Skull Canyon: Ski Fest designer diary

Jason: Growing up in Edmonton, Canada I spent a large part of my youth on skis in the nearby Rocky Mountains. Friends and family would often gather for impromptu races down especially gnarly runs and end up spending the waning hours of daylight in the village below, sipping warm drinks by the fire.

I now live in Seattle, Washington, with a wife and son who share an interest in board gaming as a hobby. After getting my family and friends hooked on modern classics like Splendor, Ticket to Ride, and Catan, I became interested in game design, possibly because my then 7-year-old son was routinely beating me!

Around November of 2018, I started to design something in earnest thinking that a game based on the duality of ski and Après-Ski would be unique and fun. Many of the existing skiing games seemed to rely mainly on simple movement mechanisms. There appeared to be room for a new skiing game with more compelling gameplay and strategy. 

In early 2019, Kip Noschese, my partner on other projects, joined me in co-designing the game bringing his amazing artistic and creative talents. This would be our first board game project together, but we already had experience combining our technical and creative skills.

The skiing theme was easy to visualize as a series of connected runs. But how to ski them?

Kip: My first downhill skiing experience was nearly my last. It was a Friday night high school bus trip to Seven Springs - a ski resort east of Pittsburgh. Combine night skiing, uncomfortable rental boots, overcrowded slopes and my first time skiing was a disaster. Amazingly, I made it halfway down the slope without meeting a tree head-on and, after many mangled falls, ended up clomping all the way down, skis in hand, while annoying peers whizzed by, laughing. I now reside in Nevada and enjoy skiing, but I will admit that my favorite time on the mountain has always been at the end of the day, fireside.

In many ways, being a first-time board game designer involves a steep learning curve just like learning how to ski. I was excited when Jason approached me about working together on a skiing board game. At the time, my family mostly owned just popular board games that you could buy at Target and the most complex game that we owned was Ticket to Ride.

Working together remotely, the early development consisted of weekly video calls, brainstorming, and sketching out ideas visually. We both started acquiring and playing more board games while researching game elements and mechanics that might work for our skiing game.

We started laying out a game board with connected ski runs and a village below. I thought it would be cool to draw the peak of the mountain as a skull image. The original name that I wrote next to it was “Ghost Mountain,” which led to a more macabre backstory which featured a menacing Yeti and a haunted hotel that had been shuttered for years and was now re-opening. Of course, they would have to have a festival to celebrate, hence Skull Canyon Ski Fest.

The first sketch of the skull that inspired our game’s name.

Jason: From the earliest concept, we knew that one of the unique things about this game would be the two distinct phases: skiing and Après-Ski. Our thought was that they should both feel very different with skiing being the faster paced and more competitive part of the game, while Après-Ski would feel more laid back yet still strategic.

The concept of two distinct phases (Skiing and Après-Ski) was a constant design element.

For skiing, the core gameplay consisted of selecting actions such as riding a lift, training, and skiing by playing sets of cards.  One design goal was to have relatively quick player turns, like Ticket to Ride, by drawing or playing cards.  These decisions could be made more interesting with elements of point-to-point movement on the mountain. Earlier versions even had players collecting items, such as festival flags, along the way.

Gold, Silver and Bronze flags scattered across the slopes.

The act of skiing a run in the game evolved from a simple luck-based die roll (which understandably aggravated some playtesters) to an event deck and ultimately we opted for set collection based on matching cards by either their color or terrain.

Slopes cards: match sets by color or terrain.
Further attempts at tracking endurance and using set collection to power runs.
An early player aid / endurance tracker where only some actions required endurance.

One of the earlier versions of the game involved tracking a player’s individual endurance. This led to problems where players forgot to decrease their endurance, or worse yet, players sat idle for the last few turns of the round. In a future iteration, we eliminated endurance and replaced it with a daylight tracker which helped with the pace of the game and required less individual upkeep. This is where having a co-designer is of immense benefit as we would often take each other’s ideas and distill them to their simplest form.

The endurance tracking made it to the board but ultimately was simplified to daylight tracking.
Early prototype of our Yeti: Easy-Bake edition.

