Morels began with two passions, a gift, and a coming of age. The passions are games and mushrooms...playing them before and after every meal and eating them with nearly every meal. The gift was Antonio Carluccio's The Complete Mushroom from our friend Lauren Nelson on the occasion of my coming of age. The coming of age was my 33rd birthday for which Kaleen, knowing my affinity for all things Tolkien and that Hobbits, who notoriously love mushrooms, come of age at 33, planned a mushroom tasting party. My first taste of the hallowed (and hollowed) morel made for a night to remember.
Soon thereafter, I began developing a game mechanic that would simulate the feel of a walk in the woods. It took shape on paper, the mushrooms filled in the cards, and then the best thing a game designer can hope for happened. Theme fueled further mechanics and, in turn, those mechanics fueled further theme. There was synergy. The game built itself.
Playtesting revealed four things:
1. Morels was fun. Unanimously fun, even among scores of blind third party tests. This was a tremendous relief.
2. Between me, Kaleen, and our good friend Ryan Keedy, new strategic nuances were still cropping up at the 10th, 20th, 30th plays. The replayability hurdle, arguably the biggest, was cleared.
3. Many styles of play could produce victory. Playtesting revealed new approaches and possibilities.
4. My phrasing of the rules needed serious work.
After working out #4 and recruiting new playtesters to give the reworded rules a whirl, it was time to take the plunge. I came across the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators, found the absolutely ideal illustrator for Morels based on his portfolio, emailed him, and crossed my fingers that a) he would be available, b) he would be interested in the project, c) he would be affordable, and d) he would be a nice guy. Vince Dorse came through on all counts and we had lift off.
There were 25 illustrations to tackle. Having the benefit of working with a brilliant artist, Vince Dorse, it was enchanting to watch the illustrations take shape over the autumn and winter months of 2011-2012. In celebration of completing the game, we thought we'd create this gallery to profile the backstory and evolution of each card from concept to reality. The first step for each card was a dossier prepared for the Vince. Each one began with a dossier from me explaining one or more ideas for the card as well as the anatomy of the mushroom, the host trees that should grow nearby, and a few elements that could change between the day and night card. He would then sketch and we'd go back and forth with ideas and elaborations until we arrived at a final product. Here are all 18 mushroom illustrations, presented from dossier to final
Feel: French provencal
Idea for Setting: Three patches of 2-4 chanterelles (one patch in the foreground, two smaller in the background) growing among a continuous sheet of moss and small stones behind or beside a stone-masoned French country house. There are trees with boughs overhead, but whether individual or clustered, the trees are well spaced enough to see that there are broken skies with shafts of light passing through the clouds. We can figure that it has recently rained because the clouds are mixed grey and white, the moss is glistening richly verdant, there are droplets on the chanterelles, and drops from the boughs and the house.
Major Night change(s): During the day, the house window is open. There are a couple of apricots and a pie cooling on the sill (Chanterelles have a fragrant bouquet of apricots when you crack them open…this is one of the identification techniques. The apricot also comes through in the flavor…they are used as a sweet mushroom when cooking.) The window is being hit by sunlight. At night, the window is closed; the apricots and pie are gone. Now on the sill are chanterelles drying, illuminated by the yellowy glow from inside the house. The mossy ground is dark, but we can see that the chanterelles in the foreground have been picked, just the ½” stubs of stalks remaining above the moss. The smaller patches in the background remain.
What season for the illustration? Summer.
Where do Chanterelles grow? Mossy areas in mixed woods, often in patches of 3-4. It would be good to avoid any leaf litter in this illustration as we’re going to use leaf litter as a key element for the morels.Then Vince would do his thing and shoot me back something like this (pan and stick values are just placeholders in the sketches):
And finally this!
He started with this:
Which, not being of the artistic cast myself, I can only describe as magic :)
In the Cartouche: Biohazard symbol and an icon showing a hand with four cards.
Feel: Frightening, eery…10 year olds shouldn’t have nightmares, but their younger siblings might.
Idea for Setting: Very little in the way of scenery is visible…only the hint of a forest floor in the foreground with a single and reasonably sized Destroying Angel centered up on the card. Dominating the scene is a huge wraith rising behind the mushroom from green mist, a wraith not unlike the one from your Christmas Carol illustration, but seen head-on. Ring Wraith or Dementor are also in the vicinity. The robes are black and the arms outstretched. No bones…just scary darkness inside the robes. Green mist licks up like gossamer flame probing the night and surrounds the wraith, the mist extending to the upper corners of the card so that you can see it by the cartouche.
