James Wallis levels with you

Viva Alas Vegas

John Coulthart has delivered more of his amazing artwork for the Alas Vegas major arcana, and I can’t resist showing it off. As with the last set of cards, these aren’t the finished versions, but I am still overjoyed with how they’re turning out.

Click through for larger versions:


Diana Jones Award 2013 shortlist

I administer the Diana Jones Award ‘for excellence in gaming’. This is its thirteenth year, and we’ve just released the shortlist for the 2013 award. I think it’s an outstanding collection of items, and since I don’t have access to the actual DJA website to update it right now, I’m throwing the press release up here so there’s a URL I can link back to.


The DIana Jones Award trophy30th May 2013


A card-game, an RPG, a book, a convention and a web series vie for hobby-gaming’s most exclusive trophy

From a list of nominations that included traditional board-games, card-games, miniatures games and role-playing games, as well as events, books about games and gaming, and for the first time a PhD thesis, the secretive committee of the Diana Jones Award has built a shortlist of five items that it believes best exemplify ‘excellence’ in the field of hobby-gaming.

The Diana Jones committee is proud to announce the shortlist for its annual Award for Excellence in Gaming:

Dog Eat Dog, an RPG by Liam Burke, together with the Asocena supplement
Published by Liwanag Press
‘Dog Eat Dog is a game about colonialism that skilfully brings issues of violence and assimilation to the fore. A lightweight economy forces the native players to continually make agonizing decisions and the colonial player to be an utter dick. The Asocena supplement includes “setting hacks” that move the action from a player-created fictitious island to real-world settings – Italy under German occupation, for example – which shows off the game’s true potential as a tool for empathy and understanding.’

Love Letter, a card game by Seiji Kanai
Published by AEG
‘A game like a fine watch mechanism: tiny, intricate and beautiful.’

Metatopia, a games convention in Morristown, New Jersey
Organised by Double Exposure, Inc.
‘Metatopia is a sui generis experience, in which game designers pay the con to demo their games for alpha gamers (who pay less for tickets, as they’re the “attraction”) and/or experienced alpha designers. It’s half retreat, half academic conference, half workshop, half game convention.’

Playing at the World, a book by Jon Peterson
Published by Unreason Press
‘A thorough, scholarly account of the history of hobby gaming in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. It convincingly traces the roots of D&D’s core mechanics all the way back to chess, its tropes through fantasy fiction and mythology, and its community back to the wargaming societies that formed at the turn of the last century. Peterson’s book is a must-read for anyone in the industry.’

Tabletop, a web series created by Wil Wheaton
Produced by Geek ‘n’ Sundry
‘Tabletop has brought a new energy and humour to the board-game field: its blend of good humour and gameplay is pitch-perfect and has introduced a range of titles from modern classics to indie RPGs to thousands of new players. The games hobby could not want a better public face than Wil Wheaton.’



The winner of this year’s award will be announced and the Diana Jones trophy will be presented at the annual Diana Jones Party, which will be held at the Cadillac Ranch, 39 West Jackson Place, Indianapolis, at 9pm on August 14th – the night before the Gen Con games convention opens to the public. All games-industry professionals are invited to attend.



The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming was founded and first awarded in 2001. It is presented annually to the person, product, company, event or any other thing that has, in the opinion of its committee, best demonstrated the quality of ‘excellence’ in the world of hobby-gaming in the previous year. The winner of the Award receives the Diana Jones trophy.

The Diana Jones Committee is a mostly anonymous group of games-industry alumni and illuminati, known to include designers, publishers, cartoonists, consultants, and those content to rest on their laurels.

Past winners include industry figures such as Peter Adkison and Jordan Weisman, the role-playing games Nobilis, Sorcerer, and Fiasco, the board-games Dominion and Ticket to Ride, and the website BoardGameGeek. This is the thirteenth year of the Award.

More information is available at the Diana Jones Award website or at the Award’s Wikipedia page.


For more information you can contact a representative of the DJA committee directly:

Baron Munchausen rides again

Lock up your wine cellars! The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is back in print, thanks to the good works of the Mayan god Chaahk and his representatives in the home counties, Lightning Source print-on-demand.

