Paper Route: Developing in Real Time

Chevee recently released his game Paper Route on The Game Crafter and as a free print-and-play download. I checked out the rules several times and, though I haven’t had a chance to download the PNP yet, the game looks excellent and my Twitter feed is abuzz with people saying “Paper Route is fun!” 

Post by: Chevee Dodd

It all started when Cyrus Kirby (@thefathergeek) challenged me on Twitter.

I happened to love Paper Boy also, so I was really intrigued by the challenge.  I had some initial thoughts and ideas, none of which were real-time or action based.  My first concept was a “scrolling” game where the board unfolds as you move down the street, but the more I worked on that idea, the more I realized the game would be long and drab.  What I wanted was to capture the frantic action of the arcade game and translate that, somehow, into a board game.

I had never attempted to design a real-time game.  An even bigger challenge was that I had not played any real-time games either!  Because of my lack of understanding, I quickly dreamed up a system that I thought was going to be great!  There would be Houses and Obstacles.  These cards would have pictures of arcade controller buttons on them.  Each player would have a deck made up of button cards.  The players would simultaneously flip one card from the top of the House and Obstacle deck and then pick up their own decks and begin searching for the buttons printed on the House and Obstacle.  Once a player had found all the buttons, they would flip them over on the table.  The person to flip first would then score points assuming they didn’t mess up.  If they didn’t pull the correct set of buttons, they would lose a life.  This continued for 10 (or so) rounds and the person with the most points wins.  If you lost all three lives, game over for you.

Well, that’s a working game.  Done, right!?  No.  Not at all.  Just because the game “works” doesn’t mean it’s worth playing.  This game had exactly zero decisions which meant that the fastest player always won.  Remember me talking about never playing this type of game?  It showed here. BAD.  I had assumed that these types of games were entirely dexterity based.  So, the game worked.  There was no strategy, so there was nothing to break.  Nothing to tweak.  When that happens, there is no game.

At this point, I was personally out of ideas.  This is a direct limitation of me not being familiar with the type of game I am designing.  Some designers say that they don’t play other peoples games because they don’t want to inadvertently “borrow” ideas.  I don’t have that reservation.  I believe I can separate myself through game-play even though my mechanics may be familiar.  Does this mean I run out and buy up a bunch of games that are similar to what I am working on?  NO.  What it does mean is that I spent some time researching rule sets on the Internet, trying to see what makes them work.  I looked at games like Brawl and Falling from James Ernest, Icehouse, and Jab: Real Time Boxing, and even the classic card game Speed.  I found what I was missing: play options that required decisions.

There has to be decisions in a game.  If there’s not, we are just participating in an activity.  While that is fine, if that’s your sort of thing, it is not exactly interesting for a card game.  There needs to be multiple paths for each card played.  Should I play this to advance myself, or hinder my opponent?  Should I play this as a bluff or do I need it to better my position?  Can I take a hit, should I take a hit?  Will it help?  These are the decisions that turn an activity into a game.

The challenge for me was inserting these decisions into a game that had none, without ruining the frantic, arcade feeling.  Mashing buttons on an arcade stick is mostly mindless.  You are making split second decisions and using muscle memory to drive the action of the game.  You are processing things at high speed and that causes mistakes when something unexpected comes up.  Without decisions in my game, it was very improbable that you would make mistakes.  I had wrongfully assumed that speed was enough, because in a video game, it is.  When you are facing off against a human opponent, however, there needs to be a feedback loop.  Without graphics and on-screen action to clue you in on what’s going on, you have no way of determining if you are “winning” or not.  You need to be able to see what is happening on the table in order to react to it.  I needed to translate the visual feedback of arcade games onto the table.

Enter some awesome playtesters.

I have some really great playtesters that are very talented players and designers.  One tester had a really great idea: have multiple houses out at once and let the player decide which to go for.  This was exactly what I was looking for.  If I set out a line of houses, players have to complete multiple tasks simultaneously which brings some decisions into the game.  Because you can see what your opponent is working towards, you can decide where you want to play your cards.   Now you had to pay visual attention to your opponent’s plays as well as use pattern recognition and building skills to complete your own goals.

As soon as I switched to this system, I found the arcade action I was looking for.  Instead of searching the deck for some cards, you flip them over one at a time.  You have to stop at every card and make a decision where to play it or to discard it.  No take-backs.  Now you have five potential goals to choose from.  You can try to go for the ones with the highest points, or target only the houses your opponent is ignoring.  You can try to out-race your opponent on the houses they are playing on, completely invalidating the cards they have played there if you take it.  It’s fast, it’s furious, and you are prone to making mistakes.

A few rounds of playtesting proved to me that this was the way to go.  It actually did feel a bit like a frantic arcade game but also had great head-to-head appeal.  It still needed something a little extra.  Even with the five houses out, the faster player was heavily rewarded.  Now, this IS a dexterity game.  The faster player SHOULD win most often BUT, there needs to be hope for the slower guy.  With the system as it stood, you could steal a house from your opponent without completing it to mess with them.  This caused you to lose a life, but it could be strategically viable if you are behind.  While this was an interesting decision to make in-game, there needed to be another way.

This is where another tester influenced the game.  In fact, this player hadn’t even played the game yet, but came up with an awesome idea just from reading the rules!  An idea so perfect, that I added it directly into the game:  vandalism.  Just like the arcade game, you can vandalize houses.  Each player’s deck has four newspaper cards that are typically used to score obstacles.  Hit the dog with a paper, score 25 points… that sort of thing.  What if you could use these papers to vandalize a house, preventing EITHER player from scoring it?  Doing this removes the newspaper card from your deck permanently, but it is a great mechanic that provides you with another option to control the score without being too cumbersome.  That’s the whole point really.  The player should be making decisions, but these decisions should not be weighing the game down.  This is supposed to be an analog for arcade games, after all, and taking your time in an arcade game is the best way to lose!

After testing these two changes a few times… okay, MANY times… it was clear to me that this was the game I was going for.  I still had some minor tweaks to do to scoring and the button combinations printed on the cards, but that’s just balancing stuff.  That comes after the system is solid.  Going through this process really taught me a lot about not only real-time games, but myself as a designer.  I took on a project I was completely unfamiliar with that required me to think about game design from a whole new perspective… almost like designing a video game.  Giving the players decisions without allowing them time to think about those decisions was completely unfamiliar to me as a board game designer.  It was a real challenge that presented new problems I had not considered.  Typically, when I hit speed bumps like this, I collapse and give up.  I pushed through this time, and I think it turned out really great!  I hope I can keep up that momentum in future almost-failed designs!

6 thoughts on “Paper Route: Developing in Real Time

  1. Very cool. I love this whole process. It’s amazing how big the effect can be from one idea that comes out during playtesting. Sounds great!

    • Thanks!

      It really is a fun process. I feel like playtesting is really where the magic happens for me. Most times, I missed something important or just failed to recognize that certain strategies could develop and it requires on-the-fly adjustment… which is awesome.

  2. I love the back story! Really sheds light on how much game designers go through in pursuit of perfection. :)

    • I think they key phrase there is “pursuit of” – because I’m never satisfied. ;-)

  3. Hmm…

    If I had known you were going to take me so seriously, I would have asked for something that shoots fire and makes me look taller.

    Great article, my friend, and thank you so much for the game!


    • Hm, not sure I could achieve such lofty goals. I barely achieved the game! ;-)


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