It was probably a decade ago that I discovered the piecepack. Invented by James Kyle in 2001, the piecepack is a public-domain game system, a standard set of components designed to be combined and used in an infinite array of potential games, much like a standard deck of cards. It’s not a game itself, the same way that a deck of cards isn’t a game. It’s just a set of pieces—you supply the rules for the games you want to play.
The beauty of a public-domain standardized game system is that so long as your pieces contain the specified information, it doesn’t matter how they look—they’re still playable. Unfortunately, as I found, none of the piecepack designers out there quite shared my taste. The piecepack’s been around for twenty years, but I could never find a version I liked.
I love board games in part because they’re such sensory treats. A well-produced game brings me joy not only through how the rules and systems interact, but also the way it looks on my table, the way it feels to handle the pieces. The piecepack is a relatively theme-neutral game system, but I realized that I didn’t want it to be aesthetically neutral as well. In fact, quite the opposite: if I wasn’t going to get that sensory satisfaction through evocative illustrations, it was all the more important to me that the pieces themselves delight me, while staying true to the piecepack standard. The designs I could find for sale or for print-and-play just didn’t meet those criteria.
Some were too plain, and I knew they wouldn’t excite me on the table. Some were too gaudy; even just looking at their loud designs made my head hurt. One, the Infinite Board Game, the only commercially-available piecepack, actually had a bold design I rather liked, but reviewers had noted that it wasn’t precisely adherent to the standard—meaning some games were impossible to play with it—and the ink on the components had a tendency to scratch and rub off.
And so many of the designs were just a little too rough for my tastes. They didn’t feel balanced. The icons were wonky-looking. The font choices were too ornamental. I have no doubt that these design choices satisfied their creators, which is great! They weren’t designing for me. But since they weren’t designing for me, I realized, the only way to find a piecepack that satisfied me would be to make my own.
So in mid-2019, I started my design. At the time, the piecepack wasn’t the only way I was exploring game systems and multi-function game components. I’d also been watching Wilhelm Su work on the design of a highly condensed, multi-system deck of cards, which eventually became The Everdeck, and I even helped him proof a couple drafts and get photos. I loved the way the illustrations Wilhelm chose resembled ink-and-watercolor drawings. Years earlier, I’d fallen in love with that combination of crisp black ink and organic, fluid watercolor. I still think if I ever get a tattoo, there’s a good chance it will be in that style.
I took inspiration from that, and began a piecepack design with a splotchy watercolor wash as the background. For icons, I turned to Game-Icons.net, a fantastic library of thousands of Creative Commons-licensed vector icons. I poked away at it for the summer, and by August 2019, I had a nearly print-ready design. I’d decided I would print it on label paper and affix the stickers to clear acrylic tiles. I got the plexiglass and was ready to print.
And then… I didn’t.
Look, 2020 was definitely a shitshow of a year, what with that whole authoritarian US president and the pandemic and all that, but if I was honest with myself, that wasn’t why I didn’t put my piecepack together. I spent some time fighting with my inkjet printer to make it work with Ubuntu, but that wasn’t it, either. The reality was that I wasn’t happy with my design.
It was colorful and bold and had that cool watercolor texture, but it just wasn’t making my heart sing. I didn’t love it enough to commit. So I didn’t, and it languished unfinished for a year and a half.
Until this week, when I finally picked it back up and decided to redesign.
I scrapped the watercolor idea, which meant I was left with the same question: How do I add interest to a square field of color? I started thinking about geometric tile designs. I thought about historical Islamic art, with its intricate geometric patterns—developed in a cultural context that strongly discouraged creating images of human figures. I considered the Talavera tilework I’d seen in Puebla, Mexico. I even thought about the texture of the glazed terracotta blocks in Minecraft, which can be arranged and oriented to form dazzling designs.
But ultimately, the inspiration I settled on was a little closer to home: quilt blocks. In my new design, I was happy to drop the grid lines bisecting the tile faces, but I still wanted to subtly evoke a square, tileable grid. I realized I could find that in quilt blocks, specifically quilt blocks pieced with half-square triangles. Plus, my mom’s been a quilter for years and years, and I liked that added bit of personal resonance. A collection of 4×4 half-square triangle designs with rotational symmetry proved to be exactly what I needed, and I decided on a separate design for each of the four piecepack suits. I spent just about an hour in Inkscape, and…
As soon as I saw them next to each other, I knew I’d found the design I wanted. The rest of the week was spent making individual tile faces, as well as coin and dice faces. Finally, yesterday, I put the piecepack together. I printed the labels on label paper and sprayed them with several coats of Mod Podge to seal them. They went onto the acrylic I had: 2.25″ square tiles and 1″ diameter circular coins. For dice, I used blank indented dice from The Game Crafter, which I’d picked up for this purpose a while back.
I spent almost the entire day putting it all together, with backlogged episodes of The Magnus Archives to keep me company as I measured, sliced, sprayed, peeled, and stuck. Now I can finally say I have a piecepack I’m happy with.
There are, admittedly, some rough edges. First, the margin on the tiles is a little larger than I’d like. If I were doing it again from scratch, I’d make the square tile labels 2⅛” wide instead of 2″, so there was less empty space between tiles. The dice also don’t blow me away—they’re functional enough, but I think they’d look better as colored labels on colorless transparent dice, to match with the acrylic of the tiles and coins.
But these are pretty minor. Mostly, I’m jazzed.
What next, now that this is done? Well, there are a lot of piecepack games to play! I’m also quite curious about using the piecepack to design my own games—the spark of inspiration that got me to finally redesign my version was actually daydreaming about making my own piecepack game. I’ve also already designed tile faces for two of the expansions for the piecepack, Four Seasons and Playing Cards, so I may, in the near future, repeat the building process for those expansions.
And of course, I want to give back. Before long, I plan to make the source files available for download, both here and on the BoardGameGeek piecepack page, so anyone who likes my design can play with it. I plan to share the files both as ready-to-print PDFs and editable vector files. I’m also toying with the idea of putting a version of the piecepack using this design up for sale on The Game Crafter, in case anyone likes the look but doesn’t want to go through the hassle of making their own.
Finally, I haven’t really written here about my interest in open game systems, and the work I’ve done over the last few years to create an (ever-growing) “ultimate board game kit”. Seems odd, especially since that passion is what drove me to the piecepack. Maybe I’ll do that sometime?
So that’s the story. I’m thrilled to have this done at last—it feels so good to make something with my hands, especially something at the intersection of tabletop games and open culture.
- Infinite Board Game photo by Dylan Philips (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).
- Piecepack icons (sun, moon, fleur de lys, crown, and ink circle) from Lorc and Delapouite of Game-Icons.net (CC BY 3.0).
- Islamic architecture photo by Engin Akyurt (public domain)
- Talavera tiles photo by Ali Eminov (CC BY-NC 2.0)