What is going on with the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter?

What is going on with the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter?

It has been a few years since I first gave my money to a company on Kickstarter, mostly to good results. Sure, the games were occasionalyl middling at best, but at least I always received my games (even if some others didn’t). Except for one – the Shut Up & Sit Down version of Monsdrawsity. What seemed a pretty simple campaign at first has turned into a multi-year spanning morass of delays. I felt it high time to figure out what was going on with this campaign, so I sat down and talked to the current publisher.

Delays aren’t unique to this Kickstarter campaign. Many Kickstarter project are led by first-time creators who are in over their heads, struggling to trace their first footsteps in an industry that tends to be more complicated than they had assumed at first. This campaign also ran at the tail-end of the pandemic – a period where most anything related to logistics found the things they thought to be true fully up-ended. So then why are we still talking about this? For that to make sense we first need to take a look at the actual project.

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Banner on the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter page | photo: Friendly Skeleton

What was the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter as a project?

Monsdrawsity, published by Friendly Skeleton (formerly Deep Water Games) is a party game where you’re trying to draw monsters. One of the players gets a brief look at a monster, and then has to relay what they saw to the other players. They then try to draw what is being described by the other player. After everyone’s done, you all show your work, laugh at how terribly everyone did, vote on who’s work you think most accurately fits what was described and then take a look at the actual monster. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking, but it is really funny. There’s not much that’s funnier than watching your friends struggle to draw a monster, or to find out that you misspoke and now everyone drew an arm coming out of an armpit. I know this, because Monsdrawsity already exists. In fact, there’s two different versions you can get at retail right now. The thing that’s special about this version is that it was made in cooperation with Shut Up & Sit Down.

Shut Up & Sit Down are arguably the biggest name in the online content space when it comes to board games. You can find research that tries to quantify the effect one of their reviews has on both popularity and sales of a game, which turns out to be pretty significant. A positive review from them could lead to a game being sold out everywhere for the immediate period following the review’s release – that’s a pretty significant name to link to your game. In fact, I would argue that, for a large chunk of the audience attracted to this Kickstarter, the Shut Up & Sit Down connection was their primary reason for supporting the project. All the more reason then to figure out what was going on. It’s time for us to meet Jacob Way, the person who is currently in charge of fulfilling this project. Strap in, because we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty.

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Promotional video by Shut Up & Sit Down announcing the Kickstarter project

Who is Jacob Way?

Jacob Way is the current owner of Friendly Skeleton, formerly known as Deep Water Games. After approaching him with the request to disuss what was going on with the Kickstarter, Jacob and I sat down for an extended period of time to discuss how things ended up happening the way they did. Considering that he is the man currently in charge of the project, I felt it would be most beneficial to talk to him. He’s also the person who, as far as the outside world can see, has been involved with the project for most of its lifespan. It is important to keep in mind that the project has traded hands multiple times since its inception and now: it was first run by a company called Ox Eye Media (where it traded hands internally) before being taken on by Friendly Skeleton (where it currently resides). So what was Jacob’s role up to now?

“I was initally a business developer at Ox Eye Media, where I worked to establish business relationships.” This is also how Jacob first got involved with the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter project; he was the person who worked with Shut Up & Sit Down on behalf of Ox Eye Media. That work was then handed over to another person within Ox Eye before being given back to Jacob when we has made head of games within Ox Eye Media. This transition to head of games also marks the moment where Jacob starts communicating under his own name on the Kickstarter page. He’s also one of the people (along with a rotating cast of people posting through the Deep Water Games account) who would provide info to backers on the Kickstarter page – info that would later on turn out to not be accurate. “I would give information [in those updates] that I hadn’t first verified myself, which meant that I also did not have accurate information. This was a pattern within Ox Eye Media”. Okay? So what’s up with Ox Eye Media then?

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Jacob Way, as seen on the Friendly Skeleton website | photo: Friendly Skeleton

Taking a look at Ox Eye Media

Ox Eye Media is a (former?) media company that previously housed a number of other companies: Rip Rap Toys, Source Point Press, N3 Art and Deep Water Games (the latter of which is now owned by Jacob Way). It’s striking to me that half of these companies seemingly disappeared without any notice, and the other half is now either under new management or absorbed into other companies. Finding any recent information about Ox Eye Media is close to impossible. Their social media channels are deserted, their LinkedIn page has not been updated for years, and LARA shows that they haven’t submitted any new filings since 2022. This, to me, indicates that the company is either insolvent or simply no longer operates as a business.

