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Designer Diary: Kaiju Table Battles, or a Queer Love Letter to Giant Monsters

by Amabel Holland

Origin Stories

It’s customary to start these things by telling you where the idea came from, but like “How did you figure out your whole gender deal?” or “When did you know you were in love?”, it’s a question with more than one answer. Over time, you choose one story to keep telling. Sometimes it’s the story that has proven to be the most important. Sometimes, the story that’s easiest to tell, or the one that clicks with more people, or the one that’s the most useful to you.

But I haven’t had that time yet, and it’s all so immediate. If you ask me where this game came from, there are still a dozen origin stories spilling out all at once. Let me tell you three of them: a memory, a gift, and a need.

A memory: I’m a little girl who doesn’t know she’s a girl, an autistic kid who doesn’t know she’s autistic, and I have fallen absolutely in love with movies about giant monsters beating each other up. I gobble them up greedily, but when I close my eyes now, the one that I see the most clearly is Invasion of Astro-Monster (a.k.a., Monster Zero). And even that’s not “clear”, exactly – there’s no Mothra in it, but she looms large and splendid over my memories of it, over my entire childhood, resonant and compelling.

As a child, I deeply resent the long stretches of time in these movies that’s spent with the people. My sympathies lie with the monsters. They are lonely. They are clumsy. They don’t understand the world around them, and the world doesn’t want to understand them. They carry with them a violent anguish — and also an immeasurable capacity for joy. In my dreams, Godzilla does his little sailor dance after defeating King Ghidorah, and this isn’t incongruous with taking him seriously.

The monsters are the first things I ever saw that felt like me.

A gift: I’m a woman who finally knows she’s a woman. I don’t know what my name is yet, but I know it’s not the name I’m putting on board game boxes. One of these is Dinosaur Table Battles – a dinosaur version of Hollandspiele‘s best-seller, designed at the request of Mary Holland, my wife of nearly two decades. The game did not perform as well as I had hoped, but really, that didn’t matter. That wasn’t what it was meant for. It was, essentially, a very expensive gift for her, but it’s not the gift this story is about.

For the first time in my life, I’m thinking about who I want to be, and what I want my life to look like. I realize to my horror that it’s not the life I have. My marriage collapses, and that collapse is prolonged by love and cowardice. I’m so afraid of hurting her that we just keep hurting each other. Our house becomes a cluster of raw nerves, always exposed, always in pain.

Amid the collapse, I give her two more gifts, trying desperately to express the affection that remained. One is an expansion to Dino TB, designed and published in defiance of the game’s sales – designed and published as a token of affection.

The other was a three-page comic I commissioned from Wil Alambre, the artist of the dinosaur games. This was an adaptation of a short story Mary wrote years ago in which one of our cats (now gone and dearly missed) fought a group of giant monsters in Tokyo. It turned out Wil drew some really appealing kaiju, and while that’s the part that’s relevant, I’ll tell you the rest of the story.

Mary cried when I gave it to her. She said it was the first time in a long time that it felt like I actually cared. We remain dear friends, business partners, and chosen family.

A need: From an early age, I’m drawn to queer people and to queer art, but “drawn” is too small a word for it. The pull is intense and elemental. Queer people and queer art feel alive in precisely all the ways I feel like I am dead. That terrifies me.

One reason I’m terrified is because I’m moving through a world that hates queerness. In middle school, there was one entire page in the sex ed booklet about queerness, and it went like this: If someone of the same sex comes onto you, tell them you’re not gay. The class and the teacher snickered. I wanted to ask, “But what if you are?”, but knew if I did, there would be consequences — not least of which would be word getting back to my parents.

A couple years before, I had asked my mother if she could teach me how to sew. That night, I had overhead her talking with my father about it. He worried that I was “going to turn into a faggot”, and they wondered how they might prevent that.

I know at the time that I’m not attracted to men. In fact, I not only find it hard to make friends with “other” boys, but I don’t really have an interest. I’d much rather be friends with girls. I want desperately to go to a slumber party. Once I make the mistake of confessing this to a friend, and she called me a pervert.

