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Made with Launch Lab: Diatoms

Made with Launch Lab

Made with Launch Lab: Diatoms

In a 15-year career as a game designer, Sabrina Culyba has worked on video games, theme park rides, VR experiences. But this is her first time designing a board game about mosaic algae patterns.

Not just an experienced designer, Sabrina is also a highly regarded author and teacher on game design. Here, she talks to Launch Lab about her process for turning an idea into a fully-realised game.

David Scott, 12 Dec 2023

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Diatoms is a cosy tile-placement game of microscopic proportions

Diatoms is a cosy tile-placement game of microscopic proportions

It’s not every day you can turn your passion for fractions into a successful family board game, but that’s just what Sabrina Culyba has been able to do with Diatoms. A tile-placement and pattern-making game of creating microscopic mosaic patterns from algae, the game was more than 300% funded on Kickstarter during its recent crowdfunding game. 

“When we funded I was thrilled, as it meant we could make this game for real. By the end of the Kickstarter campaign we had 1400 backers and homes for about 1500 copies of the game, and that was truly amazing,” reflects Sabrina.

Sabrina with the box of her new game, Diatoms

Sabrina with the box of her new game, Diatoms

“There’s nothing like actually doing a process yourself to help you understand what you “know” and everything you don’t know. And the Kickstarter is really just one milestone on a longer journey; now I’m in the process of finalizing the manufacturing files before the end of the year.”

For a game that’s based on an obscure Victorian-era art form, it has still clearly resonated with a huge number of people; the game won the 2023 Cardboard Edison award and players have commented on how much they enjoy not just the theme, but the tactical nature, aesthetics and thinking required during play.

“The iridescent diatom tiles and the dual-layer microscope slide boards draw people in immediately. As the game unfolds, the patterns formed by the hexagon water tiles in the center of the table also are captivating. The handheld lens tool is both fun and useful to use as well.”

But it wasn’t always a sure thing. Reflecting on the process to now, Sabrina notes she went through dozens of major iterations - and more than half a dozen minor tweaks - before landing on the final version of the game backers are eagerly waiting for. 

What's inside the Diatoms box? Glorious coloured tiles!

What's inside the Diatoms box? Glorious coloured tiles!

“Diatoms originated from an effort to create a family-weight game to support math identity - specifically spatial visualizations and fractions. There was a period of about six months when I had a version of the game I felt had promise but was missing the appeal and focus that a theme brings to a game,” says Sabrina. “I felt very stuck and questioned if the game would go anywhere.

“About halfway through development of the game, I learned about diatoms and diatom mosaics after I happened upon a sign about diatoms at the Baltimore aquarium. This became the theme of the game, and the inspiration for the final game design.”

“I think people who are not familiar with the game design process often don’t realize how much iteration typically goes into a game before it’s published,” she concludes.

The lesson for aspiring game designers: go for a walk and let inspiration come to you outside your office!  “Sometimes you’ll be stuck and inspiration will come from unexpected places. So get out of your head and out of your office. Break your routine. Let your sticky design problems simmer on your brain’s back burner while you visit some unexpected places.”

“The biggest challenge when designing for tabletop is that the engine of gameplay is the mind of the player”, Sabrina continues, “which means you have to give players a mental model for the game in order for them to start playing and for them to finish playing successfully.”

“That is a big challenge and something that can separate an okay tabletop game experience from a fantastic one.”

When it came to translating her ideas into a physical game, Sabrina said she used a mix of handmade components to start with. “I haven’t yet held a complete, fully produced copy yet. But I do remember what it was like to get the retail-quality game box from Launch Tabletop, and that made it all feel real! I heard about the platform in 2022 and have used it to create the boxes that fit the prototypes I’ve been making for review copies. The quality is fantastic, and both the prices and turnaround time were very reasonable, so I’d definitely use Launch Tabletop again.”

Gamers might not have to wait too long to try another game from Sabrina either, with three other games well into serious playtesting. “I also have half a dozen other games that have potential but aren’t yet to a level where I’m doing cold playtesting with them. Nearly all these games are co-op games designed for kids and adults to play together, and they generally skew younger than Diatoms.”

You can follow Sabrina Culyba’s game design journey via her website, Ludoliminal.

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