Jacob was reluctant to discuss his departure from Ox Eye Media, but did state that the communication within Ox Eye played a role in his decisicion: “if a company communicates poorly, it does so at all levels”. This matches what I’ve found of the public-facing communication that Ox Eye does. Their most recent message on Facebook is a post celebrating the purchase of an (allegedly) million dollar building while their company was (apparently) already hemmoraging both people and money. The fact that I’m not even entirely sure if the company still exists should say enough about their communication to the outside world.

The picture this paints to me is of a dysfunctional company that had too many moving parts – moving parts that apparently also did not work together effectively. I’ve also found mentions of the fact that there were many restructurings within leadership of the company (as is also exemplified by Jacob switching positions multiple times within Ox Eye) while they were simultaneously trying to break into multiple markets at once. I’m not suprised to find that your company then reaches a breaking point. The only project I could find that Ox Eye seems to still be actively involved in is a Kickstarter project for a game called Rat Queens, which seems to be facing almost the exact same issues as the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter campaign. With that all in mind, I feel we now have sufficient context to take a deeper look at the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter.

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Banner image as found on the Ox Eye Media Facebook page. | photo: Ox Eye Media

So what happened to the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter campaign?

On October 1st, 2022, Jacob posts an update in which he states that Deep Water Games (known currently as Friendly Skeleton) is no longer part of Ox Eye Media. He also states that the production was not even close to where he was told it was. An update posted on July 1st, 2022, for example, states that they were “proofing all the files”, which is normally one of the last steps done before the files are handed off for production. When Jacob acquired Deep Water games, he acquired a few things along with it: its games, its stock, and its liabilities. Note how that does not include the funds it collected through means such as Kickstarter; those were still housed in Ox Eye Media. This is a problem – Jacob was now responsible for delivering a project without any of the money necessary to do so. What do you do then?

I was admittedly able to figure out quite little about the time period between October 2022 and the summer of 2023, except that (apparently) a lot of work was done to get the project back on track. The Kickstarter page does show a recurring pattersn; production timelines are projected, deadlines aren’t met, and the people over on Kickstarter aren’t informed until much later. When I question Jacob about this, he states that “Kickstarter is bizarre. I wouldn’t normally give this much insight into a project that’s still in development, but [giving backers this oversight] is just a part of how Kickstarter works”. It’s a point that I can’t really dispute, but it nevertheless is something that comes along with using Kickstarter. Having said that, timelines are still being missed. What was happening internally that causes this?

Reading the Kickstarter updates paints the picture that Jacob (and the other people working at Friendly Skeleton) kept running into unexpected roadblocks. Jacob is emphatic in stating that production started in June 2023, but were delayed when it became apparent that there were still missing files. Considering that Jacob was mostly alone doing jobs he would have previously delegated to a team (see the Kickstarter comment below in which he explains that he was the only employee working at Friendly Skeleton at the time), it makes sense that unexpected issues keep arising. These issues were exascerbated by the company also undergoing a re-branding, necessitating re-doing a bunch of work. “Our timelines were ambitious”, said Jacob, and I understand wanting to be bold under these circumstanes. It’s just difficult if you’re also actively learning all parts of independently publishing a board game at the same time.

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So what is the current status of Monsdrawsity?

“The files are at the factory, parts are being manufactured and our fulfillment partners are ready to ship out product. Everything is currently still in China”. The Sodalis fulfillment had already taught me that producing the game is not the same as delivering a game, so I also asked about how they’re going to fulfill the game after it’s produced. Jacob described that all parts of this Kickstarter are currently being financed with revenue from other projects and “between 20 and 40.000 dollars of our own money. The money has to come from somewhere, we need to operate as a business.”

