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Designer Diary: SpellBook, or The Magic of Set Collection

by Phil Walker-Harding

The story of my latest game, SpellBook, begins almost twenty years ago when I first got into the hobby of modern board games. As I was discovering all the amazing titles that had been coming out of Europe, I also found my first favorite mechanism: set collection.

I marveled at how different designers could take this core concept I knew from Rummy, and reimagine it in exciting new contexts. Games like Lost Cities and Bohnanza are built on the feeling of looking for and collecting a particular set of cards, and I still remember having a visceral first reaction to how fun this simple idea was in those games. I wonder whether part of this feeling came from a nostalgia for collecting football cards as a kid. What new cards am I going to find in this pack? Can I collect every player in my favorite team?

The 1989 Sydney Swans full team set

Mike Fitzgerald’s Mystery Rummy series was another huge favorite in those days. Mike was openly referencing classic Rummy, but in each title he showed how modern design ideas could elevate set collection in fascinating ways. For example, the gavel cards bring exciting new actions into the mix, creating new layers of strategy and tension.

Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper in play (Image: EndersGame)

My first published game, Archaeology: The Card Game, was my own little exploration of this mechanism. Here I tried to give each set of cards its own personality with different set sizes, rarities, and scoring options — but designing Archaeology (and even making a new edition of it in 2016) still didn’t get set collection out of my system!

Some of the cards from the Z-Man edition of Archaeology: The Card Game (Image: futza)

In fact, I’d say that almost the whole time I’ve been designing games, I’ve been toying around with some Rummy-style game idea. One that stuck around for a long time was a concept I just came to call “Rummy Powers”. Quite simply, I thought it would be cool to have a set-collection game in which every time you make a meld, you get a special power for the rest of the game. Going through my old design notebooks recently, I found versions of this idea dating back at least ten years.

A couple of the many pages about “Rummy Powers” in my old game design notebooks

In 2019 I sat down to finally try to finish this design. I had recently completed Gizmos, so I was thinking a lot about engine building and permanent powers.

But I wanted this game to feel like a classic card game, so I gave myself a design brief: The game had to be simple and streamlined, use only cards as components, and most of all, the whole thing had to fully focus on the fun of building sets. If memory serves, the first thing I did was grab a Rage deck, assign some basic special ability to each suit, and start solo-testing and tinkering.

From the beginning, I thought it would be cool if the bigger the set you make, the better your new power would be. This introduced some nice “push your luck” tension into the game. Should I play this meld now because I want to have the power it gives, or should I try to get another card or two to make that power even stronger? A few ideas for powers presented themselves early on: You could draw a bunch of cards from the deck and keep one, take cards from a face-up row, or increase your maximum hand size.

However, I realized pretty quickly that there wasn’t a lot of design space here. If all we are doing is drawing cards and playing sets, then how many cool powers can there actually be? I needed to add one more element, something that the special powers would be able to play off of, but coming up with that something proved difficult as I wanted to keep everything as streamlined as possible.

This is actually where a lot of my designs get stuck; I can definitely be too much of a stickler for keeping things “elegant”! Eventually, and begrudgingly, I convinced myself to try adding a secondary icon to each card. Now a card had its suit (its color) but also one of three different shapes. I made a super quick prototype with new powers that would interact with these shapes in some way, e.g., use one circle card as a wild color, or draw one card every time you pick up a pentagon from the card row.

The first super simple prototype I made on the computer; the theme at this stage was generic fantasy characters

To my surprise, the shape icons felt like the solution almost immediately. In fact, quite a few of the powers I came up with for this initial prototype managed to make it all the way to the final version of the game in some form. This moment in the design is one of the key examples I think of for when a new idea comes along and fits perfectly. It rarely happens to me, but I’m thankful it happened here!

The game was starting to get interesting, so I thought it was time to choose a proper theme and make a nicer prototype. Even though magic spells have to be one of the most overused themes in board games, I couldn’t get away from how well it fit the gameplay. Each player was a wizard learning spells, and the longer you took to learn a spell, the better you would be at it. The three shapes could be three “runes”. I also thought that designing each card to look like the page of a spell book would be a cool look, so from this point on, the theme (and even the title of the game) was locked in. I also started digging around the British Library’s photo stream for old engraved images that I could use to evoke the feeling of an old book of spells.

The look I came up with for the final versions of the prototype

I can’t remember deciding to make the game modular, so I suppose it always felt like the natural choice. Seven different suits was the right number for the deck, but how much cooler would it be if in each game you could choose which seven spells to use from a large selection?