This is a reprint of the second-edition paperback, the so-called ‘Wives and Servants’ edition originally released in 2008, with a couple of typos fixed and a new ISBN. Copies of that and the first edition were selling for ludicrous prices on Amazon (seriously, $300+ wtf) and when an international media figure told me he couldn’t afford to buy the book I figured it was time to do something. The reprint is on sale at many online bookshops but I recommend the Book Depository: the price is decent, they ship all over the world, and I make slightly more per sale there than from Amazon and elsewhere. Cover price is £11.99/€13.99/$17.99.

Baron Munchausen 2e cover(The 2008 edition was released in three versions: the limited-edition hardback Gentleman’s Edition; the softcover Wives’ and Servants’ Edition; and the Difference Engine number 3 digital edition. They are almost identical, except for a salacious illustration in the hardback which does not appear in the cheaper versions, lest it corrupt and deprave any of the more sensitive genders or the lower orders who might glimpse it.)

Because it’s print on demand I’m not offering this to regular games distributors: the margins don’t make it possible. However if you’re a retailer who’d like to order some copies then get in touch and we’ll work something out.

Work continues on the third edition of Baron Munchausen’s immortal game, with new material co-written with Alexandr Munchausen, a descendent of the Baron who by an extraordinary coincidence I met at Spiel 2012—a story which you will doubtless hear more in the coming months. Publication: sometime after Alas Vegas. Which I haven’t forgotten.

Alas Vegas tarot cards—a first look

Here are the first four images that John Coulthart has created for the Alas Vegas tarot.

For some reason Kickstarter isn’t letting me insert images directly into my update posts, so I’m posting these here mostly so I can embed a link to them.

They’re all still works in progress. In particular we’re still discussing borders and typography. But this gives you a good idea of how the end results will look. I am a very pleased and excited man.

The Magician:


The High Priestess: 


The Empress:


The Wheel of Fortune:10

If you’re interested in getting the latest updates about Alas Vegas but you didn’t subscribe to the Kickstarter, there’s a mailing list you can subscribe to by sending an email to

Good things in small packages

At Tabletop Day last weekend I picked up a copy of Love Letter by Seiji Kanai, from AEG. If you don’t know it, it’s a lovely little game: just sixteen cards. It’s padded with some tokens and some reference cards, and it comes in an embroidered velvet bag, but it’s basically sixteen cards.

Needless to say, I love it. It’s like a fine watch mechanism: intricate, mysterious and beautiful. A jewelled movement of a game.

And it plays into my fondness for miniaturisation in game design. I like small games. I design small games. Smallness doesn’t have to mean simplicity. Baron Munchausen is a half-page of rules with a great deal of embroidery. There was that Cadbury Pocket Game thing a while ago, for which I took one of the heaviest games of recent years and condensed it into six counters and a stick of chalk. And of course I’ve been putting games on the back of my business cards since the late 2000s; every time I do a new business card I design a new game for it.

So it’s nice that my former office-mates Hide & Seek have picked up the whole idea of tiny games and have run with it. They did a whole campaign of excellent tiny location-based games around London last summer, and now they’re building on that with a Kickstarter to create an iPhone app filled with amazing tiny games and a very cool system for deciding which one you should play next.

And they’ve tapped a number of games figures and designers to create additional material and new games for them. I am happy to report that these worthies will include Eric Zimmerman, Jane McGonigal, Doug Wilson, Bernie DeKoven and me.

The Kickstarter has a week to run as I write this, and deserves your support. Plus if you pledge £40 you can get a beta-release copy of Hide & Seek’s epic Drunk Dungeon game. A bargain… though at 500 cards it hardly counts as tiny. Shame.

International Tabletop Day. Also headphones

This Saturday (30th March) is International Tabletop Day, which proves that Americans still don’t understand how the rest of the world treats the Easter weekend, and haven’t learned the lesson of Peter Adkison’s ill-fated Gen Con UK, held over the Easter weekend in 2003.

Putting that aside, it’s a worthy idea and a great way of publicising the new generation of games and gaming to a wider audience.