What season for the illustration? Doesn’t matter…just some bare, moist dirt around the mushroom with little opportunity to see trees because of the dominant wraith.
Feel: Classical Roman
Idea for Setting: 3 Porcini growing in the grass with Roman ruins stretching away on a coastal plain down to the sea. I like the thought of seeing the mountains and the sea with the slope of the land flattening out near the sea. Hopefully it will be fun playing with the different types of ruins available as elements. Columns, part of broken down coliseum, walls or other elements in the distance, etc.
Major Night change(s): During the day, there are tiny sailboats in the sea which are gone at night.
What season for the illustration? Late summer…August.
Where does Porcini grow? In the grass (we probably shouldn't use any moss, as moss will be key for the chanterelle). It does need to be somewhat near (anywhere from 5-15ft away) a tree or small stand of trees, but I’m thinking for this illustration that the trees are a very minor element. This will keep the focus on the ruins and the porcini. The 1-3 trees can be barely visible on the edge or however else you would do it. Paper Birch would beautifully complement the classical feel, plus I imagine it would be interesting to illustrate.
Feel: Sexy, whimsical
Idea for Setting: Grassy, circular glade in the forest. The glade is surrounded by a dense forest, trees upon trees with no horizon visible in any direction. For the forest, I imagine seeing mostly trunks, the ones at the front of the march creepy with roots like coiled fingernails, while the focus is on the circle of grass and the ring of mushrooms, maybe 15-20 of them viewed slightly from above (vantage somewhere between waste and head height?). The forest feels claustrophobic save for the opening of the glade and some sunlight streaming through only on that spot. Day is quiet.
Major Night change(s): At night, the Fairy Ring comes alive with a host of fairies flitting/dancing above the circle of mushrooms, maybe 5 or 7 or more of them (for the Destroying Angel, I was thinking one ominous fear-inspiring wraith rising up behind one mushroom, so for this one having a group of them dancing in a circle would offset the cards nicely). In my mind there are three types of fairy art:
Wallpaper for a four year old girl
Whimsical, befitting Midsummer Night’s Dream or Pan’s Labyrinth
Dang those fairies are hot
I think firmly between 2 and 3, definitely not 1. Dad likes it and Mom is only the slightest hint of tinge suspicious of her parenting skills when Dad plays the game with 7-year-old Joey. She writes it off as “boys will be boys” and perhaps secretly also thinks the fairies are hot.
What season for the illustration? Summer.
Where do Fairy Rings grow? On the ground among grass, in forests or on lawns.
Idea for Setting: Japanese garden, three or four shiitake growing on the side of a tree (spaced as in the prototype sketch). Key elements suggestions:
a) A gate and/or a pagoda akin to the pic below but different size and placement (I’ve seen nicer pagodas, but you get the idea. Gate style is spot on, but wouldn’t want it right in front like this…also wouldn’t need to see all of a pagoda, just enough to get the sense)
b) A pond with a koi, a bridge, and any cool ornamental elements you might have up your sleeves.
c) Mt Fuji in the background?
d) Somewhere clever and small is the Japanese character for shiitake, carved into the base of a bansai?
e) Lanterns that will comprise the major night change.
Major Night change: At night, Japanese-looking lanterns in garden are lit. As is the pagoda? Could look neat with the glow coming through the rice paper.
Minor Night change: At night, a koi that was barely visible in the pond in the day version is gone.
Where does Shiitake grow? On the side of shii trees (see ref pics).
Feel: Colonial, historic
Idea for Setting: A colonially dressed and wigged lawyer-looking type is walking on the far side of a colonial dirt road, looking very dignified with spectacles and purpose to his walk. An adolescent boy walks beside him, struggling to carry an armful of leather bound books. Two Lawyer’s Wig mushrooms grow by some carriage wheel ruts on the near side of the road in the foreground. Like the lawyer and his apprentice, one of the mushrooms is an old specimen and one is young (see ref pics). I’m imagining a perspective challenge given the height of the Old North Church and the necessity of seeing its top. Two possible solutions (?):
I like to shoot pictures of wildflowers with the camera right by the ground, shooting up with the sky as background. Similar to the pic on bottom left.
The mushrooms and lawyer are by a road elsewhere in Boston, with the Old North Church visible in the distance.
