Part 3 - Waspam and the Search. Thorny Games in Nicaragua

After our few days with the students in Bilwi, it was off to our final destination: Waspam. Daphny, James, Nola and I would meet up there, but travel separately. Nola and I would take a five hour bus ride to get there. I would have taken a picture of the bus if I could, but I was packed so tightly that I could not physically lift my arms to raise my phone. At any rate though, after a grueling bus ride we arrived at our second location.

Squarely on the River Coco, Waspam was much smaller than Bilwi. Basically a single main dirt road right on the side of the river about 20-30 shops long, fed into by smaller tributaries of housing.

Now, the plan in Waspam is to meet as many deaf individuals as possible who previously have not had access to sign language education. If there are enough of a certain age, or an established community or network, it may be a strong contender for funding a teacher into the community.

Alternatively, if young enough children are found who might be good candidates, it may be possible to arrange host families in a town like BIlwi where they can stay to learn sign language. Even if they can only spend a year or two learning, the process of learning language, any language, awakens parts of our brain that affect our development immensely. Even a basic exposure to language education in this way can be life changing, and unlock a child’s ability to form more complex methods of home signing with their family and friends, even if it’s not through official ISN.

When we got to Waspam, the plan was to go to the hospital in the morning to get a list of deaf individuals from a list they had. Unfortunately, such records were only kept for adults who had previously sought health services. We’d follow their leads, but also ask around the town.

Language Deprivation

What does it mean to be deprived of language? Essentially it's when a young person has no means to learn language during their most formative years. The most common way in which language deprivation happens in the modern world is when a deaf individual, born to hearing parents (as 90%+ of deaf individuals are) doesn't get access to sign language education at an early enough age, usually due to lack of educational access or knowledge on behalf of the parents.

A human brain that doesn't have access to language at a young age will develop differently. First of all, it will greatly reduce their ability to actually learn language later on, even with qualified teachers (they will only be able to process the language as strictly visual input rather than processing it with the pieces of the human brain that usually develop hard-wired for language). Second, without access to social communication, language deprivation can severely hinder how one views the world, impeding a "Theory of Mind" (in other words, that others have their own mental states and don't just share the same feelings and perspectives that they have - see this article for a review on linguistic deprivation and its consequences).

Optimally, language acquisition starts very young, and the period until age 5 is usually called the critical period. But one thing that sometimes gets lost while reading about this phenomena is just how variable a thing language proficiency is. It's not a switch. Just because someone doesn't have access to sign language doesn't mean they'll show all of these symptoms. There are so many variables.

Grace, the Pastor’s Daughter

Surprisingly finding folks to interview was remarkably easy. The first night we were there, James asked a woman working at the pizza place where we were eating (power had gone out for the entire town, and it was the only place to eat with a generator) if she knew any deaf individuals.

“The pastor’s daughter, for one” she replied. So it was decided, we had our first interview for the morning.

It was a ways down a single dirt road when we got to their house. We were escorted by her brother in-law. After arriving, we met Grace (not her real name, but let’s stick with it).

Now, before meeting Grace my main exposure to language deprived adults had been through documentaries such as and ). Now what was amazing about Grace was, despite the fact that she had never had any official language learning experience, she was extremely capable and adaptable. She still was mainly reserved to her house, but there she raised two children (who both where there when we arrived) and made crafts that could be sold at the local market to help support her family. She was outgoing, smiled and with the help of her brother-in-law through home signs they had, was able to communicate pretty well with our group (Daphny did the majority of the communication, being both deaf and Nica).

We gave her a list of items that we asked her to identify for us. Stuff like a picture of an apple, a pig, a washing machine. One by one, she signed them as she would to her family - generally pantomimed gestures, but they were quick and unambiguous. If she wanted to communicate something she needed, or something she had seen, she was able to do it and know when it had been communicated. At the time, this didn’t even register as being exceptional, but trust me, it will in a moment.

Of all the folks we interviewed, Grace was an extreme. Highly developed home signs, able to perform fairly complex tasks to earn a living (while she couldn’t do arithmetic, she could recognize numbers that appeared on her sewing equipment). She laughed with us, and even tried to give me one of her bowls made of pine-needles as gifts while we were leaving (I have it in my office now, though I insisted on paying her for it).

Over the day, we would interview at least six more people. Finding deaf individuals was very easy, both through the health records and simply asking on the street. By the end, I was able to appreciate though, just how exceptional Grace’s life was.


One of the next folks we interviewed was Sofia, a young woman in her twenties. She lived in the small apartment behind a stall which her family operated. When we came, she was watching television and the rest of her family was away. It was quickly apparent that we had found Sofia, but had to wait for the rest of her family to come back before we could attempt any communication and to get her permission to be interviewed.

Sofia could handle basic transactions at the stall, and was trusted to stay there for short periods of time while her family was out, but it quickly became apparent that her ability to do so was pretty limited. She could only sell the sodas they had in the cooler, and only for exact change. For any other transaction, she would motion that the customer needed to wait until someone else returned.

 Part of Sofia's stall - it was shared by a few businesses.

Part of Sofia's stall - it was shared by a few businesses.

Once her mother returned, we got permission from Sofia and her mother to ask her a few questions. Until this point it wasn’t completely clear to me just how limited her ability to communicate was.

Daphny held out the book of pictures to Sophia and asked her to sign the pictures she could in any way she could. She did a few examples to illustrate what she meant. Sophia nodded and Daphny pointed to the first picture, an apple.

Sophia raised a couple of fingers to her mouth to indicate food.

The came sandwich.

Same thing, food.

And pig. Same thing.

Daphny repeatedly would indicate that she was looking for more and mime the item being pointed to. Sophia would nod that she understood and mimic Daphny's improvised sign for that item, but quickly regress back to not being able to distinguish between a huge variety of items.

There was no distinction between a huge number of Sophia’s signs, what she couldn’t point to, she made a few motions that would indicate how one would interact with the object but that was it. Unfortunately, that was the extent of her ability to communicate, and by all accounts I heard from James afterwards, the critical points in her development had already been closed off. If intervention happens for a child when they're in that critical period, they will still be able to develop full language competency. After that, there's still a period of time in which they'll be able to develop a pretty large vocabulary and improve their station in life dramatically - this period seems to be until age 17 or so. Following that age, all accounts are that it is extremely hard to acquire a first language.

So what made Grace and Sofia so different? Of course, it's impossible to say for sure, but the folks there had a few theories. Certainly from a prominent family where many of the members were literate and likely had time to care for Grace, even if she never had exposure to sign language, may have made a big difference. But one factor that was most striking to us was that Grace had a sister about her age. From the brother-in-law, we heard that they were very close and spent much of their childhood together. Having someone close to connect to, the theory goes, may help someone form many of these social communication cues in their brain, even if they lack access to a formal language.

Final Notes

Access to sign language education is a core part of community. It's a vital service that allows so many individuals to live full lives, and it's something that often goes unnoticed.

It's easy to think of it similar to literacy, a vital part of education - but it's way more fundamental. It's a first language. It's what allows the brain to develop and make social connections.

Everyone's story with language is unique, and my time in Waspam definitely drove that home. But seeing the difference between the kids in Bilwi and those in Waspam was stark. Even with a single room, they're given a lease and an opportunity to live a full life. But they're also have their connections with each other. The most fundamental thing that language provides us all.

Part 2 - Bilwi and the National Anthem. Thorny Games in Nicaragua.

Approaching Bilwi it was clear that even the largest city on the Miskito coast was going to be a very different experience than the brief glimpses I got of Managua in my evening there.

The main purpose of this trip was to gauge the state of the deaf community in Waspam and whether or not it would make sense for NSLP to expand its efforts into the city. However, while in the area, the plan was to stop for a few days in Bilwi, where James would teach a lesson in mythology (a particularly passionate topic of his), visit Daphny (his old student who is now the primary deaf sign language educator in the city), and work on preparing for a special occasion.

The classroom for deaf students was a stand-alone building on the far side of the garden.

The class was small, but about 10-11 students attended classes daily (this was to double in the days we left after the school acquired their first school bus, allowing them to accept younger children as well).

Classes are co-taught between Adelma (a hearing teacher fluent in ISN) and Daphny (a deaf native speaker of ISN). Having one native speaker per classroom is a fundamental part of how NSLP tries to organize its instruction since students need to learn the language from native speakers rather than someone who has learned it as an adult.

 Daphny with a student explaining, coincidentally, the story of Apollo and Daphne

Daphny with a student explaining, coincidentally, the story of Apollo and Daphne

Behind them, you can see Sign Writing used for instruction. It’s a fundamental part of their curriculum, which makes ISN such a unique language. ISN has been growing and thriving with a writing system in place, making its linguistic history a very unique one in the world.

The students were excitable and had a really strong connection with each other. They quickly remedied my lack of a sign name (with a swipe across the forehead to reflect my bangs - from learning many other students’ sign names, it looks like they have a tendency to assign names based on hairstyle).

