Want to know more about our latest party game design, Con Artist? You are in the right place!
“You should make a game about constellations.” My wife, Cami, randomly blurted out from across the dining table.
“Hmm, yeah that would be a cool theme.” I responded absentmindedly. While the idea sounded cool in theory, I of course had no ideas for how to turn it into a reality, so I quickly forgot the conversation.
Several hours later...
“No seriously, a constellation game would be cool!” Cami suddenly brought up again as we sat on our couch.
I found myself in the right mood to humor her idea, so I responded, “Ok, what kind of game would this be? What makes constellations interesting?”
This turned out to be the most important question to aid us in crafting a game about constellations. So what exactly does make constellations interesting? There’s no single right answer, but let me try to give you mine…
We’re gonna play a little game… What do the following constellations represent?
- A hand vacuum
- A mouse
- A lion
- A one-armed lobster
- A scorpion
- An electrical cord
- A fishing hook
- A snake
- A kite
- A scale
- A house
CAUTION: ANSWERS BELOW
The correct answers are:
How did you do? Perhaps a past knowledge of zodiacs or constellations helped you to do well. But without any outside knowledge, it would be quite easy to mistake each constellation for any of the provided answers.
This fiddly nature of constellations is, in my opinion, their most interesting aspect; they can be both highly restrictive and potentially limitless, widely interpreted and broadly designed. It is within the astronomer’s imagination that a handful of blips in the sky can mean a huge variety of things. This leads us to the premise of Con Artist…
Con Artist is a party-style game that captures the fiddly nature of constellations and enables memorable moments, heated debates, and genuine laughs. The game’s title, Con Artist, contains a double meaning of Constellation Artist and its definition of “a person who cheats or tricks others by persuading them to believe something that is not true.”
When we realized that the magic of a constellation was found within its creation and interpretation, we knew that this had to be the focal point of the game. We needed a system where players could display their personalities and voice their opinions upon a starry canvas. We very quickly settled upon the idea of everyone illustrating their own constellation each round, but one person being in a trickier situation than the rest…
Our first idea wasn’t too far off from its current form… Mechanically, it took inspiration from two classics: A Fake Artist Goes to New York and Dixit. Similar to Fake Artist, one player would take on a leading role of selecting a topic and passing it out to all players with the catch that one player would secretly not receive the topic (they instead received a constellation drawn by the leader that relates to the topic). This odd-man-out would have to deduce the topic through interpretation of the provided constellation and sneakily blend in with a drawing of their own. Then, similar to Dixit, images are provided by each player, mixed together, and anonymously displayed in the center.
We were pleasantly surprised to find this initial version quite amusing! The basic challenge of connecting a random arrangement of dots into a relevant, cohesive image provided for an engaging activity. Where classic drawing games like Telestrations can make one player look like an Art God and another look like a preschooler, Con Artist leveled the playing field by limiting one’s drawing abilities to connecting dots with straight lines. The focus was more on thinking outside the box and less on translating what you see in your head to what you see on paper.
The fun continued as players had to deduce which of the images belonged to the Con Artist and vote accordingly. These few positives alone proved that we were onto something with this idea, but a couple issues quickly emerged from this structure…
The secret odd-man-out who didn’t know the exact topic, labeled the “Con Artist,” would often illustrate nearly the exact same image that they had received from the leader, who is known as the “Chief Astrologist.” They could easily get away with this lame copy/paste strategy, as their role (and the image they copied) would not be revealed until after players had voted.
The other issue was less obvious, but nagged at me none-the-less. The conversation involving the analysis of anonymous constellations felt too muted and reserved. Players had to abide by this unwritten rule of passively evaluating each drawing (including their own). It was too difficult for a player to defend their constellation when it was under scrutiny, because then players would be suspicious of their protective fixation on that card. It also felt as though the drawings had no personality or character, as they weren’t publicly linked to their creator.
I didn’t quite solve these issues until after I had discovered my favorite part of the game. I’ll never forget the play testing session we had with Facade Games (Travis and Holly Hancock) and some of their play testers. The Hancocks generously let me add my budding prototype to their play testing session. During one of the rounds of Con Artist, the topic was “Poker,” and most players had drawn things like money or playing cards. One constellation had a suspiciously unique shape, and when we called it into question a lady casually said, “It looks like a spade.” It indeed looked just like a spade, the suit of a face card, and we quickly moved on to accuse other cards in the center.
It turns out that this “spade” was indeed the work of the Con Artist, who was the very lady that threw us off her scent! When she saw the Chief Astronomer’s constellation, she had incorrectly assumed it was a lamp shade (it was actually fanned out cards), so she drew a nice lamp of her own. With some quick thinking, she convinced us that her lamp actually related to poker and thereby duped us all and won the round!
This specific round of Con Artist absolutely delighted me. Players were both immensely salty and incredibly impressed by her clever maneuver, and this moment stuck with me beyond that night. After mulling it over, I realized that we needed to try and capture this kind of memorable moment in every round of every game of Con Artist. With a bit of mechanical rearrangement, we settled upon a ruleset that really hits this sweet spot.
We solved the copy/paste issue by displaying the Chief Astronomer’s constellation for all to see. The con artist would instead know their role by simply receiving a card that said “Con Artist” instead of the topic. Now, any player who created a constellation that too closely mimicked the Chief Astronomer’s would draw suspicion to their Star Card.
The game became even more interesting when we forced players to own up to their constellation and display it in front of themselves. This repositioned the spotlight of suspicion from an anonymous abstract image to a human and their handiwork. Round discussions instantly got a much needed boost as our friends had to fumble through hilarious excuses as to why their pitiful constellation should be shown mercy. Furthermore, the true con artist would feel a spike of adrenaline as the topic is revealed with everyone’s star cards and they then have mere seconds to transform their constellation’s interpretation into something else entirely.
Since these massive improvements, the game has really settled into its groove and proven to us time and time again why it deserves our full efforts to make it a published reality. Our main tests since then have ranged from component improvements to wild mechanical experimentation. The issues are now things like “How do we keep the dry erase cards from smearing when they are shuffled and dealt?” or “Which markers stand out best against a black background?” Our favorite solutions at the moment include framed cards (for physical separation) and neon Expo markers for each issue respectively.
We have also experimented with some completely different rulesets to the game (far outside of the “one secret Con Artist versus many” premise), but none come close to reaching the heights of our initial idea. Fortunately, the game already has plenty of replayability built in with a huge variety of topics that must be translated into a limited arrangement of stars by unique individuals with wildly different ideas.
What’s Next for Con Artist?
Things have really gotten exciting as Con Artist has recently become a finalist in a board game design contest, the Cardboard Edison Award! The judges will be gathering in April to play all 16 prototypes and declare a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winner [note: this has been delayed to May or later due to COVID-19]. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Con Artist did not place in the top 3, as all of the finalist games are wildly creative and ambitious ideas. It seems like any of these games deserves to be recognized and awarded, but we’ll hope for the best for our young lad in a little black box.
As for what lies beyond? Well, I set out on this crazy design journey with the determination to see at least one game end up on store shelves and gaming tables to delight friends and families. If any of our games can shoot for the stars and actually reach them, I sincerely believe it is Con Artist.
While we are eventually seeking to become part-time, passion-project publishers, we certainly wouldn’t object to any established publishers taking on our designs like Con Artist and helping us to make them the best they can possibly be. If you are a publisher interested in working with us, please reach out through any of our social media channels… we would love to chat!