And that was the other reason I was terrified. What if I was a pervert? Why else would a straight boy be obsessed with dykes? People told me it had to be some kind of sick sex thing. Why else did I seek out gay and lesbian films? My library had a copy of Go Fish on VHS. I borrowed it many times, always careful to sneak it into the house. In between borrowings there were these cycles of shame and revulsion. I’d have to build up the courage to borrow it again, and I was less scared of what others might think and more of the idea that something in me was broken, and that the more I indulged, the more broken and monstrous I would become.

This tension between desire and shame informed all my interactions with queerness up until the point when queer people and queer art – specifically trans people and trans art – at last cracked my egg. Once I understood myself to be a queer woman, my desire for queer community made sense. And while it had always been difficult to make friends in the past – for some reason the cool butch girls didn’t want to spend much time with the weird nervous straight boy who read Dykes To Watch Out For – once I came out, I found that I connected with my people quite easily.

We grew up in a world that conspired to keep us from seeing ourselves. Through our lives and our art, we can allow others to see themselves in our reflection. This is why I want to be visible, and it’s why I want to make queer art, why I need to do it.

And that’s the need this story is about.

Late 2021: The Big Question

So, how do you do a board game about giant monsters and queerness? This was the question I had bouncing around in my brain in the months after Wil finished the cat versus kaiju comic, and I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I had things I wanted to express, but didn’t know how to give it shape.

Usually when this happens, I just let the thing percolate for however long it needs. Sometimes this is weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years – for example, I can trace my game Westphalia back a full decade before it saw release. It doesn’t make any sense for me to work on a game until I have a reasonably clear picture of how it looks and feels; the entire game has to exist, in some form, in my head before I start making a prototype.

But I didn’t want to just sit back with this one. It was too important to me. The need to do the game was too urgent. I needed to move forward with it in some way, even if I couldn’t grapple with the big questions yet.

What made this easier than it would be otherwise is that I knew this was going to be a Table Battles game. Over the course of a base game and six expansions, I’ve designed over fifty scenarios. On top of that, there’s the dinosaur version and its expansion. I know my system’s strengths and weaknesses very well and how to manipulate aspects of it to shift emphasis.

For the uninitiated, this is a game in which you roll dice and assign them to cards. On a future turn, you can remove the dice you’ve built up on a card to make an attack, the strength of which often depends on the number of dice played. The other player can remove dice from one of their cards to react: redirecting the attack to a sturdier target via an Absorb, canceling the attack via a Screen or Block, or hitting you back with a Counter.

If you have multiple ways that you can react, you choose which one to use, but there’s a caveat: If you can react, you must react, and if you do react, you don’t get to attack on your next turn. Control of tempo becomes extremely important. Often one player will be on the back foot, then find a way to seize the initiative, reversing the situation. This is the core of what makes the game work.

It’s also annoying as hell, and I know that. It’s a deliberately frustrating game, and no one is more surprised than I am that it’s become our bestseller. But the original game is also something aimed at a niche audience – folks looking to recreate relatively static historical battles via a dice-based filler. I think they’re more likely to embrace a game built around a lose-a-turn mechanism.

Certainly when I aimed at a broader audience with Dinosaur Table Battles, complaints about this aspect of the system were more numerous. It turns out most folks don’t like being prevented from playing the game! They’d rather not get beat up round after round after round while they struggle to turn the tables! Who knew?

For this game, I wanted to maintain the forced reaction system – it’s where a lot of the tactical crunch comes from. And “lose a turn” is key to that; without it, there’s no question of tempo and pressure, no shifting of initiative – there’s no game.

But I saw a need to soften it, and I did this in two ways.

First, only the reacting monster is prevented from attacking on your next turn, instead of your entire team. That’s much less frustrating and adds another consideration to the decision of which monster to react with.

Second, I wanted Absorb and Block to trigger less often. It’s not just a matter of loading dice, then getting hit; instead you would need to be adjacent to the monster you are Absorbing or Blocking on behalf of — which means, for the first time in the series, there would need to be some kind of spatial element.

This change naturally suggested some things about the shape of the game. The monsters would be standees in addition to cards. There would need to be three-dimensional buildings and other obstacles. Attacks would come in two types: melee and breath weapons. Breath weapons in the movies tend to have some kind of elemental effect, so I would need those, and I would want to balance them out with positive effects (buffs).