For class, each took turns explaining the contents of a mythological story they were tasked with learning. As a one-room school house, the students had vastly different levels of proficiency in the language (the ages ranged from 11 to 18), but that was all part of the point. Seeing the older students express their language is just as big of a part of getting the younger students to learn as their formal instruction.

A quick aside on learning from older students. One of the common myths about the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language is that as the language was being developed, older students taught the younger students and that’s how the language evolved. If anything, oddly enough, the story is the exact opposite. Older students brought in their home signs and were the first to form vocabulary according to their needs. But as that vocabulary transferred to the younger students, it was the younger students - whose brains were still more receptive to language acquisition and development - that first imbued a grammar into it. Older students then copied the grammar the younger students has developed.

The National Anthem

The big excitement during our time though was the assembly that would take place the day we leave for Waspam. As part of this assembly, representatives for the ministry of education would be arriving for a conference at the school.

As such, the students would be performing the National Anthem before the assembly. However there are a few problems here. The ISN version of the National Anthem isn’t set in stone, it’s still something that’s being worked on and evolving. This is particularly challenging because ISN doesn’t have words for some of the concepts in the Anthem. Take the following line:

¡qué el trabajo es tu digno laurel y el honor es tu enseña triunfal!
(for work is thy well earned laurel and honor is thy triumphal emblem!)
— Salve a ti, Nicaragua

Digno (worthy) is not a word in ISN. So how do we translate this line? In ANSNIC’s official translation, they created a new sign for “digno” as it was an opportunity to define a new sign (based heavily on the spanish spelling, incorporating the finger spelling for the letter “D” in the sign itself). However, this is also antithetical to how the rest of the language emerged. Maybe it would make more sense to just rephrase the sentence into one that captured the meaning rather than attempted a word-by-word translation.

That line’s a particularly interesting one because it also contained the word “laurel”. When originally translated, this had been translated literally as a laurel tree - missing the implied connotation of the word as a mark of achievement or honor. What would the right approach there be? Try to impose the same link between the literal and figurative meaning of the word as it has in Spanish (and English), or to keep them distinct? Since ISN is still being developed at a rapid rate, small changes like this in an official ritual (especially one that is repeated so often) can have huge ripple effects on the language.

In the end, Daphny and James decided to use a sign to represent the crown of laurel as it better encapsulated the figurative imagery in the anthem. And not only that, it’s something the kids performing it would actually understand the meaning behind so they could internalize the meaning.

The two of them toiled over it after classes for days upon days (with help from Adelma who had more recently received official instruction in ISN when she learned the language during her teacher’s education). There were even a couple points where a complete fresh set of eyes was useful and I was happy to provide them.


But apart from the translation work, there were lots of other questions. Would the signed version of the anthem be performed at the same time as the sung version? James vehemently argued no and insisted it would be as absurd as singing the Spanish and English anthems at the same time during the Olympics.

Working out the anthem took days. But finally we called it quits and prepared the final version at Adelma’s house on Sunday

 The final product

The final product

Apart from the ceremony itself, there was one more event. Each class would present something as part of a celebration before the assembly. For the deaf classroom, it was decided it would be a dance.

I'm not sure how a dance was decided as the best way for the students to perform as part of the assembly, but there we are (of course deafness isn’t binary - many students could still make out the beat pretty easily). In an odd but poetic twist of fate, on the day of the assembly the AV equipment actually broke down so the kids ended up performing their dance in silence. They nailed it.

We spent the rest of the days observing and documenting the kids to record their proficiency levels. One by one, we asked them to explain a picture book moving from page to page. Each of them did a great job and their success was documented. Some of the older kids had jobs in local factories, being able to provide themselves and members of their family a living. Like Daphny, it’s even possible some of these kids will go on to become teachers themselves.

Part 1 - Getting There. Thorny Games in Nicaragua

March had quite a surprise in store for us. Quite unpredictably, we got an invitation to visit the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects in Nicaragua. With about a week’s notice, half of Thorny Games (the Hakan part) was off to observe and help in whatever ways we could.

While developing Sign, we’ve been in close contact with Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, run by James Shepard-Kegl. James is husband to Judy Shepard-Kegl, the linguist first studied the language and NSLP is a foundation that seeks to expand sign language education throughout Nicaragua. They helped facilitate our interviews with Yuri and Sayda - two native speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language - about their language and helped us find Nola, who is the official content consultant on our game Sign (as you may already know, all profits from Sign go to improving sign language education in Nicaragua).

We learned a lot in our trip that we’d like to share with you. In particular, just how difficult sign language access can be across many parts of the world, and how fundamentally access to language education changes lives. Also, that language access isn’t cut and dry. It’s a complex issue, and everyone responds to lack of access to language education in profoundly unique ways.

But onto this trip. Hakan was driving up from Los Angeles to San Francisco when he got this email from James. It was March 4th.


I am going to Puerto Cabezas and Waspam March 11 to March 24.  We trained the Deaf teacher in Puerto Cabezas. The existence of a Deaf community in that city is attributable to our efforts.  

This trip will be our first venture to Waspam where we will endeavor to identify the deaf children and adults there, for purposes of developing a future project.

Short notice notwithstanding, if you have an inclination to join me you are quite welcome.

 (Malaria preventive is recommended.)
— James

We’d iron out the details later, but there wasn’t much question. In about a week he’d be off to Nicaragua.

Some Background

Even though sign language in Nicaragua was non-existent forty years ago, as of 1993 ISN is federally funded to be taught in public schools. However, the budget is limited. And as you can imagine, when resources are limited, the country and ANSNIC (Asociación Nacional de Sordos de Nicaragua) that oversees much of the official sign language education in the country focuses almost exclusively on Managua and other urban centers, primarily in the most heavily developed Western coast.

The Eastern coast is a wholly different beast. Much of the population is descended from the indigenous Miskito population and it’s still commonly the first language spoken between individuals throughout the area (it was only annexed by Nicaragua in 1895, and before that it had been an automonous region following a treaty between Nicaragua and Britain. Many folks with deep roots in the Carribean speak English as a first language as well, which means it’s common to hear all three languages, Spanish, Miskito and English.

The Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects operates in parts of the country that the government doesn’t have the funds to reach. They complement official efforts by expanding education into communities on the Eastern Coast. They operated a whole school out of Bluefields for almost a decade and today provide support for bringing teachers into communities like Bilwi. Daphny, the only deaf sign language teacher in Bilwi was a student at Bluefields and now is the primary source for sign language education in the city.

 Students in Bilwi practicing the National Anthem.

Students in Bilwi practicing the National Anthem.

Waspam is even more rural, and to date has had no access to sign language education. There we would interview deaf folks who had no access to sign language to evaluate the efficacy of sending a teacher to the region and to document their home signs.

 An interview in Waspam

An interview in Waspam

With that, we hope we can share some of what we learned during our trip to Nicaragua and our deep dive into this emergent language, and how its currently being taught, maintained and developed with you all.

April Afoot

Hello friends, we’re almost there and things are looking beautiful. We can’t wait to get this on your tabletop. We've been headsdown on the final touches, but realized it had been too long since last we spoke. Time to fix that here and now. 

Distribution is tracking to June

The battlescars of printing. Books and cloth bags are ready, but we spotted a color issue in one component (all it takes is one!). Making sure this was fixed by our producers was necessary; the art deserves it after all this care. Fixing and re-proofing took a few extra weeks, so this will push fulfillment into June. We are eager eager to get the physical version to you, but it needs to be right and we don't want to cut corners with the end in sight. 

On a related note, oh boy, is it some dark magic to get things to reliably print a color. If we meet at a convention, we can talk your ear off about it …. here’s one of the adorable and ridiculous artifacts from proofing: tiny mouse-sized versions of booklets made to double check page numbers line-up, including die for scale. 

 RPGs for mice is a market we can stand by.

RPGs for mice is a market we can stand by.


The books have arrived to us. They are beautiful! 

 There you are

There you are

For the logistically curious, here is what 5000+ hardcover game books looked like as they ship in bulk. Other stuff like posters, prints, silk-screened bags, and all mystery box goodies are also here. Soon to you! 

 Books for days

Books for days

Along with that, the card decks have come together nicely: 

Backdrops: A home on the dot com 

Your game reports are wonderful -- thanks for sharing them with us! We’ve been especially pleased to see folks writing backdrops: pulpy space smugglers, lonely teens with super powers, gothic horror based on an Edward Gorey illustration, children in a house of shadows ... to name just a few. The setting of Dialect is so central to the game, and it's really neat to see the many forms Isolations can take. 

