As is so often the case with these things, it is all Patrick Rothfuss’s fault. After the massive success of Albino Dragon’s “Name of the Wind” playing cards back in 2013 introduced me to him, I became a big fan of Pat’s books and his work in general. (Look him up, it’ll be worth it.) Following on from the NOTW deck, one of artist Shane Tyree’s next projects was to illustrate two further decks of playing cards for a new game called “Pairs” being launched on Kickstarter by a company called Cheapass Games. I didn’t know it at the time, but Cheapass and their designer-in-chief James Ernest are something of a legend in tabletop gaming circles, having designed and published many, MANY games since 1996. My connection was simply that an artist I knew was creating new art based on a book I now loved.
The Kickstarter project grew and grew and in the end led to no fewer than TWELVE different variant decks of the game. These included another NOTW deck illustrated by longtime Rothfuss collaborator Nate Taylor, and a further Nate Taylor deck based on the not-for-kids kids books “The Princess and Mr Whiffle” written by Pat.
Other collaborators included John Kovalic, Phil and Kaja Foglio, Echo Chernik and some chap called Professor Elemental. (The Professor Elemental connection was especially amusing since I had actually worked with his alter-ego Paul Alborough in the “real world” for a number of years. It’s odd having the distant world of games design in America suddenly connecting with my actual life in Sussex, England!)
So many of these connections have led to other fun projects and fandoms and I became a firm fan of Cheapass Games. I’ve been fortunate to correspond on occasion with James Ernest himself, as well as Carol Monahan, VP of CAG (and James’s wife) and also Cassidy Werner, Marketing Director. They’ve all always been both super lovely and super indulgent of my tendency to say “look I taked a picture do you like it? Do you? Do you?” like an attention seeking toddler. (Which I am, of course, going to do all over again as soon as I hit “Publish” on this blog…)
A secret bonus (for me at least) hidden away inside the “Commonwealth” Pairs deck is that Shane hid away my family name on the “Death” card’s artwork. He and I, and some of our other online friends, were on a video conference while he was drawing it and he kindly tucked it away in the background. I’m even happier that the same card features the “Wheel of Tehlu” which is the item from Badali Jewelery’s Kingkiller range that I wear most frequently.
As well as a signed postcard featuring Shane’s art, the Pairs project also included a signed bookplate from Pat himself too and a great collector’s coin that became the start of an ongoing collection.
The next Cheapass Games project furthered the Professor Elemental connection (and James himself even came over to London to film the video. I still regret not being able to meet him in person at the time after his kind invitation to do so.) It was fun to see Paul Alborough’s developing fame lead to his character getting his own tabletop game! (Plus it’s still amusing telling some of his former colleagues in the education sector that he not only now has his own card game, but his face on a coin and on some dice, then seeing their reactions.) The game consists of attempts to tell tall tales of far-flung adventures at a Victorian club, whilst not having actually left the country at all!
The Kickstarter version also included a set of fun “character Meeples” as an upgrade to the standard playing pawns, featuring the Professor, his monkey-butler Geoffrey and other characters.
Everyone loves zombies these days, although my work in the scare attractions industry may bias me in that respect. This means that “Lord of the Fries” – a game featuring zombies in a fast food restaurant – is just right and brings a great blend of comedy and fun. It joins up with other games in the same “world” – the fast-food restaurant of the damned!
Another game in the same vein – “Give Me The Brain” even came with a fun rubber “brain.” What’s not to love about that sort of attention to detail.
The card game “Brawl” has a fun, fast “real-time” approach and had all the trademark CAG flourishes, including a great embroidered patch as well as another awesome coin.
Then comes the game that started it all. “Kill Doctor Lucky” was the first Cheapass Games product back in 1996. I’ve seen the game described as “reverse Cluedo” – instead of solving the murder while wandering around the mansion, you want to COMMIT the murder. Unfortunately Doctor Lucky is just so damn LUCKY that he evades your attacks without even realising it! Second to Tak (see below) this remains my favourite Cheapass game to play and to share with new players.
