Frank Alberts On Reinventing Tic-Tac-ToeFebruary 25, 2019
Interview with designer, Frank Alberts, on his game, ToeShamBo. A card game that mixes Rock-Paper-Scissors and Tic-Tac-Toe.
Frank, thanks for agreeing to join us to talk about ToeShamBo. Could you tell us a little bit about the game?
Frank: Absolutely. ToeShamBo is a fast two-player card game where you’re playing Tic-Tac-Toe with cards, but instead of X & O, you are using rock, paper, and scissors! Each player has their own colored deck, blue or orange, and the goal is to get three of the same suit of your color in a row. So you’d need three rocks in a row. There are some special cards thrown in to really spice things up, and the game is super intuitive since just about everyone has played Rock-Paper -Scissors and Tic-Tac-Toe, so they can focus on the strategic and rewarding depth that the mashup offers.
What made you think about mixing Tic-Tac-Toe and Rock-Paper-Scissors into the same game? What is the story behind its creation?
Frank: A combination of trading card games, poker, Starcraft 2, and my first ever game design led to ToeShamBo! ToeShamBo was far from a random idea, but a random combination that was successful.
The summer of 2012, I was a 20-year-old kid with tons of free time, and I became obsessively fascinated by “things of three” in games.I spent the summer dealing poker, playing Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft Trading Game (WoWTCG.) I had also just gotten my first game, FEW, signed to a contract (for the second time) at GenCon. FEW was a really cool deck-building game that revolved around three elements, and had a rock-paper-scissors element to it in a more tangible sense, just like how Starcraft had three races. Deckbuilding in TCGs featured the “things of three” in a more abstract, rock-paper-scissors way; aggro>tempo>control>aggro. Poker play-styles had it as well.
After getting FEW signed, I started to take game design more seriously and had an extremely creative and proactive summer. I read a few books, designed a lot of stuff. At one point, I decided to make a bunch of micro prototypes of blended game mechanics just to see how they interacted. Rock-Paper-Scissors and the “things of three” were definitely on my mind, so I started prototyping away. They were meant to just be thought experiments; I figured if one was good, I could include it as a mechanic within a real game!
Well, one of the blends of mechanics I made a prototype for was Rock-Paper-Scissors and area control. A Tic-Tac-Toe board is an area control game, which I just became aware thanks to who knows what, so it was fresh in mind. I designed a bunch of other stuff – like a Rock-Paper-Scissors/Tic-Tac-Toe dice game as well! I was completely surprised after playing ToeShamBo; the two mechanics, games, complimented each other better than I could have imagined.
The game introduces a bomb in the mix. What does the bomb do and what does it add to the gameplay?
Frank: So the bomb is the equivalent of what that one kid at recess would throw, and they say it beats everything and they win. The bomb can go anywhere on the board, remove the cards it is placed on top of, and the “aftermath” of the bomb keeps the spot reserved for you until your next turn. Each player only has one, and it’s a really important card has huge strategic value when timed correctly. I love its effect on the game as all players, good and bad, feel rewarded playing it, but the difference between just a regular player and an expert is all defined by how the bomb is used!
Funny tidbit, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to call the bomb…a lot of time. We surveyed a bunch of people from different parts of the country to find out what they called it. Kids at one of my schools called it a bazooka and something else at another. The survey results indicated gun was the most universal, but we thought that would be a bad move and decided on Bomb.
ToeShamBo is going direct to retail instead of your usual Kickstarter route, why is that?
Frank: We’ve grown!
We have five or six new games releasing in 2019 alone which is nuts for us; we have only published five games in the five years we’ve existed so far. Kickstarter for us has always been treated as a tool to help us as opposed to a channel to profit, and using Kickstarter so something that we knew we were making regardless of how it may have performed on Kickstarter felt incorrect.
What was the best piece of playtesting feedback that you received about the game?
Frank: The best feedback was from a bunch of elementary school kids! In an earlier version of the game, cards that were beaten were removed to a discard; Undo was a revive card.
What was until my ten-year-old little brother and some kids around the neighborhood kept playing the game so fast – because they were excited to smash the card their opponent just played – that the hold up of moving a card to a discard became terrible!
I personally like n-in-row games. What do you think makes your stand out among that crowded market in the abstract world?
Frank: I think what makes ToeShamBo so special is it feels so natural and intuitive that it certainly doesn’t feel like an abstract game, let alone just another one in the crowd.
Is there anything else we haven’t covered you think readers find interesting about ToeShameBo or history behind it?
Frank: ToeShamBo is actually the game that made me decide to pursue a career in the game industry. After designing a second game that got signed, I figured I should learn how to publish a game so I can make more than just a royalty! I went to New York Toy Fair that year and went booth to booth asking for a job…and when they said no, I asked for a paid internship…and when they said no, I asked for an unpaid internship. I ended up landing a paid internship in New Hampshire for a publisher and distributor consolidator which gave me the background I needed to launch Zafty, and I owe it all to ToeShamBo!
As we wrap this up, what else does Zafty Games have in store for us in 2019?
Frank: We have a Pay Want You Want expansion for Pixel Glory live on Kickstarter now. Somnium: Rise of Laputa and ToeShamBo releasing on March 20th. Tricky Tides by Steven Aramini releasing in May, Starving Artists hitting retail in August, and two others that we’re hoping to get artwork finished for in time for the holidays!
Thank you again, Frank, for taking the time out to do this interview.
ToeShamBo will be going straight to retail and will be released March 20, 2019.