We've gotten some requests for a home to host new backdrops. This is clearly a fine idea, so we'll be making space available on our homepage to feature player-submitted backdrops from now on. If you've written a backdrop and you'd like it to live on the internet along with other Dialect materials, send it to us at 

An Unexpected Trip with the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project 

For the close reader of these updates, you'll know the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects (NSLP), the organization focused on supporting the Deaf community and spreading emergent sign language throughout the country. Our game Sign was developed with help from the NSLP; they arranged interviews with native speakers and connected us with a sensitivity consultant who has deep experience in ISN. All profits from the game go directly to the NSLP to improve access to sign language education across rural Nicaragua. Well, in March, we got quite an unexpected opportunity. With less than a week's notice, we were invited to accompany the NSLP to Nicaragua to observe one of the schools they operate and help scout a new language community in remote areas of the country.

To put it plainly, this experience changed things for us and how we look at our work. In order to share, H wrote up a log of the trip over the course of three blog posts (Part 1Part 2 and Part 3). In these posts, we explore topics from interviewing language deprived adults and the spectrum of what language deprivation really means to complex issues in translating the National Anthem of Nicaragua into Nicaraguan Sign Language. 

 A student explaining the story of Apollo and Daphne in Nicaraguan Sign Language

A student explaining the story of Apollo and Daphne in Nicaraguan Sign Language

When next we meet ...

So looking forward to getting this out the moment it's ready. At the end of May, we'll be running games at local Bay Area convention KublaCon, so come say hi if you're nearby. 

In the swing,

Thorny Games  

February in Force

The production machine is humming along. In this update, we’ll pan the camera across the scene to show some of the many moving parts of game making. Let’s start the photo tour!

Dialect Proofs

The updated digital version of Dialect has been sent out to everyone on backerkit -- this includes all the additions we highlighted in last month’s update. (We decided to wait until after proofing, to spare everyone getting pinged multiple times). You can download it directly from backerkit. Reach out to if anything goes sideways -- we'll sort it out! Thank you again for the lovely play reports. Especially let us know if you play it in languages other than English!

Dialect and Sign are at the printers and we’ve made it past proofing. Here are a few glimpses at proofing in all of its glory:


We even got a little late night help from the mathy cats. After proofing, comes printing, shipping to us, and then distribution. Things are still tracking toward a late April distribution, but delays in manufacturing happen. If that does, we’ll be clear with you at each step of the way.

A glimpse at Heart of the Deernicorn: Extra Components for Glossopoet+ Backers

Recall that for backers at the Glossopoet level and above, we decided to upgrade hardcover orders to include two beautiful components completely free of charge. We did this because we believe this will be a lovely way to house the game. It’s also an opportunity to make Dialect as we hoped it would be made. One of these items comes from the talented folks at Heart of the Deernicorn -- cloth craftspeople who have produced a wide-range of games and game components.

Here’s a look into the practice and process of Heart of the Deernicorn as they make handsewn and silkscreened pouches for Dialect featuring beautiful art by Jill De Haan:  

 The front.

The front.

 The back.

The back.

 We love the cycle of hands and scissors and frayed cloth that goes into producing something so intentional and lovely. Click through for a peek inside their shop in making Dialect cloth pouches:

 Game crafting at its finest

Game crafting at its finest


Mystery Language Box: A Beeteeth reveal.

Something that has been cooking for awhile is ready for the spotlight: we’ve collaborated with Beeteeth for the Mystery Language Box, a longtime favorite artist who is obsessed with old relics and stares into the weird of the world. Two very special items come from our latest collaboration. Both of these are currently in production and heading our way. 

  • A custom designed flag felt pennant, complete with a motto for play. Indeed, that is a dagger-wielding raven with dice and thorn playing cards. You can see Beeteeth's other pennant designs to peek at the form these will take. 


  • The second pin of the box to up the raven game. Notice the thorny-eye vine. Also, the dagger, the dagger, the dagger. 

We're excited for the rest of what remains here, too: weird games, linguistic paraphernalia, and other lovely bits. We'll keep these under wraps for now. 


The game festival season is here again and we are already doing that dance. Last month we were at Indiecade East (NYC) and Dreamation (NJ) to showcase Dialect and Sign and do some playtesting. In the next little while, we'll also be at:

Hello from foggy San Francisco (by way of foggy Russian animation),

The gang at Thorny Games

The Jazz of January

Hello 2018! So far, we've spent the year working and listening to The Child Ballads on repeat (here's one of 'em). This update has lots to cover, but one thing we'd like to highlight in particular:

We’ll be locking down surveys in Backerkit on February 7th!

This will also be when we charge for any additional funds added in Backerkit. You'll still be able to make changes to your address until we ship, but if you backed at a level that gets your name in the book, you should have it entered by then before we're of to the presses. If in doubt, visit and double check you’re signed up for the right Pledge Level and that your survey responses are up to date.

Schedule: Still On Track for April. Cards for both Dialect and Sign are now off to the printers.We're using separate printers for the book and cards, and the book should be submitted next week after the final proofread is complete. Here is art from Jill De Haan for the tuckbox on the Language Deck:

 Yes, indeed, that is a nest of language eggs.

Yes, indeed, that is a nest of language eggs.


Dialect Digital Edition: Final Pass  

We’ve been putting the final touches on Dialect, the text.

Here’s what’s new since December:

  • New art for card diagrams. We wanted to get a consistent look for all card diagrams that matched the quality of the rest of the art, so we commissioned a new round of card illustrations. We really like how they turned out!
  • Proofreader feedback for typos and small edits in the rulebook and cards.
  • Rule clarifications. Thank you for writing in about your playtests! <3
  • How to Teach Dialect/Structure of rules section as a guide for facilitators.
  • Quick Reference Sheets! For easy access to backdrops and rules overview, you can now print out quick reference sheets from the Dialect website.
 Old and new, side by side

Old and new, side by side

We’ll be sending out an email from Backerkit in the next week with the updated version of Dialect. (We didn’t want to delay this update until then, but we wanted to tell you it’s coming). If you don’t receive the email, you can log on to to directly download it. If you have any issues, just email us at and we’ll get things sorted. Enjoy it and thank you for the playtest reports! They make us very happy.

Sign: New Digital Edition -- Available now!

A new professionally laid-out and edited version of Sign is now available; you can download it right here. This is a card-based format with 12 characters along with a separate rules booklet for the facilitator. We really like how the card format makes it easier to run. Among other things, we got to design a textbook cover for an imaginary Nicaraguan class from the 1970s. New days, new challenges, we suppose. The PDF version above will be the basis for the published physical version for Kindred in Language and Play (and higher level) backers. Some recent runs of Sign at conventions were at The Smoke in London and the Larp Shack International Festival of Larps in North Carolina among others. We’re excited to get this version out into the wild!

Donation to the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects

Earlier this month, we sent a first donation of $5000 to the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects. Everyone whose pledge included a copy of Sign contributed to this. We’re thrilled if Sign can help spread such a remarkable story and better yet, to provide some financial help for their important ongoing work. Thank you for supporting it.

This is a first donation; we’re donating all the profits from Sign to the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, so the remainder of the donation will be made once fulfillment is complete.

Posters and Art Prints

Let’s talk art prints. For backers at the Aesthete of Idiom level, you’ll be receiving some of the lovely art from Dialect. In particular, these are the pieces that will be printed:

  • Two 8x12 Giclee prints of Jill's work in the book. These are all being printed on premium art print paper. The two pieces we chose are "My language is my awakening" and Toni Morrison's quote in rope and vine. Here are two recent samples, we're still finalizing the paper choice:


  • A 24x18, print by Erica Williams. Even though the Aesthete of Idiom level originally only included art prints from Jill, Erica's piece was just too stunning to pass up. These prints are already done: beautifully screen-printed and all signed by Erica. Here are some of them in our living room!


Mystery Box: A Glimpse

Mystery boxes are coming right along with lots of custom treasures in the works. There are many pieces in production, but this just arrived on our doorstep and it's too cool to not share: custom crypto-language pins so you can decode-on-the-go.

Click through to see this beauty in action!


These are two-part spinner pins specially commissioned from Erica Williams for this occasion and we’re thrilled with how they turned out! You just walk around differently wearing one these throughout the day. Is it the thorns? Is it the rotating decoder? The aged gold shine? All we know is that we’re busy curating more for this box and we’ll show you a few other neat pieces in-progress next month.


The season begins again. Time to start our yearly game migration. We will be at:

  • Indiecade East: NYC (February 17-18). We’ll be showcasing Sign, a finalist game last year. 
  • Dreamation. Morristown, NJ (February 22-25).
  • Protospiel SJ. Mountain View, CA (March 9-11). A local con for game developers
  • With an endless march of convention over the horizon!

Stop by our booth at Indiecade East, or sign up for our alpha-test at Dreamation!


Back to work and reading more Ursula K Le Guin (in particular, this) (also, listening to this). 


Thorny Games

Din of December

Well, it’s been a minute, hasn’t it. To say our lives haven’t been consumed with making this game for the last few months would be saying untrue things, so let’s not perjure ourselves during the holidays. It has been a tremendous time getting to this point. We so appreciate your support while we do it.

