Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek
Grant: Josh and I have been collaboratively designing Hocus Poker since February 2014 and our process has evolved constantly throughout.
Josh: It’s been the fastest evolving game I’ve ever been involved with. It hasn’t been the fastest from from prototype to production – that honor goes to Ascension at Firepeak, which I developed – but it’s been fun watching the game change.
Grant: One new process has jumped out at me recently and seemed worth discussing. It’s something Josh introduced and it’s worked very well. But first, we should probably provide some insight as to where Hocus Poker IS and has been recently.
Josh: All over the place!
Grant: Mostly notably, a few months ago we put the brakes on the version we distributed at Origin. It wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be and never would be. At a high level, we decided the game needed to use cards only, needed to be a more original title (less a poker modification), and work better with five players.
We recently put the brakes on Hocus 3.0, as we called it, to move towards Hocus 4.0. Each one of these isn’t a nuclear shift. We’re always keeping some, if not much, of the previous version. But, the changes are significant enough that we branch the rules and start fresh.
Josh: It has been occasionally dispiriting, honestly. It’s been Grant who has made the tough call each time to try and rethink things, and my reaction each time has been more onomatopoeic than anything: bleeeeaurrrrrgh. Because each time this happens, it’s time to come up with more content, re-think balance, just put everything back on the table. We may not be going nuclear here, but we have to really think about everything.
It’s been the right decision each time, I think. And each time, we accrete more things into the game that I’m proud of. And when (if?) this thing ever finishes, I’ll be happy that we went back into the salt mines each time. But, it can be hard to strap on your boots.
Grant: It’s really painful. There’s the saying that you have to stop tweaking at some point, but I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. I think we have a pretty clear idea for what this game can and should be. Not hitting that is disappointing, especially when all of our solutions keep getting us closer. I think we’ll hit the right iteration soon. I think we’re there now (which I totally haven’t said before). And, I fully expect Josh to finally pull the veto chute when we’re at the right spot and I don’t shut up.
For each of these significant changes, we did a really simple pro and con list. What do we like? And what do we not like?
Josh: The reason I like this approach is that we weren’t starting from scratch for these. We’ve put a lot of effort into this game – hundreds and hundreds of emails, chat conversations, document revisions, and all that. I have a dozen or so built prototypes around this house. Even when we wanted to examine every part of the game for a possible overhaul, we still had this base of acquired knowledge and ideas to draw from.
Grant: To really put this in perspective, we’ve tested and designed probably 100 different Spell cards at this point. We’ve tested several variations on the deck, including suit numbers, strength, and card powers. We’ve done about 4 major structural revisions. Each of these are similar and borrow from one another. It’s just a vast pool of knowledge from which to ponder our next moves.
I think we’re well over 100 tests between our local tests and blind tests. We tested HP3.0 over 20 times!
Josh: So how to decide what to re-consider? Why not list what we like and don’t like? If anything shows up on both of our dislike lists, that seems like an obvious place to start tinkering. No matter where I am with a design, there are always things that I’m more excited about than others. So, when we last hauled Hocus up on blocks to see what we could do, we decided to just put out what we liked and didn’t like.
Grant: The lists were pretty simple and short, but quite telling. The likes really help anchor our sacred cows. And by now, we have some sacred stuff. I don’t think this is a bad thing. These are battle tested goodies.
- Spellbooks: Variety, asymmetry, simple.
- Building Multiple Hands: Long term planning. Is a nice twist on poker.
- Gems: I love everything about them. Really simple wager. Giving someone a negative is fun without being too destructive.
- Short turns: They work once people get it. I do think our turn structure is weird to explain. Maybe.
- I like the idea of wolves and I want to solve the problem glyphs were trying to solve.
- I like controlling when showdowns occur.
- I like how our game scales. It does so decently right now.
Josh: The nice thing about this list is that I can point to when we figured that stuff out. And, for the most part, the stuff on Grant’s like list were things that we had figured out in what we call 3.0. That’s great sign, really. These were hard won lessons over a ton of iteration, and now Grant has a list of things that he really likes that we’ve hammered out recently. My like list looked like this:
- I like the spellbooks.
- I like building multiple hands.
- I like the Gems being the rewards.
- I like short, sharp turns.
- I like, conceptually, the wolves.
There’s a lot of overlap between these lists. We’re both pretty pleased with the innovations that were introduced in 3.0, as a result of all the learning from the first whacks at it. The like side of things, particularly the overlapping items, tells us what we don’t really have to worry about too much.
Grant: Dislikes are also important. Really, after we discuss the likes to smooth over any disagreement, we need to chart our course for the next steps. The dislikes are a big foam finger that says “I suck.”
- Endgame doesn’t quite work.
- I don’t like our hand distribution. I’m frustrated trying to solve the balance of the range of hands. It just doesn’t seem to work with what we’re doing.
- I don’t like the 2 hidden cards in the community. I like the IDEA of it.
When we start these discussions, I have a habit of just writing for days about everything that does and doesn’t work. I start thinking grandly, then minutely, and it gets rather scattered. This process does a really good job of forcing both of us to think constructively and focus. We don’t need to discuss everything. We really just need to know where we stand.
We agree on A and B. Good! C is contentious. Let’s focus on that really quickly.
Josh: It was primarily the end game that brought you to bringing up changing to 4.0. At least, it was a major concern. I, too, had things I wasn’t totally sold on, so my dislike list looked like this:
- I don’t like the numbers in the deck
- I’m not thrilled with the endgame
To expand it a bit, I was discontent with the composition of the deck. I didn’t like that it was relatively close to a poker deck, still. I didn’t think there was enough differentiation here, enough use of a custom deck of cards. Our attempt to fix that in 3.0, adding some minor effects to some cards, just wasn’t hacking it. And, we see the endgame pop up here again. Clearly, that’s a sore point.
We’ve actually been struggling with endgame for the whole development of the game.
Grant: The Like and Dislike lists gave us incredibly clear discussion points. We knew what was working. We discussed the few differences in opinion there. We knew what wasn’t working, and again, were able to quickly discuss differences in opinions. Now, we have a short action item list of things to tackle, which we were able to do remarkably quickly. I think the time between the initial email and 4.0 was about 30 emails in 2 days. That’s super quick!
Josh: We have a new endgame structure, which may or may not work. We have a new structure for the main deck, which I think we’re both really excited about. And we have a new reward structure to change the way hands are valued, which may or may not work. But, at any rate, we cooked up possible solutions to the things that were bothering us, thanks to having some focus.
Grant: Even if you aren’t designing cooperatively, I’d argue this process has value for you. I know in the past, especially with York, I’d exit a rough test and attack it through the lens of “the game is wrong,” instead of “the defenders have insufficient options.” A like/dislike list would have curtailed that.
Josh: Knowing where you actually are with a design is probably the hardest thing to really understand. Fixing a specific problem is both easier and more fun, but identifying where that specific problem actually is can be tricky. “That test went poorly” is insufficient, and you have to start somewhere to make progress.
What do you guys think? Share your thoughts below.