” collection.

I vividly remember talking about not being creative enough to design a board game, but thinking it would be fun to do. It was then that I mentioned wanting to see a game about losing, not just winning with a lower score — but that was as far as my baby game design brain could get.

At the time, I had over an hour commute to and from work every day. This gave me a lot of time to think. One day the concept of a game about losing popped back into my head. I started pondering about what it meant to lose a game and how one might purposefully lose. Of course, trick-taking was one of the first mechanisms to come to mind.

Hearts is a perfect example of a trick-avoidance game, which I realized scratched part of the itch of trying to lose a game. Mechanically speaking, you didn’t want to win tricks — or at least not tricks with hearts in them. My favorite way to play Hearts was shooting the moon, that is, winning all of the hearts, which broke the rules of the normal flow of the game — but Hearts isn’t a game about losing. It’s a game about winning with a lower score.

How could one play a trick-taking game in which you’re trying to lose…without feeling like you’re trying to win? The goal of a trick-taking game, after all, is to take (or avoid taking) tricks. As long as you are doing that, you are likely winning. That’s when I began thinking about other card games with unique mechanisms that I enjoyed. Hanabi came to mind, and I instantly fell in love with the idea of a trick-taking competitive game in which you couldn’t see the cards in your hand. If you can’t see the cards in your hand, you’re incapable of playing with normal trick-taking strategies. You’re no longer trying to win or lose tricks; you’re at best just aiming to play better or worse cards. You also have to think more about which specific cards are being played.

That night I spent the whole evening writing up rules for a Hanabi-like trick-taker. The first set of rules was simplistic, but enough to run a first playtest. Fortunately, the next night was our local board game meet-up. I rushed to print a set of hastily-designed cards and sleeve them with Magic lands, and within a few hours I was ready to playtest. Walking Doggos, as it was called at the time, was born.

The next night I convinced the group to try out my fledgling prototype. We dealt out a hand of cards, and within seconds of looking around the table we realized a fatal flaw. We knew exactly which cards were in our hands. The clue-giving phase made it even more obvious, and the game fell apart from there. A quick change added five more cards to the deck to create a “dead hand”, and we were off to the races. We played two or three times, and I knew I had the start of something great.

The next night, my friend — the same one that got me into the hobby — sent me card designs he did for his own version of the prototype. Using Creative Commons art, the game went from being just an idea to being something I’d be happy to show people.

I attempted self-publishing the game on The Game Crafter in 2019 and accomplished my “dream” of having a game in Geekway’s “Play and Win” collection that same year. The reception from Geekway was great, and it even caught the attention of Jamey Stegmaier, who made a “favorite mechanisms” video about it and a game of similar blind hand mechanisms, Pikoko.

Also in 2019, I attended my first Gen Con, thanks to being a minion working the booth for the Indie Game Alliance. If it wasn’t for IGA, I’d never have been able to go to Gen Con. They taught me to pitch and demo, and provided me with meaningful resources to get published. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

At the time, the game was a simple one-round game. It took about 15 minutes, but a constant piece of feedback was that it felt unfinished. Players wanted more, and it took me a long time to figure out how to make the game feel more full-featured. Multiple rounds felt like “more of the same” and wasn’t as engaging as it could have been. It also had the problem of complicated scoring based on the numbers on the cards, which felt disconnected from the rest of the game.

Another common complaint was that the memory mechanism made the game difficult. I ended up adding tokens to the game so that players didn’t have to remember which clues they were given, and the game really started to come together.

I had just begun brainstorming how to fix the “longer game” in June 2020 when I saw a post on a tabletop game designers’ group on Facebook. Sapphire City Board Game Parlor, a board game bar out of North Canton, Ohio, wanted to get into board game publishing. They were looking for small-box games with a unique theme that could be played at their parlor, with the chance to be published. I submitted my prototype, and a few days later got a response!

