The Low Hanging Fruit

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The beginning of a new design can be an overwhelming occasion. If you're hiking Half Dome at Yosemite, which I recommend, the first time you encounter one of the very long and very steep climbs, you think, "why am I doing this?" It can be overwhelming, as I said, and you might not know exactly where to start.

If you're anything like me, and experience tells me we all do things a little differently, you're thinking of the big idea you hope to express with your game. The experience and the overall vibe. This might also pair with a component or mechanism you want to use, like dice, or a rondel, or worker placement, or perhaps another product defining point, such as player numbers or length.

So, you have the gist of an idea, potentially a mechanism or limiting factor (2 players only!) to restrain it some, then a huge cliff looking down upon you. "Go ahead!" it jests. "I won't laugh."

Eesh.

A trick I often use to calm my designer's nerves and make progress in the appropriate direction is to seek out low hanging fruit. By this, I mean ways to make your task simpler, while still helping you craft a design that is unique, novel, and deserves to be played. One important thing to note is that merely identifying and championing these fruit doesn't make the design task easy. The path from A to B is still fraught with disappointment. But, the goal is to get out of the wilderness sooner and find ways you can be unique from the start. Personally, I find my games' most unique elements evolve through testing and iteration, and trying to identify that spark from the first step is, for me, impossible.

I'm going to provide a few quick examples of my personal experiences with designs and low hanging fruit, as well as throw out some other designs that I think similarly benefited. But, it's just a guess!

Hocus Poker: At the outset, Hocus Poker (then Wizard Poker) was built around the notion of poker plus spells. The poker portion meant a similar deck of cards (suits and ranks), as well as the hands with which the world is familiar (flush, full house). But, we've always had guiding low-hanging fruit to constrain us creatively:

  • No player elimination. This is generally a universal no no. It works with actual poker, in which people are gambling, but not in a casual game.
  • No gambling. Poker is fueled by an exchange of currency. Hold 'Em is miserable when you're playing for jelly beans. We didn't want a game that required people to spend money to have fun.
  • Cards only. This was primarily for publishing concerns (cost, box, complexity), but also for product elements such as portability and accessibility.
  • Design a game around card management, not bet management. If you remove money and player elimination, you need a fundamental shift.

None of these are brilliant insights! I think we can all agree they are rather obvious. These qualities took a year of development to realize, so our work was not done for us. But, by quickly gravitating towards easy differentiation, we could set forth productively.

Dawn Sector: When I began Dawn Sector in 2012, I was still relatively new to the hobby (which limited my knowledge of existing titles), but was also fiercely committed to shorter games. In the past year I've made a commitment to bring out longer games at game day, but in 2012 games that took more than an hour basically weren't played. I wanted to make a war game, and a quick examination of top war games revealed some opportunities. I know these fruit aren't exclusive to my game, but they aren't super common either.

  • More than 2 players. So many war games are strictly head to head affairs. To me, there was an opportunity to expand that number to 4. That seemed obvious.
  • No player elimination. In 2 player war games, it's fine to play until one side is expunged. With 3 to 4 players, that's not fun. Although it has taken years to create a system that supports this, it was an obvious opportunity at the start.
  • As a partner to the previous bullet, all players needed to be involved, engaged, and viable until the end. It's far simpler to say " nobody is eliminated" than "you're all in it until the end unless you play heinously."
  • Short play time. Many war games range from 90 minutes to 6 hours. One of the reasons Memoir '44 is so popular is due to its short play time.

You'll see that none of these are mechanisms, thematic ideas, or even component suggestions. You can do this with many genres! For example, if you want to make a worker placement game, what are the easy things to change? Well, exclusive spaces could be something you get rid of. Changing the available spaces is also an idea. Most auction games require at least 3 players. Can you craft one that is compelling with 2?

Imperial Settlers: This is one of 2014's top rated games and one I've been enjoying myself as well. Ignacy is a favorite designer of mine and I found his efforts on this game deeply inspiring. As many of you probably know, Imperial Settlers is a new game built on the engine of 51st State, which is a game of Ignacy's that came out a few years ago.

51st State is very well regarded, and still has expansions coming out, but it is known for being incredibly complex, intricate, and detailed. As he does with all of his games, Ignacy has written at length about it on his blog. Go find them! (I'm lazy)

Looking at 51st State and Imperial Settlers, Ignacy tackled, in my opinion, some low hanging fruit.

  • Imperial Settlers has very few limitations. You aren't gated on the number of cards, or duplicates of cards. You aren't gated on the amount of resources you can collect, or how many deals you can have. If you can play it, you can do it. This leads to some nuttiness, but that's OKAY. There are just fewer rules. Few exceptions.
  • The presentation is incredibly approachable. The characters are cute, chubby, and colorful. There are little cartoon sword tokens for combat (like Zelda!). There are cute little wooden apples and pink little people. It's such a fundamental shift from apocalyptic 51st State, but man, it's such a clear opportunity.

I can't speak as intimately about it, but from my understanding, the above strategy is largely what the Privateer Press team applied to Warmachine as they looked to compete with Warhammer 40k. You can also see this strategy in much of Blizzard's work in the digital space. World of Warcraft is a director's cut of what is/was great about MMOs that came before it. League of Legends is a director's cut of Defense of the Ancients. Taking something fun, distilling, and focusing it, are great fruits to pluck.

Finally, and I've written about this at length in a previous post, is the conversion of Dune to Rex by Fantasy Flight Games. That team clearly examined the game's history, the balance debates, and did so through the lens of modern consumer tastes (versus those of the 70s and 80s). As a result, I believe they targeted a few fruit:

  • Shorter play time. Rex plays in around 2-3 hours, whereas Dune seems to be more a 3-4 hour game. That hour is really crucial.
  • More forgiving economy. The original Dune economy was incredibly tight and, if someone played poorly, could effectively eliminate you from the game. The new economy is designed to counter that.

There are other details, but those are two keys for this discussion.

When I examine games I love, I'm constantly reminded of how much one can improve a game by expediting the game's pace and rate of player involvement. City Hall, a current favorite, is a 90 minute to 2 hour game, but every player is involved in every decision. Nobody is ever checked out as they must remain engaged.

Dead of Winter is so innovative as it reduces downtime AND infuses story by providing Crossroads cards and personal goals, which makes the traitor mechanic more interesting than usual.

Another constant that seems to be useful is replacing a standard component with something else. Instead of a pawn, use a die in worker placement. Instead of a miniature, use a card in tactics games. Figuring out which component to use isn't obvious, but the starting point can be to take a standard favorite, and just pick a few elements.

What are some low hanging fruit you've plucked for your designs? What other examples can you share from games you've played? Start the discussion in the comments below.