I suppose this is a pretty standard question designers of card games ask themselves these days, certainly if they are fans of Dominion. I remember years ago reading an interview with Donald X. Vaccarino about his design process in which he spoke about a game having its mechanisms, but also its “data”. That is, Dominion has a really simple core ruleset, but its “data” is all the different kingdom cards that plug into that ruleset. Obviously, Dominion’s biggest contribution to the hobby is the whole idea of building a deck during play, but I often wonder whether Donald’s approach to modular game content has been just as influential.

The “data” of Dominion (Image: tiggers)

I was happy with how SpellBook was progressing, but after not too long I hit the edge of its design space once more. At this point, the endgame came when a player had learned all seven spells. This worked okay, but created the endgame issue of players knowing exactly how far behind they were, and what kind of final set they’d need in order to have a hope of winning — so I set about trying to find another source of points in the game that could make your final score feel more dynamic.

The obvious idea was to introduce point tokens and have card powers let you gain them, but again the single-minded streamliner in me did not want any extra components in this game. This is a card game, and gosh darn it I was going to find a way to do this with cards!

In the end, my completely self-imposed restriction supplied its own obvious answer. Players could “shelve” cards from their hand to a face-down pile that would be worth 1 point each at the end of the game. Then there could be a bunch of spell powers that allow you to shelve cards in different ways and even focus on shelving as your main strategy.

Some prototype spells that have powers to do with “shelving” cards

SPIEL ’19 was coming up, so I worked hard to finish the game to show it to publishers there. There was, of course, a huge amount of playtesting as I tried out many different powers and settled on the best eighteen.

Needing eighteen copies of each spell card meant the game ended up being a whopping 324 cards! I wasn’t sure who would be interested in this sort of title, so I pitched it quite widely that year. I was super excited that Adrien Martinot from Days of Wonder took a shine to the game. Sometimes during a pitch you realize that a game concept has just “clicked” with the person you are showing it to, and this was one of those occasions. Of course, working with Days of Wonder was (and still is) on my designer bucket list, so I was pretty excited!

Adrien took the game back to France and started testing it. Then Covid hit and like all of my other projects with publishers at that point, development naturally slowed down. Around this time, I believe Asmodee was also doing restructuring regarding the focus of some of its different studios. All this meant that the game was eventually passed along to Space Cowboys to continue development. It was a bit of a shame not to be working with Days of Wonder, but Space Cowboys has also always been right up there on my publisher bucket list, so I can’t say I felt too disappointed!

Over the years, Space Cowboys has consistently put out such amazingly produced games that I was fascinated to see how their team would work — and work they did! They jumped into development on the game with so much enthusiasm, testing a Tabletop Simulator version of the game like mad! Spells were tweaked, new spells came along, and a huge amount of effort went into balancing the point rewards for each spell level.

But the biggest change was actually a physical one. The hundreds of cards in the game were replaced with acrylic tokens. These tokens come in seven colors, with each token also showing one of three runes. They stand in for whichever seven spells you are using in your game, with the spells now being represented by reference cards in front of you. These reference cards are oversized and beautifully illustrated, keeping the theme of the game front and center.

The tokens (now called “Materia”) in their container

Having been such a stickler for the game being composed solely of cards, I was surprised at how much sense this decision made. First, it hugely cut set-up time. Instead of deconstructing the previous game’s deck, choosing seven spells to use, then shuffling them all together, you just pick seven spells and go.

Second, the tokens could be used to mark your reference cards to show at which level you had learned each spell. Previously, you just had to see how many cards were in your meld, and read the power on the top card at that level. Quite a few playtesters had found this at least a little annoying.

Third, it is much easier to create new content for the game, which now comes with 21 different spells!

Fourth, using tokens made the game cheaper to produce and allowed it to come in at a nicer price point for the type of game it was.

The other big physical change is, of course, Cyrille Bertin‘s stunning artwork. Cyrille’s use of color was the main thing that jumped out at me when I first saw the cards. There is so much vibrancy across the seven main colors in these illustrations! The art features fire, ice, plant life, wizards, and familiars — but I love how each card also has something quirky or unexpected in it. Cyrille’s personality really shines through.

Some of my favorite illustrations from the game

In July 2023, I took my first ever trip to Gen Con. (Wow, is it busy!) One of the highlights was getting to see SpellBook being demoed for the first time. The tables were in almost constant use which was super exciting. The game has its official release at SPIEL ’23 this October, and although I can’t make it, I can’t wait!


I’d like to thank everyone who tested the game over the years and especially Adrien for seeing the potential in my prototype. Of course, SpellBook wouldn’t be here without the dedicated work of Cyril Demaegd, Thomas Cauet, Julien Andre and the whole team at Space Cowboys. Thank you all!

I hope folks enjoy SpellBook! And if like me you have always had a soft spot for set collection, I hope you find it a fitting celebration of that simple but magical little mechanism.

Phil Walker-Harding


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