Kill Merlin! Chronicles — Part 1: An Origin Story

Three days ago, on Tuesday 9/18/2018, I launched my first ever Kickstarter campaign for the first board game I’ve ever designed. The Kickstarter campaign was fully funded in under 11 hours, which is great! 😄 At the same time, there are stretch goals we really want to unlock 🔐, and now I need to figure out how to play a longer game for the next 28 days… one that seems to be more about conventional marketing and advertising than it is about networking.

To help myself deal with this feeling of malaise even in the face of the ostensible success of first-day funding, I’ve decided to take you on a multi-article journey through the process of designing Kill Merlin!. How did I get here anyway? Hopefully, by the end of the series, I will have caught up with real-time and, hopefully, I’ll have really exciting news to share about where we ended up with funding 😅

This first article is about the origin story of Kill Merlin!, so let’s travel back almost a year, to October, 2017.

We’re doing a flashback!

It was October, 2017. I’d been CTO and Co-Founder of a tech startup for almost 5 years, and it had been going pretty well. My role there had transitioned from builder to manager, which left me unsure of exactly what my role really was. I knew something was missing from my life, as I’d been starting to discover through work with my executive coach.

Deep inside, I knew what the problem was. I love to create things… to “make somethings from nothings”, so to speak. In the past, I had been an actively amateur musician and composer, as well as an actively amateur actor and comedy writer. (“Actively amateur” is my way of saying, “I tried but didn’t really make it.”) My CTO role at the startup had begun as a job in which I was tasked with creating an entire scholarship platform from the ground up. But I wasn’t doing any of that any more. And it made me sad.

Worse than sad. I was feeling lost.

So, on Thursday, October 12, 2017, I turned to Zev (my son, 14 years old at the time), and, somewhat out of the blue, I said, “Let’s make up a board game together.” He was into it! #ParentingWin! So I opened up a Google doc and started taking notes on our conversation. Here’s what that doc has in it:

10/12/2017: First doc that mentions Kill Merlin! Ummm… wth is “heavy boots”???

So, our first decisions were:

  • We decided to make a board game, as opposed to a card game.
  • We decided it would be versus, as opposed to co-op. (If you’ve ever played Kill Merlin!, then you know we really embraced the versus nature of the game.)
  • We listed out some themes and goals. By the end of a short time discussing it (maybe 40 minutes), we had settled on the theme of wizards, and…
  • We had already named it “Kill Merlin”. It actually wasn’t very hard to come up with “Kill Merlin”. It sort of rolls off the tongue. “Kill Merlin. Because sometimes he’s a jerk.” (Well, I guess it rolled off our tongues, anyway.)

We decided that the wizards were trying to kill the villain of the game, Merlin. And why kill him? Isn’t that violent? Well… because he’s a jerk. That was pretty much all we had. We initially pegged Merlin as somewhat of a prankster, who enjoyed having so much power that he could turn people into goats because he’d think it was funny.

We also decided that the wizards needed to develop powers over the course of the game in order to become strong enough to kill the game’s tyrant, Merlin. And we wanted each character to have a different set of abilities that they’d need to learn in order to defeat him. And thus, the first game mechanic was born!

Remember Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid?

FFX Sphere Grid, the inspiration for the spell board in Kill Merlin!

We decided it would be fun if, over the course of the game, wizards could learn different spells by traversing a board similar to the sphere grid. We came up with the concept of the spell board, split into 4 different elementals. Each elemental quadrant would contain spells of various powers that were related to the elemental. Cool :)

Zev and I started a new Google Doc the next day, on October 13th, where we wrote the initial story of Kill Merlin! and laid out some components. Here’s what it said:

10/13/2017: First attempt at components for Kill Merlin!

It doesn’t look like much, but it was a start! Many of the elements in this doc are still the same today, though we completely did away with the idea of Relics. (Expansion anyone?) And hey, recognize those ingredients? (We got rid of Troll Snot because we decided we could only have one monster doling out the mucus, and we thought Orc Boogers were inherently funnier.)

Next, it was time to make a board. After a few rough sketches, here’s a picture of the initial paper prototype for Kill Merlin!.

10/18/2017: Very first prototype of Kill Merlin!

Note the usage of pieces from Smallworld. We used the currency and the races. In fact, the races, which are “greyed out” on one side because you flip them to go into “decline”, helped bring forth another key game mechanic in Kill Merlin!. When you cast a spell you’ve learned using one of your wizard tokens, you “deplete” that token by flipping it over (or removing the wizard pawn’s hat). There is a “charged” state and a “depleted” state. I’m not sure we would have come up with the mechanic of “depleted” wizard tokens if we had not been using the Smallworld race tokens as placeholders for our game.

By October 20th, we had refined the list of components, basic gameplay, and the method of winning the game. We also got Zane (9 years old) into the mix, helping to play-test, come up with rules, and weigh in on spell names and effects. Here are some notes from my first play-through with Zane, on October 20th:

10/20/2017: First play-test with Zane

By October 21st, we had devised a list of spells and added them to the Google Doc:

10/21/2017: First iteration of spells

We also decided that we wanted Merlin to be a strong presence in the game. We wanted each player to be fighting against Merlin, and also against each other. So, we introduced the concept of “Merlin cards”. Each round of play, Merlin gets to play a card. We came up with a list of things that Merlin can do. Some of them are nice… but most of them are naughty ;)

10/21/2017: Initial version of Merlin cards

And by October 22, 2017, we had made a version of the game that was entirely playable. It had a spell board, 24 spells, 9 ingredients, 25 Merlin cards. We had 4 pages now in our Google doc… 1 with background, 1 with rules, 1 with spells, and 1 with Merlin cards.

10/22/2017: And with that, we had made a prototype!

And there you have it, the first 10 days of Kill Merlin!. An Origin Story of sorts. We had come up with a theme, gameplay rules, spells, Merlin cards, and we built our first truly playable prototype. I was already more excited about this project than I had been about any project I’d had in the recent past! This… was to become my story.

Another FFX reference :) “This is your story.” — Auron

And with that, I will leave you … until the next article, where I’ll tell you about what came next in this crazy journey that has led us to our funded Kickstarter campaign for Kill Merlin!.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear from you!

Here are some resources to find out more about Schuman Family Games and Kill Merlin!: