Designer Diary: In the Palm of Your Hand

Designer Diary: In the Palm of Your Hand

In the long text that follows, I explain the origin of the game In the Palm of Your Hand. I don't specify the rules, so if you don't know what it is, check out the rulebook or watch a few YouTube videos that explain the game before you continue reading.

This tactile communication game was released in Europe at the beginning of November 2020, and I have been touched by the very positive feedback and especially by the fact of having been able to transmit emotions to the players. It's a huge satisfaction to see many players enjoy this game, in which I put a lot of ambition, and to see them understand what before the release was only an author's intention. The game was just released in the U.S. on May 24, 2022, and I'm excited to hear what American players think about the game.

Introduction: Too Easy?

A month before the 2019 Cannes International Games Festival (Cannes for short), while scheduling an appointment with a publisher to discuss a prototype, I shared a vague idea that had been bouncing around my mind for some time. "If you are interested in the concept", I suggested, "I'll try to have a prototype to show you at Cannes." "Sure, why not?" they replied.

So there I was a few weeks later in Cannes with a prototype haphazardly created in a few weeks, and the response was...excellent! The game was signed a few weeks later.

Does that seem too easy? Well, the game was actually inspired by a little idea present somewhere on the edges of my consciousness that I'd been chewing on for two years. Not to mention, that not everything was developed at the time of signing, so a lot of playtesting still had to take place. And, of course, the game has more than one hundred unique illustrations, so I had to prepare a lot of briefings for the illustrators.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
1. The Objective: Search for New Sensations

I am a game lover and designer in my free time. I don't play as often as many others, but I probably read about games more than average (in articles, forums, magazines, and game design books), and I keep up to date with new releases — with a particular interest in innovation. Tric TracLudovox, and now the multitude of YouTube channels help me keep an eye on basically everything, without having to read too many rulebooks. Finally, I diligently listen to several podcasts. (Ludology is the one I recommend the most as a game designer, especially the old episodes with the excellent Geoff Engelstein; in French, La Radio des Jeux and Proxi-Jeux are also essential.)

The creative process of In the Palm of Your Hand began with an observation nourished by this constant consumption of board game info: Board games most often fail to provide feelings other than intellectual pleasure, frustration, or fun. Some games try to convey different emotions, but rarely through their mechanisms — more generally through their theme, and even that is inconsistent. (This observation is becoming less and less true since many designers are looking for ways to offer truly original gaming experiences, as evidenced by the profusion of exceptional titles in recent years.)

A parallel observation: Board games rarely manage to tell a story effectively. There have been (and continue to be) attempts to do so, but game mechanisms are often not what support the development of a cohesive story. Narrative games and legacy games are games and tell a story, but they're often only indirectly related. (Again, this is becoming less and less true.)

From these observations, a question arises: Is this dual struggle of board games related to the immaturity of the industry, or is it fundamentally linked to the nature of board games? Could we find ways to bring different emotions to life through board games as a medium?

While pondering this question, I wrote a small note on July 12, 2017:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I know, my handwriting is bad. It reads:
—Touch /
—Interaction between players
Touch is one of the most special and intimate of the five senses; holding a person's hand or feeling a caress in your own can make your whole being vibrate. The idea of making a touch-based game stayed in a corner of my mind. I revisited it from time to time, but without building anything concrete for about two years. Regularly, additional elements were added to support this idea. Among various inspirations, I remember: 1. the particular feeling of being blindfolded in When I Dream, and 2. Into the Wood, a two-player role-playing game in which both players' wrists are connected by a ribbon that gradually shortens. (I've never played it; I just heard about it on a podcast.)

Board Game: In the Palm of Your Hand
As the aforementioned Cannes show approached, I decided to explore my vague idea further and started thinking more actively about how to develop it. I first imagined a love story in which a person is guided through the landscapes of their dreams before meeting their partner at the end of the road. The player must then, once they wake up, retrace the same path and find the person who guided them.

Ultimately, I abandoned the spatial dimension and the idea of a progressing over tiles. I also shelved the romantic theme, but kept the name "In the Palm of Your Hand", which really conveyed the concept and atmosphere I wanted the game to have. (A different working title was "Love Makes You Blind".)