I’ll be starting the day at Leisure Games in Finchley, north London, where I’ll be joined by Quintin Smith, noted games journalist and host of the Shut Up and Sit Down podcast, and my fellow Black Library author Richard Williams. After a couple of hours of that I will be hot-footing it westwards, to spend the rest of the day chez Eclectic Games in Reading, where there will be playing of games and chatting of chats. It will be good. Come up and accost me and ask me to play something or explain something—the question of 2013 appears to be why the last two books of the Marks of Chaos series never came out, if you’re looking for inspiration. I’m the tall one wearing the headphones.

Headphones! For anyone who’s been following my quest for the ideal sub-£100 headphone—which I’m pretty sure is none of you—you’ll remember the saga began when someone nicked the pair of Plantronics gamer phones from my desk at work. They weren’t great but the boom mike made them useful for Skype calls and they’d survived having my old study ceiling fall on them, so there was a certain sentimental attachment there. From there I went to a pair of Audio Technica ATH-ES55s (really lovely full sound, comfy and aesthetically pleasing, broke two pairs in eighteen months), and from there to a pair of Phillips Downtowns (amazingly comfortable, good sound but quite bass-light, only available in white, purple or brown, look like they should be really long-lasting but broke in four months), and thence to Sennheiser HD202s which should have been a triumphant homecoming because I’ve liked Sennheisers since the late 80s when I took a pair round the world but they were just… they were what I expected a pair of no-brand £25 headphones to sound like, a bit muted, a bit dull, not special at any particular frequency range and not terribly comfortable, and the heavy 2m cord they come with is simply awkward, particularly on the move. Really, when the cable wrap is larger than the music player, something is wrong with your design.

So I ended up borrowing back the Sennheiser PX100-iis that I’d passed on to my wife when I bought the Audio Technicas, and that was a little revelation. A revision of a classic design, it’s a really small, light headset that folds up nicely to fit in a pocket but delivers an awful lot of sound for that. And I thought this was probably it, and I’d stick with them, even if they didn’t do a great job of keeping my ears warm in the recent inclemency. And then someone on a mailing list mentioned Koss PortaPros.

The PortaPro has been around since the eighties, and if you had to choose one word to sum them up it would have to be ‘ugly’. Ugly, ugly, ugly, even though I’m a fan of what we shall call alternative aesthetics. Plus really, how well can a pair of £25 headphones with a design unchanged since 1984 really stand up to modern music through modern technology?

Oh my lord.

I am aware that at the moment I look like a bit-player from an early cyberpunk movie, but I don’t care. Subtle when it counts but full of big sound when it matters, it’s like these things have a mind of their own—a mind that really loves music. They have a reputation for a lot of bass but I like that, and it’s not a big flat bass either, there’s a deftness in the response here that’s simply a joy to listen to. Twenty-five quid. Extraordinary. I am a man converted.

Just had to tell someone. I trust you understand.

Anyway, Tabletop Day. If you’re going to be in London or Reading then come along; if you’re going to be somewhere else then head to your local games store, or grab a box of something and a couple of mates and head to your local coffee shop or pub. Evangelise a little, maybe meet some new people. You’ll be glad you did.

While I’m writing, how’s this blog theme working out for you? I’m in two minds about it, to be honest. Let me know.



A week ago I put up a post talking about the just-started Kickstarter campaign for Alas Vegas, my new RPG. I’ve just written a sober description of that week for the Spaaace front-page blog, inviting analysis. But this is my personal blog, so here are some personal opinions.

1. Kickstarter is as addictive as meth, and possibly as bad for your teeth. Certainly for your fingernails.

2. Alas Vegas hit its funding goal in seven and three-quarter hours. Before the campaign started I was honestly wondering if £3000 was ambitious for a first Kickstarter. We hit that target in a third of a day. Then we blew through the first two stretch goals in the rest of that day, and knocked down the third—Yet Already, a fantastic fractured-time setting for the game’s Fugue mechanics, designed by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, in a couple of days more.

