Interview with British game designer, Mark Tuck, on his print-and-play contest winning 9 card solo game, Orchard.
Mark, thanks for taking the time out to talk to us about your contest winning print-and-play, Orchard. Could you tell us a little bit about the gameplay?
Mark: Orchard is a solitaire tile-laying game where you are trying to harvest as much fruit as possible by playing cards to your tableau (the orchard). Each card shows a different layout of six fruit trees – two each of apples, pears, and plums. Whenever you manage to place a tree on top of another of the same type you score points (pick fruit). The more trees you can overlap, the more fruit you’ll pick. Dice are used to keep track of your harvest.
To begin the game, one card is placed face up to form the start of the orchard. On each turn, a card is played (from your hand of two) so that at least one of its trees overlaps a tree on a card already placed. The fruit of any overlapping tree must match the fruit of the tree underneath it.
The first time a tree is overlapped, a die of the corresponding fruit colour (red, yellow or purple) is placed on top of that stack of two trees with its 1 face showing uppermost. If you manage to match the same tree again by overlapping another card, you rotate the die to show 3. A third match will increase it to 6, scoring the maximum fruit harvest for that tree.
You also have two opportunities to mismatch a tree. In this case, a black ‘rotten fruit’ cube is placed instead of a die to show that the fruit has been spoiled. This then prevents you from overlapping another tree on top of that stack. Rotten fruit can help you lay a card that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to – but it also comes with a points forfeit. So you must decide if and when to use it.
Once the last card has been played, total up your final score to find out how fruitful your harvest was. Scores range from ‘forget-apple’ to ‘pretty pear-fect’!
The creation of every game has some kind of story behind it. What is the story behind Orchard?
Mark: Game design is a hobby of mine and, for the past 3 years, I’ve been entering various ‘print & play’ design contests on BoardGameGeek. One that I really enjoy is the annual 9 Card Nanogame contest. As its name implies, a game entry must consist of just 9 cards (poker sized), together with up to 18 commonly available components such as dice, meeples, cubes, and coins. I find designing within such constraints enjoyable and that the restrictions help fuel creativity.
My design process often starts with setting myself a specific challenge. In this case, it was whether it was possible to create a quick, simple and, importantly, replayable tile laying game using just 9 cards. Something with that ‘just one more go’ feeling.
The mechanic of overlapping cards, with each subsequent layer being progressively more valuable than the previous one, came into my head pretty quickly. I needed a way to keep score and, as paper and pen were not allowed in the contest, I decided to use dice to track points.
For my initial playtesting I was using three easily distinguishable colours for the ‘zones’ on the cards. At some point, these blobs of red, yellow and purple (colours that also work for colour-blind players) became apples, pears, and plums and so a theme started to emerge.
For those that may not know – you actually won that design contest on BGG. Do you think that the fruit tree theme helped it stand out some, say over more traditional gaming themes like sci-fi or fantasy?
Mark: I’m not sure if the theme made it stand out more. Maybe it did appeal to a wider audience. For me, having a theme (that runs through not only all aspects of the game but also its rules) can make a game more accessible, and more fun to learn and play, than a purely abstract one.
Besides being a print-and-play, you can also purchase the game on The Game Crafter. Why did you choose to put it up on TGC and is there anything different to that version?
Mark: I had several requests to make the game available as print on demand. I realise that many gamers out there either don’t consider themselves skilled enough or are simply not interested, in crafting games.
So I decided to use The Game Crafter (I’m not aware of a similar service here in the UK). It was the first time I’d had cards and boxes professionally printed and I was interested in the whole process of using their templates and uploading artworks. I’m very pleased with the final result (although the cost to ship my ‘proof ’ copy to London was pretty high).
TGC edition has 18 single sided cards (rather than 9 double-sided). As you only use nine cards per game, you can immediately play again using the other half of the deck! Also included are the 15 dice, 2 cubes, and a card sized rules booklet, all fitting snugly in a poker sized tuck box.
I also made available a cards-only version (both on TGC and as a free PnP) that has the cards numbered from 1 to 18. These are used for the monthly multi-player challenges on BGG whereby everyone has their own deck and draws the same cards in the same order (in a similar way to Limes or NMBR9). It‘s surprising how different everyone’s orchards always end up looking, despite using the same sequence of 9 cards.
How did you go about balancing luck vs choices or did that not bother you since this is just a small microgame?
Mark: The randomness of what cards you draw, and in what order, does give the game variety and replayability. But there is obviously a certain amount of luck involved. So I definitely wanted to introduce ways to mitigate this and balance the luck with some skill and meaningful decisions.
I decided the player would have two cards in hand each turn. This gives you some choice and allows for planning and the possibility to set yourself up for a good score on a future turn. In this way, you never feel that you’re at the mercy of what cards you hold and I’ve yet to come across an occasion when a card cannot be placed in some way.
There is also a balancing act in deciding which dice to ‘upgrade’, as there is usually a choice, and also which trees to spoil with your ‘rotten fruit’. Rotten fruit cubes add another layer of strategy. They can be worth playing if you can make enough points with tree matches at the same time. But they do score minus 3 at the end of the game and also restrict future card placement. The temptation to play them is always there and you have to decide whether, when and where to do so.
Each type of fruit tree has only 5 corresponding coloured dice. So there is a chance near the game end that you won‘t have any left to place on a particular tree. Rotten fruit, when used on a tree that has a die on it, returns that die to your pool. So, in extreme circumstances, it can be used tactically to free things up.
Do you have any plans to release a multiplayer version either something similar to the multiplayer puzzle version you spoke of above, or maybe something closer to the game with dice/markers on the cards, or even a co-op version?
Mark: I’ve had interest from a few publishers and the game is currently being assessed by one of them for possible publication. I’ve had some thoughts and discussed ideas for multi-player and co-op variants and using tokens. Early days, but I’m excited to see how the game develops.
What was the biggest lesson you have learned as a designer through Orchard?
When designing a small game such as Orchard, I’ve learned to aim for an elegance in design simplicity and that having straightforward rules, simple gameplay, minimal components and a quick play time doesn’t prevent a tiny game from being as engaging as ones in much larger boxes.
If anyone reading this is still on the fence about trying Orchard what would you say to them?
Mark: From the feedback I’ve had, Orchard offers players both a relaxing 5-minute game that doesn’t require a huge amount of brainpower and, if you care to spend more time thinking about the placement of the cards, some difficult strategic decisions, and even AP. Whichever way you prefer to play, it’s always a great feeling when several trees on a card you place match the ones below, whether by accident or design
Mark: Try to focus on the single idea or mechanic that makes your game different and then build a theme around it that makes sense and is consistent across all aspects of the game. A theme can really bring a game to life, help it stand out and make it more accessible.
Resist adding more stuff to solve an issue – try using the fewer elements more creatively – can the cards be rotated to have multiple uses? can their backs be put to better use? can dice be used for something other than rolling?
Enter your idea into a contest. There are always one or two happening at any one time on BGG – 9 card, 18 card, solitaire, 2 player, mint tin…. they’re a great way to expose your idea to a larger audience and get feedback from a great community to improve and refine both your game and its rules. And reciprocate by rule reading, playing and commenting on the other participants’ games.
Never take the contest results too seriously. The end of the contest does not need to signal the end of your game’s development. In fact, it could just be the first stage of an exciting journey!
Thank you again, Mark, for agreeing to do this interview.
If you would like to try Orchard, you can find the free pnp in the files section of its page on BGG, by clicking here. If you like to buy The Game Crafter version, you can find its page by clicking here or you can find just the card version here.