Thoughts from Hocus Blind Testing

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I wish to thank Mathew Tate for submitting the photo above. His hands are lovely.

Around November or early December, Josh and I sent approximately 10 copies of Hocus Poker to testers around the US (and one in Denmark!) who agreed to play the game for us. We paid to have the cards printed via DTC, as it’s about $6 per set (plus a few more bucks for shipping). That seemed worth it to us, as we didn’t have to cut out 10 sets of cards, and neither would our testers. If you have a small game, we think it’s been a resounding success. Especially if you don’t have a big name reputation like Plaid Hat Games or Portal, it’s a great way to get involved blind testers.

The results have been very good. Around the time of BGG we thought our game was actually good. We knew it had spell balance tweaks, and that the rules needed iteration, but we thought the version we had was the final one after some development. That’s a bold proclamation. Thankfully, the feedback has been very good. We had one tester player 13 times in one weekend, another played 8 times over a few weeks, another has his friends asking to play it when they come over. That’s good stuff.

Often times when people discuss development, it’s about a game that’s still broken, far from finished, or deeply rough. That’s most of what you read about on my blog, for example. And, if you click on the Hocus Poker tag, that’s the main body of content. However, because Hocus is mature and very far along, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the big changes we’ve made, as well as some of the interesting thoughts that have occurred to us.

Tweak the rules, get frustrated, throw them away, start over. I wrote about this process extensively here, but it bears repeating in this post. We made, probably, a thousand tiny changes to our rules document. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was that our rules would become this lumbering beast, more confusing than before. Don’t believe us?

Here are the old rules. 

Here are the new rules.

What do you think?

The urge for 5 player becomes strong. Josh and I have always wanted 5 player, but a while ago we said “it’s too hard” and set it aside. True, we had some limiting factors: the size of the deck (52 cards) affected the ability to draw cards, and 52 cards is standard for poker. Nobody really mentioned it, but I think the fact that a.) things were going well and b.) it’s such a massive win for the product made us antsy.

I don’t think we would have arrived at this on our own from local testing. But, getting the confirmation from so many that things were going well freed our minds for boldness. Game designers NEED confirmation checks ins from others. We NEED validation. Without it, we’ll crumble. Or, you’re probably a little too arrogant?

Our 5 player solution is simple, though to be clear it still needs testing.

  • Added a 0 and 14 Strength card to every suit. This makes it a 60 card deck, but by and large keeps the Poker-ness whole. These cards are only added for 5 players. This solves the draw problem and keeps the distribution of hands with 5 players more sane.
  • Players are dealt 9, instead of 10, cards. With more out on the board, and the need for cards to draw, this again reigns things in.
  • There is a third Community, with its own pot, but players can still only have 2 pockets. This mean that we don’t have 5 players making a mad stupid rush for 2 communities. But, it also adds a neat layer to the strategy: which 2 communities are you vying to win? Which one are you skipping? Perhaps more importantly, which community are your opponents skipping?

With external validation, your mind will be freed to solve good problems once again. Seek out legitimate validation.

There were subtle trends we weren’t noticing. Last night, the wonderful Marguerite Cottrell mailed us a personal VIDEO of her notes with Hocus Poker. She’d played 8 times, with and without Advanced Spells. She succinctly offered high level notes, thoughts, and gut reactions. Then, she went through each individual Spell Book (like Alchemy, Illusion), and gave her personal thoughts on it, identified its weakness, or its imbalance.

In a few of these, she revealed two enormous Gems. Josh and I hadn’t thought of it this way prior and when we heard Marguerite say it, we simultaneously thought “Oh, yeah!”

  • Spell Books (a set of 3 Spells a player receives that are unique to them) that have a Spell that does “Do a unique thing. You may then do a Basic Spell.” were more powerful than Spells without. She’s right. It’s essentially a Spell that does 2 things. We’re spreading the love, now.
  • All Spell books tend to affect 2 of the 3 areas of the board. By this, she means Community, Pots, and Pockets. She noted some of the weaker Spell Books only affected a single thing. Great insight! Again, we’re spreading the love.