The Game

The digital version of Dialect is now available and is being hosted on Backerkit! You should have gotten an email with instructions on how to download it. If not, check the scary filtered recesses of your inbox, and if you still haven’t gotten it let us know at We’ll be traveling a little over the holidays, so it may take a couple days to respond. But fear not, we’ll sort it out.

At final count, this release includes: 

  • The Game Rules, playtested to oblivion 
  • A printable Language Deck
  • The 4 Core Backdrops:

These are: 

  • The Outpost: The first Martian expedition
  • The Compound: A voluntary isolation of ideals in 1982
  • Sing the Earth ElectricMachines left to tend to the Earth
  • Thieves’ CantThe coded language of thieves

Along with:

  • 12 Contributed Backdrops by a bevy of fine folk that explore perspectives on language loss and awakening the world over. 
  • A Chapter on Language Building by David Peterson, professional language creator. 
  • A Chapter on Language Vitality by Steven Bird, real-deal linguist. 
  • Instructions to Write Your Own Backdrop and Using Dialect to Make Language for a Campaign 
  • Art so-lovely-it-hurts from the hands of Jill De Haan and Erica Williams. 

Do let us know if you have any issues accessing it. 

Phew! Heigh, my hearts! 

The Devil's Work ...

... is never done. That means over the next few weeks, we'll be collecting feedback on any confusing bits or errors you may find and we'll be correcting them before going to the printer mid-January. If you read or play the game before January 15, we’d love to know about any issues you stumble on. Also, your language, tell us about your dialect!

Please use this trusty link to share feedback. We’ll pick 50 of these pieces of feedback (ones that are most helpful, or if we get overwhelmed, at random) and send along a small token of our appreciation. 

The Timeline: Tracking to Ship in April

We are tracking to ship the physical game in April. We have signed deals with our printers, manufacturers and distributors. Here is the calendar we are working off of:

Final Digital Version: Mid-January 

The Physical Game:

  •  Mid-January: Close edits. 
  •  Late- January: Send to Printers. 
  • February: Printing 
  • March: Printing. 
  • Late April: Shipping out to backers.

We are keenly aware that this is late. We'd rather that not be the case, but know that a lot of good work is actively going into this and in the end, you will get a better product. We appreciate your patience.

To soften the blow of lateness, it’s a nice time to look back on some of the good. As a reminder, all backers who bought the physical game have been updated to hardcover books free of charge. All backers who purchased the hardcover book, have been upgraded to a limited edition adorned copy that comes with a hand-printed cloth bag for the game as well as custom-made age separators. We did this because we want the game to be beautiful. It's taking longer, but we’re confident that it will be worth it.

Interview Time

And now, a candid conversation between Thorny Games and our inner editor.

Well, well, Thorny. A digital release. What took so long?

Holy moly, making things is hard! It takes a long freaking while. In the last couple of months, we ran into unexpected development issues that pushed us back a number of months behind our plans. We learned things along the way. Thankfully we worked through them and we’re really happy with how things turned out. Don’t get us wrong, making things is hard but it’s still great.

You sound pretty excitable. How much coffee did you drink doing this? 

A lot. Seriously.

A lot.

What were some unexpected moments?

Giving art direction for a 2-page Maori language piece that is a window in space to another drawing. Seeing what amazing things our contributors wrote. Getting to hold the physical print-out of the thing we made. How awesome it feels to find a good character name. In general, being called to learn lots of new things.

How many times have you played Dialect?

Many times. So many times in fact, we were recently listed as one of the most played games at cons last year. Keep in mind that apart from only a couple exceptions we were the only people running all those games! This year has been a lot of hustle.

What was a surprising thing you learned along the way?

How to get new insights from playtesting. How to do layout. How to decipher feedback. How to collaborate with other people. How to let go. We expect we’ll be learning about these for awhile to come.

Why are there phonetics tables in this role playing game?

That’s how we do.

In that case, why aren’t there more phonetics tables in this role playing game?

Because the game needs to be playable. There are a tasteful number of tables in this game.

What’s next from here?

Production. Sign was already laid out, but now soon-to-be-professionally so for printing. Mystery Box contents are being arranged. Posters are already being printed. Forward motion.

We leave our inner editor for now with a glimpse into the art abyss of space-time. 


Until Next Month

Now that the book’s ready, expect our monthly updates at their normal pace going forward. In the meanwhile, printing for posters for the Aesthete levels as well as manufacturing for some of the Mystery Box items is on its merry way. But this update has already been a mouthful so look forward to seeing some of that the next time we meet in the digital sea. 

Wishing you health and happiness in these strange times. May 2018 be kinder.

K+H+B+T at Thorny Games

Salve of September

September! September! For this update, we are writing you straight off the heels of a game convention roadshow. Over the last two weeks, we were at Indiecade 10 and Big Bad Con: two fantastic conventions on opposite sides of California that do right by games. Here’s a still life from our display for Sign in the Indiecade gallery: 

 Sign + Succulents = Magic

Sign + Succulents = Magic

Add the din of design conversations and the dog days of Los Angeles summer and it’s like you’re right there with us. Along the way we got to play with new and old friends. It’s been energizing to feel inspired, especially in these strange times.

Progress: Layout

Let’s cut to the chase. After a headsdown month of writing and editing, Dialect and Sign were delivered to layout in September. HAPPY DAY. We are thankful for this milestone because this means we are now at the cusp of getting the game into your hands.

Layout is a very rare art and layout for games is even more esoterica. Thankfully we’re working with one of the best to make sure it’s masterfully done. Brennen Reece has designed layout for many of the most notable games in the genre. The samples we’ve seen make us very happy and give us conviction that well-crafted layout will elevate the game.

Next up: PDF delivery of Dialect.

Once layout is complete, we’ll be delivering the PDF of Dialect to you. We expect that to be within the coming weeks and when it’s ready, you’ll be the first to know. Backerkit will continue to be open through the month. Soon, friends, soon.

Backdrops: A bonus two

We have finalized the Core Backdrops. They are complete and we feel deep satisfaction in their final state. Feast your eyes on:

  • Martian Outpost. The first expedition to Mars after communications from Earth break down. 
  •  The Compound. A reclusive compound in 80s rural America. 
  • Thieves’ Cant. The secret slang of thieves and scoundrels. With inspiration from our mash-up of Dialect and Blades in the Dark. 
  • Our Mechanical Keepers. A group of robots left on Earth with a job to do. (A hat-tip to Wall-E). We playtested this to resounding success at Big Bad Con. Many tears were had. Turns out robots are sad!

In addition to the treasure trove of 10 backdrops from our contributing writers, over the last month we decided to commission two more. We were looking for a touch of whimsy and wonder that could stand true with the rest of our backdrop collection. Stephanie Nudelman, an NYC-based tabletop designer, delivered in stripes.

The two new backdrops: 

Wolf Pack. A dialect among a pack of wolves as they make their way in the wild. Aworrooooooo! Note: this backdrop uses techniques from actual wolf pack communication. 

Toybox Tales. The toys in a child’s bedroom and the change that comes with aging. With a nod to The Brave Little Toaster and The Velveteen Rabbit.

We playtested Wolf Pack at Big Bad Con, also to a wonderful experience! It turns out Big Bad Con attendees love their games high on emotion, so many tears were had in this game as well, but we feel this backdrops support a wide variety of tones according to the group's preference.


Behold this lovely box.



This is a prototype, but it’s a physical promise of what’s to come. More on this soon.

Game Convention Roadshow: A whirlwind recap

We were at Indiecade and BBC both as invited guests and boy did we make the most of it. We ran multiple scenarios of Dialect, Sign, a slew of other fantastic games, and shouted about Language and Design in both official and casual forums. As you do!

Here are some games and ideas we encountered at the cutting edge:


  • Winterhorn. A card-based larp where you learn how governments take down resistance groups by attempting to take one down yourselves. Both a game and an activist tool. Coming soon by Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games.
  •  Feast. An eating story game based on flavor, memory and alien parasites. Clever, lovely, and tasty. Also, Indiecade award winner! Such an inspiration that so much good thoughtful play can fit in 200 words.
  • Where the Water Tastes like Wine. A gorgeous indie video game about Americana, the road, and stories to be found there. 
  • Rosenstrasse. An RPG about the Rosenstrasse protest and the experience of Jewish-Aryan couples resisting in 1943 Berlin. 
  • Attention Passengers. A live action game of introspection and uneasy suspense during a subway ride gone awry at 3am. Set to a soundtrack. Available soon by Banana Chan!

Next On The Stack

Stay tuned for PDFs of the game and updates on our GLORIOUS MYSTERY LANGUAGE BOX.


K+H @ Thorny Games and the mathy cats

Augury of August

August won the game maker’s trifecta: good work, recognition, and genre-pushing play. This trio has given us a shot in the arm of creative energy and that feels fantastic. We’ll share a beat of each of these below.

