The 54 Card Guild: #10

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If this is the first time you're seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. It's a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you're interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Today we must discuss dark, terrifying things. We must discuss a thing that veteran designers know too well. We must discuss The Reboot. Back in Guide #4 we talked about killing a failed idea and being okay with failure. Today, we're going to twist this topic to discuss resurrection.

It is good to do away with bad designs and move to something else. But, it's great to salvage something, take the best elements, and start anew a half step ahead of square 1.

One thing about The Reboot is that you often won't reboot terrible games, or failed games. A bad idea is often a bad idea no matter how you re-skin it. The Reboot is crucial when you have a game that is fine, solid, but not great. This is the path you take when you have an idea that won't be good enough to fully match the goals and ideals defined in your outline. This is why the Reboot deserves its own Guide, but also, why it's one of the latter ones. Knowing that something is good, but not good enough, is a really tough skill to obtain.

When trying to figure out whether a game will be good enough, I ask myself a handful of questions, including:

  1. Would I buy this game? That seems like a simple question, but if your name wasn't on the box, would you pay for it and be happy?
  2. Is this game unique? Every game should bring something special to the table. If you're too derivative, others will know. Why should people buy your game versus another? Side Note: This is a deeper blog post Josh and I are writing now.
  3. Could you play this 100 times? Is there enough depth and replayability in the current design? Could people play this game for years?
  4. How often are your testers hitting the sweet spot? Generally, I like to think of the 3-5 moments my game should evoke. When those moments hit, do people love it? And, does your design hit those moments often enough?
  5. Can this game become awesome? Obviously, your game isn't finished yet. It doesn't have a publisher. It's not done. But, is the framework you've laid good enough to support an amazing experience?

These are tough questions, and if you've noticed, it's really 5 ways of asking the same question: if this wasn't your baby, would you love this game? People often say they cannot choose between two good things as it's like naming a favorite child. What if you have to give a thumbs up or down to your only child?

I recently went through this experience with a game called Barbarus. Barbarus was a game for 3-5 players that took about 45 minutes to play. It prominently feature blind bidding as its core mechanism and was seeking to emulate the vibe of a Knizia auction game. Specifically, elements of High Society or Modern Art.

I'll spare you the full run down of the game -- that's not important. But, for the purpose of instruction, I'll answer the 5 questions above. When I decided to Reboot the game, it was solid, fun, and simple.

Would I buy this game? The game would probably be $20-25. I don't think I would have bought it. There wasn't quite enough to it to justify the cost. Also, I have a few games already that do what it does.

Is the game unique? I sorta just answered this, but no, not really. Bidding is done exhaustively, and blind bidding already exists in several areas. Tying it well to a war theme was neat, but ultimately, it didn't bring much new to the table. Bidding is well-worn and it needed a twist.

Could you play this 100 times? I don't think so. The game lacked breadth, because there was one way to succeed, one objective, and not enough information to change your decisions. In my opinion, this game was sufficient for a cult of the new gamer, but not someone that was going to play this repeatedly at lunch.

How often were testers hitting the sweet spot? Semi-often, which is why I worked on the game for so long. When people lost a bid, folks went "aww crap!" and others would laugh. That was great. But, there were several moments where it was clear somebody was going to win, or frustration at not knowing how to win or change your fate. Basically, the sweet was being overcome by the sour.

Can the game become awesome? I don't know, honestly. After a few months of development on Barbarus, I don't have more great ideas and I'm not terribly inspired. I feel I've run the gamut, which is why I decided to set it aside. I didn't clearly see the path to the promised land, so it felt like I needed a new path.

Depending on how you answer these five questions, your game may or may not be due for a Reboot. How do you Reboot productively? You don't want all that work to go to waste. That's just foolish. No, a good Reboot takes into account what you've learned and builds upon the premise. What you need to do, is consider your Goals -- yes, I'm bringing Goals up again -- and you need to create a quick list of the things your game does well, and the things it does not do well.

Try to think of 3-5 things for each category.

Things I Liked about Barbarus

  • The moment of the reveal. It was surprising, fun, and often evoked a reaction from players.
  • Having a similar set of tools from which to draw. Players all had identical decks, but when they drew their cards, and how they used them, really changed things.
  • Very simple cards. For once, I didn't go crazy with really complex mechanisms or card text.
  • Very simple resolution. Once things were revealed, a simple comparison often resolved conflicts.
  • Overall pacing and speed. Players were constantly involved and the game moved at a good clip.
  • I liked the simplicity of the scoring. Players compete over cards that state what they are worth.

Things I Didn't Like about Barbarus

  • Too derivative. I basically just took established auction mechanisms.
  • Too many phases. Every round had too many steps that weren't always intuitive or easy to remember.
  • Not enough skill. I'm not sure the game allowed for enough skillful play. I couldn't discern whether you could be "good" at Barbarus.
  • Not enough information. It was tough for players to make informed decisions about the hidden bids.

When you begin the Reboot, you can start by trying to solve some of the initial problems. Take Bullet number 4 from Things I Didn't Like. When crafting Martian Republic, I used two mechanisms to give players more information about played face down cards.

  1. I introduced a drafting phase. Though you only take 1 card, you have ideas about what other cards are in play.
  2. I introduced an announcement. Players must reveal some information about the cards they play, based on where they play them.