Find someone like Marguerite (stay away from her we need to send her more projects) to cut to the heart of an issue. If you’ve been a designer for a while, you know how frustrating it can be as a designer to be bombarded by tester requests for stuff or changes without reason. “You can add this. You should change this. Why isn’t this like this.” As Gil Hova noted to me at BGG in a discussion, “Please tell me the problem, I’ll find the solution.”

Battle lines have been drawn around Basic and Advanced. Basic mode is, in my opinion, a wonderful addition to the Hocus Poker product that is entirely an accident. The game I took to BGG on me and Josh’s behalf was 3 Basic Spells, 3 Advanced Spells per player, and Moonbears. A publisher, after my pitch, noted the game was too complicated for what he wanted and asked if there was a simpler version without the Advanced Spells.

My answer was “I dunno! That’s a fascinating idea.” I wrangled some friends at the con, then my family again at Thanksgiving the following week, and wouldn’t you know, it was a great idea. We saw this as the tutorial version. It removed some complexity and options and was much faster to teach.

Here’s the thing: some people love it, to the point they don’t even want to try Advanced, or once they do, they want to go back. Marguerite’s roommate noted that “Basic is more strategic with more control, whereas Advanced is more tactical.” That’s fascinating.

I’ve seen this trend in person. Some people play Basic and say “that’s cool, but it needs a little more.” Boom, here’s Advanced. I showed my local gamer group, guys and gals who play meaty stuff, and they thought “woah, Basic is packed with decisions. It doesn’t need more.”

This is all entirely unexpected for me and Josh. We’ve made the decision to present the game as advanced (without the label), putting Basic at the bottom of the rules as an alternative. Through testing, we think that is the best way to manage expectations and put our best foot forward. But even Josh and I are a little divided. Me? I sorta prefer basic. It has a classic card game soul and I just dig it. Josh? He’s an Advanced guy. We both like both, but choices are being made. Entirely unexpected outcome from a part of the game that was entirely unexpected.

If you ask me, having both is a great addition to the product. It suits different moods, different personalities, and different groups.

The force is strong with this one. Since we began these tests, we haven’t changed a single core rule or mechanism (excluding the addition of 5 player). We have re-written rules, we have clarified options, we have tweaked Moonbear content, and we have thrown away, re-designed, re-worded, or simply balanced the Advanced Spells. But the core remains.

I’ve been approximately tracking tests from us and our testers and we’re around 50 tests on just this version. That’s very strong validation. We’re kicking the tires and they are like “come on, man, we’re good!”

Yeah, that’s right. Our tires talk. We have Advanced Spells to refine and need to run tests against our final graphic design when it’s ready. But, it feels so good!

In closing, a hilarious Hocus Poker story. It seems our thematic integration is a LITTLE TOO STRONG (har har). This morning, tester Robin Lees mailed me this picture. Apparently, his printed, without a command, and no computers on in the house, decided to print our rules.

It’s a sign!

You can read the rules for Hocus Poker here. We’re revising the Spells now, so I don’t want you to waste your time printing. We’ll link the PNP soon. In the future, we’ll be discussing art production and other publisher related things for the game. If you have questions, mention them below. Stay tuned!

Posted in Hocus Poker | Tagged 5 player, blind testing, development, final testing, hocus poker, mature, rules, thoughts | Leave a reply

The Rewrite

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Update: Here are the updated rules. 

I love writing rules. Writing the rules is often the first thing I do when I begin a new design. Developing the rules is arguably where I spend the most time as the rules are what I’m looking at when implementing changes or developing the prototype. I also update them as I go following every test, or as needed.

I recently tried something new in rules writing, which I thought was interesting enough to share. In addition, I wanted to begin a discussion on providing and incorporating rules feedback. The new thing? I completely re-wrote our rules for Hocus Poker from scratch. Other than one single section, the entire document was torched (figuratively, hooray the cloud!) and set aside.