Still, it’s a rare thing to pull off all three in a single month. Other amazing feats of three that come to mind:

  • Paper Menagerie. The first work of fiction to win all three of SF's major awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. 
  • Competitive Rock Paper Scissors. If you’d like to lose an afternoon, there is a long fascinating history of hand games like RPS tracing back to East Asia. (Funny enough, H competed in the Budapest RPS championship back in 2008. He was eliminated in the first round)
  • The noblest of all digits as claimed by the Pythagorean school since three is the only number that is the sum of all natural numbers beneath it.

(Honorable mention: Threes the game.)


… is ready steady go. We’ll be using Backerkit as a way of collecting fulfillment information like your address and pledge levels. You will shortly receive an email where you’ll be prompted to add shipping details for where to direct your game once it’s ready. Backerkit should hopefully be an easy spot you can update if you’ve moved. It’ll also provide a central ledger for us to track fulfilment information and allow for folks to change backing levels.

You’ll have the opportunity to add on to your pledge level if you’re moved to do so. This will include the Glossopoet edition of Dialect, a copy of Sign, art prints, or a GLORIOUS MYSTERY LANGUAGE BOX.

Card Art

Artist Jill deHaan persists. Here are some of the completed card backs for Dialect:


From left to right, these card types cover character generation, core turn sequence, and epilogue, respectively. We love the details. Note the subtle thorny touch on each card.


We persist with writing and editing. Lots of good progress this month with the core rules, backdrops, appendices and more. Steven Bird’s chapter is complete and we couldn’t be happier to include it. It also looks like we may have some surprise additions to share next month when it comes to backdrops. We're on track for layout this month. More soon!


It’s heartening to get recognized for the work you do. It is fuel when you are on day N of a long journey.

We’re happy to share Sign is a nominated game at Indiecade 2017. Out of nearly 1000 submissions, around 30 are chosen as nominated games and our thoughtful-quirky live action game about language-through-play was among them. It makes us doubly excited to be selected given the festival primarily focuses on video games.

We’ll be presenting Sign at Indiecade and giving a game design microtalk on, you guessed it, Language in Games. Stop by and say hi if you’re there!


As always, we soldier on the usual convention schedule. If we’re coming to one near you, or we’ll overlap in a convention, please let us know, we’d love to meet up!

  • Indiecade (October 6th to 8th). We already covered this one, but we’re really excited about it. It’ll be our chance to share the good word of language play with a new crowd of folks.
  • Big Bad Con (October 13th to 15th). Our home con and the one nearest and dearest to our hearts. We’re special guests to this convention and Thorny Games is sponsoring one of the teen gaming rooms!
  • Metatopia (November 2nd to November 5th). The convention where Dialect and Sign first made their debuts two years ago! We’ll be there, testing new games and helping organize the Golden Cobra LARP competition.
  • No SHUX. We were originally going to attend this great con in Vancouver, but the siren’s call of Indiecade will bring us both to Los Angeles, for now.


Recently we got to play a collection of games that span the weird and wonderful. They help push the genre and remind us why we do this:

  • Here is my Power Button A game of robots, humans, and the messy moral lines in between. It’s made for heartbreakthroughs.
  • Plastic Cup. An art larp about dividing an inheritance where you break 200 ceramic cups over the course of play. Cathartic. 
  • Parsley. A live-action, text-adventure games in the spirit of Zork and Colossal Cave where a human is the parser. We got to explore Pumpkintown and it was the best. 
  • Sarabande. A game of 19th century cafe dwellers in Paris who argue about beauty, love, truth and freedom. A game of improvised dance, art making, and soliloquies. We are running this at Big Bad Con. 
  • Critical Path. A space game of alternate realities blending theater-light-sound for legit immersion. We played it in a basement with a disco ball.

Back to Work. Stay warm, stay safe, be kind, pass it on.

A két szememből ragyog a szerelem a sötétbe,

Thorny Games, Thorny Cats

PS. Look at what we found today! It’s like a live gif of Erica’s artwork!

Julep of July

July was here. It came, raged, went. From our vantage point, these quotes sum up the month:

“When you start on a long journey, trees are trees, water is water, and mountains are mountains. After you have gone some distance, trees are no longer trees, water no longer water, mountains no longer mountains. But after you have travelled a great distance, trees are once again trees, water is once again water, mountains are once again mountains." 

-- attributed to Ch'ing-yüan, from The Way of Zen by Alan Watts


It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing” 

-- Duke Ellington/Irving Mills


We believe in being super transparent with timelines. Here’s the latest:

  • August: Writing, Editing, Conventions.
  • September: Layout.
  • October: Digital Edition Available.
  • November: Printing.
  • December: Fulfillment

This is our job and our passion; we are treating the work with all of the seriousness and respect that privilege demands. Dates for game delivery are tracking later, but not due to idleness. Good writing takes time and we are putting in the time. Progress continues with each and every day and we will burn bright through the night.


Fulfillment can be a beast for backers and creators alike. After exploring a variety of options for how to do fulfillment in a graceful, compassionate way, we went with the tried and true path: Backerkit. (We actually visited their physical office to make sure the fit was right)

Backerkit will allow you to easily manage your shipping address (and extend the same kindness to us). It will let you update your pledge if you’re so moved. It’s also a familiar system for many veteran backers and that means one less moving part in the Kickstarter clockwork.

Look forward to a dedicated update from us regarding Backerkit as soon as it’s set up!


Our artists also burn the candle at both ends. The indomitable Erica Williams has been working on a centerpiece for the book and it is here and finished. What started as a string of nouns qua art direction (animals! ruins! The hint of a library lost!) has taken form. Taking in the detail, it’s kind of hard to fathom that a human drew this, but it gives us hope that the robots haven’t taken that from us, yet.

Since we believe great art should be everywhere, a screen printing of this poster will also be included for all AESTHETE OF IDIOM backers along with Jill De Haan’s lovely art. Nice.

GenCon 50

From August 17-20, Thorny Games will descend on Indianapolis for the hallowed yearly rite of GenCon. Here’s where we’ll be -- may our paths cross!

  • Trade Day: A day of talks for educators and industry folks. We’ll be shouting about “Empathy and Play” and “Language and Games”.
  • Sign x 2: Two runs of Sign are on offer and pre-registration is open through normal event listings
  • Dialect x 4: Drop-in play through Games on Demand.

If you haven’t played with Games on Demand, it’s a group of wonderful folks who offer games on a walk-up basis, no pre-registration required. We don’t know our exact schedule, but we’ll be there for ample portions of the weekend. Come say hi!

Off the Books

  • Night Forest is entering its final day on Kickstarter! It’s a quietly magical game about lost memories wandering through the woods. We’re both big fans, having played it last year at Origins and Big Bad Con respectively.
  • Game Design Axioms: K recently recorded a new Game Design Roundtable with Dirk Knemeyer and Rob Daviau on the guts of games.
  • K & H gave a talk in SF about the power of play in adult lives last week. It’s still mesmerizing how much this stuff touches folks to their core.
  • The Golden Cobra LARP challenge is currently accepting applications! Sign started its life as a Golden Cobra submission, so it has a dear place in our hearts. H is a judge! Hisssssssssssss.
  • Good books. This is a set of them. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and ArtArt & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

The Good Work

Time to put in the time. As we head back to words and editing, we are so grateful to have you folks along with us. Do know that we’re putting all of the fire in our bellies into this every day.

Be easy like Sunday morning,

B+T n H+K

Interlude: Daughters of Destiny

 A full July update is coming right around the bend, but before then, we wanted to share a brief interlude on something tremendous and dear to us.

Dialect is lucky enough to have many formidable people as contributors. Working with these folks has been a delight and their voices have added dazzle and depth to the game. These writers are a mix of designers, activists, linguists, language inventors and generally remarkable people. We’d like to highlight one in particular.

In the realm of games, Ajit George is a designer, community leader, and (fortunately for Dialect) the author of the backdrop Velayuthapuram, Tamil Nadu. 2006. Outside of games, Ajit does incredible work as the Director of Operations for Shanti Bhavan; a non-profit school that supports, empowers, and educates the poorest children in India. Shanti Bhavan has reimagined non-profit education by caring for Dalit children, those from the lowest castes, from their first day of school to their first day of work. Shanti Bhavan fosters academics, leadership, dignity. This is work that transforms the lives of the poor and offers tangible hope to some of the most vulnerable communities in India. 

After twenty years of operation, Shanti Bhavan is now getting widespread and well-deserved recognition. Among many media spotlights, Netflix has just released a 4-part documentary about Shanti Bhavan called Daughters of Destiny. The series tracks the story of girls through their time as Shanti Bhavan students and how it shapes their lives in profound ways.