This naturally suggested a system with four reactions: Absorb and Block are performed on behalf of an ally, while Counter and Dodge by the target itself. Melee Attacks could be Absorbed, Blocked, or Countered, while Breath Weapons could be Absorbed or Dodged. I came up with a more powerful version of the melee, a Breaker, which ignores Block, and a more powerful version of the breath weapon, the Super. Supers can be used at point-blank range as well as at a distance, and if used up close, couldn’t be Dodged.

Coming into 2022, I had a solid combat system…but there still remained the question of what I was going to do with it.

Early 2022: The Chick or the Egg

Like I said up top, queer art can allow others to see themselves in the reflection. So obviously, at least one of my monsters was going to be textually trans – designed to help eggs recognize something of themselves in her. But which her would it be?

Because for me to see Amabel, I needed to see two reflections, each existing at different points in time. I needed to recognize that the thing I was feeling – the thing I had felt my whole life, the thing I couldn’t name and seemingly no one could relate to – was felt by other people. I needed to be given words to describe who I was. But I also needed to be shown who I could be. I needed to hold the terrible present and the glorious future in my head simultaneously, so I needed to see both. Trans people talking about gender dysphoria – particularly trans people who came out later in life – gave me the first part, and trans people being unapologetically themselves and living their best lives gave me the second.

And of course not every journey is the same, and not every trans person experiences dysphoria. I’m only saying that for me, I had to both recognize my pain and see a way forward away from it. So, how do I represent that in a game?

Do I have two separate characters, each representing different points in the journey? No, I think that would muddy the message a bit.

Do I have the same monster presented two ways via some time travel shenanigans? No, time travel isn’t really a feature of the genre in the Showa era. The only one I can think of that has time travel is the Heisei-era Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, which famously depicts Godzilla’s service in World War II.

But what if I had a single monster who changed? We see her pre-transition, then something happens, and we see her after. Well, obviously I’d need to hide that post-transition self in an envelope or something, and then between matches, after accomplishing something or another, you’d open it and swap them out. The differences would not just be cosmetic or narrative, but mechanical. The pre-transition monster would emphasize its pain, and the ways it fails to relate to those around it – easy enough in a game that revolves around teamwork and synergies. But once she comes into her own, she would be more powerful than anyone — herself included – could imagine. Instead of feeling small and constrained, she would feel full, brimming with possibilities – possibilities that would have echoes of what came before.

“Holy gosh”, I said at the time. “This is like the best idea I’ve ever had.” But I was afraid to share it with people. It felt too intensely personal. Like the very act of talking about it would leave my belly exposed and vulnerable. If I told the wrong person – if someone thought it was dumb or, worse, couldn’t relate to what I was on about – it would wreck me.

So it was a jealously-guarded secret for a couple of weeks. Around this time, I started dating this one trans girl. Well, actually, I started dating four trans girls – discovering I was poly and then starting four relationships in the course of a few days, because of course I did – but only one of them is relevant to this part of the story, and she’s the only one of the four that I’m still with today, so let me tell you about Samhain Bones.

First of all, holy crow, that name. What an absolute power move. Like her, I also chose my whole name, and sure, “Amabel” is a little bit extra, but the “Holland” is a normal name, chosen both for sentimental and for business reasons. But Samhain Bones? That name is a shotgun blast to the face: I get to be who I want to be, so I’m going to be me as hard as I possibly can.

She’s always herself as hard as she can. Confrontationally queer, visibly trans. The kind of girl who describes herself as “clocky” and takes pride in that. I was about to say that the early weeks of our relationship consisted of her revealing new ways in which she was rad, prompting me to fall for her even harder, but really, that’s still the way it is.

Samhain and I are both queer trans women. But more than that, we’re both queer trans women for whom “queer” and “trans” are the most important parts. We’ve zero interest in assimilation or making ourselves palatable for a world that’s against us. We talked a lot about this, especially in those first couple weeks, and about queer horror – about monsters as metaphors for queerness. And it felt like if there was anybody to tell about my monster-in-the-envelope, it’d be her.