And so this is how the production ended up having these delays, even if Monsdrawsity (on the surface) looks like it would be easy to produce. The combination of having to phase out production (in order to ensure enough revenue to stay afloat as a company), having to re-do work and (in my view) underestimating the work that needed to be done. “Production has started in June 2023, but we then discovered that there were still missing files”. It seems Friendly Skeleton kept running into this particular production issue, even after the project had been in their custody for close to a year.

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The logo for Friendly Skeleton, formerly known as Deep Water Games. | Photo: Friendly Skeleton

Talking business

It is still prudent to discuss the state in which Ox Eye Media left the project before handing it over to Jacob as part of his acquistition of Deep Water Games. “I was not accurately informed about the actual status of the project while I was Head of Games at Ox Eye Media”, which lead to him discovering that “only about 18% of the artwork was done” after he had acquired fulfillment of the Kickstarter as one of the liabilities that came with ownership of Deep Water Games. Jacob was also not personally involved with the production side of this project, seeing that “Ox Eye Studio had a production department that would oversee production for the whole company.” That would place responsibility for accurately informing other departments within Ox Eye with them. It also means that early updates discussing progress (like in this update) were abject nonsense.

“Everything about this Kickstarter is frustrating. This whole process throws a pale shadow over a product that I feel is truly excellent. Nobody has a time machine, but I would have done a lot of things differently if I had the opportunity. […] If I had known what I know now, I would have made a different deal [when I left Ox Eye Media”. A point that Jacob returned to multiple times during our conversation is his intent to bring this project to a good end. “I would not have taken on this liability if I had not intended to bring it to a good end.” And, when all is said and done, I do believe Jacob when he says this, if only because this Kickstarter is arguably the biggest hurdle standing in the way of Friendly Skeleton’s future success.

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Ah! well a-day! what evil looks had I from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung. | Foto: Unsplash

So where does that leave us?

I feel it’s important to stress that I don’t expect this article to magically make the game apparate in all of our hands, but I do appreciate being given a glimpse behind the curtain. I genuinely do not feel that Jacob is taking us for a ride, especially not after our conversation. It’s theoretically possible that the Kickstarter hasn’t delivered a year from now, and that would mostly just make me sad, but I don’t expect that to be the case. Jacob is hard at work to try and make Friendly Skeleton something sustainable, and I understand that starting a new company (even one that already has a catalogue) takes time. It’s equally hard to make $40.000,- appear from thin air so that you can complete a project you thought was close to the finish line when you took it on. If Jacob was telling the truth, that would mean his company was (to use a soccer metaphor) 3-0 behind at its inception and he’s been trying hard to score that equalizer. That takes time.

However, I cannot escape the feeling that Jacob has been naive for at least part of this project. I understand putting trust in the sources you have access to when you work at a company, but there has to be a point where you check the projects you have custody over – especially when you’re about to take them on as a liability. I also get the distinct impression that Jacob has never been this involved with the actual publication of a board game, so the expectation that all of it would go according to plan (both from Jacob and from backers on Kickstarter) is entirely unrealistic. I feel that there’s a healthy dose of… let’s say inexperience, which was then magnified by the way Ox Eye Media initially handled and then transferred the project to Jacob.

Adding to that is the fact that Jacob is a good communicator… when you’re talking to him one-on-one. He’s just not a PR guy. That’s fine, but you do run into expectations when you’re the face of a company. People want to be informed, on multiple fronts. Unfortunately that’s the Faustian bargain you sign when you crowdfund your project; you get the money up front, and a group of financially involved followers who will hound you to the end of the Earth. This is then exascerbated when promises are made, and then not kept. I understand the desire to only broadcast solutions rather than present problems, but that’s simply not a feasible approach when your audience is aware that you’re in heavy weather. Bad news is at least a sign of life – demonstrate that the heart is still beating. Your audience is involved, and they want you to show that you’re as well.

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Production status as described in the most recent update, written in December

The long and short

So, the TL;DR – parent company messes up, Jacob has to clean up their mess, doesn’t get the funds to do so and seems misinformed all along the way. Raw deal if you ask me. I do have faith in his desire to bring this project to a good end, even if we still run into delays. Jacob said that “fourth quarter is very important to us, and we’re hoping to be able to sell Monsdrawsity by then.” They’ve missed a number of deadlines, but Christmas seems highly feasible if Jacob’s description of the current status of production is true. I’m willing to bet that I will have this game in my hands before the end of this year, and I’m hoping I won’t come to regret that statement. And in the meantime, maybe we ought to give Jacob some breathing room to actually land this plane.

