Get Billy the Kid!

Portrait of American gunman Billy the Kid (1859–1881). Image mirrored on vertical axis to correct widely-seen flopped tintype. Cartridge loading gate on Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle is on the right side of the receiver. (Ben Wittick 1845–1903, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of American gunman Billy the Kid (1859–1881). Image mirrored on vertical axis to correct widely-seen flopped tintype. Cartridge loading gate on Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle is on the right side of the receiver. (Ben Wittick 1845–1903, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty in New York in 1859. He made his debut as an outlaw in 1875, stealing clothing from a Chinese laundry. He was arrested but escaped punishment by climbing up a chimney in the jailhouse. Afterward, writes Evan Andrews in “9 Things You May Not Know About Billy the Kid,” he:

…fled town and embarked on a career as a roving ranch hand, gambler and gang member. He became handy with a Winchester rifle and a Colt revolver, and in August 1877 he killed his first man during a dispute in an Arizona saloon. That same year, he adopted the alias “William H. Bonney” and became known as “Billy the Kid” or simply “The Kid.”

The Kid has been the subject of over 50 movies, many books and, most significantly for our purposes, comic books. Because it was through comic books that Caper Games and Books founder Randall Thompson first discovered the Kid. As he told me in an phone interview from his home in Victoria, BC on Monday:

Me and my brother, John — you know, “John R” in Cape Breton [laughs] — we grew up…in the low-rentals close to the ocean in New Waterford and somebody one year gave us bags and bags and bags of comic books. And me and John R used to lay in our beds reading comic books all the time and I totally remember reading Billy the Kid, you know? Just one of the Western heroes…

The story would come back to him in what he refers to as “his old age” (although photographic evidence suggests he’s not that old) as the theme for a social deduction card game. But we’re really getting ahead of ourselves — first, a little bit about how Thompson came to be inventing card games.

 

It began in 1999 when he lost his provincial government job in BC due to a condition called “photophobia,” an abnormal intolerance of bright lights. Thompson explained it to me this way:

It came from being exposed to a very bright magnified light source on a photo-reader machine at Vital Statistics. Everything in my life became like looking at a glossy magazine. I had to start wearing big protective sunglasses all the time outside. On bad days, I would get intense migraines and have to lie down in a dark room with a cold cloth covering my eyes.

The curtains were covered with extra blankets, to block any bright sunlight and since there could be no TV or bright computer in the house, my children (Jason, Casey and Christina), whom I was raising as a single dad, and I began to listen to the radio, read books and play board games, like Monopoly. It was like going back in time.

One night, while listening to a Vancouver Grizzlies basketball game on the radio, the idea for a board game “popped into his head:

I sketched it out on paper and the next day I drew it out on a bigger piece of cardboard. It was basically like Monopoly squares surrounding a basketball court. I got the kids to color it in and I kept adding things to it, like a colorful 3-point zone, a spinner (Christina’s idea) for taking shots and foul chips.

I eventually found a graphic artist to take it to the next level and began to look into where we might get the pieces and the game made. It was the beginning of a big learning curve. Once I had a good prototype, I got elementary school students to play it to see if they liked it. They loved it.

Randall Thompson with Get Billy the Kid! character cards.

Randall Thompson with Get Billy the Kid! character cards.

But while his game was getting better, his life was getting worse — in addition to his eye problems, Thompson developed extreme sensitivities to odors, like cat litter, soaps, perfumes and diesel exhaust. Daily living “was very hard,” he said, but when he finally began to feel “somewhat healthy,” he went to Germany to promote the game, which he’d called Crunch Time.

This is not as random as it sounds: he had served in the Canadian Air Force and had been stationed at Baden-Soellingen airforce base from 1980 to 1984, so the return brought back a lot of memories:

[T]he people, the language, the beautiful farm land and cities, the buildings, the food and drink. Everything. I love Germany. Always had a soft spot in my heart for it.

He ended up there a lot over the next couple of years, and although sales of Crunch Time were ultimately disappointing, his time was hardly wasted — for one thing, he met Silke, the graphic artist who is now his wife and business partner. Together, they developed two additional board games one of which, Soccer Tactics, sold close to 20,000 copies (great numbers, he said, for a small company like Caper Games.) He also learned something important about his chosen industry:

…the new and growing world of board games had departed from games with basic Monopoly ‘mechanics’. Monopoly, Sorry, and Risk, etc., are seen as American style games. The ‘new-to-me’ world of Euro games was burgeoning. Germany is actually where Euro games got their start and are the strongest.

He returned to Canada in 2007, a trip made difficult by his worsening eye condition, ready for “the next chapter of life and games.”

 

Thompson’s first foray into Euro-style games was a social deduction/hidden identity card game called Get Adler!

I found a nice explanation of social deduction games on the Clever Moves website:

In social deduction games, players each have a role which puts them on a particular team. Each team has its own goal, and most players begin the game knowing only their own identity. As the game wears on, players gather bits of information. They try to understand who is on their team and how they can cooperate to achieve their team’s overall goal.

Adler, in Thompson’s game, is an MI6 Agent who has gone missing — along with some Top-Secret documents. MI5 Agent Gold and Inspector Sharpe of Scotland Yard are tasked with tracking him down. Other characters (there are eight in all) aid either Adler or the lawmen. The first rounds of the game focus on determining which player is Adler, after which:

…the game transforms into an action-packed race against time to eliminate Adler and to recover Top-Secret documents.