This series is an eye-opening and powerful look into rural India, the real struggles these children face and the ambition of the project. Ajit’s leadership gives inspiration to his backdrop in Dialect. In his own words:

“My work at Shanti Bhavan has made me passionate about Dalit (Untouchable rights), because more than 90% of the children at our school (including the girls in the series Daughters of Destiny) come from this deeply discriminated and segregated segment of India's population. Through the decade I have worked with the organization, I have seen all forms of discrimination against our children and their families, including ostracization and isolation. That ostracization is destructive, and has claimed the lives of more than a few parents of the children who attend Shanti Bhavan. I hope in building this setting (which was directly influenced by real life events), I have been able to give voice to those who would not otherwise be heard and that their stories are acknowledged, at least in part.”

Ajit is a dear friend. In fact, he played in the third game of Dialect that was ever run (back in Metatopia 2015). H himself got to visit Shanti Bhavan on a trip to India and see with his own eyes what meaningful work is being done there. Now that experience has opened up to everyone with a Netflix account.

If you have access to it, we urge you to watch the documentary. If you have the means, and the work moves you as much as it did us, do consider a donation to the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. They do an incredible amount with the resources they have. 

More soon.

Thorny K, H, B, T. 

The Jinn of June

Ya know the feeling when you’ve been chasing something for a long time? Following clues, hitting dead ends and leaving breadcrumbs to find your way back. Wishing and hoping it all leads somewhere. Well, oh boy, IT HAS. June has been the month that two of our longheld wishes came true. (And let it not be misunderstood, “wishing” has involved an embarrassing number of emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings, but all the same). This is going to be a linguistics-filled update, so Chomsky up. 

Dialect and Language Vitality

Dialect is about language loss and what that means for culture and identity. Players spend most of the game building language, it’s true, but in the end, people leave the table as the only speakers of their invented dialect. That’s meant to create a morsel of empathy of what it’s like for many around the world whose heritage language is fading.

Rewind a few updates and you might recall we committed to a rulebook chapter about language vitality; covering what can and is being done to fight against language loss and the slide to sameness. Given how important this is to us, we’ve been carefully considering who should author this chapter. Enter Steven Bird: linguist, academic, community organizer and champion for language vitality around the world.

Steven Bird is a pretty amazing guy; when we first tried to reach out, he had been away from internet while living with an aboriginal tribe in a remote area of Australia and learning their language. Steven cares deeply about language vitality and fighting for the treasure languages of the world. He has dedicated a large part of his storied career to it. He is a fantastic combo of academic rigor, on-the-ground experience, along with genuine curiosity and playfulness.

We’re thrilled to share that we’ll be working with Steven to include specific actions players of Dialect can take to fight language loss both across the world and within their own community. He'll be writing a standalone chapter for the book.

This means Dialect will come with two contributed chapters from world-class language experts; David Peterson on language invention and Steven Bird on treasure languages and language maintenance.

Along with the backdrops from so many neat perspectives, we’re so happy with how this has come together. Take a look at an art piece-in-progress that speaks to the themes of rebirth and vitality in language.


Sign and Native Speakers

For Sign, we’ve long wanted to involve the perspective of native speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language into the game as well as the voices of those who originally studied the language. The work felt incomplete without it.

We’ve now been in contact with folks who run the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects and the first group of people to study ISN as a new language. James and Judy Shepard-Kegl helped arrange a wonderful opportunity for us to meet two native speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language, allowing their perspectives to be part of the game.

Through an English/ASL/ISN interpreter, we had a long conversation where they gave us feedback on game art, writing, and a bunch of other tidbits to make the game’s voice true-to-life. In our conversation, we also learned a few ISN signs and we were floored. We all knew the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language well by this point, but to actually see the signs and their ties to their origin was quite moving.

Some favorite signs:

California. When we mentioned where we were from California, one of the native speakers, Yuri, signed it by making interlocking circles with thumb and index finger over and over like a chain. We were so curious about the origin! Well, if you remember, Nicaraguan Sign Language first emerged over the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Right around this time, California was in the news for a very particular reason. The chain was the Olympic rings!

Vaccination. During our conversation we asked everyone for their favorite signs. Many were fascinating, but here’s one that really caught our attention. Yuri did a sign for vaccination by indicating an injection on her arm with three fingers and then, as someone later explained, made a motion with her right hand harkening to the marching of army soldiers. We asked why army soldiers were part of the sign for vaccination. They told us that the children had all learned about vaccination from the same picture book, “Louis Pasteur and the Rabies Vaccine”. In it, the first time vaccines are introduced, it includes a cartoon closeup of soldiers marching through the bloodstream. This illustration in a children’s book gave life to a new piece of language all on its own! From a single book in a single schoolroom to part of a whole language! Folks who have never seen that book now know this as their word for vaccination across the country.

Tldr: Lots of language goodness in June. Now onwards with game making.


Play what you think is good,

K&H (and the Thorny cats)


P.S. We’ll be at GoPlay NW in Seattle this coming weekend running games and hanging out with our gamer kin. Say hi if you’re there! We’ll be running both Dialect and Sign!

From the Mines of May

May was a month in the making, bringing us the sweet satisfaction of forward motion. We’ve been treading deep in the word mines: chipping at chunks of book-writing and polishing up any soot in design. The update this month is tardy — our apologies! The start of June brought us to Origins game convention in Ohio and Japan for work, so time and space are a little slippery. Let’s recap the recent spoils.

In the Word Mines

Writing for Dialect is making steady progress; the bones of the book are falling into place for the core rules and game play. All contributor chapters are complete and the majority have been through editing. For the rest of June we continue the editing and revising process, with July scheduled for the remaining writing and layout.

We continue to indulge our art appetite and work with artist Jill De Haan; new card backs are underway along with a special design for the cloth bag components we shared in our last update. Lots of good things are being crafted here and it’s a pleasure to see things take shape.

Meanwhile, we’ve added new cards to accentuate the changes within language. If you’ve listened to some of our early playthroughs, you may know that some of the language generation cards in Dialect are considered “Action” cards which serve to form new words off of an existing base or change the meaning of a word created in an earlier part of the game (like asking why a certain group of the Isolation has chosen to use another word for a concept for a term that already exists or why the meaning of an existing word has become much more intense).

Well, we’re adding a metric-ton more, since they really make the dialect sing. We trialed many of these cards in local playtests and at Origins game fair. The dirty science of play testing worked its magic — we separated the wheat from the chaff and now have quite a few new cards.

Sign: Unbound

This has been a banner month for Sign. Ever since Sign was first released, it’s been our earnest work to treat the topic of Nicaraguan Sign Language the right way. Studying a story and the logic behind it is one route — but best yet is getting perspective from the source itself.

We’ve solicited lots of feedback from various folks on the topic of deafness and sign language, but to date, despite an embarrassing number of emails, we hadn’t connected directly with someone from the original research. That all changed this month where we got to talk to the project’s director and have him recount the original story to us. What’s more, we’re now scheduled to meet some native speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language. This will let us incorporate their perspective into the game, what their language means to them and hopefully learning some ISN to boot!

And art and layout are humming along here, too. We have a new cover for the game box. Check it out:

A conventional summer.

 Our summer is packed-to-Tuesday with game gatherings. We just got back from Origins in Ohio where we hosted many fine games of Dialect and Companions' Tale, by the formidable Laura Simpson. You’ll also find us at:

  • GoPlayNW
  • GenCon (Games on Demand and Trade Day!)
  • Big Bad Con
  • SHUX (Shut Up and Sit Down Conference in Vancouver) 
  • Metatopia

Let us take a small moment to sing the praises of Big Bad Con — our favorite place to game where Thorny Games is a stretch goal special guest. No convention does more to make role playing and gaming as a whole more approachable and inviting than Big Bad Con. Being welcoming towards those who have historically not felt completely at ease in gaming environments is one of their absolute top mission statements, and they’ve done an outstanding job. It was one of the first locations where we got introduced to story gaming and LARPs, and the rest is, as one would say, history. We hope to meet some of you wonderful folks there!

Other Game Happenings:

In our game-filled lives, here’s a link-happy version of assorted news:

  • #Feminism on Actual Play. We dipped our toes once again in Twitch and played a stellar set of microgames from this patriarchy-smashing collection. Bonus: it includes two of our fantastic backdrop writers.
  • Cthulhu Dark is on Kickstarter and entering its final days! A lovecraftian horror RPG from the twisted and talented mind of our peerless backdrop writer, Graham Walmsley, author of “Worcester School”. All our love to that wonderful project.
  • In logistical news, 49.93% of us are now full-time on Thorny Games (H, specifically). This doesn’t change much except for more hard, earnest work. Perhaps we’ll finally win a bet the next time we’re asked to show our indie game dev challenge coin.
  • We brought back some weird and wonderful Japanese designed games, like the Cat and Chocolate: Business is Business and A Fake Artist Goes to New York. They are everything we hoped it would be. Perhaps we’ll play some on Twitch in the future! 