Other notes

I did a bunch of research into Ox Eye Media that I wasn’t able to include here, because I was trying to figure out how things could have escalated so rapidly. I found old websites, Kickstarter projects that were put into scaffoldings and then abandoned, and a large collection of social media ghost towns. It still feels very uncanny that a company that apparently had revenue in the millions and dozens of employees just seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth without having left all that much of an impressions. It seems that this is what happens when a tree falls in the forest while there’s no-one around to hear the sound.

I also found out that the (former?) owner of Ox Eye Media now runs a fulfillment company called Whalebacker. Taking a look at the LARA registry for Whalebacker and Ox Eye Media gives me the strong impression that they’re owned by the same owner, and the timelines would match considering Whalebacker was founded right around the time that Ox Eye Media stopped filing reports. I have no personal experience with Whalebacker, but research online yielded mostly negative reports about their business. I have little experience with this side of the industry, so I will withhold personal judgment, although I will say that I was able to find a lot more discourse about this company than I had ever expected to come from this side of the industry.

The Arena of Baradum – a fistfight with impact

The Arena of Baradum – a fistfight with impact

The Netherlands doesn’t have a large pool of board game designers, so it is always heartening to see a Dutch designer approach an idea with a new, cool perspective. The Arena of Baradum, by publisher Horned Toad Games, takes a stab at delivering an arena skirmish game (what could one have expected with such a name) that is quick to play and easy to learn. Does The Arena of Baradum manage to grab a quick win, or does it blow away under its own weightlessness?

This review came about a bit differently than my normal ones, as this time around we approached a publisher before their game had even been released. The Arena of Baradum is currently on crowdfunding (up until the 17th of April), meaning that I’m going to be discussing a game that technically does not exist yet. Take the following with an appropriate grain of salt, as things are still liable to change or be developed between now and its eventual release. Having said that, let’s take a look at The Arena of Baradum!

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The game in action! | Photo: Yorom

How do you play The Arena of Baradum?

Arena combat typically means one thing – punching noses until everyone but you is left in your dust. The Arena of Baradum lets you crush your opponents in two ways: you either knock everyone else out of the arena, or you collect enough points to win. Points can be collected either by landing successful hits or by collecting orbs (if you’re lucky). Neither orbs nor combat always offer the rewards you seek, so you’ll be needing a healthy pinch of luck as well. Luckily though the game provides you with ample tools to turn the tides of combat in your favour.

You start the game by choosing a unique character, each with their own stats, abilities and character deck. Each deck is more or less unique except for a smattering of miss-cards (more on those later), making each character feel unique as you pick them up to play. During your turn you get to order two different items from an action menu with four options. You either get to walk up to your speed, draw a card, play a card or punch an opponent. I’m going to assume you understan how three-fourths of those options work, so let’s talk combat. When you’re next to an opponent, you get to try and successfully punch them by having a roll-off and adding your relevant stats. If the attacker’s roll-plus-punch-stat is higher than the defender’s roll-plus-don’t-punch-me-bro stat, the attacker wins and scores a point. And that simple framework is how you’ll fight to the death until only one victor remains!

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Your player board in action! | Photo: Yorom

So what’s special about this?

Firstly, the teach is dead-simple. You’llv be able to get everyone at the table up and running in about five minutes, meaning you’ll be able to go in no time. This game was a hit at our game night for that exact reason; people who joined in later were able to suss out most of the rules just by looking, and could get taught the rest in mere minutes. The characters feel balanced as well, meaning you don’t have to worry about sheparding power levels. Players just get to choose a character that looks cool and they’re ready to punch face. A rarity in a genre that tends to lose itself in simulationis navel-gazing that causes many of its titles to drown in a morass of their own ambition. It’s refreshing to have a game that just comes in, punches faces and then dips back out again.