Said Thompson:

Get Adler! was successful for us. We’re a small, indie publisher but we had…some success with this, and we still have some success with this, so it’s probably, through the years, going to be our anchor game. People love Get Adler, we get reviews and comments all time.

In fact, the game did so well, they wanted to bring out another edition of it, the idea for which had actually been kicking around for a couple of years. Thompson said that when they’d gone to Kickstarter in 2016 to raise funds for Get Adler! he’d already created a few sketches for the next iteration, which would be based on — you deduced it —  Billy the Kid.

 

So how do you design a social deduction card game?

Thompson says with Billy the Kid he started with the Get Adler! template and asked himself some basic questions:

So, [in] Get Adler!…as you know, Adler is the bad guy, he’s chased by the good guys…[H]ow would that work in Billy the Kid? Who would be the good guys? Who would be the bad guys? So, I read a lot of history, you do a lot of research when you invent a game…I really read the history of Billy the Kid in New Mexico and everything, it’s just an incredible history.

And most people who read the story like Billy the Kid and think he was kind of unjustly made an outlaw and he was kind of forced into that life, so then you think, “Well, he could be the bad guy” — so, he would be the outlaw and the sheriff and the lawmen like Wyatt Earp and those guys would be the good guys. But the great twist of this game is that Billy the Kid, even though he’s the bad guy, he’s kind of the good guy and the hero in history, so you’re going to feel good about playing Billy the Kid.

(In fact, Billy the Kid came very close to receiving a posthumous pardon from New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as recently as 2010.)

Like Get, Adler!, Get Billy the Kid! has eight characters and can be played by 4 to 8 people. (Actually, 2 to 8 people, Thompson says there’s a two-player version built into the game that is great for people who can’t necessarily muster four to eight players.) In addition to Billy and Wyatt Earp, the characters include Sheriff Pat Garrett (the lawman who, in real life, shot the Kid); Billy’s girlfriend and accomplice Martha Garcia, Haseya Chee, a Navajo Nation woman and scout for the law side, Tom O’Folliard, an outlaw and the Kid’s best friend; Bass Reeves, the first Black Deputy US Marshall in the Wild West; and Doc Holliday, a lawman.

Holliday, though, is a slippery character:

What you find out about the Wild West at this time period is that, these law men…didn’t have halos on them, right? I mean, they could be on either side of the law. Some of these lawmen owned saloons. Some of them were associated with brothels. Some of them…had killed other people…they were gunslingers themselves…So in our game, Doc Holliday can switch sides. He starts out as a lawman, but Billy the Kid and his accomplice Martha Garcia, they can kind of tempt him to their side…from the fourth round on, they can kind of say, ‘Come to our side, Doc Holliday.’ So it gives a great twist on Get Adler!

Everyone starts knowing their own identity but no one else’s, so the first rounds are about trying to determine who everyone is:

What’s great about this game…is, we have made the character cards giant, like, really big-sized character cards so you really get into your theme. You know, you have your character’s secret at the beginning of the game and then,…by questions and card play, you have to try to figure out who at the table is Billy the Kid.

[B]y the fourth round, you’re going to have a pretty good idea who…is Billy the Kid or Martha Garcia, his accomplice. And once you make an accusation, you’re going to play an arrest card, which is like a sheriff’s badge, and you’re going to say, “I think you’re Billy the Kid.”

So…you’re laughing and joking and getting into the Western theme. You accuse the person, they say, ‘Yes, I’m Billy the Kid.” Everybody now shows their character…[If the accused is not Billy the Kid, the rules say both accuser and accused must sit out a round — Thompson says the rule was devised in the knowledge that gamers hate being eliminated] Now you have good guys and bad guys at the table and for the rest of the game, you’re going to…try to arrest him, he’s going to take off with Escape cards — he might take off on a horse, or a stagecoach, or a donkey or he might jump on a train. And eventually, you’re going to get into a shoot-out with Billy the Kid and there’s pistols and rifles in the game, and he even has a little bit of TNT. So if he survives to the seventh round, just like Get Adler!, he wins the game…If he eliminates the lawmen, he wins the game. If they eliminate him and any other outlaws, they win the game — that’s the game in a nutshell.

 

Once he has a game mapped out, Thompson usually makes all the cards out of Bristol board (“like being in school”) and then play-tests with friends before going to a game cafe to “try to get other people who we don’t know to play it.”

This time, though, he’s gone higher tech, using a technique called “Print & Play,” or PNP:

Now in the digital world, Silke does all the graphics, so we make a whole file, we put it on Drop Box, and we contact reviewers and people out there and we say, ‘Hey, who would like to play?’ We send them the whole game — they print it out, they cut it out, and they play.  So we get reviews even before we go to Kickstarter. And then you find out if there’s holes in your game — do people love it? Or do they love it but they say you could adjust this or that?

Reviewers can go public with that feedback, which is what happened this week with one reviewer, a 12-year-old girl who goes by the handle, The Cardboad Kid. She and her family took the game for a test drive with surprising results:

Thompson says the game is easily mastered and a round takes only about 20 minutes to play, so even if you do get eliminated, you won’t be gone for long.

He is now in the process of crowdfunding $3,000 to produce Get Billy the Kid!, and as of Tuesday, his Kickstarter campaign was 80% funded with 21 days to go. But like any good gamer, he’s already planning his next move: he figures the game would also work well with an “alien or sci-fi” theme, so think of Get Adler! and Get Billy the Kid! as two down — one to go.

(You can find out more about Thompson’s other games — and books — on the Caper Games website.)

 

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