Wikipedia Hole:

K consumes way too much Wikipedia. As a gift for our update tardiness, here are a few choice articles:

Rage, rage against the dying of the light,

Thorny Games

K+H (Tarski and Banach, too) 

Arches of April

April has been a month of motion with highs and lows. We have been busy -- the kind of busy that comes from making any good, honest thing. We wrote and edited. We collaborated with our writers and added a few new wonderful folks to our ranks. We sampled components from across the country and redezvous'ed with manufacturers in business parks and online phone calls (the less glamorous but entirely-necessary side of game design). 

All this means earnest progress  -- and to that end, we have news in high and low forms. 

The Highs: We're thrilled to unveil something we've been working on behind the scenes for some time. Simply put, if you bought a physical book from us, come delivery time, you're getting more than you thought. Read below for the details. 

The Lows: It's going to take longer to get here. We're on track to ship in October. But trust us, it'll be well worth the wait. 

We have lots to share. Let's get right to it. One two three ... GO. 

Upgraded Books for Vernacular (Softcover) Backers.

Hey you, plucky softcover backers -- or should I say, former softies. Thanks to the ample support for Dialect, we will be upgrading all of you to glorious hardcover. (Book YouTube has a lot to say on the topic of hardcover vs soft, but it's clear where our sympathies lie). Our printer Taylor Specialty has made books for some beautiful titles that we admire (like this stunner), and we selected them especially for their hardcover craftsmanship. Sturdy with cushioned pages, soft to the touch, sincere and tall in the spine ... truly the only way to travel. 

Two new, handmade components for all Glossopoet+ (Hardcover) Backers.

A game deserves a home; a fitting place to be stored and carried with the requisite bits to jumpstart play. We've long wanted the right componentry for Dialect while not distracting from the fundamental game. We have been chasing this stealthy pursuit for some time. Now, we’re excited to announce our partnership with Heart of the Deernicorn, who will be contributing a lovely additional piece for your Dialect set. For all backers who were previously receiving a hardcover book, you'll also get a handmade silk-screened pouch to hold your hardcover copy of Dialect along with one other beautiful new component. These pouches are completely handcrafted by artisans in Olympia Washington. If you haven’t had the pleasure to make the Deernicorn’s acquaintance yet, they are a friend to art and shunner of the ordinary. Case in point, their game Fall of Magic as an example of their unerring dedication to beautiful components and stunning quality. 

Second, we will be including custom adornments for all hardcover backers. In plainspeak, that means three beaded loops to separate the three ages on your playspace. Currently we have a beautiful waxed cotton rope picked out that lays flat and shapes your playspace nicely.

New adornment. Bead design super subject to change


These are completely free additions to these backing levels thanks to the outpouring of support we've received from the community. Why do this? We feel like both of these additions deliver on a longheld and personal wish for the game -- high quality craftmanship through and through. There will be a way to upgrade pledges come nearer to our delivery deadline if the feeling strikes you. You'll have plentiful opportunity.

Professional Editing

Books need editors and we've got a great one. Karen Twelves has agreed to edit both Dialect and Sign. Karen has a storied resume in game editing for all the greats, so we're super lucky to have her. More better words -- we are thrilled. 

Timeliness: Late

Next, the news that no creator wants to give. We are serious about delivering the highest quality game we can -- and to that end, it's become clear to us over April after discussion with our editors and printers that to achieve our quality bar, we'll need to push back the delivery date for Dialect. Keeping in mind the remaining steps we need to produce the physical book (copy editing, layout and printing) and the chapters being written our end, we're tracking to a shipping date in October. We're bummed not to deliver the physical book in July, but know this is done for all the right reasons -- taking time means being methodical and steadfast when it comes to quality. In a retrospective moment, coordinating the huge number of writers and contributors we have on this project ended up being much more demanding on our time than we initially envisioned. Don't get me wrong, it was totally worth it and the game is richer for it. It's just clear that working with large groups of humans just takes a lot of time. 

Despite this, our pdf delivery date still remains July, so you should get your chance to play and try Dialect over the summer. This will let us share the game with you as early as possible and give all of you wonderful backers a chance to help us spot any issues with production before we go off to the printers.

Where are we now?

Writing is in full gear. All writers have either wrapped up or are delivering the last of their contributions in the next couple of weeks, including David Peterson's chapter! We've done first drafts of most of the chapters of the book including the rules. Writing and internal Thorny Games revisions are our main agenda for May. Since game making is serious business, 50% of us (Hakan, to be precise) have taken a leave from our day jobs to focus on making sure writing and production on Dialect is as high quality as our compulsion dictates.

In addition to Dialect, our backers at the Kindred in Language and Play and higher levels are also receiving the first print run of Sign: A Game about Being Understood. In addition to writing in April for Dialect, we also did our first layout pass on Sign and rules layout for cards and a booklet. Here's a prototyped printed version for Sign!


Over the month of May we'll complete copy editing for Sign. We'll also be holding a roundtable discussion at the Rochester Institute of Technology, home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, with the goal of making sure Sign tackles the subject of deafness appropriately and with respect. To round it out, we're also commissioning a few more pieces of art because we're like that.

As always, thank you for being on this journey with us. We're stoked for how this is coming together.

BUT WAIT: Dialect in Waypoint

We're thrilled that Dialect was featured in a recent article in Waypoint, Vice's gaming arm. "Language can be quietly—or loudly—revolutionary in 'Dialect,' a tabletop game about communities and the words that make them. " Read a thoughtful, important perspective from Alex Roberts, one of our dear writers, on playing through the language. 

Onwards and on words, 

Hakan & Kate (plus the mathy floofs Banach & Tarski)

March en marche

March was relentless in a toothy productive way. 

We are gamecrafting at a deliberate clip; production, writing, collaborating, and art all moved forward this month. We’re satisfied with where we are (well, as close to satisfaction as debilitating perfectionism allows) and we’re excited to share some details with you. If you only have a brief wondrous moment to spend on this, ignore all these words and scroll to the bottom for some choice art. 

Now let’s get right to the juicy bits:


A timely update for those kindred who doubled down on language games, you brave souls. We’ve been perfecting the layout for Sign over March. That means time in the layout lab, prototyping, talking with manufacturers, and getting samples. We have a typeset version we’re quite pleased with - but it’s been a tricky journey. After all, despite the Indie RPG Awards’ prediction that we’re on the cusp of the Children in 1970s Nicaragua game engine takeover, Sign is a special bird. Cards are key and have a good deal of content for players to consume every class and recess. Laying this out in an intuitive and accessible way is a lovely exercise in information architecture. We have our first box/card/booklet speced out. Now we’ve sent it off to our layout-type designer, who is both good and wise. After that, we tally up final dimensions and it’ll be off to the printers! Hip hip!

Dialect Backdrops. 

Collaborating and editing was all-consuming this month. We’ve finalized the rules on our end, with a few more playtests on the horizon for minor edits and new content. Also, win of wins, most of our contributors have now completed their backdrops! They are so flipping good. In a few weeks time, all backdrops (with edits and playtests) will be complete. Keith Stetson has been hard at work on the guide for incorporating Dialect into a homebrew campaign and David Peterson is getting started toward his chapter on language creation. Even with such formidable collaborators, it’s always hard working with so many humans in creative pursuits, but behold sweet friends, it’s coming together!

Dialect + Blades in the Dark. 

In gaming, just like in particle physics, you can’t go wrong smashing two things together at high speed in the pursuit of truth. Trust me, I knowTo test Keith’s rules on using Dialect to make language for another system, we made a Thieves’ Cant for Blades in the Dark! If you don’t know Blades, think a crew of scruffy scoundrels cutting their way to the top of a city that’s already overrun with scoundrels. Also, the city runs on demon blood. It is beautifully designed and super fun. In Part 1, we playtested Dialect in the world of Blades to build the language for a canon group called the Graycloaks, with an eye towards fleshing out their origin story. In Part 2 we played a round of Blades in the Dark as members of the Graycloaks using our new cant! Game in a game of fractal ouroboros games. Words were made, plots were twisted and in the end, the weather was so bad we almost dropped our chains (handy dandy glossary for the game here compiled by the wonderful Karen). Also, all this fun gave us decent signal for playtesting our supplemental material, so win was had by all.


Art. No really, art. Working with artists never ceases to amaze. We continue to collaborate with Jill De Haan, letterer aesthete for Dialect. She is deep in the clutches of a two-page spread based on the punchy guidance of “language phoenix.” She is taking that on and then some. (Seriously, it’s so good!) Since we have a compulsive appetite for good art, we decided to commission even more for Sign by the fantastic Miranda Meeks. That happens next month. And for those who have signed up for art prints and the rare Glorious Mystery Language Box, we have something to show you. I know you’re not really supposed to share things before they’re done, but what the hey. The piece by Erica Williams is nearly finished and it’s spectacular. The prompt was something along the lines of “animals walking through a ruined library filled with runic books” and well, see for yourself. Erica is in the process of coloring it and then it’s time to print and behold.

Just wow.



Phew. April is heads down writing for the rulebook. In fact, my cursor is blinking expectantly right now so I best be going. Happy Spring!