Time was running out if I wanted to be able to present something at Cannes, so I went with the simplest idea: Use touch to make people guess cards. I tested it first with relatively simple cards (the places in Mysterium) and two guinea pigs (my aunt and cousin). I provided them with some objects — sponge, string, piece of fabric, small wooden and plastic objects — and asked one of them to make the other guess (with their eyes closed) one of the several cards on the table. This proved to be very promising, but also surprisingly too easy. At this point in time, everything was allowed, including manipulating the other player's hand and touching it directly with your fingers, which made the game much simpler (and more invasive).

So I tried again with more complex cards (Dixit), and it was better. I created the simplest scoring system I could and tested it again. I had what I was looking for: The sensations were new, original, and pleasant (most of the time); touching someone's palm created some intimacy between players and sometimes even triggered emotions; and even those who were not deeply immersed in the theme of the game had fun, too!

When I presented the game at the "Off" in Cannes (an after-hours event that showcases prototypes) and to publishers at the show, the game proved to be very popular. Some players even came back to show the game to their friends; others told me they heard people talking about it and had their interest piqued. The enthusiasm was really pleasing, and I knew I had something great. When I showed the game to La Boîte de Jeu (who I met with for a completely different prototype), they were immediately taken with the game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

2. Develop the Game: Removing Defects

However, even though the concept worked very well, the game was not fully developed. The final product is a true collaboration with La Boîte de Jeu, and I actually can't remember what comes from them or me; it really is a joint design.

One of the game's major flaws during development was the waiting time for players who weren't playing one of the main roles: guesser or active player. One of the main goals was to reduce downtime for these other players.

In the first version of the game, players had to guess three different cards: one in which you touched the guesser's whole hand, the second touching only the fingers, and the third touching only the palm. We quickly decided to reduce the goal to two cards, which shortened the waiting time and limited the use of memory, an aspect that not everyone enjoyed.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Here I'd like to give some strategic advice to new players: Fingers are actually much more sensitive than the palm, so feel free to mime on your partner's fingers when making them guess.

Another change we made early on was playing in (fixed) teams of two players. Before, no matter the player count, everyone played individually (as proposed in the rules for a three-player game). How it worked was the active player mimed with objects for the player to their left, who had their eyes closed. Then in the next round, the latter would mime for the player to their left, etc. With more than four players, the wait between playing one of the main roles could be far too long. Playing in fixed teams made it possible to accelerate taking turns and for the game to include up to eight players. In addition, "passive" players became more involved since their team got to agree on which card to play to hopefully confuse the guesser.

Other rules were added or tweaked to limit the waiting time as much as possible, like forbidding players from testing the mime on themselves or redoing a mime.

In the initial prototype, the target card was placed face up on the table and therefore visible to everyone except the player who closed their eyes. We quickly realized that keeping everyone's cards secret was much more interesting. Now the "passive" players (who would add a card to confuse the guesser) had to focus on the mime and try to project what the guesser felt in their hand. This made them much more engaged, and their role became more interesting. It refocused the whole experience on the central mechanism of the game: touch.

As a designer, there were some necessary changes that I found more difficult to accept than others. In particular, introducing the ban on touching your partner's hand directly. At first, it seemed to me to go against the intention of the game (to create intimacy between players) and limited the creativity that players could use, but La Boîte de Jeu convinced me that players should really touch each other only with the eleven different objects. I was ultimately convinced after seeing that a significant number of players found it too intrusive to have their hands touched directly, to the point of not wanting to play. (They shouldn't play with my wife, who likes to bite my hand whenever she sees an animal on a card.) This choice had another advantage: It prevented the game from being too easy, and therefore allowed more freedom with what could be illustrated on the cards.

I'll skip the discussions on the number of cards in hand and the number of red-herring cards placed by "passive" players that changed according to the number of players. In general, our guideline was to make things as simple as possible, favoring accessibility and fluidity. It is in this spirit that we also removed the miming constraints, i.e., on the fingers or on the palm, before reintroducing them along with other constraints in the expert mode. This increases the replayability of the game by forcing players to be creative and find new ways to guess cards they already know.

