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Designer Diary: Hooky

by Christine Biancheria

Welcome to the wonderful world of Hooky!

The story of this challenging deduction/word game with a cute theme starts with the incredible James Miller, who was a friend to so many of us in the gaming community.

James was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most generous souls this earth has ever known. He possessed a unique ability to get along with just about everyone who met him. He loved to travel, attended many gaming events, and had a special gift for making everybody feel welcome.

When James taught game rules – and if anyone ever builds a Hall of Fame for rules explainers, James will be a unanimous pick to be in the inaugural class – he always opened with, “Welcome to the wonderful world of…” That’s why the final rules (PDF) begin with those words.

James was taken from us in 2020, far too soon. He’s the designer of two games listed here on BGG: Control Nut!, a well-regarded trick-taking card game he self-published in 2005, and the brand-new Hooky, published by Rio Grande Games. He was tremendously witty and creative, and both of those qualities are on display in Hooky.

I met James in 2003, and after exchanging messages for a long time, we became closer and closer friends. He often visited on Thanksgiving weekends, and he was always up to drive over from Ohio. (I live in Pittsburgh.) We found that we could talk about anything together, and we had a friendship that was lively and familial. I will always remember his friendship as a source of laughter, good conversation, love and mutual support.

James’ generosity is evident in the fact that sales of Hooky benefit Friends of Aseema, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that raises funds and awareness for the Aseema Charitable Trust of Mumbai, India. Aseema, which means “limitless” in Sanskrit, represents the founders’ views that all children have limitless potential.

For more than 25 years, Aseema has been providing effective, high-quality secular education and medical care to extremely marginalized poor children who live in the streets and slums of Mumbai and a remote tribal region to the northeast of the city. It’s a beacon of hope, a reminder that there are ways to overcome poverty, even deep poverty, like in the community seen in the photo below, which is served by Aseema. Aseema transforms lives.

When we were starting Friends of Aseema in 2019, James was helpful right away, providing both moral and financial support. With James, there was always another surprise. One day, I was kicking around ideas with him about ways to raise funds and awareness, and I half-jokingly said maybe we should try to make a game. He just looked up and said, “Take mine.”

Damn, I miss James.

From Knot Five to Hooky

I first played Hooky when it was a prototype known as “Knot Five”. I enjoy both deduction and word games, and it was great to see them in combination. I remember feeling a little clueless early in my games of “Knot Five” – and then suddenly, I’d have a revelation from putting clues together, and that was really exciting and satisfying.

Watching others have those “a-ha!” moments was also entertaining and put the pressure on. (“What does this player know that I don’t? Has someone figured this out? Oh, no!”)

It reminded me of some deduction games I liked in the past, but the use of five-letter words to draw clues from other players was a nice, new twist. (While we were developing Hooky, Wordle burst onto the scene. Hooky has some overlapping elements but also vast differences and is more challenging.)

“Knot Five” didn’t have a theme. James was working out some aspects of the game shortly before his death, especially the scoring. After James died, a team of his friends and Friends of Aseema board members and volunteers donated their time to finish developing his game. As part of that process, we changed the name and theme.

Hooky’s school-related theme – finding three students who skipped school – seemed appropriate since all sales benefit education and medical care for very underprivileged children through Friends of Aseema. (Yes, there’s definitely some good-natured irony in the fact that a game about skipping school supports schools!) But don’t be fooled: This is not a game for little children.

The game has changed, but the central elements that made “Knot Five” so interesting and brilliant are still there.

At the start of the game, three random cards (each representing a student) are set aside. Players try to identify those three students.

During development, we limited the game to six rounds so that it wouldn’t become a long process of asking questions until someone finally hit the nail on the head. This also prevented player elimination; in deduction games where the goal is to find the answer first, players who make an incorrect guess are often relegated to only answering questions for the rest of the game. We kept gameplay at six rounds for all player counts because it worked and kept the rules streamlined.

