Ninja Dice is a fast-paced, push-your-luck dice game. Each turn in Ninja Dice creates a new house. Use your Ninja skills to beat them. The other Ninjas roll dice to attack you, and each other, because the Ninja with the most treasure wins! Ninja Dice introduces a mechanic that allows dice to modify other dice based on how they land. Dice that have a line on their front edge can modify other dice in front of them, like an arc of fire.
It was September 2011, I had just got back from a stint working on a cruise ship as a pianist and I hadn’t gamed in half a year. My old gaming group met up and after a painful game session we decided we should be making our own games instead of trying to fix other broken ones. We started playtesting my ideas, and man, I did I have a bunch of them!
We ran through a dozen playtests with nobody loving anything I came up with. I talked to other designers on BoardGameGeek.com, but wasn’t making any progress and losing heart. I decided that my goal was to ship a game in any way possible to learn the process. That probably meant I should work on a smaller game I could handle as a first effort. Then, a publisher posted on BGG looking for a push-your-luck dice game, with clear requirements to make something like Zombie Dice or Martian Dice (same number of dice, cost, complexity, etc). Requirements would be a good way to stay focused I figured, so I started two designs: a co-op dungeon crawl with dice that had dice as the “rooms” of the dungeon and a Japanese themed game. I got bored of the dungeon theme but kept the mechanics and changed it to the Japanese thief theme. I called the game Dorobo (Japanese for ‘thief’), registered it on BGG and started sending it to people to see if it would work.
Results were promising, so I started a run of play testing that lasted half a year. Complaints about the game being “multi-player-solitaire” (like most Push-your-luck dice games) led me to add more interaction. The game got bigger and more complex. People playing it said it was good, but wasn’t quite great. Turns were a little long, interaction was still too light, etc. So far the only thing everyone loved was the “Arc Of Fire” mechanic, which I had come up with accidentally but turned out to be pretty unique. I needed a die that could “boost” the value of other dice, but having one face (1 in 6) was too powerful. I decided it only worked if the target die was on one “physical” half of the die.
After an unPub playtest, two guys approached, asked about the game and I took them through the gameplay. Todd, from Greenbrier Games, was curious if I was looking for a publisher. My goal was still to ship so I said yes. Todd said he was going to be at PAX East in a couple weeks. If I was there, he could introduce me to Jeff, the head guy at Greenbrier. One Chinatown bus later I was in Boston, meeting Jeff and other folks from Greenbrier. We played Dorobo and he talked to me about the business. The next day I swung by their booth to buy Zpocalypse. While I was browsing Jeff came over, shook my hand, and I was more or less signed!
The next few weeks were contracts, playtesting, and me making tweaks to the gameplay based on Greenbrier’s suggestions to try and fix the speed and interaction problems. Then we had to address the “Dorobo” name. Jeff asked what it was.
Rock: “It means ‘thief’ in Japanese. I thought it was more creative and less on-the-nose than calling it something like… uh… Ninja Dice or something.”
Jeff: “Everybody here calls it Ninja Dice. What do your friends call it?”
Rock (sheepishly): “…Ninja Dice…”
Finally, super gung ho, I met the Greenbrier folks at Connecticon for the final playtest before the decision to Kickstart it … and they savaged it. The concept of it being a casual game was good, but the game was still too slow and too complicated. Ideas for re-design got thrown about and I agreed to work on it.
Of course, I felt like I’d been gut-punched. The painful realization was that I knew they were right. Jeff had scheduled a video shoot for the Kickstarter video in Boston at his place a few weeks later! I had to fix it before I met with them again, because I assumed if it didn’t work they’d scrap it for a few months or longer.
I spent the next few weeks ripping everything apart. I kept the mechanics but removed all the dead weight and had about 20 more playtests before I met them in Boston. We tried the new version and instantly everything felt different. The game moved, it was easy to learn, but it still had the “story” and feel I was looking for. Everyone agreed it was ready (after admitting they were surprised I had pulled it off) and the game was considered ready to go.
Right now the game is almost here, and I’m saying to myself, “How the heck is this happening? I’m just some geek.” What I’m saying is it’s possible… so don’t stop trying. There are a lot of resources out there. Join a designer’s community. Join playtest meetups. Work within requirements. Cut out all the dead weight. Above all, make a game that’s fun! Keep trying and things will work – it did for a geek like me!
- Designer: Rocco Privetera