GTM #218 - The Mansky Caper: A Design Diary
by Ken Franklin



In his Scientific American column, "Mathematical Games", Martin Gardner proposed a thought experiment: "Imagine one million boxes in front of you. All but one have a $5 bill. One triggers a thermonuclear explosion. How many boxes will you open?"  Plunder! was born from this quote.

In my original video game Plunder!, players were confronted with a room of 16 containers; some had cash, one a fabulous treasure, two had a jack-in-the-box, and one box had an explosion that destroyed everything in the room.


Plunder! was published in the spring of 1990. It has retained a small, loyal following and can be downloaded at http://www.whatisthe2gs.apple2.org.za/plunder


In 2002 I began to work on a tabletop version of the game.  It was virtually identical to the original.  I introduced the idea of two kinds of currency - yellow coins worth 10 and green coins worth 1. When a person left the room, they took their share, rounding down.  A small deck handled the "Boing!" Jack-in-the-box effects, and a jewel deck offered the treasure rewards.

The game was a hit among friends and relatives; I especially enjoyed watching my father-in-law Lee's hands tremble as he reached to flip a treasure card. So, when my son Matt announced he was going to GenCon in 2011 to sell his artwork, I went too - and brought "Plunder!" along in a Ziploc bag, hoping to break into the industry.

Not knowing ANYTHING about game publishing, I had not made a sell sheet or any appointments. Several interviews were abrupt and disappointing. However, at lunch on Sunday, Jordan Weisman let me demo the game - and signed me to a contract. It was then that I met the amazing Ray Wehrs.

Over the next 4 years, with the mentorship of Ray (President, Calliope Games) and Chris Leder (Roll For It!), the game went through several evolutions:

• The very creepy Jack-In-The-Box on the "Boing!" cards was replaced with an image of the adventurers letting out a collective "Gasp!"


• Differing values on the treasure cards were confusing, so we tried a series of room cards that showed the values of small, medium, and large treasures. This was still too fiddly.

• We considered special abilities for each player but had trouble balancing these abilities. We tried making the bombs survivable: we had separate bomb tokens saying "Safe!" (the bomb was disarmed), "You boom!" (you lose your treasure but others are unaffected), "Money booms!" (treasure collected is lost, but the room remains), and "Cave-in" (the room is destroyed).

• We replaced tens and ones with gems (worth 5) and coins (worth 1), but kept the rule forbidding making change. We introduced the concept of a common room; gems and coins were at risk until players took a turn to run to the common room and stash their winnings.

• We needed a backstory to make the game more of an adventure so we invented "Greenbeard the Pirate" and created a map of rooms that could be accessed simultaneously rather than sequentially. This markedly improved player interaction and introduced the "Kamikaze strategy": if someone was alone in a room with a big find, another player whose loot was stashed would enter the room with the express purpose of causing an explosion.  Collective shouts of surprise and delight told us we were getting close.


• At this point, the tabletop game industry was being inundated with

“Adventurers Looting Scary Sites" titles. Ray and Chris asked for a change in theme. I invented Al Mansky, a mash-up of Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Malone. Greenbeard's Cavern became Mansky's Mansion, the Common Room became the Getaway Car.  "The Mansky Caper" was born. Bomb tokens were replaced with a 12-sided die that included one new outcome: "Al Shows Up!" (everyone in the mansion loses their unsaved loot). The player map became a series of ten room cards; with only five used in any particular game, replayability improved. Testers were pleased with the new theme but the problem of character ability balance remained.


• After another discouraging playtest, my wife Debi voiced an idea. "These are mobsters - what if they owed each other favors, and had to use their abilities to help each other?" The Favor Token was born. Players could no longer use their own ability - but if they had a Favor token, they could give it to another player to force them to use their ability. This greatly improved player interaction, since players would offer their help to gain more Favor tokens. This single change introduced a unique mechanic without sacrificing the press-your-luck heart of the game.

• One last problem remained: if a lucky player found a stash of gems and made it to the car, they would often have an insurmountable lead. To solve this, we added the "Hey Buddy" rule: a player could confront another at the Getaway Car, discard a Favor from the game, and force both players to empty and divide their stashed loot.  The added tension of this catch-up mechanism has resulted in many surprising endings, and a margin of victory that often comes down to 10 points or less.

We finally have a unique mix of semi-cooperation, press-your-luck, and immersive gameplay that will appeal to a very wide audience. Al leaves for Boston at 8 tonight; we hit the place at 10. The Caper is on.

Ken Franklin is a retired military family physician who now invests his passion in designing and playing board games. He lives in Vicksburg, Michigan with his wife Debi, and gives all credit for his work to God.