The bundle with “Kill Doctor Lucky” also included some older games, packaged not in the deluxe or “superdeluxe” style of other games, but in more old-school plastic bags. The gameplay is none the less for it, though. You don’t usually play the box! (Although a current game project from Gamelyn Games challenges that somewhat.) The card-based Doctor Lucky game “Get Lucky” further adds to the world of James Ernest’s most famous character.
Along the way I have also picked up other games including “Before I Kill You, Mister Spy...” and the earliest Kickstarter-funded deluxe edition, “Unexploded Cow” plus more custom dice and a coin to match.
Doctor Lucky’s adventures have recently continued with “The Island of Doctor Lucky” plus the Doctor has many faces – as you can see here!
That Professor Elemental turns up everywhere!
Another classic Cheapass Game given a recent Kickstarter makeover is “Button Men.” In the divided-by-a-single-language, faucet/tap, sidewalk/pavement, boot/trunk world of American English, a button is what we in England would call a badge. A “button man” is also a hired killer or gangster, so the game – originally designed to be played with characters printed on actual button/badges, is a clever play on this. Not as clever, though, as the sheep-based character “Mutton Ben” included as a bonus with the original run of the game. The game comes with playing cards, but several sets of badges were also made available.
Most recently, the Girl Genius comic strip, as created by Phil and Kaja Foglio, has been the focus of a revival of an older game called “The Works.” New decks of cards, with new art, have been created, along with another great smattering of accessories including an embroidered patch and appropriately cog-shaped collector’s coin.
The major Cheapass Games Kickstarter projects have tended to ship with a “Funvelope” of fun accessory items. This started off as a quite modest envelope but has grown over time to the point where it is now more of a bubble-pack of fun stuff! It’s this sort of added fun, alongside well delivered and enjoyable games, that makes their projects memorable and stand out from the crowd.
Who doesn't also love custom dice and collector's coins!
I’ve saved my favourite until last. The game of “Tak” stems from Patrick Rothfuss’s book “The Wise Man’s Fear.” It’s one of my favourite books and the game is vaguely described within it’s pages as the lead character, Kvothe, plays it whilst a guest/prisoner (depending on the timeframe) in a royal court. The description makes it sound like one of the timeless classic games like Chess or Draughts, so the idea of bringing it to life was a brave one. Indeed, Pat Rothfuss himself says in his introduction to the Tak Companion Book “while James was great, I figured that nobody could just sit down and make up a game on a par with chess or go.”
It turns out, however, that James Ernest is NOT nobody. He came up with a simple, elegant game that is quick to learn and hard to master. I’ve enjoyed playing it with friends and with children. It’s also a delight to see a company that is prepared to say “here’s the rules and ingredients you need to make our game yourself without giving us any money – or if you like you can buy ours” BEFORE they’ve even brought their version to market, and to continue to do so once the official version is available. Before the Kickstarter project was even live you could download the rules and a gameboard to make your own Tak set at home. (There are SO MANY free games on the CAG website, you should have a look. They also have a donations button if you find you’re loving the games and want to say thanks.)
Having fun with Tak, and taking my own photos of the game staged as if it was being played in the Eolian tavern (a key location in the Kingkiller books) really made me feel a connection to the game and to the story, and in a real sense brought me closer to Pat’s world and to the people who make it happen, since his team at Elodin Enterprises and Worldbuilders saw my photos and liked them and even asked to use some of them for their own promotions. (I couldn’t ask for a higher endorsement than that!)
I’ve taken a lot of photos of a variety of Tak items in the past, and it’s going to get a whole blog dedicated to it in the future, so for now here’s some shots of the awesome companion coin, including the promo-only gold version that Cassidy was kind enough to send me.
Stay tuned to the Cheapass website and social media too, as James is putting together "Cheapass Games in black and white" a retrospective book that's coming soon and that I can't wait to read!