The Arena of Baradum also managed to find a solution to a major pet peeve of mine – players only clumping together. The only place you typically want to be in games like this is right next to your opponent, but the orbs in Arena of Baradum entice players to roam and fully use the provided space. They’re not straight upside, making it so that the right move isn’t ever necessarily ‘just grab the orb‘, but they’re a proper incentive. Plus, they typically provide you with an avenue to get fist-punch-points if the orb itself doesn’t provide you with points on its own. I like this approach much more than games that only really allow you to stand next to a guy until they explode into a shower of their own suffering.

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All characters together. | photo: Yorom

Cowboys in the arena

The Arena of Baradum also has an alternate game mode, which is my preferred way to play when you’ve got a large player count. Instead of winning by scoring points, you play a hidden-role game that’s a crossbreed of the regular game and Bang!. Each player gets dealt a card showing their role, followed by finding out which player is the flagbearer. Most players will win if they manage to kill the flagbearer, while some will only win if they kill everyone else first or if the flagbearer manages to survive until the end. Players will be flying left and right through the arena attempting to score hits on each-other in an attempt to obfuscate their real motives. It’s a bit of extra rules, sure, but I think the gameplay value is worth it.

Although this flagbeearer mode creates a much different dynamic from the regular game (devaluing orbs in exchange for vastly increasing the value of combat) I’d only ever play The Arena of Baradum with this game mode at five or six players. It does need that count to be good (as I think the assistant character is necessary to have a real interesting game), but I like what this game mode does for the game. It really does give life to a game that I’d typically only play with three or four players. It’s a nice addition that I was surprised to find when learning the rules, and it’s an economical addition as well (only really needing a few cards and some lines in a rulebook). Clever stuff!

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Materials for this game mode. | Photo: Yorom

Head to head, game to game

The Arena of Baradum isn’t unique of course. You;ve got other arena skirmish games like Unmatched, Sodalis (which I wrote about quite recently) and lesser-known games such as Battle of Gods and about 200 Warhammer 40K variants. The Arena of Baradum differentiates itself from those titles by achieving what it sets out to do while still having a thin rulebook and lightning-quick actions. Drawing a card takes a second. Moving is quick and painless. Playing a card is Love Letter-level easy. Fighting is rolling a die and adding a number. It’s a lot quicker and more direct than its contemporaries, while still offering interesting choices and explosive moments.

And, to circle back to orbs for the third time, the orbs really do a lot of work in this game. They’re the grease that allows the engine to run smoothly. They don’t always offer the exact reward you want, but they give you good things enough times to always be an enticing option when they’re around. Scoring a point feels good, but getting a bonus on a die roll indirectly allows you to score points as well. There’s negative effects as well, which others mentioned not liking when they drew them, but I thought they were hilarious. There’s nothing like having one HP and needing one point to win the game, only to fall into a snake pit. It’s actual comedy from a game whose genre typically takes itself so very very seriously.

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The orb spread. | Photo: Yorom

The critical misses

It can’t all be good news though, which leads me to the things we ran into while playing The Arena of Baradum. My main issue is the composition of most character decks. We kept running up against the fact that each deck has about five or six miss-cards (a card that makes the attacker automatically lose a combat role) while also having a number of cards that amounted to saying “I’m a miss card with trinket text”. This made a lot of the combats amount to “I’M GONNA HIT YO- oh I miss. Next.”, which never feels good if that’s your whole turn. One player didn’t manage to get a single die roll going because people kept playing misses on him. I’d like to see an option to maybe tune the amount of miss cards that are in a deck, especially at higher player counts. That would probably do a lot to maintain the game’s all-important tempo.

That sense of tempo is essential, as that is (arguably) The Arena of Baradum’s biggest selling point. Turns fly by when you’re playing the game with three or four people, but it can really start dragging once you start playing with five or six players. Getting hit by a miss-card is a lot more devastating if you’re then stuck watching other players do cool intricate card combos while you’ve essentially skipped a turn. That said, a bit more curation (changing the number of miss-cards in higher player count games, or adding a second orb starting at five players) could do a lot of good in maintaining the game’s regular sense of momentum.

Lastly, there’s the rulebook. Large parts of the rulebook are clear and functional, but there’s certain details that either don’t show up in the places you expect or don’t show up at all. I was taught how to play the game at a con, so I kwen how you could score points, but I initially had a hard time finding those rules in the rulebook. Similarly, the rules for the flagbearer game mode don’t specifically say if a player is supposed to reveal their role once they get killed. I understand that the game is still under development though, so take this with the grain of salt it deserves, but I nevertheless do hope that the rulebook gets tightened up between now and full release.