And so, terrified out of my mind, I shared my secret. She was as enthusiastic about it as I was. She saw what I saw. And so, I committed to the idea.

Boy, did I ever!

Mid-2022: Kinda Sorta a Legacy Game

Once I decided to do one monster-in-an-envelope, it naturally followed that I should do more, each unlocked by achieving a different goal over the course of a match, and that opened up a lot of possibilities, both mechanical and thematic.

It also created some logistical problems. Hollandspiele is a small print-on-demand company; you order the game, we have it printed on the spot, then send to you. Every time a game has wooden pieces, those pieces have been hand-packed at home, then shipped to our printer in Tennessee so that he can plop them into the box. If we were going to do a “kinda sorta legacy game”, each of those envelopes would need to be packed by hand. And if you’re wondering, “Hey, is sorting the counters and cards for nine different envelopes, packing, and sealing them, for hundred of copies ahead of time, a pain in the neck?”, well, yes, it is, it absolutely is. I’ve done the vast majority of them myself, with others done by Samhain and by Mary.

One problem that Dinosaur Table Battles had was that the first thing you do is draft a team of two to four dinosaurs from a set of fifteen, with that decision having several different factors – attacks, reactions, special ability synergies, counterpicks, dice numbers – to sort through. You can absolutely lose the game at this step if you draft poorly.

And don’t get me wrong — that’s kinda the cool part? But early on, players haven’t developed the ability to sift through all that information quickly and confidently. And it takes only a couple of really bad match-ups for someone to declare the whole thing “broken” and “imbalanced”, and give up on trying to learn those skills.

But the monster-in-an-envelope conceit allowed me to present players with a much smaller, more manageable decision space early on, starting with six basic monsters that would be relatively easy to parse. Open an envelope at the end of the match, and now you have seven. Then eight, then nine. The decision space gets trickier to parse, but alongside you developing the skills to read it.

This also would allow me to gradually ramp up the complexity of the core rules, introducing new mechanisms and considerations with each unlock. I could also include alternate versions of cards for existing monsters to incorporate these new wrinkles and nuances.

That actually proved to be the key I’d been looking for: monsters growing and changing over time as envelopes get opened – as they meet new monsters. Because as your circle grows larger, as you come into contact with new people with new perspectives, as you grow to understand them, you grow to understand yourself. I am who I am because of the people I’ve met and loved and argued with and admired.

I could represent that in a game – make a thing about queer community, about identity and its expression, about reinvention, about each of us providing reflective surfaces in which someone can see a glimpse of themselves.

Late 2022: Draw People in Suits

I always intended Wil Alambre to do the art, and we had broached the topic with him at the project’s genesis, but he was at that time working on two other games for us. One was Dinosaur Gauge – Mary’s first game as a designer – and the other was a different kind of giant monster game, Ginormopod 2050 A.D.: Attack of the Giant Bug Monsters. With that last one, we asked Wil to give us a 2050 as it might have been imagined by Hollywood in the 1950s, and this retrofuturist approach served the game well.

With this game, we gave him a similar conceit: Don’t draw giant monsters. Draw people in rubber suits pretending to be giant monsters. Draw puppets for flying monsters. Design these creatures the way they might have been designed in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. For some monsters, I gave him specific references – “give me a Gamera vibe”, “a seventies style kaiju like King Cesar”, “this one’s a quadruped, but he’s going to be on his knees like Anguirus or Guiron”.

A major part of a kaiju’s appeal and personality comes through in the suit design. Because of this, while I had some idea of what each monster’s deal was, I didn’t really start to figure out the specifics until I had at least a line art sketch from which to work.

The lobster’s claws look really big: I’ll give his punch a push effect. This makes me think of him as a protector, keeping enemies away from his allies. He’s the Friend to All Monsters. Makes sense for the star of my fictional film franchise. If he’s keeping monsters out, then his breath weapon should reflect that – maybe it stops them from moving for a bit? His special ability should absorb energy effects. For one thing, it’s a nice nod to my favorite turtle, and for another, it gels with the protector vibe. And I like the idea that he makes others more resilient – what are queers for, if not saving each other?

So in addition to suggesting mechanical functions, the art also suggests personality and theme. It’s not until I start getting finished color art that I begin to name my kaiju. This is actually pretty tricky.

