📦 Free Domestic Shipping at $40!
📦 Free Domestic Shipping at $40!
Cart 0

Jewels for the Emperor Penguin Designer Diary

by Shane Carr

Game Designer Shan Carr

Greetings, everyone! I am the designer of Jewels for the Emperor Penguin, and I wanted to tell the story of how the design arrived at the point it is today.

As a board game player, I'm a fan of deck-building games, especially ones in which you evolve your deck throughout the game, a mechanic made popular by Dominion. However, I've observed time after time that the physical dexterity of regularly shuffling a growing deck of cards is a barrier to entry for this genre.

Therefore, when I set out to design Jewels, I had a clear goal in mind: build a game accessible to a broad audience that behaves like a deck-builder but uses dice instead of shuffled cards to generate entropy. This goal led to the core "worker placement plus dice building" mechanic of Jewels. What followed was several years of developing the rest of the mechanics to form a beautiful package which I hope will bring joy to gamers of all skill levels.

The Early Days

My journey began as a college student, as a member of the Washington University Game-Developers Society. My friend Kyle Brockman was a big Dominion enthusiast, right around the time when the first expansions were hitting the market. That’s when I first developed the core mechanic of what became Jewels for the Emperor Penguin.

A playtest of Amusement City in 2017

In the game, players have a set of workers, which are like cards in a deck. Each worker corresponds to one side of a die. When that number is rolled, the corresponding worker takes an action, as if that card were drawn from a deck. The workers start with access to basic abilities, and as the game progresses, they can access better and better abilities, like adding more powerful cards to a deck.

My first attempt at making a game around this core mechanic took the shape of an amusement park themed game named Amusement City. That prototype used d12 polyhedral dice. Although playtesters liked the dexterity of the d12 dice, my experience testing this design indicated that it wouldn't meet my goal of a broadly accessible game. I hope to revisit this prototype in the future, perhaps more narrowly targeted at players looking for additional content after playing Jewels.

After quite some time working on Amusement City, it was in 2018 that I decided to start a design with d6 dice and more targeted decision-making.

Ruby Hunters

The very first Ruby Hunters prototype, featuring square tiles and a single currency

I named the new prototype Ruby Hunters: a game about pirates hunting for rubies in tropical islands and burying them for victory points. Players had 5 pirate tokens (workers), with the sixth die face being wild. The pirates started on a home island, and from there would venture out to other islands printed on square tiles. The pirates could either stay close to home and get a little money right away, or travel to distant islands and get more money later. Pirates would loot rubies from one another and race to bury them and be the first to score 40 points. Players had four dice per turn and could resolve them in any order. Many of the abilities gave players extra dice such that players could take up to eight actions per turn!

By this time, I had started working at Google and frequenting board game designer meetups throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. This community of accomplished designers and industry insiders, the Golden Gate Gamemakers , kept me motivated and helped accelerate the development of the game. I learned so much from Jonny Pac, Velgus, John Brieger, Michael Dunsmore, Rohan Dagard, Jeremy Commandeur, Brandon Raasch, Scott Caputo, Glenn Cotter, and many more.

Mid-game in an early hex version of Ruby Hunters

Over the year that followed, I changed square tiles to hexagons, which are easier to set up and improve table presence, and rebalanced the game accordingly. To keep the game feeling fast-paced, I ensured that players had enough information to plan a turn or two in advance; this meant no actions that would reveal crucial information or drastically alter the board state in the middle of the game. And, I put a high priority on a simple, intuitive ruleset; as many mechanics as possible should be explained by the components themselves.

At this point I had a prototype that achieved my goals, so I decided to start pitching the design. I got a seat at the KublaCon 2019 Designer/Publisher speed date, where I met Seppy Yoon . Seppy introduced me to Jeff Tidball of Left Justified Studio, who was looking for a medium-sized gateway game to add to their lineup. I mailed Jeff a copy of the prototype, and by the end of the year the game had been signed with Left Justified Studio!

Evolution with Left Justified Studio

With Left Justified Studio, I made a number of key changes that further improved the accessibility and pace of gameplay.

Set and ready at Protospiel Madison 2021

First, we decided to pull an idea I had for expansion content, multiple types of gems, into the base game. I rebalanced the whole game with an economy of gems that ascend in value, and added objective cards instead of a pure points race. (Yes, I applied my skills as a software engineer to run simulations and guarantee that there are multiple paths to victory.)

Second, we introduced a way for workers to travel farther on a single turn. For a while we used a mechanic Jeff suggested, "sneaking," where smaller workers can move past larger workers without stopping. Based on feedback from a playtester, we changed this to "bumping," where larger workers can bump smaller workers.

Third, we changed the action phase from four dice to one die per turn, increasing the pace of play and allowing more players to join. At first I worried that the change would hamper intricate maneuvers, but this was solved with the new bumping mechanic, which redirects players' attention towards meticulously arranging their penguins for efficient engine optimization.

Finally, we added "group bonuses" that give players gemstones even when it is not their turn, keeping players engaged and adding player interaction. This replaced an older concept called "King on the Mountain" in which the highest-number pirate on a mountain collected taxes when smaller pirates passed through.

This all came together at Protospiel Madison 2021, where Jeff and I met in person to stress-test the new economy and mechanics. We received much positive feedback from playtesters who said they would buy the game, which was our signal to move forward with graphics and design.

Penguins, Guilds, and Graphics

I built Ruby Hunters as a mechanics-first design. The game had changed enough from the "pirates looting rubies" prototype that it was time for a re-theme. We considered a number of different themes with a focus on finding something accessible that would aid with explaining the mechanics of the game. We settled on penguins: they come in groups (rookeries) and it's fun to imagine them sliding and bumping around the board. We decided to keep gemstones as the currency and titled the game Jewels for the Emperor Penguin as a play on words.

My first time playing the Kickstarter preview edition with the new artwork and components

A late-breaking mechanical change was the addition of penguin guilds to the game. Each player gets a secret guild icon which scores points based on how many of that icon the player collects. This new mechanic introduced more asymmetry so that not all players see the board state in the same way, and it helps players choose a direction and strategy for the round.

Meanwhile, Jeff connected with Kenzie Lindow and Josh Nelson to produce artwork for the game. I suggested illustrating "penguins with personality" to showcase the game's sophistication and broad appeal. I was blown away by Kenzie's and Josh's artwork and hope that it will resonate with both families and hobbyists.


It's been a fun journey to bring Jewels for the Emperor Penguin from concept to published game. I have so many people to thank that I can't list you all here! My hope is to build a community around Jewels and follow up with more content and expansions. I hope you will follow, support, and/or share the kickstarter campaign.

Thank you all and have a wonderful 2024!

Older Post