If you’ll allow a brief tangent, I also re-wrote them by hand. On a short flight, I took out my legal pad and a pen and just took to the task. I hate writing by hand beyond sketches and scribbles, so you can be sure my text was concise and well-thought out. That, as an exercise, was very useful. I recommend it.

But, why would I re-write the rules instead of just tweaking the current ones? We’ve been seriously blind testing the game for about a month now with approximately 10 groups of dedicated testers, a few PNP testers, and local testers. We’ve had a lot of eyes and different perspectives providing input. Everyone, literally everyone, learns and obtains information in a slightly different way.

The other day while discussing a recent batch of feedback, Josh and I took a step back and noticed our rules were just bulging at the seams. They’d become this overweight monstrosity with dozens of clarifications and strange diagrams. We’d been blown off course!

They reminded me of the United States federal tax Code, a notoriously cumbersome, confusing, and rickety series of laws that fuel taxation software. Our rules had reached a point where players were missing key concepts because their mental space was being consumed by unnecessary additions. It was time for a clean slate.

I had a few questions in my mind while redesigning our rule set:

  • Where are the low-hanging fruit? We had a few large sections that needed to be removed, shortened, or integrated differently.
  • Where could we showing a visual for what was currently text?
  • Where should be be writing what was currently visual? Images take up space and aren’t always useful.
  • Where was the correct flow of information interrupted? We had a few places where we’d have A, B, F, then C.
  • How can this be said simpler?
  • Are we already saying this? Are we already saying this? (Remove repetition)
  • Does this really need to be a rule? Or a note? Or a clarification? Does everyone need to see this?

As so much time was spent on adjusting the rules, it forced me to consider the root cause. How did we get here in the first place? The short answer is that we took into account almost everyone’s feedback.

In the same way that not everyone’s feedback should be fully considered and accepted for the design of your game, not all feedback should be introduced into your rules. Josh and I will need to discuss what we do moving forward, but I think we’ll need to change how we go about introducing feedback from our many rules commentators.

I think this will be less a problem for Josh, who is the more patient one of the two of us. Ultimately, I want to be receptive to feedback. I know how it can be very frustrating to put work into something for someone, often with no compensation, and see zero changes as a result of your work. I think my hummingbird brain thinks “Oh, I’ll make their change! We’ll be best of friends.” Hummingbird is too harsh. I’m actually more like Dug from Up.

My first proposal is to create a spreadsheet to catalog comments and critiques that don’t quite fit. At least not at first glance.  We’ll list them and take a look every week or so. We’ll note how many people shared the comment. If you see a trend, you might want to address the feedback. The lack of a trend doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address it, but it should be considered more carefully.

Remember: Everyone learns differently. Everyone processes rules differently. Some people fill in the blanks and just run with it. Then again, some people fill in the blanks disastrously. Try to identify personality types and see where they run into issues with your rules. Over time, you should be able to  think about these types and fortify your rules for them as you write them.

When you encounter someone whose feedback seems bizarre, talk to them about where they are coming from. It’s clear they do things differently than you. As you don’t share a brain, that’s just fine. You’ll be surprised to find how simple some of the solutions are.

A common mistake of many rules editors, which is something I’ve assuredly done myself, is to identify a section in the rules where someone MIGHT be confused. Basically, you create trouble where none exists. Many people launch into a rules document with their red pen at the ready. We all mean well, like Quixotian rules nerds.

  • Someone could think you mean Z when you really mean Y. Consider: What would a reasonable person think in most cases?
  • Someone might want to know this information here instead of there. Consider: What do you need here and why?
  • You should really list out all of these. Consider: What does that solve? Who does it help?
  • Just in case, you might want to confirm what isn’t affected by this rule. Consider: How best to clarify, and position such clarification, to reduce repetition and undue complication.

Add these items to the list. Or, use them as the beginning to your discussion. Challenge (politely!) your readers’ critiques. In the same way that your rules document isn’t yet final, neither is their input. Have a conversation and seek the root cause to solve their concerns as best as possible.