I want pastiche, not parody, so none of the names can be sillier than those of the period.

I want to express affection, not appropriation, so I’m not going to use Japanese names or transliterations. That doesn’t feel respectful.

I want evocation and resonance. I want the names to be theirs, to feel like the names they would choose for themselves, if they had use for such things.

Early 2023: Telling Their Stories

Originally the game had an entire subsystem about human tanks and planes and anti-monster defense forces and man, that just was not working — and I couldn’t understand why until I realized that I just wasn’t interested in any of that. I never was.

I kinda always hated the human parts of the movies. When I was a kid, I imagined doing films that were all monsters all the time. The monsters were the interesting part. The monsters were the ones I cared about. I wanted to do something from their point of view, instead of the people trying to destroy and control them.

And remembering this was crucial. I jettisoned all the dumb human junk. It didn’t belong there. This wasn’t a game about the stories people tell about those they find monstrous. It’s a game in which the monsters tell their own stories.

This informed the tone of the game’s writing. Each envelope’s monster is accompanied by a piece of narrative – a meditation on their queerness and identity. Or, more specifically, on my queerness and identity – who I am, who I was, who I want to be, what I hope for, what I used to be scared of. I aimed for something earnest and direct, but with a hint of lyricism. Like this:

It had to leave that place. It was so small. So were the people. They wanted it to be small, too. Worse, they wanted it to like being small. Sometimes it pretends it had always rebelled. But the truth is, sometimes it was quite comfortable being small. Sometimes it was terrified of being anything else.

That was what did it. It could see the future in front of it, a prison of smiles and tradition, swallowing it up. No; it was worse than that: it could see itself climbing willingly into the mouth and closing the jaws.

And so, one black starless night, it left the small place it was born, and its small people, in search of something bigger.

Writing something like this about a robot lobster whose claws turn into laser guns in a game where it fights twin pillbug goddesses of love and reincarnation is either ambitious and rad, or it’s silly and pretentious, or maybe it’s all those things at once. But I didn’t want to play it safe. I didn’t want it to be only halfway the thing I wanted it to be.

This extended to the rulebook itself, which opens with a five page essay: A Love Letter To My Monsters, laid out like something from a zine. It’s a crucial part of the game’s framing as something unapologetically queer and personal.

Final Pieces

Over the course of the game’s development, it was playtested on several different grids. By early 2023, I had narrowed it down to two possibilities: a six by eight grid, or a four by eight. I was leaning toward the latter as it gives the whole thing a cinemascope feel, but I wanted feedback, so I sent the grids to a few different people and asked them what the vibe felt like.

One of those people was Erin Escobedo. We had published her game Meltwater in 2018, and in retrospect it’s the most important game that we did. Not because of the game itself – though it was a remarkable achievement – but because that’s how I met my friend Erin. I said above that in order to see Amabel, I needed to see both what I was like and what I wanted to be like in the reflection of others. Erin was the second one. I remember when she said publicly, “I promise I will never stop being gross and weird just because I want to sell you shit.” That’s an energy that really spoke to me, and one I’ve been chasing ever since I started dissolving skittles under my tongue.

So anyway, I send Erin my two grids, and she has the audacity – the absolute audacity! – to say, no, both of these suck, actually, it should four by four.

Four by four? “That’s too small!”

Yes. Exactly. “Make everything sliding block puzzle smushed close. Everything adjacent to everything. Movement isn’t about escape, it’s about controlling adjacency and flanking. I do not want to see the big lizards zip around each other like boxers; I want them to Punch Each Other.”

And she had a point. I remember talking with some pals about a certain other kaiju game – the name escapes me, and let’s please not do that thing where we try to guess which one it is in the comments – where the movements were painfully slow, and combat infrequent. And their core complaint was, it didn’t feel like monster fights, didn’t feel like the last ten minutes of a kaiju film. That’s a shortcoming I was rather desperate to avoid.

So I tried the four-by-four, and you know what? I really liked it! It made the movement effects, the pushes and pulls and throws and leaps, a lot more impactful. I ended up shifting to a five-by-four grid – the four extra spaces gave things just a little more room to breathe, was just a little more forgiving for a wider audience.

