Teeny Tiny Awesome Games

Please tell me you've heard of Love LetterEveryone is talking about it. The game features 16 cards, plays up to 4, and plays in about 20 minutes. It's a micro-game and it has everyone in a flurry. It is this year's "deckbuilder!" like craze in that everyone wants a piece of it. Perhaps for good reason?

I've been obsessed with designing a really simple card-only game for a month or so now. The reasoning is less Love Letter, which I haven't yet played, but more that I want to do something simple that is purely within my control. It can be nerve-wracking and exhausting to chase a publisher. It's also expensive to make a game as big as Empire or even Farmageddon look good with art. My hope is to create something simple and delightful then put it on DriveThruCards.com and not worry about it further. From time to time we must control our own destiny or GO INSANE.

What makes a simple game good? Hell, what makes a simple game? I think this goes beyond components, though that is a key, uh, component of this equation. Here is what I believe defines a simple game (Note: Not a "micro-game," which isn't what I'm creating):

  • Cost: The game should be under $20, ideally at $15 or less. This is the no evaluation, let's do it purchasing point for consumers.
  • Length of Play: The game should play in 30 minutes or less. It should have that "let's play again!" quality. People can play this 2-3 times over lunch.
  • Learning Complexity: Rules should be a few pages at most. Explaining the game should be 5 minutes or less.
  • Components: Ideally one component, often cards (as they fit in a small box and fit that cost requirement nicely). The number of cards should be around 52 to 100. A few counters are fine, but should be avoided if possible.
  • Play Complexity: The pacing must be fast and the difficulty of a player's decision must not be too hefty. A player's turn should consist of 1, maybe 2 Actions. Do this OR this. Card text should be minimal at most.

Now, that shouldn't be too difficult, right? Honestly, I think it's one of the most difficult problems before us as designers. How can we create something deep, simple, and cheap? To be honest, Farmageddon doesn't meet this criteria. Turns are too complex, cards are too complex, and there's too much going on.

My target game is none other than the beautifully wondrous Coloretto. I bought this game for inspiration a week ago and have already played it 14 times. It's outstanding and delightful. It cost $15 at my FLGS no less and has been enjoyed by all of my friends, gamers, non-gamers, and even my hyper critical girlfriend! I'll save you the Google search. Go buy it. Go on. I'll wait.

Coloretto has a very small number of card types.

  • 7 Color cards, literally only distinguished by their numbers. Zero text. Zero symbols.
  • Wild cards. Can be used as any color card.
  • +2 cards. Worth 2 points apiece at the end.
  • The Last Round card. When drawn...it's the last round.

Furthermore, on your turn you have 2 choices:

  1. Draw and place a card in a row. Any row, you just can't have more than 3.
  2. Claim a row and all of its cards. Once you claim a row, you're out for the round. Everyone will get 1 row.

This all builds into a simple scoring mechanic. You score your best 3 sets of color cards (their point values multiply based on how many you have). You lose points for any other sets outside of your best 3. Most points wins.

This game has been massively inspirational and as a result my design will be potentially derivative. But, it happens and my plan is to not copy Coloretto, but to learn from it, test, and emerge with something special of my own. There are a few key things I'm considering at the moment:

  • The importance of color. Deeply tying this property to all things, including scoring and how cards can be played.
  • Simple scoring, even simpler than Coloretto. Sum the numbers on your cards. That's your score.
  • Simple actions, also baked into the color scheme mechanic. I'm a fan of Action driven games. See Farmageddon, Empire, Molly's Last Hope. Without the complexity of combo play, this is greatly streamlined.
  • Up to 5 players. I've never designed a game for more than 4. I really want to include that 5th!
  • Cards only.

I have the outline for an initial design and mechanic. There's some neat stuff that is definitely different from Coloretto. My hope is to build it out and self test to see how it goes. Look for updates here, as per usual.

What are some of your favorite simple or micro games? What games have inspired you lately? What are you working towards? Share below.