To summarize, never forget who owns the rules: YOU (the designer)! Thank, love, and appreciate your readers, but remember to keep your rules clean, clear, and not Franken-like. Before incorporating a suggestion that seems odd, note it. See if other people mention it. At the very least, use it to start a discussion. Keep in mind that others can and will process information differently. Seek to understand their point of view and improve your rules within reason to accommodate this. Remember that people have a natural desire to help, but that they might “find confusion” where none actually exists. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get to the bottom of things.

In the end, improve your rules with the same thoughtfulness and patience you do the game itself. Otherwise, you may have a document that caters to everyone, but serves nobody.

Hocus Poker: The Pitch

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: It turns out Hocus Poker 5.0 is pretty dang fun. We were pleased with the results from our own local tests, BGG Con tests, and family tests over Thanksgiving. After about 6 months, we feel it’s time to share the game with the public once again. We’re going to blind testing!

Before we get too far, you can read the rules for Hocus Poker here. You can get the PNP files here. The game is 82 cards and nothing else. As far as PNPs go, it’s not too bad!

Josh: And, really, you can skip printing 8 of those cards if you’re comfortable keeping track of score using literally anything else you have handy. That puts it at 74 cards, which is really not too bad at all. It’s a fun, quick game, and we’d love to hear about more people trying it out.

Grant: After flubbing a pitch at BGG Con, Josh and I exchanged a few emails back and forth to better improve our pitch. Here’s what we settled on. Imagine this spoken dramatically with great flair and bravado.

Hocus Poker is a classic style card game that asks how would wizards play a game of poker. This game takes some elements of poker, but uses them to create a wholly unique experience.

The game is played in rounds by 2-4 players. If any player has 25 points at the end of the round, the game is over and the player with the most wins.

Ultimately, players will build their best poker hand, as the best poker hand will claim the pot. There are a few twists that make this game unique. Firstly, all players will build the community and pots together on their turns. Secondly, there are two communities. Thirdly, cards can be played as poker cards or for their Gem value in the pot. Every card can be used in three ways: in a community, in a pot, or in your personal pocket.

That’s the basic game, which is quite fun. Let’s talk about advanced Spells.

Josh: Before we get to that, I’d just like to say here: it’s important to realize that while this game is obviously rooted in Poker, we’ve really tried pretty hard to make it a unique game. I think it’s easy to think of games as “just” a variant of some other classic game, and obviously we’ve used that as a starting point. But Hocus Poker is really its own thing at this point, a game that plays differently from just about anything else in my collection. Which is saying something.

Grant: I’m very proud of it. It took a long time but we believe that we have a game that is unique, easy to learn, and has a light skill element.

Who would you say this game is for, Josh?

Josh: Is it a cliche to say everybody?

Grant: Yes.

Josh: Aw. I would say this: very serious poker players are not really our target audience here. If you play a ton of poker and take it really seriously, you’ll probably find yourself just saying “we should just be playing Hold ‘Em” while you play Hocus Poker. That’s cool, I love Hold ‘Em, I play it every week at a regular game. We weren’t trying to improve that game, but you might still find yourself pining for it if you’re a serious student of the game. Other than that, it slots in well as a light card game for most folks. It helps to have a familiarity with Poker, just knowing the hands, but is certainly not necessary.

Grant: I think it’s a great lunch game, or game night opener. I have aspirations of it being the type of game someone tosses into their backpack to take to a picnic.

Josh: I’ve actually used it as a game night closer several times, as a wind down from a big centerpiece game.

Now, advanced spells. The basic structure is cool, it provides for interesting play, surprises, and an engaging game where nobody is eliminated. That’s all good stuff. But you can really turn it up a lot with the advanced spells. Once you do that, everybody suddenly has unique options on their turn. Nobody’s position plays the same, and you get a varied experience just by changing which set of spells you have. Asymmetry is tons of fun, and I think what we have here works well.

