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DESIGNING EYELET (by Amabel Holland)

Mary Russell

Eyelet is a roll-and-move game where you thread shoelaces through holes in a board. Each turn you roll two dice, and for each die, you must thread a lace through an empty hole that number of spaces distant. Neither player "owns" any of the laces on the board. If on your turn you're unable to complete both required moves, you lose. The object of the game, then, is to lay traps for your opponent, though in so doing you're also laying traps for yourself. Zugzwang!

When I first announced the game late last year, a few folks assumed it was some kind of weird joke. This is a reaction I've encountered before and since, and it's not one I've really understood. Like, I don't think when other designers say "Hey, here's this thing I'm working on" that folks respond with "LOL, it'd be cool if this was a real game" and, like, it is a real game, that's why I'm telling you about it.

I guess in this case I understood the reaction slightly better, in that this is very much an abstract game, and I've never done an abstract game before. In fact, I was pretty sure for a long time that I would never design an abstract game. But I was also pretty sure for a long time that I was a dude, so it's not like I have a great track record of being right about these sorts of things. Our company Hollandspiele has published a couple of abstracts from other designers, and they never really got the traction we wanted for them. In fact, the first thing Mary said when I pitched her on the project was, "I thought we weren't going to do any more abstracts."

And certainly, I didn't intend to design an abstract. It's just that one morning I woke up with the idea, and in the space of about fifteen or twenty minutes, I had a new game. The whole thing just came together immediately.

That's not to say that the game arose out of thin air. I can in retrospect identify its antecedents. First, earlier that year I had tried my hand – badly – at cross-stitching. So that calming, repetitive rhythm of pulling thread through many tiny holes was very much on my mind. Second, I had picked up a couple of word games at some thrift stores.

For the curious, those were Duplicate Ad-Lib Crossword Cubes and Razzle. Neither game has much to do with how Eyelet plays, but each game has a clever physical gimmick – components specifically engineered to create an experience that is difficult to proxy by other means. And looking at these games got me thinking more generally about that sort of design space, where the specific nature of the components themselves are part of the game's mechanisms.

Put that together with cross-stitching and you get my weird little game with shoelaces. Something where the aesthetic pleasures – tactile, aural, visual – are as important as the game state. As I said, this game emerged fully-formed more-or-less at the point of inception. And in playtesting, the core of the game was never altered. This is due in part to the game's simplicity, and also because every trap you set for the other player you are also setting for yourself. So, the development cycle wasn't really about fine-tuning the balance; appropriate for a game where components are so integral, it was about getting the physical production right.

For example, one of the first questions I had to contend with was, how long should the shoelaces be? As soon as I got the prototype board from my printer, I drove over to the store and bought some 72" laces and some 36" laces. The long laces were too long, and the short laces too short, so then I got some 54" laces: goldilocks, just right.

One concern of course was how well the boards would hold up to the laces being threaded through them over and over again. We did a lot of monotonous stress testing on two kinds of material, one significantly thicker and sturdier than the other. We found that both of them held up equally well to repeated plays. So, we could have gone with the thinner material, but decided, what the heck, let's use the thicker one.

So, we knew what kind of board we wanted to use, and we knew what size of shoelaces. Now, what we needed to do was find a wholesale supplier of those shoelaces. We looked at several different options, weighing the price per set against the anticipated demand. The most cost-effective route at that time would be to order a "medley" of laces in a variety of different colors. And I thought, hey, this might be fun, because your set might be different than Lily's which might be different than Chris's.

We ordered a sample pack from the manufacturer. When it arrived, we opened it up to see what was in the grab-bag, so that we could test the material and also so I could choose a pair of colors for my personal set that we would use in promotional photographs. And among the neon greens, the golden yellows, the various shades of red and purple, there was a pink and a pastel blue. Well, obviously those were gonna be my colors. They might as well have included a jar of pickles and a set of cat-ears.

We made a large order, which was scheduled to arrive in mid-January. While we waited, we took and shared pictures of my personal set online, and the choice of those shades of blue and pink garnered some appreciative comments. To the point where I felt the need to stress that the shoelaces would come in a randomized variety of colors, and that no one was guaranteed to get that blue and pink combo. This was disappointing for folks, and I started to wish there had been a way to order just blue and pink.

Mid-January comes and there's no sign of the shoelaces. I get a notice it's going to be delivered by the end of a certain day, and at the end of that day not only do I not have shoelaces, but we also have a notice that delivery has been postponed without warning until late March. That's far too late for us, and the lack of communication is troubling to say the least, so we put in a request to cancel the order. After having a bit of a panic attack, I start sending emails to three other wholesale shoelace suppliers. Having seen how folks reacted to the blue and pink, I ask for their pricing for those two colors only, for twice the quantity I had ordered from the other supplier.

One of those suppliers never gets back to me. One quotes a price about three times more per lace than what we had paid the other supplier, while another – Shoelaces Express of Athens, Georgia - quotes a price about 20% cheaper. Well, gee, I wish I had gotten hold of Shoelaces Express in the first place, but at the same time, I probably wouldn't have thought of using that blue and that pink if it hadn't been in that other firm's initial grab-bag.

The next morning I had a shipping notification from the new company – wow, that's fast – as well as a notice from the first company letting me know that they hadn't cancelled the order and that it wouldn't be late March after all but that they'd have it for me that afternoon. And so that afternoon a grab-bag of shoelaces we no longer needed or wanted showed up at our doorstep. But the next day saw the arrival of thousands of blue and pink laces.

 

One quirk of our weird print-on-demand production model is that any kind of specialty bits get sorted and packed by hand. For example, every game of ours that has wooden cubes, discs, sticks, pawns, et cetera? All those bits were counted out and sorted by Mary or myself. In the case of Eyelet, not only would we need to sort the laces; we'd also need to tie a knot at the end of each lace, so that you couldn't pull the entire lace through its first hole in the board.

We could have let folks tie it themselves. We probably should have. But we thought it would make the thing more personal, that it would lean into the hand-crafted artisanal vibe, if those laces came pre-knotted. As I started to develop rope burns on my index fingers from handling so many shoelaces – something that never really came up with the wood bits – I began to deeply regret that decision. I briefly enlisted a pal to help us with the shoelaces. They tied tight, neat little knots with finesse and exactitude. Unfortunately they also misunderstood the instructions and tied them at both ends. It was a few hours before we caught on. If I thought tying a knot in every shoelace was tedious and taxing, untying one of my friend's perfect, tiny, exquisite knots from a few hundred laces was much worse.

Still, "something-something suffering for one's art something-something", and on the whole, Eyelet has been a breeze from start to finish, far less exhausting than working on my "serious" games like Nicaea or The Vote.


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