I'd also throw in Bellwether's "Drop Site" and Stronghold's "Little Devils." I like Drop Site more, as I think there's more strategy, but both are good filler games.

As far as a microgame goes, how about something [off the top of my head] like:

18 Cards:
12 Cards (6 each in Red, Yellow, Blue; numbers 1-4)
5 Cards for betting (Marked Orange, Purple, Green, High, Low)
1 Card w/ Instructions

12 Chips (2 to each player, game plays 3-6)

1. Deal 2 Cards to each player.
2. Players put [at least] one of their chips on High/Low and [at least] one of their chips on a color
3. Players play one card from their hand in a clockwise fashion.
4. Reverse play order (players play one card from their hand in a counterclockwise fashion. In both cases, a player can't play on his/her initial card.
5. 2 betting cards with the most chips (High vs. Low; Orange v. Purple v. Green) determines winning trick.
6. Two players with the winning combination split the chips on the winning cards (if odd number of chips, the player who played the first card gets the remainder)
7. Play a # of rounds = to # of players. Most chips wins.

I owned Drop Site and traded it. Good game but it never got played. Definitely worth the $10.

Your game sounds fun. Have you tried it?

have tried the game a few times with my wife's relatives (who going into a catatonic state at anything more advanced than card games).

I think it needs to be more than just a microgame, but it could certainly be a small box card game. With 2 cards per person, the second round has fewer options for players than I'd like.

With more cards (maybe 3-5?), players would have choices about what to play when. It would also allow me to change the wagering into a "Discard to determine Winning [Trick] conditions" mechanism, which is something that's caught my interest.

I don't know if you're familiar with them, but Gryphon's bookshelf series, while at a slightly higher price point (and not eschewing non-card components), has very similar game criteria. They are the games my family requests to play over and over and over (my family likes Money and For Sale; my wife's family loves Incan Gold).

The simplest--and best--of these is For Sale. It's two thirty-card decks and some money chits. Each turn has a binary decision: increase the bid by at least $1000 or pass, taking the lowest-valued card and half your bid back. Very simple, very tense, very awesome.

No Thanks! is another simple, small-box game that you should check out if you haven't. None of my groups were smitten with it, but I think it's good. It's $10, has 35 cards and a few chips, and can be explained in three minutes or less.

Awesome. Coloretto was one of the first games I taught my co-workers and we still play it from time to time.

It's two feet from me now, right above Land Unter / Turn the Tide which isn't quite as simple, but definitely a card game I recommend to anyone who likes Coloretto.

Covert Action is a game I intend to add to my lunch-games pile and definitely meets all of your criteria.

I would also love to make a game so simple yet so deep—who wouldn't—and I wish you luck, sir.

I still somewhat maybe hopefully think perhaps I may try to publish a game at some point. As I'd like to be lower risk and avoid KS if possible, really small card games are the most feasible. So, looking at, playing, and designing them is good for my long term goals.

The "microgames" term seems to be catching on and I really should start using it to describe our World's Smallest Sports Games line (www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgamefamily/18240/the-worlds-smallest-sports-games). Here are the specs:

# of Games in the Series: 5 (baseball, tennis, car racing, football, golf).
Components: 9 cards
Duration: 30 minutes or less
Rules: 1 double-sided sheet or less.
Price: $7 at store.boardgamegeek.com. That will likely drop further if I launch a proper retail edition.

I designed the games for use as branded promotional items, which is what drove the micro-sized form factor. As an example, the games are small and inexpensive enough that, in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, Budweiser could put their logo and marketing message on my football microgame and include a copy inside every case of beer sold this month. It didn't happen this year, unfortunately -- Maybe you can help me convince them for 2014. =o)

Anyhow, check out the interactive online tutorials on our website (www.FamousGamesCompany.com) to get a feel for what sort of gameplay we've been able to create with only 9 cards.

Ditto on "Little Devils." Great smaller game. I'd add "Biblios" to this list. http://goo.gl/V7GMO