Grant: Every set of 3 Spells, which we refer to internally as a Spell Book, follow along a particular style of play and advantage. Flame, for example, is highly reactive. You’re able to dump a pocket of 1 or 2 cards into a Pot, then build a new Pocket. Why is this advantageous? Well, once you build a pocket, it cannot be modified. And you only get two. Secondly, often times you’re trying to balance between building the community to support your sought hand AND building a pocket to leverage it. With this spell, you can play a pocket early to stall and see what people play. Somebody may feed the community with a set of cards that let you build a straight or Full House. You dump your now bad pocket and react.

Josh: And that’s just one. Each book gives a different feel, while still providing for enough familiarity that people can still play the game just fine.

Grant: Right now we have 6 different books, for 18 Spells total. Although the game only plays to 4, we want there to be quite a bit of variety.

Josh: With 6 spell books, there are 15 different combinations in the four-player game. That’s pretty cool!

Grant: There’s quite a bit of variety and breadth here. In a way, it reminds me of how Red7 has a few ways to play. Easy, less easy, and woah there’s lots of stuff now. For us, the ramp is: Basic Spells, Add Moonbears, then finally, Add Advanced Spells.

Now that we’re re-entering blind testing, what would you say our goals are? Other than mocking me in emails. That, sir, is accomplished.

Josh: My job there is never done, though.

My primary goals here are pretty simple. One, are we right about the fun here? We both like this version, a lot, and our local testers do as well. Will that carry over to people who aren’t just trying to be polite to us? I think our local testers would tell us if the game was lousy (they have in the past), but taking it wider is the only way to be sure.

Grant: I’d be pretty upset if my local group told me “this is awful” for most of the year only to lie to me now.

Josh: Yeah, and I know where my friends live, so I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to make me angry.

The second goal has to do with the content. We have thirteen Moonbear spells (well, there are a couple repeats) and 18 advanced spells. I want to make sure that those are balanced, fun, fair, comprehensible, and just all around entertaining. Balance is really most important across the spell books, not the Moonbears, but shaking out the content is really a big goal here.

Grant: Yes. The data points I want from our testers are:

  • Scores paired with Spells used: Do we have a trend for a certain Spellbook winning most often?
  • Favorite Spells: It’s worth the effort to balance content that’s most fun and popular. If everyone hates Darkness, for example, it’s probably better to replace it, then start balancing again.

Josh: Other things to watch out for:

  • Spell use. Did everybody use all of their spells? Or did somebody just ride one spell hard and ignore the others.
  • Moonbears. Did they seem reasonable? Too powerful? Too specialized? Unfair?
  • Timing. How long is the game in minutes and rounds?

Grant: I’m a smidge less concerned about Moonbears in that, as you’ve noted before, they are a spice. Which ones come into play and when is really difficult to predict. And they are bonuses, so we’ve deliberately made them a bit more niche in their application and less potent. But, it’s something we have to get right.

Josh: What I’d like to keep an eye on is if any Moonbears are regarded as really lame. We can swap those out if people think they’re stupid or irritating.

Aside from those concerns, we of course are both looking out for rules clarity and subjective impressions, which are always important to watch out for. Honestly, this isn’t that long a list of things to watch out for.

Grant: The subjective stuff will help us gauge our next steps. The game is a little weird and, my flubs aside, we’re not exactly sure who to show it to. But, we’re also not opposed to doing it ourselves. If folks like the game and we can begin some good word of mouth with our early testers, that might push us one direction or another. Or, it might help generate buzz for someone to aid us.

Josh: Unless our testers all chase us around with pitchforks, it’s a game that will get published, somewhere. But, where? We don’t know, honestly, and we’re going to try and figure that out with this test. But there is one thing we’re pretty sure we’re going to do with it, which is enter it into the Ion Game Design Competition.

Grant: For starters, I’ve always wanted to go to Utah in the winter. It’s just a bucket list item for me. But, if we fare well in the competition, we think that’ll help us find a home, or aid us as first-time publishers. But, the timeline is coming up quickly. I think we’re sending out the PNP at the last possible moment to get input before we have to submit to the competition.

Josh: We’re cutting it fine, to be sure. But, even just the rules feedback we’ve had so far has helped. If anybody would like to have a look at an unusual but fun light card game, we welcome any thoughts you might have, especially if those thoughts includes abuse for Grant.

