During most of 2020, playtesting was all online. With little desire to master the necessary digital skills, I turned my attention to games that could be played over Zoom, without using Tabletop Simulator or similar. I spent much of the year designing Roll & Write games where playtesters could print out a single sheet and dice rolls could be shared.

I produced a series of PnP roll & writes of varying sizes and complexities, all which could be played with standard D6s. But I started to think about what else you could do with the same basic format… I wanted to create something that felt new and different but that shared the flexibility of the format. 

Four Notepad Games: Roll & writes designed during the first half of 2020

“Roll and _____”

I began to think of other verbs that could replace ‘write’ in the ‘Roll & Write’ genre. What else could be done with paper? ‘Roll and Erase’… ‘Roll and Stick’… ‘Roll & Fold’… ‘Roll and Roll’ (roll the paper up – yeah, I know, stupid idea). ‘Roll and Cut’. Cutting up a paper felt instantly interesting. I was immediately drawn to the idea that when you’re cutting up a page you can’t erase your decision, once a cut is made, it’s made. No Takesie Backsies. As you cut up a page, the game physically changes, the paper gets smaller and the challenge develops. 

 

Initial Design

My initial ideas and early prototypes were entirely mechanically driven, there was no hint of a theme. I decided I wanted a game in which players cut up a grid containing icons in some of the cells with the aim of splitting the paper up so that each icon is on a separate piece of paper. I decided that the roll of the dice should determine the line that you can cut along. So even the first prototype used the same system – roll two dice, choose the colour from one die (to determine the colour line you cut along) and the number from the other (to determine the length of the cut). 

There are three regular shapes that tessellate perfectly – squares, hexagons and triangles. Digsaw uses triangles, but I experimented with both squares and hexagons first. I tried square grids with red and blue lines running vertically and horizontally, and also grids with different coloured lines at different points. Two colours felt too few – you always had too many options of lines to cut along, six was too restrictive and frustrating. 

Experiments with a hex grid, didn’t go well. The bendy lines threw up lots of problems – tracking your cuts and being able to visualise what a specific cut will do. It needed different colours in different places, which was messy and confusing. After one solo playtest, this was rapidly abandoned.

But the triangle grid worked like a charm. Three colours of lines, running in three different directions. After rolling the dice and deciding which to use for the number and which for the colour, you could pick any line in that colour, all running parallel and cut straight along it. The 60 degree angles that the lines meet at, meant that cells could be cut out with fewer snips. 

Early experiments with a small grid of triangles helped me establish the cutting rules. 

  • As soon as you cut along a line, the opened edges of this line become edges of the page. You may cut in from any open edge.
  • You may cut over a point that a cut has reached to, but you may not cut over a completely bisected line. 
  • You may choose any available line of the right colour, but you must cut the whole distance. If you are unable to cut the whole distance on the chosen line, you must take a penalty – reducing the (multiplying) value of one of the types of icons. 

Exploring Theme

Once the core mechanics were clear, I started to explore theme. My games often arise from a mechanical concept, but I want the theme to feel integrated. As I was dividing up the paper into sections and carefully removing items on their own, it struck me that there were clear similarities between this activity and archeologists working on a dig site. Artefacts (icons in cells) discovered in a dig would need to be carefully removed, on their own, without damaging other artefacts that may be nearby. The soil which filled the bulk of the site (the empty cells on the grid), were not important. Artefacts could come out with soil or without it. Soil could come out on its own and it wouldn’t matter. 

The name quickly followed. It’s one of the few games I’ve designed where the name has never changed. The game feels a bit like a jigsaw, but where the puzzle is separating the pieces, not putting them together. ‘Dig’ relates to the theme and ‘Saw’ to the cutting mechanic. Digsaw was born. 

I leaned into the theme when designing the rest of the mechanics. All icons in the original, purely mechanical, versions of the game were worth the same amount. But now they were artefacts, it felt like some should be worth more than others. Bones, ceramics, and jewels, in that order of value. Originally there were the same number of each icon, but I wanted to make dig sites where less valuable bones were easier to come by, but the more valuable jewels were rarer. 

Playtesting and Development

From the first playtest with other people, it was clear that the game sparked delight. It was exciting to see players puzzling over increasingly crazy shaped pieces of paper, held together by small sections. The ‘doh’ moments players experienced when making a cut that they hadn’t fully thought through were priceless. It felt interesting and different. But I didn’t know what else to do with it. 

The game was shelved for a while… almost 2 years. When in-person playtesting started again, we were focussing on playing all the games we’d designed that we couldn’t play online. In fact, it wasn’t until I had nothing new to take to my weekly playtest that I pulled Digsaw out again. 

To be honest, I had sort of forgotten about it. It fell into a Covid time-warp. From the first cut, there were squeals of delight. It still felt different, it still felt exciting. With the encouragement of the London playtesters, I was spurred on to develop the game further. It was clear that the playtesters wanted to play again, but they wanted different boards and new challenges.

I started working on different dig sites with varying levels of difficulty. The second dig site was similar to the first, but with the artefacts mostly clumped together in the middle, making extraction more difficult. The third dig site was littered with artefacts, but they were of a lesser initial value. The fourth dig site contained a number of unexploded World War II bombs – these had to be removed with care or they would lose you points. The fifth dig site was riddled with sections of granite that couldn’t be cut through. These remain the five levels in the published version. 

I actually created super-advanced versions of each of the five levels – where half the dig site was printed on one side of the paper, and the other half on the back of the paper. I enjoyed the challenge of the double sided sheets, but others found it caused immense frustration and led to a few angry departures from the game after rogue cuts – and with the gentle encouragement of the lovely folks at Stronghold Games, I acquiesced. 

It was important to make sure that different players could play different levels simultaneously. A new player could play on Level 1, while an experienced player would play Level 5, but they could compete on scores. So I tweaked the sheets so that each level would produce the same maximum score. I did a bunch of solo tests using the same dice rolls to make decisions on multiple sheets of different levels (single and double sided).

Working with Stronghold Games

I pitched Digsaw to Travis at Stronghold Games at Essen 2022. He liked the game, but wanted bonuses that could chain. He was right. I added small stars that, when removed with artefacts of matching colours, would give players a bonus cut – on any colour line. If you set up your sheet in the right way, one bonus cut can lead to another and another. The stars give no penalties, just extra cuts. They gleam – waiting for you to activate them with a swish of your scissors. 

Working with Stronghold Games has been terrific. The box art is fabulous and the production is superb. One of the things I was worried about when I started pitching the game was that the box might only include the pads and players would have to use their own scissors. But Stronghold have added 6 pairs! All those scissors! Fabulous.