The Yeti was an early and consistent part of the game and we enjoyed giving players ways to occasionally mess with each other by blocking runs. Avalanches were another thematic element that we always had in mind but struggled to find a good way to incorporate them into the game until much later. 

Playtesters enjoyed claiming and stealing runs from each other.

Run tracking was also added later in the development cycle to give gamers that wanted a bit more strategy in the game an additional avenue to pursue end game points. 

Kip: The Après-Ski phase of the game started out as a deck of cards. There was still a worker placement mechanism, but the village locations were revealed randomly with ghost cards shuffled in. The ghosts were skiing legends that gave you different powers on the mountain. You could acquire them in exchange for fame tokens that are earned while skiing. However, through playtesting, we found that the ghosts created some mixed reactions, so we decided to turn the ghosts into living legends who would serve as your ski buddies. That proved to be awkward as well, so we dropped the legends altogether, replacing them with a deck of gear cards available at the end of Après-Ski.

The legends somehow developed from ghosts into 80s icons.
And eventually the legends became gear!  

The locations in Après-Ski evolved as well. Instead of randomly placed cards, we made them static locations on the board. Not only did this work better, but it meant less cards to be printed and simplified the setup. A breakthrough moment happened when Jason suggested that the movement through the locations in Après-Ski could be similar to the game Tokaido. This limited movement to one direction (left to right only) and the number of allowed players at each location.

It seemed to fit naturally and give each player a unique experience. Even if another player blocks a desired location, there is always another option to make an upgrade to prepare for the next day on the slopes. It was fun coming up with the locations too. One is called yodeling which we encourage people to do for fame!  One of the most popular locations among playtesters was the “casino,” known as Let it Ride, where you can push your luck for more slope cards.

A time-track for the village where decisions on how fast to walk the trail became interesting.

Jason: When the COVID pandemic started in early 2020, in-person playtesting all but stopped. In the meantime, we learned how to create online playable prototypes in Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. Fortunately, I had a willing playtesting partner in my son who also has an uncanny ability of finding ways to break the game.

When you have a willing card-cutter and playtester you make full use of them!

We were also fortunate to discover local online tabletop game design groups and playtesting with these groups added immeasurable value. Remote playtesting, while certainly challenging, did have its advantages – the feedback was easily captured for later review, and it opened up playing the game with more varied audiences of all skill levels.

Online playtesting became easier with repeated attempts.

Kip: By mid-2020 we had added a run-tracking element to Skull Canyon and felt that it was polished enough to start pitching. We were still nervous about how it would be received, but we got accepted for a speed pitching event as part of Origins Online. Unfortunately, the event got canceled at the last minute (and it wasn’t the only event that got canceled in 2020).

Getting accepted did give us a spark though and we were very focused on fine tuning the game for our next opportunity. We never stopped playing and tweaking the game and eventually we found the best way to incorporate avalanches. What if players could trigger avalanches and use them strategically? And what if there were multiple ways to trigger avalanches? We didn’t have much time to playtest this new element, but it immediately seemed fun! 

The final version of our prototype.

Our first true pitching opportunity came in August 2020 at the NonePub Publisher speed pitch event. We had practiced our pitch extensively, but really had no idea what to expect, especially because of the online format. The two phases of our game allowed each of us to present a portion of the pitch easily, and we had set up saved games in Tabletop Simulator that we pulled up to demonstrate interesting gameplay moments. As luck or fate would have it, the last person we pitched to was Alex Cutler from Pandasaurus Games.

In October, we were contacted by Alex, who wanted to give the game a test run with us over Tabletop Simulator. He seemed to appreciate the weight, mechanics, and overall appeal of the game. We waited to hear back for what seemed like forever but was actually only about one month. Skull Canyon Ski Fest was signed just before Christmas 2020 and we were thrilled at the prospect of it becoming something for everyone to enjoy. We were already fans of Gica Tam’s artwork from prior Pandasaurus games (Gods Love Dinosaurs, Wayfinders), and so we were stoked to see her illustrations in our game. 

We hope that Skull Canyon Ski Fest provides hours of enjoyment for skiers, gamers, or even Yetis, resting their feet after a busy day on the slopes.

Tagged with: Designer Diary

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