If you’re one of the people who has pledged money to Alas Vegas, thank you. Thank you more than I can say. If not, then…

3. Things have slowed down a bit now, which is a shame as we’re just getting to the really interesting stretch goals—Allen Varney, Robin D. Laws and others have offered material, but progress has got bogged down in some additional-artwork funding. Which brings me to:

4. Keep your campaign focused, don’t let it pull in two directions. Alas Vegas has a lot of people asking for an official Tarot deck. Well, that would be great, but it’s equally clear that there are a lot of people who don’t care a sou for Tarot decks one way or another, and who won’t back the Kickstarter while we’re asking for money for Tarot art. I have got a solution for the Tarot fans, conditional on sign-off from a couple of people, but as soon as we’ve cleared this stretch goal (it’s to commission the rest of the Major Arcana from the amazing John Coulthart) then the Alas Vegas campaign will be back to cool new stuff for the game.

5. Seriously, Allen Varney’s pitch for his new Fugue mechanics setting made me spit assorted foodstuffs across my laptop. It’s genius. And before that we have John Tynes promising to write a selection of Vegas-style cocktail recipes for Alas Vegas, suitable for drinking while playing the game.

6. Did I mention that this is the most fun I’ve had in the games industry for a long time? Not counting Warpcon, of course.

7. Which leads me to a future post, which I will write when I have time, about gamification. It’s been fermenting for a long time, and I think you’ll enjoy it. But it won’t happen until you have pledged more of your money. Go on! You could get the game dedicated to you.

Ain’t That A Kick In The Head

I learned a long time ago that the only sure way to get an idea out of my head is to write it down and publish it. Therefore after two years of Alas Vegas not going away—and a previous fifteen years when it was an unwritten novel called Vague As Hell not going away either—it has finally come time to do something with the project.

Shortly before this post went live, the Alas Vegas RPG page appeared on Kickstarter. We’re asking for £3000 to release a four-session RPG set in a place that looks a lot like Vegas but isn’t. It’s a lot more violent for a start. Also, corpses disappear. And there’s no way to leave.

Alas Vegas is my first new RPG design for fifteen years (since The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in fact) and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. In a phrase, it’s Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch.  The mechanics are simple and hit that sweet spot of advancing the narrative as they go. The story is very cool, and pacing it over four sessions lets the players experience proper cliffhangers and an actual ending that ties up all the loose plot threads.

There’s a lot more about the game on its Kickstarter page, and I’ve written about it here before. I’m excited about the fact that it’s moving towards print, but I’m also excited about exploring the process of crowdfunding. A while back, pre the existence of this blog, I discussed ways to reinstate the eighteenth-century model of subscription-funding the publication of a book, the model that Johnson’s Dictionary used. It’s here now, and it’s transforming the industry. Getting my teeth into the guts of the process is going to be really interesting.

Of course I’ll be bitterly disappointed if you don’t pledge at least £100.

Alas and alack

Just wanted to share something I’ll be talking up at Dragonmeet this Saturday:

Artwork by Niki Hunter. ‘Godfather of indie game design’ quote from Robin D. Laws, who will also be at Dragonmeet.

(Should you be at Dragonmeet too, I’ll be running demonstration games of the new edition of Once Upon a Time in the lobby from noon until someone tells me to stop. Then at 16.30 I’ll be chairing a panel on ‘The British RPG Industry—Where It Came From, Where It’s Going’ with the help of Phil Masters, Simon Rogers, Dom McDowall-Thompson and Piers Newman. It should be a good one.)

Once Upon a Time – interview with the director

Last week I posted a link to the short film Once Upon a Time, based on my card-game Once Upon a Time—if you missed it it’s here:

It’s a labour of love and remarkably accomplished for a first film from a writer/director. So having badgered him to put the film online, I badgered him into talking about how the film came to be and some of the creative challenges in converting a card-game into a half-hour drama.

Who are you and what are you doing on my blog?

I’m Andrew Shellshear! The “!” is silent. I’m an amateur film-maker, puzzle designer, webcomic writer, juggler, classical guitarist, computer programmer, and game designer. I lack focus, is what I’m saying.

I am here thanks to kind words Mr Wallis had for a short film I made twelve years ago. It was my first short film, and I decided to make it about a game of Once Upon a Time.