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I’ve seen and done this a bunch. | photo: Yorom
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Gameplay (8/10): The Arena of Baradum, at its finest moments, plays quickly and has actions that feel direct and impactful. This is most effectively fascilitated by the fact that the rulebook is lean, gameplay text is clean and the rest of the systems are a well-oiled machine. Everything works well, just so long as you keep the player count at three or four.

Game feel (7/10): waiting times feel like they grow exponentially whenever you add another player, and some turns can kind of feel like a dud when you use your full turn to walk up to someone just to get hit with a miss card. It’s a good thing that those turns get compensated by turns where you feel like an action hero character after stitching together these cool combos and powers.

Aesthetics (8.5/10): key pieces like the board, characters and the box look fantastic. The cards are very clear (if a little utilitarian) and I’m not a fan of the white border around the character art on the standees, but I’m assuming that those things will get ironed out during further development. I’m hoping that The Arena of Baradum gets enough attention during crowdfunding to unlock the miniatures add-on, as I feel this game would greatly benefit from having miniatures on the table

Replayability (7/10): we played this game quite a lot during our round of testing, and I was happily surprised by just how entertaining the game remained after repeated plays. There’s of course the variance you get from switching up what character you play, but there were also a number of players who preferred to get really good at playing one character. I’m not sure that I would play this game a hundred times, but I can’t really say that about any game. All I know is that right now, I would absolutely play it again, which is rare for me.

Manual (6/10): the manual is mostly servicable and provides you the info that you want it to provide, although I’m still left with detail questions that the manual doesn’t have answers to. I’m talking about timing questions, weird interactions, and certain rules that the rulebook currently doesn’t cover. I understand that this game is still in development, but a core audience is full of people like me who want the nitty-gritty; that’s currently missing from an otherwise well-written and effective rulebook.

Total score: 7.2

The Arena of Baradum had a clear vision it set out to achieve, and I feel like it accomplishes that with aplomb. It’s rare to get an arena combat game that feels this fast and fluid, giving you quick and snappy turns. The headliners are obviously the characters, who feel diverse and like they’re doing their own thing. This game is highly recommended to players who are looking to punch face without having to memorize a rulebook as thick as a Bible.

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De cover van The Arena of Baradum | foto: Yorom

Other things of note

We were also given the characters that can be unlocked as stretch goals during the crowdfunding campaign, but I made the conscious choice to only play with gameplay materials that you would be able to get with the current version of the game. That said, the current versions of the characters do feel well-developed and feel like they belong in the setting along with the other characters. That’s a good sign; the designer isn’t just jamming things in his game just for the sake of content.

I chose not to compare this game to Sodalis too much, considering that (even though I love the game) that game wasn’t really able to take flight the way I had hoped it would. Both games did take time to consider the role mobility plays in its system, and I’m happy to see two first-time designers crack that egg in different but equally effective ways. Hopefully future arena brawl designers will take note of both of these designs when trying to solve that puzzle. Awareness of the role that space and mobility play in your game is highly important, and it’s heartening to see two people who are new on the scene solve it in unique ways that can most definitely be influential.

What do you think?

This was a bit of a different review for me, as this is the first time that I’ve been able to take such a close look at a game that, well… technically doesn’t exist yet. I’m obviously hoping that the game will be a runaway hit for the designer, but I also value my honesty quite highly. As the inimitable Nina Simone said before me, please don’t let me be misunderstood. This was not a paid review, and I’m actually not even keeping the game after this aricle goed live. I’m just a fan of game design who took a leap of faith messaging a designer about a game that looked cool, and I’m hoping this review was able to convey that to you.

Hopefully this piece will also help you make an informed decision on whether or not you would like to back The Arena of Baradum, as I feel like I’ve given it the consideration it deserves. We here at bordspellencafe.nl are looking forward to the final product! Should you be interested in helping the game become a reality, there’s still time to back the crowdfunding campaign over here on Gamefound. Are you looking forward to playing this game, and what other arena fighting games do you love? Let me know down in the comments!