Grant: Now I know how John Arbuckle felt.

Josh: The only thing worse than making a Garfield reference is spelling it wrong.

And yes, I know how his name is supposed to be spelled, which also turns out to be worse.

Grant: Would you believe me if I said this was an elaborate trap to tease that information from you?

Josh: No. Would you believe me if I said it was because I have a seven-year-old who loves Garfield?

Grant: Yes, and I’d say you’ve made mistakes as a parent.

Oh, hey! Check out Hocus Poker! Rules here. PNP here. Tell us what you think! You can

Josh: Yes, email him. He loves abuse.

Version 5 and the Brink

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: When you reach a design iteration you dub “5.0” it may be time for what my mom refers to as the “come to Jesus meeting.” We’ve been scrambling for months to find a new framework for Hocus Poker. At the top of the Summer we threw away something that worked and had been received well because we didn’t think it was good enough. But, we’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to do it better.

Last week we tested Hocus Poker 5.0 and to be completely honest, had it not gone well, I think I might have walked away.

Josh: I’d have tried to talk you off the ledge, but it would have been time to question some fundamental assumptions. For instance, I’m not sure we could have continued on the path of having no separate betting tokens. It’s something we were keenly interested in getting right, for a number of reasons we’ve talked about before, but our iterations in this area have been unsatisfying.

Grant: To quickly reiterate, we wanted to craft a game that was cards only to save on production costs, portability, and keep the MSRP low. We were sticking to our guns of no player elimination in a game that is built on it. You know, poker.

Josh: But that was down the road. We had time to go for another major revision and see if we didn’t have another shot in us. But where to start? Grant had a playtest that didn’t go well, so that was our starting point. The 4.0 build wasn’t terrible, exactly, but it was unexciting. There were some promising bits to it, as usual, but it just didn’t leave the players excited.

This version had dual use cards (with points on the cards), some special cards in the regular deck, and attempted to feature a short decision cycle with small hands being built up gradually and a series of small showdowns.

Grant: One positive note was that my testers said it was much better than previous versions, but that was a low bar. Still, progress.

Josh: It was becoming clear that the showdowns were a problem, to me. They should have been exciting, fun, and surprises should have happened regularly. What was happening, instead, was really rote. The idea of having them happen as things went along just wasn’t quite working the way we wanted. A good idea, maybe, but not for this game.

Grant: More fundamentally, we had a lack of good decisions. You could see this in the Showdowns, building Hands, and betting. Sound probability indicated a very boring strategy: pick the best pair possible. This would often become a 3 of a kind or Full House once the Community was revealed.

We wanted players to have fun decisions throughout. That seems obvious for any game, but it’s really not. Or more accurately, how to execute against that is not. In Texas Hold ‘Em, you don’t get to change your cards. It’s all about bet management, which is done to bluff, bully, or accurately represent your hand.

In Hocus we  let players change their cards and reduced the importance of bet management. However, with such simple cards, it was basically just a matter of cycling to create the most sure thing you could. It was dissatisfying.

Josh: Full Houses have been a recurring problem for us. Honestly, we should be smart enough by now to recognize that if they’re popping up too much, we’ve somehow goofed.

Grant: Players felt like they were stuck on a ride. Get in, build a pair, see what happens.

Josh: I don’t think we’re aiming for a really agonizing game here, but there needs to be a skill component to things, obviously. It should be a lightweight strategy game, not an “experience”.

Grant: Yeah. Honestly, we were making the “It’s a Small World” of fillers, which I don’t think is a good thing.

Josh: To be clear, that’s a Disney reference, people.

Grant: Let it go.

Josh: BOOO.

At any rate, something had to give. We needed a way for people to have some planning in the game. It just needed to happen. Grant and I both had an idea kicking around in our heads, which was simple: why not give people a bunch of cards at the beginning of the round? They could then work on allocating things themselves.

Grant: Things being their hands, the community, or the pot. Collaboratively and competitively.