Why did you choose Once Upon a Time as the subject for a film?

Film-making is expensive now, but was cripplingly expensive before the late 1990s. Video cameras were several thousand dollars and produced less than broadcast quality, but that was nothing compared with the cost of the editing equipment. By 1999 you could finally do editing on home computers (with specialised video capture boards) for only a couple of thousand dollars. So, having blown all my money on equipment, I wanted to make a first film that wouldn’t cost much, which meant a small cast, few locations, and indoors (outdoor locations are a pain in the neck). People sitting around talking. I had recently been playing OUaT and it struck me that a film about a bunch of people sitting around playing it would be cheap, and potentially dramatic: we can have parallel stories of the fairy tale and the tellers, and the levels could interact in interesting ways.

Did you use the game itself to help the creative process?

Yes – I knew the rough beats of the story, but used OUaT cards to inspire most of the fairy tale elements – more like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, though. I’ve used OUaT cards for that a few times, particularly when participating in Nanowrimo.

Watching people play a card-game can be a bit static. How did you get around that?

Actually, because this was my first film, I was happy to confine it to the traditional “bunch of people talking” scene. It was good practice for the kind of film-making you have to do a lot. I storyboarded the whole film and put in a couple of dolly shots (using a home-made tripod dolly which proved nightmarishly difficult to move around), and tried to make sure I had good coverage (that is, shooting the same scene from several different angles including a master wide shot) to allow variety in editing. I didn’t want to get too adventurous because I knew we only had two weekends to film 30 minutes worth of footage. The main trick to keeping it interesting was to make sure the story was interesting enough, and I tried to make it as tense as I could. Viewed twelve years later, that’s an aspect that does still work, I think.

The story within the film—is that really the kind of story you guys were telling with the game?

Noooooo. I’ve never played a game remotely like that. The script really needed to be punchy to get around the aforementioned static card game problem.

How did the shoot go?

It was a frantic rush. I prepared for it more than I’ve done for any other shoot, but I made a lot of mistakes as well – recording audio separately on minidisk proved a massive pain in editing, and I made a huge mistake in deciding to capture using the Sony TRV900’s “Progressive Scan” mode – it had a frame-rate of 12.5 frames per second (slow and jerky) and the result looked grainy and washed out. On the positive side I had a great crew, and we got through everything in the two weekends allocated.

How was the film received?

I didn’t attempt much of a release – just showed it to my friends and sent it to the creators of the game. Having said that, I *did* rent out a movie theatre and limo, made up posters and t-shirts. The premiere was great! Everyone laughed at the right moments.

The film version of Once Upon a Time modifies the game’s rules. Is that for dramatic convenience, or are there actual house rules in there?

I incorporated a house rule I always use: you only get the ending cards after the first card is played. I found it stopped people planning ahead too much. Otherwise yeah, the changes were because it takes too long to explain about interrupt cards. The game would never work as played in the film.

What other films have you made? What are you working on at the moment? Do you still play Once Upon a Time?

I really burned out on OUaT after the film, but I still use it for the Oblique Strategies on story ideas. This discussion has gotten me thinking about it again, though! I’ll introduce it to my lunchtime game group (the Comic Irregulars).

I’ve made a dozen or so short films, but none that have reached a professional standard. The best two (besides OUaT) are a music video for my friend Evan’s band (he provided the closing credits tune on OUaT), and a fifteen-second segment of the final cut of the Star Wars Uncut film (Scene 302, 1:17:42).

It’s very hard work, and I’m just not focused enough on film-making to push it beyond the occasional amateur effort. I have a full-length movie script about a botched kidnapping, which I’m very proud of – but I just can’t see how I’ll ever get the time to get it made! Nowadays I just make Youtube videos featuring my daughter.

Many thanks to Andrew for talking to me, and for making the film in the first place. Having someone adapt one of your works for a different medium is a wild compliment, and when the end result is as good as the—you’ve not watched it yet, have you? Go and watch it. Really.

And a quick reminder that the third edition of Once Upon a Time—the Games 100 card-game not the film—is newly released and available from all good games stores.