Another important aspect of the game's development was the choice of items. From the beginning, I tried to have a variety of shapes, textures, weights, materials, etc. During development, we tried to make a list of complementary objects that allowed the widest possible variety of sensations, while being manufacturable and available at a reasonable price. We tested a lot of things. I have only one regret: Not finding a really slimy object to put in the box.

We also made note of how frequently each object was used and adapted the cards according to that data.

3. Final Concept: One Hundred Cards to Live a Life

Very quickly, we had to answer the question of what theme and graphic approach the game should have. There were a hundred cards to make, and La Boîte de Jeu wanted to release the game fairly soon.

One thing was clear from the beginning: We wanted the game to stand out graphically from Dixit and the countless other image association games which, for the most part, lean on dreamlike illustrations and feelings.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
For my part, I thought the number of cards available made it possible to tell a story, and La Boîte de Jeu agreed to start with this idea. I first imagined a shamanism theme in which we could recount both the life of the shaman and describe their mythology. I like this theme because it fits the experience of having a small astral journey with my eyes closed, but La Boîte de Jeu didn't want to veer into cultural appropriation, so we sought a more mainstream theme.

I believe it was Gregory from La Boîte de Jeu who suggested that the objects would be from a grandfather's souvenir box, something you'd find in the attic. I liked the idea immediately, and we quickly agreed that it brought a perfect overall coherence to the game — the small objects gathered over a lifetime, with photos and other memories hidden in a box like in the movie Amélie. The cards became all the memories that let us retrace our grandfather's life. The grandfather closes his eyes, and as their grandchild mimes a memory in his hand, he recalls his memories. The intimate and emotional atmosphere of the game was perfectly expressed by this theme. I am beyond happy that we landed on a positive, unifying, and fairly universal theme.

I recently read the excellent comic book "À Travers" by Tom Haugomat, which recounts a man's life with a single image per page without any text. I wanted to do the same for In the Palm of Your Hand.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
And so, the last thing for me to do was create one hundred briefings for the many illustrators detailing what to show on each cards.

The difficulty was that, in addition to the limitation of all cards needing to tell a story, they also needed to be interesting to mime with several options for players to focus on. Also, we wanted to switch up the objects they represented (photos, tickets, etc) to reinforce the "souvenir box" aspect. Finally, the cards had to have enough similarities that the "passive" players could find suitable red herring cards. To accomplish this, I tried to avoid putting the same objects on multiple cards, but instead had different objects that could be mimed in similar ways.

To get started, I wrote a short summary of Leon's life and family, then made a list of interesting elements to mime and a list of different objects/types of photos that the cards could represent. While making the illustration briefs, I used these summaries to pick what might make sense for the scene I wanted to describe. Gradually, Leon's life was built, from passing anecdotes to significant events.

In reality, all the steps I've described were done in parallel. Over the course of ten months, I worked intensively on the briefings; I added to my list of interesting elements when ideas popped up; and I wrote briefs as I went along, depending on the availability of the illustrators. The first step was made by Gaël Lannurien, who made "character design" boards for the main characters, which served as a reference for the other illustrators.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Once we had about two-thirds of the cards finalized, we tested the game more widely by looking at which objects were used less frequently in order to adjust the remaining cards accordingly. I also tried to avoid gender clichés as much as possible and ensure a relatively balanced representation of male and female characters across all the cards.

It was such an immense pleasure and a source of continuous motivation to receive the finished cards from these ultra-talented artists. They were able to bring these characters to life, tell their story, and create an original setting. I'm thrilled with the visuals of the game and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

That's it. We've "already" reached the end of this diary. In some parts, it's a little disjointed, and I would have liked to develop some aspects even more, but I've already spent too much time on it, so I'll just thank you for reading so far and let you go play In the Palm of Your Hand, either with a copy from your FLGS, or one found at Origins Game Fair (booth #954) or Gen Con (booth #2109). Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, and I'll answer them the best I can.
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