The Shadow Throne Origin Story


Shadow Throne is now up on Kickstarter!

Shadow Throne is now up on Kickstarter!

Shadow Throne is now up on Kickstarter, so it’s about time I shared the origin story with all of you!

As I mentioned when discussing Shadow Throne design goals, and you saw when I went over the evolution of Shadow Throne card design, games don’t come from a single moment; they are a long slog, the culmination of months of incremental improvements. That said, the design process often starts from a spark of inspiration, which is how Shadow Throne began. Today, I want to tell you that story, which will also give me the opportunity to discuss creativity a little more abstractly.


I came up with the idea for Shadow Throne as I was thinking about a number of other things. I touched on this in the design goals post, but here I’ll delve a little more deeply into the inspirations and how they helped shape the game.

Drafting. It’s no secret that drafting is one of my favorite mechanics. I’ve written about it extensively, and I imagine it will continue to influence the games I design. Some questions floating through my head as I brainstormed what would eventually become Shadow Throne:

– What game structures can drafting naturally fit into?

– How can drafting be more interactive?

– Can you maintain the simultaneous action of drafting in a deeper game with more layers?

– Could a drafting game require less setup but still offer a balanced play experience?

With Shadow Throne, one of my big goals was to evolve drafting in a new direction. As is common in almost any creative field, once a status quo is established, it can be difficult to free your mind from existing solutions. I wanted Shadow Throne to feature a proven mechanic but take it in a direction no one had taken it before. Check out this Kickstarter update if you’d like to learn more about the unique Shadow Throne drafting experience.

Citadels: all about outmaneuvering your opponents with your alliances.

Citadels: all about outmaneuvering your opponents with your alliances. Image from Board Game Geek.

Citadels. Citadels is one of my all time favorite games. I even wrote a design analysis of it a couple of years ago. On the camping trip when Shadow Throne began to materialize, we enjoyed Citadels around the fire in the evenings.

What’s the biggest problem with Citadels? It can be painfully slow. Only one player drafts at a time, and once you realize the importance of determining which roles other players might be, turns can take forever.

I wanted to make a game that felt like Citadels, where players formed conflicting plans and tried to outmaneuver each other, but played faster. While drafting was sure to be the central mechanic of the game, Citadels provided the sort of game experience I was looking for.

Varys and Littlefinger, just like you in Shadow Throne, have no allegiances.

Varys and Littlefinger, just like you in Shadow Throne, have no allegiances. Image from Game of Thrones Wiki.

Game of Thrones. Like many of you, I’ve been captivated by the Game of Thrones. I actually rarely read fiction these days, but there’s something about Game of Thrones that I just find fascinating. The world feels so rich and interesting; the supernatural is subtle, always making you question what’s real and what’s not; and the Catch-22 level of powerlessness, amorality, and tragedy reminds me of the absurdity of the real world.

But for me, the most compelling characters are those like Peter Baelish and Varys, those with no allegiances to any particular house. They find themselves in a world torn apart between families, so they have to carve a place out for themselves.

I wanted players to feel that way while playing Shadow Throne. In the middle of a terrible struggle, you don’t have anyone on your side, so you look out for yourself. If drafting is the central mechanic and scheming is the central activity, I wanted this to be the central feeling: using the characters in the game and the other players to prop yourself up. Shadow Throne is a dark world indeed.


So there you have it: the inspirations for Shadow Throne. It turns out that the structure of the first version is very similar to the final one. I mostly ended up removing problematic elements, tweaking numbers, and tuning the cards to create balance. But that’s only half the story.

IMG_4338The other half is where I was and what I was doing when the idea for the game came to me. It turns out I was in the amazing Chiricahua mountains in southeast Arizona with my brother and a couple of friends. I’m a huge fan of hiking, camping, and being in nature generally. I take the opportunity to do so whenever possible. It turns out the Chiricahua mountains are particularly beautiful and stimulating, as you can see from some of the photos I took.

Why am I telling you where I was? I think it’s no coincidence that I came up with a fresh idea for a game in such an environment. For me, walking, especially in an area rich with natural phenomena, just gets my mind going. During the trip, there were long drives and walks when I was able to think without distraction (I love me some internet, but it does have some down sides). This let me really brainstorm many possibilities and really think through ideas. For me, hiking in nature is definitely a muse.

IMG_4418I doubt that’s the case for everyone. Maybe you find birds and trees boring, and that’s ok. But I encourage you to explore non-game hobbies! If you’re designing games, it’s essential that you know games. But if that’s all you know, you’re unlikely to innovate. Find some other way to spend your time that will offer you a unique perspective. Find something that will give you some time to clear your mind. Every now and then, take the opportunity to let your mind wander without expectations or demands for productivity!

And that is the story of how Shadow Throne came into existence. Well, it’s part one, at least. The story continues, and you can help with the current chapter, where the drama is unfolding on Kickstarter at this very moment!

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