by Tim Eisner
A Labor of Love
Leaf is the game that took me the longest from concept to publication, a total of eight years all together. From the start, I had a clear idea of the components that would make Leaf unique, but finding the right set of mechanisms required a lot of trial and error.
The original idea came to me in the fall of 2015 as I walked through the Washington Park arboretum in Seattle, Washington. Having spent four days playing board games at the Sasquatch game convention, I saw the potential for new games everywhere. The arboretum’s patterns of colors and shapes created by the fallen leaves were particularly inspiring. I was so excited about the game concept that I ended up collecting a variety of fallen leaves to take home with me to plan out the game.
Original Leaf Prototype
The first puzzle in the design was figuring out how to get the leaf shapes to connect and form patterns.
I experimented with several variations of shapes and leaf types before finding the right geometry. Throughout the game’s development, this aspect has remained constant, providing the biggest moments of surprise and delight for new players. The leaf shapes fit together as if by magic, and the process of creating connections is incredibly satisfying.
Leaf Shapes V2
I went through three wholly unique rule sets for the game over the years.
The first version involved each leaf having a unique scoring requirement, such as connecting three yellow leaves, with players adding tokens to leaves to control them by majority. However, this system felt too puzzley and combative, deviating from the light and breezy feel of the leaf shapes.
The second version focused on hand management and light deck-building, which was enjoyable but shifted the focus away from the main fun of the game — placing the leaf tiles!
The Final Design
After going through multiple iterations of a game with large scale overhauls, it can be difficult to know where the design needs to go. Luckily with Leaf, I was confident in the fun factor of connecting the leaf shapes, and I was able to keep coming back to that. In the final version of the game, I knew I wanted to create a light ruleset that highlighted the leaf tile placement.
Photo credit Marek (Tryb Solo)@PanFantomas
In game design, one of the foundational questions to ask is “What do players do on their turn?” I knew in Leaf that each turn players should add a leaf to the central play area, i.e., the forest floor. I also knew that I wanted a variety of forest-themed activities to be happening.
Ultimately, I settled on players adding one leaf to the forest floor and gaining rewards for each leaf they connected to. This way players stay focused on the shared play area, adding leaves to create a vibrant forest floor reminiscent of the arboretum in fall.
Photo credit Marek (Tryb Solo)@PanFantomas
Each color of leaf gives a different action that helps players in different ways:
• Green leaves gain you more leaf cards, opening up options of which leaves you can play on subsequent turns.
• Brown leaves move your squirrel token up the tree, gaining acorns and other rewards along the way.
• Orange leaves let you select foxes, owls, and other critters from the animal board and add them to your forest.
• Yellow leaves let you gain sun tokens, which can be spent to advance the season.
• Red leaves let you add morels, chanterelles, and other mushrooms to the leaves on the forest floor.
No Action from the Played Leaf
Initially, I had players gain actions from the leaf they played and the leaves they connected to. This was nice as the color of leaf you played mattered, but it resulted in players gaining 5-7 actions on average each turn, which became difficult to track.
I was hesitant to remove the action gained from the played leaf as it is very intuitive, but I ended up testing it without those actions, and that removal both smoothed the gameplay and kept the focus on the leaves you are connecting to. The color of the leaf you play still matters as it will open up new actions for yourself and other players.
To keep the decision-making dynamic, I introduced a temporal aspect to certain actions. For instance, let’s say there are two foxes on the animal mat that match the fox I already possess, so my goal is to connect to an orange leaf. However, a squirrel belonging to another player is right in front of me on the tree. If I connect to a brown leaf, I can conveniently hop over their squirrel without any cost — but there’s only one red leaf available with open connections, and I really want to place some mushrooms on the forest floor.
The shifting state of the game ensures that each turn feels fresh and brings a unique set of strategic choices.
Falling for Leaf
Throughout its development, I kept putting Leaf on my “potential designs” shelf, but the magic of the leaves always brought me back. If the leaf geometry hadn’t been so pleasing, I might have abandoned the game or settled for a ruleset that wasn’t quite right. Having those unique leaf shapes that fit together so well drove me to keep working on this game time and again, and I’m very glad that I did.