But Erin wasn’t done. She asked me about the envelopes, and how the unlocks work. And at that point, they were tied to monster knockouts – so, for example, the first time Lobsteron is the first one knocked out in a match, you open envelope number one, and the first time Mantarion is the first one knocked out, you open number two. I found as I was describing it to Erin, I was actually a little embarrassed at how simple, yet clunky it was, which I took as a sign that I actually hadn’t quite figured out that part yet.

During this time we also talked about the difference between the horror film Godzilla and the hero-wrestler version, and Erin said, “Put it alone, the kaiju is something horrible to be destroyed. But put it in the context of one another, it becomes joyous play, like kids wrestling in the backyard, innocent again in each other’s claws.” (Yes, she really talks like this all the flipping time, and it’s as amazing and as obnoxious as it sounds. I stole her words for the back cover of the rulebook.)

And that idea of joyous play really spoke to me. Because yes, I mostly make unforgiving directly competitive games, me versus you: no quarter asked, and none given. But for me those kinds of games have a kindness to them, an intimacy. The games are just as much “me and you” as they are “me versus you”; we’re playing with each other as much as we’re playing against each other, and maybe there’s a way, in a game about community, to place some additional emphasis on the first part?

This is where I came up with the idea for co-operative goals within my competitive game. While you’re trying to beat the tar out of each other, you’re also working together to achieve a shared goal that will allow you to open one of the envelopes.

Probably the first thing players think of when they hear “competitive game with co-operative goals” is the second detracting or distracting from the first, putting a player at a competitive disadvantage against an opponent who is not so co-operatively inclined — but that happens only if the design forces trade-offs between these two things. Instead, the goals should encourage players to do the things they already need to do in order to win.

Let me give you an example: The first goal is for each of the two players to land one attack that does at least four hits, that is, to land at least one really good blow. That’s something both players should be trying to do anyway, and one player can’t let the other do all the work. Inexperienced players might be more tempted to build smaller attacks, especially since a big attack is a huge expenditure of dice, but if you go into the match with this goal, you’re going to be looking to build a big attack: The goal is teaching you to become better at the game.

Another goal is to destroy all three buildings. Each of these have two hit points, and an attack against a building, no matter how big, only ever does a single point of damage. So, what is this match gonna be, the players taking turns wasting six total attacks? No! Because the other way buildings take damage is when there is a collision. When the goal is “destroy the buildings”, the flavor of the match is “Let’s use move effects to knock each other into these things as often as possible.” This playstyle is further incentivized by the cramped quarters they’re duking it out in; buildings are 15% of the spaces. Having a match that puts your focus on move effects will, I hope, help the players become more competent and thoughtful with their use.

So the idea with the goals, then, is to change the conditions of the match, focusing on certain mechanisms or encouraging general mastery. This is something you see more often in video games rather than cardboard; the robots-fighting-kaiju game Into The Breach is actually a really good example of this.

And, you know, it’s funny. In the past, I’ve not really been someone who is strongly influenced by video games. I spend so much time designing and playing board games that the thought of playing more games doesn’t hold much allure. I’ve spent pretty much my entire career as a board game designer not really engaging with our electronic cousins at all. I had no desire to play Into The Breach when it came out.

But Samhain makes her living playing video games for an audience. She’s always telling me about games and mechanisms I never would have encountered otherwise. It is an immeasurable gift to have someone knowledgeable and passionate to talk about games with every day. When a journalist was here earlier this year to write a piece about me and about Kaiju Table Battles, she was invaluable, often more articulate than I was. Watching us interact, hearing us natter on about games and queerness, he remarked that we seemed like a uniquely good fit for one another.

Not only did I play Into The Breach on Samhain’s recommendation, but I hundred-percented it. And, you know, if not for that, I don’t know if I would have thought of doing co-operative goals! Or if I did, I don’t know if they would have been workable; the game might have run into exactly the kind of problems people talk about when they talk about semi-co-op.

This game would not be the same without Erin and Samhain. I would not be the same. Like me, it’s made up of the people I’ve met – made bigger and better and fuller and more by them.

Amabel Holland


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