Major Night change(s): Drum roll even though you can see this coming…it is the fateful night of Revere’s ride. The lawyer and the boy are gone. All is quiet, but two lanterns glow in the church belfry.
What season for the illustration? April 18, 1775. There may not be anything growing in this illustration other than the mushrooms, though. The weather is clear and dry.
Where do Lawyer’s Wigs grow? Broken ground or grassy ground. No trees necessary.
(note the perspective issue in the sketch that we used for discussion:)
Tree Ear (also called Cloud Ear or Wood Ear just as an fyi)
Feel: Swamp…that glorious crossroads of vibrant growth and stagnant decay, bending toward the mystical in the night version.
Idea for Setting: Well, I was shot down on my original idea due to gross biological inaccuracy. I had envisioned it growing in the swamps of Louisiana. Can’t do it because they don’t grow in the US. Basically, I’d like to shoot for the classic Louisiana swamp feel but we need to have it in Asia. A tropical swamp that’s not overtly tropical (ie not broadleaf or only moderately broadleaf…not the huge fronds) would do nicely, like the mangrove swamps pictured below. So, here goes…
Tree ears are a jelly fungus, unique among the mushrooms in the game. In line with that singularity, how about a water based card in a tropical mangrove swamp? The swamp consists of mangroves, water, and a piece or two of floating wood that is trapped by the mangroves. It’s an eery scene (oh man, that’s too easy) with tree ears growing prolifically (10-15?) on a couple of more sickly looking mangrove trees (just a slightly different bark texture from the others and fewer or no leaves should do to communicate that they are dying) and the dead floating wood. Sunlight streams through in tiny and scattered shafts, contrasting with the prevailing darkness of the swamp.
Major Night change(s): The tree ears are bottom-lit from bioluminescence in the swamp water. The trees and floating debris are hardly visible, so the effect is a swamp full of faintly bottomlit ears and bright blue-silver specks in the water.
What season for the illustration? Summer
Where do Tree Ears grow? On trees…some living but stressed, some dying, some dead.
Morel (Black Morel, to be specific)
Feel: Classic…just mushrooms and forest
Idea for Setting: Three morels plainly visible, surrounded by a blanket of brown leaf litter. Blue sky is visible between the boughs of fiercely green trees. The morels are featured in the center, perhaps a tinge larger than most of the mushrooms since they are the sole character, but not huge. For perspective and scope, I’m thinking somewhere between the fairy ring and the destroying angel. For a direct translation to the box cover, we’ll want room for the game title scrawling from the upper left to upper center and room for icons in the bottom left and/or bottom right. Given these factors, I’m envisioning the goal as a simple but visually pleasing card featuring the natural colors of the morels set against green leaves and some undergrowth, brown leaf litter and trunks, and sky blue.
Major Night change(s): There is no night card.
What season for the illustration? Late spring. Most trees have leaves, perhaps a few with buds as well. Might want some fresh, bright green undergrowth.
Where do morels grow? In leaf litter during the spring on poplar, ash, or elm trees. Given the variety of trees and their respective artistic appeal, there is a choice to be made. See ref pics.
Hen of the Woods
At the beginning of the project, Vince and I did not yet have a dossier system worked out. We spoke about the hen of the woods in person, he took some notes, and then came up with this (!):
Ah, the honey fungus. This was the first mushroom that we did. We discussed it via email. In thinking about the honey mushroom, we came up with the idea of the changes between the day and night cards that became a hallmark of the art for this game. Here was that original email and Vince's sketches to follow. We had yet to work out the "cartouche" in the upper left and the style of the border and nameplate. Even at a glance, this card makes me hungry (and prompts the desire to watch "Planet Earth")...
-Beehive hanging from tree with slashes from bear claw. Honey is dripping onto the honey fungus below, making it glisten with beckoning sweetness. In "Day" version, bear can be seen in distance sitting and licking honey off his paws. In "Night" version, same illustration but bear is absent and hive is is no longer dripping (honey fungus still glistens with honey). Ah, this is the model! Illustration remains 80% the same, but something small changes from day to night, making the scene quieter, more still and lonely. The change in scene gives authenticity to the story that the "Day" card creates, as well as to the feeling of solitary foraging in the darkness of night.
Thanks for reading! If you're hungry for more and would like to see the full depth to the artistic process, Vince has been posting to his blog about the creation of Morels. The method to his wizardry as well as his insightful commentary and inviting humor can be found here:
Vince Dorse's Morels Blog
If you'd like to learn more about the game itself, Board Game Geek is the place!