Having a limited number of rounds adds pressure, in a good way, to make your best guess based on your deductions. It’s possible to figure everything out, but not common. There’s also a new rule – the reveal rule – that allows players to provide free information for a chance to learn something secret. And you can score points for learning letters other players have in hand. These rules and a few small elements of luck help give everyone a chance to win even if there’s a real deduction whiz at the table.

Another change we made involves the number of players. James wanted it to be a game for two to five players. We worked hard to find rules that worked well for two, but in the end found that it simply didn’t fit the format and required too much contortion.

Control, Balance, and a Very Developed Worksheet

One of the reasons I loved “Knot Five” from the first time I played it is that I’m a big fan of deduction games. (That’s very different from saying I’m good at them!) Some of my favorites are older classics like Code 777, Sleuth, and Black Vienna, but I’m also a huge fan of Decrypto and Letter Jam, modern deduction games that added words into the mix.

Hooky reminds me of Black Vienna, a game in which players try to figure out which cards (spies) are missing, and each player has some information. You figure out which students are missing by asking players about a set of letters. That player must say how many of the cards they have, but not which ones specifically. What James did was give players more control by allowing them to come up with their own words as clues.

The biggest challenge was trying to strike a balance between strategy and luck. I remember a well-known game designer telling me that he didn’t like to play his own games with other people because it made him anxious about how the game would go over. I understand that feeling much more now, but I’m leaning on the adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Another challenge was deciding whether to include worksheets to help players take notes or to leave that up to each individual.

In the end, we included a very developed worksheet that I think helps players – especially new players. James had a less-involved worksheet for the original prototype, and we briefly considered publishing the game without any worksheets. One of the skills you develop over multiple games is the ability to take effective notes for making deductions. However, a brand-new player can feel overwhelmed starting a game of Hooky with only a blank sheet of paper and a pencil.

We added the worksheet with the hope that it would help guide new players and gave many examples of its use in the rulebook, but repeat players will surely develop their own note-taking style. And of course, the worksheet is only one way to take notes. If you need more, you can save one to photocopy or download the PDF from the Rio Grande Games website.

We also put a lot of effort into the scoring system, which was where the game was weakest. In the original scoring system, guesses were optional, and early guesses had big rewards and penalties. We reduced the rewards and eliminated the penalties. We also required players to guess each round during the second half of the game because guessing with the information you’ve acquired (or not) is fun.

Illustrations, Design, and a Card for James

I want to mention the amazing art. The illustrations were done by Tessa Samuelson, who some readers might know because her family used to run the online store Game Surplus. She was friends with James for most of her life, and I know James would have loved that she was involved.

At the Aseema schools in India, there is a robust emphasis on extracurricular activities and a strong emphasis on art. Some of the children’s illustrations form the background art on the box cover, round cards, and player screens, and they are credited in the rulebook. Friends of Aseema, the 501(c)(3) benefiting from sales of Hooky, sells prints of some of the children’s art – and even if you’re not interested in buying one, it’s fascinating to see the art and artists’ ages.

The game essentially has a card for each letter of the alphabet, and thematically, each one represents a student. Tying into Hooky’s use of five-letter words, we used five-letter names for the child represented on each card. Tessa looked at countless photos sent from the schools in India to come up with the activities in which the children on the cards are engaged, like the photos below.

Many of the names on the cards come from children or staff at Aseema, and all of the names are used in India — even James! My talented friend and Friends of Aseema volunteer Vibha Shetiya, originally from a city near Mumbai, verified the authenticity of the names, and the team at Aseema in India reviewed the art as it was in progress.

From Game of the Afternoon to Rio Grande Games

James first had the idea for the core game that became Hooky in 2008. The earliest version of “Knot Five” was named “Game of the Afternoon” at the Gathering of Friends. (The challenge was to design a game – from scratch – in a single day.) I think James was ahead of his time in terms of marrying deduction with a word game!

James would be thrilled that his game is being published by Rio Grande Games and that it will benefit a good cause he believed in. I hope everyone enjoys it.

Christine Biancheria

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