James Parsons, the proprietor of Sapphire City, messaged me, and we began talking about the prospect of getting it published. Thanks to James and that conversation, everything started to come together. He suggested a retheme of “Hades’ dog walkers in the underworld, striving for minimum competence to avoid walking Cereberus”, along with a few other concepts. I was vaguely skeptical of the hellhound theme at first, until a friend suggested the name Heckin Hounds and how “it has to be cute”.

Over the next several months, I spent a lot of time rethinking the game for the new theme. The first big change was to add Cerberus as a mechanism. I didn’t want Cerberus to be a suit because there could be only one. Cerberus, then, became the trump card. Other changes that James suggested were changing the suits to be based on the “badness” of the dog, which could be represented easier by art than the size of the dog, as in my initial prototype. Lastly, James came up with the idea of having card stands so that players didn’t have to hold their cards, in addition to keeping track of their order.

Things seemed to move fast from there. Lauren A. Brown joined as illustrator, and the initial sketches for our lovely hellhounds blew me away. We were given the choice of how to design the dogs’ eyes, and while I loved all the options we were given, we ultimately decided on a slightly more realistic depiction.

It didn’t take long to have a wonderful menagerie of doggo sketches all based on “famous” dogs. I also realized not long after that we had seven dogs — one for each of the seven deadly sins. You’re certainly familiar with Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades. Mops, the pug, was based on Marie Antoinette’s beloved royal pet. Stephen King’s Molly, the Thing of Evil, was immortalized by Evil Molly. Sudachi is the fictional cousin of the famous Kabosu, better known as the doge meme dog. Paulgrave was Putin’s labrador retreiver. Deathpaw, well, he’s just reminiscent of every Pomeranian.

The dog most special to me, however, is Tom Dire. James asked me early in the process if there were any particular breeds that I’d like to see included. Originally, when I made my first prototype, I didn’t put a lot of thought into who the dogs were. They were just hastily Googled dog-breed images from small to big. I did choose to include my own dog, Metroid, in that particular print of the game. He stayed in the game only a couple of days, though, due to the stock art version of Walking Doggos replacing it.

Metroid, unfortunately, didn’t live long enough to see himself immortalized by Lauren Brown. He had allergies that eventually exacerbated into pneumonia, and further complications lead to his passing in 2019. It is amazingly touching to me that he is included in the final production art. I can’t thank James enough for allowing him to appear alongside such wonderful other doggos.

Once our dog art was nailed down, work on the cover art for the game began. Lauren absolutely knocked it out of the park. Hades as a badass black woman was the cover art I never knew I needed. She came alive in our Kickstarter video thanks to a Sapphire City regular and amazing voice acting by Camille Lewis.

The Kickstarter launched June 22, 2021. We were funded in less than eight hours, blowing away any and all expectations we had for the project. Since then, there has been a lot of waiting. Manufacturing and production and shipping and fulfillment have been an adventure that definitely tested my patience.

The game arrived in a warehouse outside of Chicago at the end of April 2023, just in time for a case to be shipped to me for Geekway to the West’s “Play and Win” event. Opening that case was one of the most exciting moments of my design career. Having it at my home convention and seeing people playing and enjoying it really made my convention.

The next couple months went back to the grueling wait for fulfillment and shipping to begin, but thanks to lucky timing, we were able to ship two cases to the Indie Game Alliance to be able to sell on the show floor at Gen Con 2023. We sold out on Saturday, which is the greatest feeling in the world. Nothing could prepare me for how rewarding it would be seeing people getting a chuckle out of the name and theme, then coming back the next day to tell me that they played it at the convention and had a great time.

By complete coincidence, Lauren also did the cover art for the Gen Con 2023 program book, and I got to meet her for the first time at the convention. She’s the nicest, most wonderful person, and I can’t thank her enough for being a part of the project.

So where do I go from here? Besides basking in the euphoria of having a published game released at Gen Con, I’m also working on three more designs. I have a hacking-themed worker-placement game, a satirical economic simulator making fun of cryptocurrency, and a mixtape-making game based around card drafts. I’m pitching all of them to publishers as we speak. I’m excited to see how they change and grow, just like Walking Doggos turned into Heckin Hounds — and I’m even more excited to show them to everybody else.

Mattie Schraeder


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