On Saturday, CUDO Plays, the annual board game design competition hosted by the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization, held their Grand Exhibition at Broadway Food Hall. This event is the culmination of months of work on the part of game designers — developing, revising, play-testing, revising some more. It’s an opportunity for anyone in the community to come out and try some new games, while also giving the designers some real time feedback. CUDO Plays is open to anyone who wants to give board game design a shot. The process starts in September, then the group provides numerous opportunities for collaboration, peer review, and workshopping, as well as regular social gatherings to just hang out and play games together.
After years of sharing about the events and goings-on of CUDO Plays, I decided it was time to actually show up and try out some of these games. Something I realized about myself when I headed into this event, is that learning new games gives me a certain level of anxiety. I feel sort of overwhelmed by the idea of mastering the rules, the process, the strategy. I tried to approach these games with a casual spirit, reminding myself that I in fact do not need to master each game on the first go. It’s about trying something new, and appreciating the work that my fellow community members have put into designing them.
The tables were active when my spouse and I arrived at Broadway Food Hall. We took a minute to drop our complimentary raffle tickets in a couple of the prize offerings at the check-in table, got some name tags and a flier with a description of each game and how long it would take to play, and then went in search of a game looking for players.
Many of the tables were in mid-game play, but we fortuitously came upon the game Purrfect Match as designers Rose St. Clair and Nadja Robot returned from a break. St. Clair and Robot channeled their love of cats and dressing up into a card game where players get their shelter cats dressed in cute outfits in preparation for adoption. They hadn’t necessarily planned on developing a game for this year’s competition, but an idea sort of casually developed while at a CUDO Plays event. St. Clair explained that “the idea came up to do something that could draw attention to the issue of adopting cats…the first thing we decided about our game is that a portion of the proceeds would go to benefit shelters.”
Robot and St. Clair brought their specific strengths into the design of the game. Said St. Clair, “Nadja really has an eye for design and the aesthetics of the game.” They went on to describe how Robot hand drew the costumes and designed the look of the cats, the adopters, etc. “I definitely lent my expertise to the rules and the strategy behind the rules.” Robot interjected, “Rose is definitely the better explainer [of the rules].” St. Clair is the one with the Excel spreadsheets, plotting out the various actions and possibilities for point gathering.
The game was fairly easy to pick up, but there is definitely strategy involved in maximizing your points. The cat-related details — giving your cats treats to bribe them to put on the outfits, each cat has a personality (spooky, cozy, cute, imaginative, fancy) — were definitely on point.
We then moved on to the game Evergreen, a game for all ages designed by Taffy DeJarnette. In this game, which DeJarnette designed at no cost, using recycled materials, takes on an environmental theme. Invasive species of insects and fungus are trying to destroy trees, and you are trying to save as many trees as possible. Or you can also choose to take the “evil” route and destroy as many trees as possible. We of course chose the “good” route.
DeJarnette has a degree in agriculture, with a focus on environmental science, so it was a topic she was familiar with. She also wanted to design something that her grandchildren of various ages could play. “I have four grandchildren, and most games for children are boring.” Evergreen can appeal to all skill levels, bringing in fine motor skills and matching for younger ones, and spatial awareness and math concepts for older ones.
This is the second game that DeJarnette has entered into the competition, and both have been children’s games. “I’ve made games for [my grandchildren], but I’d never thought about doing something to compete.” She said they were her test subjects as she developed the game.
I wish we’d gotten there a bit earlier in the day, to have the opportunity to try more games. I was amazed by the level of detail some of them had.
We stuck around for the conclusion of the evening, to see which game designers claimed the array of prize packages donated by game stores and board game companies.
There were runner up medals and a first place trophy given in several categories. I love that the award categories really recognize the different aspects of the competing games, rather than simply selecting “the best” game. There are awards for aesthetic, visual communication, theme, replay value, marketability, innovation, accessibility, and enrichment. Winners take home a prize pack of various items, and each participating team gets a pretty sweet swag bag.
Do I think I could ever design my own board game? Probably not. But that’s why I was so impressed by the ingenuity of these folks, particularly the couple of kiddos that helped design games, and won some serious prizes! If you think you might be up for the challenge, follow CUDO Plays on Facebook to see when the next round of competition comes up, or to get involved in some of their regular events. I’ll definitely be back to play (with a plan to arrive earlier so I can try more and longer form games) when the next Grand Exhibition happens.