Interview with T.C. Petty III on his new word game, Handsome. Coming from Button Shy Games, Handsome is a word game that fits in your pocket and only uses 18 cards.
T.C., thanks for agreeing to do this interview to talk about your latest game to hit Kickstarter, which is Handsome. Could you tell us a little bit about the game and gameplay?
T.C.: Handsome is a 20-minute parlour word game for 2-5 unique individuals. Being a game about creating a handsome ensemble for an elegant social event, players use letter cards of three different suits (bow-ties, pearl necklaces, and bolos) to spell lovely words and score points.
It basically boils down to this: using a combination of consonant cards that form a common pool at the center of the table and a pair of secret consonant cards in their hands, players compete to create words. However, there are two clever tricks: you can use as many vowels as you want in between the consonants available and each consonant belongs to one of three suits; bow-ties, pearl necklaces, and bolos. After all players have secretly written down a word, the words are revealed. Whomever has the longest word scores a point. But, then you go down the list of suits and each individual suit scores and the player(s) who have used the most letters in a particular suit score a point. If any players are tied, all tied players get the point (happy ties). The game is played over multiple rounds until someone has reached 9 points (dressed to the nines).
It doesn’t really sound like a lot and that’s kind of the point. My hope is that people can break this out with any group and absorb all those good modern design feelings created by shared points.
Word games are sometimes a tough sell to hobby publishers, what made you want to make a word game? What is the story behind the creation of Handsome?
T.C.: I’ve always enjoyed word games for some reason. They’re kind of like roll-and-write games for me, I’ll pretty much play any of them. But, honestly, it was kind of a surprise considering I had been helping with development for Spell Smashers by Christopher Chung, and I didn’t really have any aspirations to make my own. However, once I’m immersed in a game genre, I suddenly have all this useless knowledge on the subject with no outlet to dispense it.
I made Handsome to spite Robin David. Robin is the designer of Movable Type, another good word game (not as good as Handsome though) where players create words with letter cards and claim them over 4 rounds to create their hand for a final spelling showdown. He wrote a short blog post detailing his thoughts on designing word games where his entire thesis was “word-building is one mechanic in a richer game.” This I vehemently disagreed with. My opinion is that the best word-building games should be focused on the fun of creating words. All the mechanics used are simply there to support and uplift that basic premise. But, instead of writing my own blog post in opposition, I decided that same night to put my game design skills to the test and create a game as my thesis.
A sprawling game with letter tiles, calculated scores, and multiple boards would never have supported my opinion. So, from the outset, the game was designed with a minimalist sensibility in an attempt to cut everything that didn’t support a variable field of letters to use for spelling words. If it was still fun after every last bit of fluff had been trimmed, then I would win this design competition that only I was competing in. I even used this as a chance to pare the game down to 18 cards, which would make it eligible to become a Button Shy game. It worked out way better than I expected.
Where did the idea of the theme come from for Handsome – with the idea of dressing up in bolos, bow ties, and pearls?
T.C.: An ensemble of letters, where you fill in the gaps to create a dazzling word. I wanted an accessible theme where you compose something. And it had to be lightly applied, so as not to overshadow the minimalist gameplay. A musical theme called RHYTHM was an early contender because it contains only consonants. But, for some reason, my brain latched onto suits as actual suits and it reminded me of clever individuals playing a droll parlour game in the early 20th century. A time when the word Handsome could be used to describe many splendid, well-balanced things.
I was happy when Jason Tagmire at Button Shy agreed and made the card suits related to multi-gendered accessories. There’s a certain Wes Anderson-inspired color scheme going on and the full bleed of the card layouts emphasizes just how little information is on each card. The colors are bold, the letters are large, and the game could be played across a 20-foot table lengthwise and still be visible. Anyone can be handsome.
T.C.: No. This was stupid easy. I mean, I’ve spent the last few years watching the complexity of my games expand with each new title and the amount of balancing and content creation and playtesting and rules-revising is astronomical in comparison.
BUT, like most people that have attempted to try and design a simple, elegant card game might tell you, I got lucky with Handsome. Handsome may have been created a few days before Unpub 8 and signed at the event, but that’s only because of the ten other small games I made that sucked. For every five small games I make where I am excited about my own creativity and simplicity and then bowled over when playtests inevitably fail, I may get one winner. If I look at it like that, then no, this wasn’t exactly an easy process to get to this point. Refreshingly smooth though. 10/10, would design again.
