Small Box Games – Designer Spotlight

Small Box Games – Designer Spotlight

John Clowdus is not someone I expect many people to have heard of, even in board game circles. An independent designer and publisher, his company Small Box Games focuses on a niche within a niche; single decks of 54 cards tightly packed into a tuckbox, the majority of which have a fixed player count of two. His most prolific design, Omen, is regarded as one of the finest lane battler style card games in existence despite a quite tumultuous development and release history, most recently culminating in John purchasing the rights to Omen back from his sole dalliance with a larger publisher, Kolossal Games, and refining the game via a successful Kickstarter earlier this year.

John Clowdus Games

An aspect I most enjoy about Clowdus designs is that they tend to be weird. While there are echoes of other games you may have played, or mechanics you’ve seen before, there is always something out of step with the mainstream. A term I like to use for such designs is ‘spiky,’ a characteristic I’d say Clowdus shares with another designer whose work I greatly admire, Martin Wallace. While not quite the antithesis of ‘smooth’ gameplay, it’s true that many of their designs lack a certain level of streamlining that might happen were they to be pushed through more rounds of outside development; it’s no wonder then that both designers have a predilection towards publishing their own work.

Omen Game

Omen was the game that introduced me Clowdus’ oeuvre, but it’s format under Kolossal became sprawling and in distinct opposition to the ethos of Small Box Games, spreading across multiple boxes and tiny expansions, the latter of which mostly functioned as stretch goals to entice crowdfunding backers. An abundance of keywords, variants and alternate modes rendered the Omen experience fractured, part of the reason I suspect John himself made the decision to repurchase the rights to his opus and reinvent it in a format that hews closer to his original intent for the game.

In this respect, Clowdus is also Knizian in the way he revisits his past work and refreshes it with skills he’s continued to develop over almost two decades – his first design, Politico, was released in 2007. Many of his 100+ design credits on BoardGameGeek exist as reimplementations of previous work, a term used in board games publishing when mechanics for a title are slightly adjusted before being rereleased under a new title, often with new artwork. One of my favourites of his more recent designs, 2023’s Hemloch: Dark Promenade, is the fourth reworking of the system and an incredible two player game of tug-of-war & area control requiring players to sit next to one another rather than across the table. It’s a nail-biting experience and player fortunes wax and wane with the reveal of a single card up until the last moments. Another highlight is 2022’s An Empty Throne, a trimmed down lane battler that bridges the gap between lighter fare like Schotten Totten and Clowdus’ own Omen while still retaining enough ‘edge’ to keep it hitting the table.

Hemloch

That’s not to say that Clowdus’ best titles are those which build directly on a previously laid foundation; In the Shadow of Atlas, another 2023 title, is perhaps his most underappreciated game to date and a joyous execution of hand management, card combo-ing and tempo considerations that justifies my love of two player gaming. The striking artwork is just the cherry on top of the design.

Art is yet another aspect of Small Box Games which brings a level of consistency between designs that may not have much in common mechanically. Liz Lahner & Aaron Nakahara are the most frequent artists across the current batch of 20 plus games available to purchase on the Small Box Games website and their unique styles match similarly unique art direction evoking futuristic worlds inhabited by crumbling machines, mysterious entities, hostile landscapes and occasionally, cute cats and cacti.

Shadow of Atlas

Unfortunately, a side-effect of the independence of Small Box Games is the difficulty in acquiring these games outside of the United States. While there is an occasional Kickstarter campaign that is open to international shipping, it’s not possible to simply pick them up at retail or even place an order online and have them arrive soon after. Each deck of cards is printed professionally, but Clowdus himself assembles each order, packs them and ships them out. John himself is not oblivious to this issue, and has done his best to make his work accessible in the form of Print and Play options on his website as well as TableTop Simulator Mods for some titles. Right now, there are eight Print and Play designs that are available for free, with another ten priced between $3-5USD, the bulk of which require eight A4 pages and a pair of scissors and ideally some card sleeves to put together and play. Having put together quite a few Print and Play games myself, I’ve found few easier and more effective than Small Box Games offerings, especially around issues with duplex printing and alignment.

An Empty Throne

While I eagerly await the upcoming content promised for Clowdus’ Omen reclamation, I’m equally excited to see what else he has in store for the future, even if the easiest way for me to play his games going forward is five bucks and a printer. For those interested in checking out his work, I’d recommend dipping your toes in with Omen, In the Shadow of Atlas, Hemloch: Dark Promenade, The North: Provenance or An Empty Throne.

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