I simplified the new game to a few key phases, namely a Draft, Playing, then a Resolution and Round Setup phase. Players only really make decisions in two of them. This cleans things up and moves them along.

When working on the Reboot, be sure to not lose things that worked well. Instead of creating several different cards, I gave every player 7 identical cards. This greatly simplifies the learning and makes it easier to draft. You know there are only 7 types of cards, not 30! However, to add some spice and introduce some of the variance the previous game had, different cards are worth different amounts of points for different players. This adds a slight twist that really makes drafting more compelling.

When trying to solve the overly derivative nature of Barbarus, I examined my mechanisms, and thought about interesting twists. For Martian Empire, you can draft and play any player's cards. However, players only score for THEIR cards. This means you can use your information to put someone else in a bad position, but you want to balance how much control you cede to other players. At some point, you need to stop sewing chaos and score points!

Conclusion

I can drone on forever, but the purpose of this post is not to tell you everything about my new game, but to share the tools and key pivot points that I leveraged to create a new, superior game from the framework of the old design.

Assignment

Take the game you've been working on and ask yourself the five questions. See how your current game stacks up and really, really be honest with yourself.

Then, regardless of whether your game overwhelmingly succeeds with your answers, or bombs, try to list 3-5 things you really like about your current game, and 3-5 things you really don't like. Again, be honest! Good designers can often think of 3-5 things they don't like about excellent games that are published and considered to be good. No game is perfect, but you should use this opportunity to evaluate your games strengths and flaws to see how you can improve the former category and decrease the latter.

Thanks for reading! Look forward to a new 54 Card Guild very soon! It's already in the works.

Comments

Totally agreed! I bet even higher than 97% of board games have some kind of replayability. As I think about it more, perhaps it was just my gut reaction to the #100, since these days it is a rare instance when I can even get back to play a game I like a second time. But because of that, I know the ones that I do play more than once are the games I really like.

People would certainly play Magic (and its ilk) 100 or more times (which is a testament to why it is still so successful and keeping so many game stores alive), and there are many other examples that could hit that mark, though I wonder if contemporary tabletop designers would set their own goal more humbly...with the number of available games for a player to choose these days, and depending on the target market and intended depth of a particular game, I'd be very happy to know someone wanted to (and succeeded at) playing my game 10 or 20 times. But perhaps the 100 number forces one to think hard about replayability and fun factor and dig out the most possible from their creation.

Something folks who play a TON OF GAMES like me and often forget, is that the overwhelming majority of people buy new games very rarely. This is also true in video games. Most people just buy games at birthdays and Christmas! So, while many hardcore nerds play games 1-3 times, then move on, most people play their games 20 or 30 times! There's also the reality that, in my opinion, perennial sellers are the key to a publisher. Games that will sell through multiple printings over the years. It's therefore super key to design a game that will stand the test of time. This means it's balanced, fun, and worth playing over and over again.

Years ago, I was inspired by a note on Morels, designed by Brent Povis. It said that their games go through the Rule of 100, which is that they are tested at least 100 times before they are sold. I've tried to hold myself to a similar standard. In my experience, Netrunner (80+ plays), Coloretto (50+ plays), Dragonheart (60+ plays), Farmageddon, Hocus, and York (3 designs of mine, yes) all have 100+ plays.

It's an arbitrary number, but I think it's a good goal. The razor by which I choose which games to keep are the ones that'll be played forever. I may only have 20 plays of Memoir '44, but I plan to eventually play it 200!

Does this better clarify the point?

Totally clarifies. Most important, like you said, it's good to step outside of one's own head/bubble/game group to consider these elements, and absolutely critical to try to see the project through the eyes of the target market. I like the Rule of 100 idea...I should be tracking actual test numbers to see how close we're getting to that, and track where along that line major elements of the game change, improve, and plateau. If I was better at web development, I might make a little tool to help with that...maybe just a spreadsheet for now :)

Just saw this series of posts and started to think about a 54 card game and it made a lot of sense to me , a newbie designing games , to try a game only with cards and having no more than 54 of them so I'll start thinking about some ideas .

You can always find an exception to everything. With Sherlock Holmes, they answered it by creating dozens of cases (if you include the expansions). TIME Stories will create content on that framework as long as people buy it. The overwhelming majority of games do not have finite content, so I believe in 97% of cases this question is still valid.

Hi Grant. Thanks for the article. Whether it's designing, teaching, playtesting, pitching, etc I love having handy, short mental checklists to help guide me along the path. These 5 questions are great for taking a quick hard look at your game and determining if you're on the right path.

The only one I have occasional issues with is #3, "can you play this 100 times". For some games (e.g. Chess, 7 Wonder, Apple to Apples) this is a valid way to determine its "fun" quotient. But there are certain types of games that are only intended to be played once or a few times (e.g. Pandemic Legacy, Time Stories, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective). Perhaps the question could be considered more as "Can players get everything they want out of the game in the intended number of playthroughs?" Not nearly as elegant, but I think you get the idea :)

Nice post Grant! I think it's very hard to properly analyse a game designed by yourself like you do. I should try to improve this skill. Thanks for sharing!