All the letters (minus vowels) make it in the game. Though some are paired together on the same card like Y and S. For the letters that got paired, why did you choose the pairings you did?
T.C.: I was considering leaving out some of the unimportant letters like J & X, which can be replaced by phonetics, and my least favorite letter D. But, the constraint of the English language and 18 cards combined to force a tough decision on 3 cards.
So after a quick search, I created a spreadsheet with the hierarchy of letter frequency. I used a snaking method, making sure that each suit had a letter that was most common, medium, and rare. Did you know that the designer of Scrabble followed the basic letter frequencies but eliminated a few S tiles for the sake of making the game more challenging? That’s the kind of boring trivia I now have stuck inside my head. So basically, I had already reserved S as a special card that didn’t belong to a suit. I then took the least common letters (by a vast margin) and condensed them to one card (J/Z, Q/X) as WILD cards so that players could include either as part of their word and receive credit. I also wanted to make sure that players understood that Y was NOT a vowel in the game. And I quickly realized that Y is similar to S in that it’s a cheap ‘tack-on-to-the-end-of-any-word-to-make-it-longer’ letter, so I smashed them together onto one card and made the card have less value.
Did you learn any lessons as a designer in designing Handsome?
T.C.: I can’t really say that I did. Most of the word game lessons I learned by having an opportunity to work on another word game. I did 100% confirm that if you don’t enjoy spelling or are bad at it, there’s pretty much no word game that will change your mind. I tried to make Handsome more friendly towards those with terrible internal dictionaries by giving them an alternate area control mini-game. But if someone doesn’t feel the inherent ‘cleverness’ when creating words, they’re most likely going to want to skip this game.
Outside of Handsome of course, what is your favorite word game?
T.C.: Definitely Hardback by Tim Fowers. I probably would’ve said Paperback before Hardback was released, but the slight alterations to gameplay make it a nice upgrade. Now, smashing a deckbuilder together with a word game might seem to negate my original premise that word games are best when the mechanics support the main focus, ‘spelling cool words,’ and it probably does, but somehow I still think I’m right. And I’ll play most any word game, even ones with problems like Quiddler where you can have completely unfun wasted turns by luck of the draw, or Letter Tycoon, which is very cool but plays 3x slower than it should because the common pool of letters changes every player turn.
The key to Hardback is that its easy to learn and play, turns are speedy, and spelling cool words is still the focus, but being able to purchase new letters with abilities that combo off of other cards in your deck provides the mini-goals each turn. I love that it removes the ‘I have no vowel’ problem, by making every card a Wild letter if it is played face-down. It encourages creativity by giving extra bonuses to certain letters, which also allows players to make decisions in building their pool of letters so that they can set their own difficulty. And Ink tokens give players an opportunity to draw new cards, while also solving another common deck-building issue (not having enough money to buy new cards/wasted turns), by allowing you purchase Ink tokens for $1 each. I also like the game ending condition of scoring Points better than the ‘make a long word’ game end condition of Paperback.
If someone on the fence about backing Handsome, what would you tell them?
T.C.: I don’t know. It’s not really ever going to be ‘on sale’ any more than the current price. Plus, you’re probably getting an exclusive card or something because it’s a Kickstarter and that’s what happens. I’m a terrible salesperson. That’s why I design stuff.
I carry my copy of Handsome with me everywhere and I even have this tiny box with a pad of paper and pencils included. It can be played pretty much anytime, but improves with repeat plays in the same evening. If you like word games, like me, this game will repeatedly hit the table. You provide the clever; Handsome just gently nudges you to be creative.
As we come to a close, if someone is out there wanting to make a word game, what advice would you give them?
T.C.: Focus on facilitating an exciting way to create words. And by exciting, I don’t mean timed challenges or throwing foam letters at each other and screaming. I mean, legit, mentally stimulating twists that exercise the brain for players of all skill levels. It sounds easy, but even the classics tend to fall short in this respect. Scrabble is a math puzzle game masquerading as a word game. Like Boggle, it rewards memorization of all extremely short legal combinations of letters. Memory and math; the dazzling duo of boring game design. The best word games challenge players to flex their lexicon muscle.
Some people despise word games. But, you know just as well as I do that those people are wrong. Plus, they’re not going to buy your game anyway, so there’s no real need to take extra special care to attract them. Make the game for the people who will enjoy it. If at least once per round, everyone at the table purses their lips and nods approvingly then you know you just might be on to something.
Thanks again, T.C., for taking time out to do this interview.
If you like to check out the Kickstarter for Handsome, you can do so by clicking here.