Play with courage

K+H. Also, Banach and Tarski, the paradoxical cats

Love and Fire from February

The prophecy is true; Thorny Games persists. February was a month of steady progress through playtesting and collaborating. We wanted to give you a peek at recent happenings in getting this game into form. We'll do this every month of the journey.

Convening and Playtests

We attended Dreamation in New Jersey, a fantastic con with a big heart and an excellent contingent of players and designers alike. Being from the wondrous West, this gathering is quite a trek for us, but duty calls. In happy form, we ran a whopping 5 sessions Dialect, each fully booked. Much story and language was made and we learned a lot in the process. Here’s a few kind words from players:

“Really loved playing Dialect, a storytelling-world building game in which we explored how a language evolved in an isolated community -- an intense process that included collaborative language building as well as interactive character exploration and storytelling.”

And another …

“Saturday night, though, was when I discovered my new favorite game, Dialect... From the moment we sat down, and started creating the world, I was enjoying myself. In creating our world, it was clear that this game was truly a cooperative experience between the four players . We navigated how things made sense, and it didn't feel like any one of us HAD to do something on their own, and it was a wonderful amazing experience. I realized later that there was literally NOTHING random about it - though unexpected things certainly came up!”

We also learned a bunch from these runs. Playtesting is a core part of the game dev’s journey and we’ve been walking that line for quite. a. while. As a whole, Dialect’s structure is set and stable. But in making anything wholeheartedly, you find that you are always reaching to make it better. We’ll continue to do that until we can’t anymore. We’ve been very happy with our latest additions: introducing a few variations into Age 3 and the Epilogue by focusing on the story and perspective of the characters at the end of the game. It's satisfying to move from language creation to a set time for exploring the world that you've architected at the table. Right now we’re spending a few mental eggs on refining the age transformations and crafting some guided examples for language creation.

Playtesting is a dark art unto itself. Every time we play with external groups, we provide a feedback sheet with a list of questions that help us evaluate the status of the game. Human behavior is a tricky thing to bottle up and make actionable data from, but by golly, we do our damndest. Take a listen to this episode of the Backstory podcast where H soliloquizes on playtesting science.

A collective noun of Dialect feedback sheets!

 A collective noun of Dialect feedback sheets!

A collective noun of Dialect feedback sheets!


Backdrop writing


We’re working with our collaborators to write their backdrops! Three of the 5 external playtest runs were for drafts of Backdrop content (The Sanctuary and Worcester School). It is a joy of joys to see other brilliant people transform your game in new ways.

As a peak, here’s a glimpse at some of the aspect generation questions for The Sanctuary:

Recall, the description: 

“There were 186 of us on the island when it hit. All of Boston was dying, a sickness that killed fast and mean. Joseph Shea had taken the boat the three hour's row to Back Bay that bright September day to get supplies, and he'd seen the bodies in the street, lying beneath the quarantine sign. He turned around without even landing, so we did without the cigarettes and such as he'd been sent for. We figure the island wasn't named Sanctuary just for it's pretty little west-side harbor and seaweed-fed soil. It's 2018 now, and we still keep to the island, though there's closer to three hundred of us now.”

Light drives death away: How have we kept the lighthouse lit and operational for 100 years?

Softness breeds sickness: Without exposure to the weaknesses and medicines of the blighted mainland, what have we done to become strong and resilient on our island?

More for this backdrop and the rest in the coming months. 

Up next: more playtesting and refining. More writing and collaborating with our backdrop writers.  More art, with rumors of a language phoenix on the horizon.


Thorny Games and the mathy cats

Hello from the Jaws of January

Good tidings in 2017! We have lots to tell you. Dialect barrels ahead furiously, with playtests, design polish, art-in-the-rough, and the sweet satisfaction of forward motion. We’re doing our damndest to shepherd this project along and it is pretty work. Here are a few updates from the jaws of January.

Regarding Time

Timelines from here to Tuesday (and the Tuesday 6 months from now). We are knees-deep in project plans for how design, writing, layout, art, and production will puzzle-piece together. Our focus for this month is to crystallize a set of rules that honor our ambition for the game. This will serve as an input into the next stage. February will bring the start of collaboration, with our band of writers fleshing out the bones of their settings. Following that, it’s words, words, words (revisions, more writing, editing). The final trial is layout, production and then shipment.

Of Art 

Art continues. (A happy thought!) Jill De Haan is constant in her work for Dialect; producing a pageant of wonderful for the game that only seems to get better. The Thorny Games piece by Erica Williams swirls and takes inky form. Close your eyes and picture an old library. Once great, now reclaimed by nature, covered in small runic books of cryptic symbols and ciphers. Open your eyes and click here. Oh, art. <3

On Play and Design 

  • Our playtests and design polish saunter on. We’ll wrap up a stable set of rules by end of January, but knowing us, playtesting and refining will continue to the very end. 
  • If you are a purveyor of game design, take a listen to the Game Design Round Tablepodcast, including this episode featuring Thorny Games. In bright news, K will join as a new co-host for the podcast soon! 
  • The ever wonderful Sean Nittner wrote up a kind report on a recent playtest set in a trial version of the “Worcester School, 1950” backdrop. His write-up gives a peek into how our design has evolved over the last few months: more ways to guide players to decision has really helped streamline the play process! Our last point to iron out is tightening the screws of Age 3 - and then we wade into backdrop playtests and refinement. Beyond that is the abyss of our next project and the vulgar unknown.

Respecting Convention 

  • Boy, do we like to convene. 2017 will bring us many opportunities to do so. We’ll be traveling for game conventions across the US throughout the year. February takes us back to the wilds of New Jersey for Dreamation. Come and say hi to us! We’ll be playtesting, naturally. We may also sneak by Dundracon, a local Bay Area gathering.
  • For 2017, count us in for Origins in Columbus, Kubla Con in San Francisco, Gen Con in Indianapolis, Big Bad Con in Oakland, and Metatopia in New Jersey. We're suckers for a good playtime so you’ll probably find us elsewhere, too.

Onwards and chin up, 

K+H and the mathy cats

99.998% of Thorny Games are named Gen Con Industry Insiders

We are so honored to be chosen as Industry Insiders at Gen Con 2016. We'll be presenting on cryptolinguistic game design, how more games should be in Hungarian, and a set-theoretic approach to play.

We'll ALSO be presenting on a slew of panels with some amazing folks: 

  • Language and Games
  • Empathy in Game Design
  • Gaming and Community
  • How to Make RPG Welcoming to New Players
  • Beyond Combat: Adding Story to Your Game
  • Finding Your Spark
  • Improv for Gamers

When not paneling, we'll be running a slew of games at Games on Demand.



Play Report: Juggernaut

Juggernaut was the offering for our Indie RPG meetup this month - and oh boy did we find that our group had a LARP shaped hole in their hearts that needed filling by a three foot by six foot by eight foot, clicking and whirring mechanical abomination full of punch-cards. It filled up faster than any other game we offered to date!

A description by Bully Pulpit:

It is July third, 1950. The Korean War is eight days old. National Security Council Report 68 is sitting on Harry Truman’s desk, a grim outline of the Cold War that is to enfold the world for the next 40 years. Alan Turing’s paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” is circulating for review. Cinderella is a box office sensation. 
And you have invented a computer that can see the future.

Play kept a solid clip and everyone was engaged in the creepy vibe - we had a great time. I especially liked it for new players (half the players were new to LARP). There's a lot to explore internally for the characters, but there's also so much external weirdness going on that players have a lot to focus on in their environment if they don't want to dive too deep into introspection.

Our Juggernaut: Built from our color-coded bookcase, speakers, and a theremin.

 Rainbow-theremin Juggernaut is never wrong.&nbsp;

Rainbow-theremin Juggernaut is never wrong. 

Some observations coming out:

  • I love giving the players tools to ratchet up intensity and pace - it feels like you're given a set of tools to craft what works for your group, on that day, in the time you have, under those emotional conditions.
  • We ran Juggernaut as an mp3 file on a phone attached to my computer speakers surrounding our bookcase. Those four speakers together could really blare when we ran a summary output job. I was really glad we did this - keeping the noise loud enough that it immediately interrupts and stifles conversation does so much to build tension.
  • What I focus on during the safety brief has such a big effect on my relationship with the players. I'm so used to being the person making sure everything's running smoothly mechanically, that sometimes I err too much on the mechanics of safety. This time, I focused more on love and trust. It really felt like the players felt they needed to be less guarded in their play after seeing the facilitator open up like that. A great feeling to engender as we introduce new players and try to grow out the community in the Bay Area.

Here are some of Joe's thoughts coming out of the game too (our Dr. Takahashi):

While looking through other play reports online, I noticed something funny. Ours wasn't the only game that had a cat wonder into the play area (pics included in Joe's tweets) - it also happened at the Larp House:

Dr Takahashi seems to have been the cat lover in both cases.