Josh: On top of that, we could retain the simultaneous hands by putting two communities in play. Now, we got to keep the idea of building multiple hands, which we liked from the previous version, while keeping some form of planning. Once those planks were in place, the 5.0 version came together quickly.

Grant: That’s a super key point I don’t want to gloss over. Previously, we let you build 2 hands under the guise of strategy. One for now, one for later. That didn’t pan out, but it WAS fun building multiple hands. Naturally, we needed a second place to use that second hand.

If 2-4 players are building a Community at the same time, there’s a little bit of volatility. By building 2 Hands, you increase your chances of capitalizing on one. Two, if you’re lucky or good.

Josh: I was briefly advocating for three simultaneous hands, honestly. Maybe for an expansion?

Grant: I think it might be viable as a wink wink 2 player version.

Josh: Honestly, the biggest problem in this version has been what to name things. “Hand” is overloaded, and people didn’t like “Holding” for what they wanted to call their “Hand.” So, we’ve had to juggle stuff around on names.

So, we worked this out, and Grant had a playtest. And, I would describe it as “triumphant.” He wrote to me, and his email was full of jubilant swearing, which is the best kind of swearing.

Grant: I was throwing hip hop hands in the air. For the record, I did not care.

Josh: Not quite ready to believe it, I ran a test myself last night with three of my friends, grizzled veterans of the Hocus Poker development process. These fine, determined gentlemen have played every major version of this thing, going back to the version with little tiles.

And, one of them said that “it’s the most fun he’s had with any version of Hocus Poker,” and another described it as “very polished.”

There’s clearly balancing work to do on spells, but after the first round, I was just playing the game. I was taking notes, sure, and noticing wording and things to tighten up. But I was just playing the game. It’s been the first time since some of the late 2.0 versions when I’ve had actual fun playing it. That sounds bleak, but we learned stuff from every one of those unfun games which I think we’ve applied. It actually seems good now!

So, where to go from here? What lessons can we learn? Persistence always pays off?

Grant: We have a lot of work left in spell balance, tuning, and proper wording. But, that’s a relatively easy part compared to where we’ve been.

As for high level, a big thing for me is that we kept slamming on the brakes. We threatened to stop the car and we actually stopped the damn car. It was really difficult to do again and again, but it really paid off. You have to hold yourself to a quality bar. There are just too many other good games to make something mediocre.

I also think we learned a great deal about identifying what we want to do with the game and how to get there. We never flailed. It felt like flailing. But, we went about it in a rather constructive and thoughtful way. We stopped repeating bad spells. We avoided known bad ideas that never seemed to work. Yes, we’ve tried Banished 30 times, but we all have to have a windmill or two at which to tilt.

Dude, so many sweet references.

Josh: At least we amuse ourselves.

I think we can identify something useful that came out of each major revision that has still stood up. 3.0 gave us the idea for individual spellbooks.

Grant: This was a huge breakthrough. Instead of all sorts of mixed actions, the spellbooks said: execute one of the four cards in front of you. Plus, your four cards are unique. Great for accessibility.

Josh: 4.0 gave us the gems on the creature cards. Those are integral parts of the game, which are solid ideas that are making things better.

Grant: I love multi-use cards. They are just so much fun. It also works really well for our poker setup. Do you use a card for its suit, strength, or Gem? 3 uses is very simple and easy to process. It provides a nice layer of choice. Looking beyond that, you think about building a pair, a straight, and how to best set yourself up for a bigger hand via the community.

Josh: Those revisions were not in vain, they just, you know, weren’t any fun. A careful post mortem of each playtest helped show which are the parts that were working, and we’ve been able to carry those forward. The ideas in 5.0 are ones that we’ve painstakingly chipped away from all the other ideas that have been floating around.

Maybe that’s a new benchmark for me? Try and salvage one really solid idea from every playtest, no matter how badly things went.

Grant: It’s a good goal and a very achievable one. I can finally talk about this — I learned a great deal working with Portal on York/Dawn Sector. They had no qualms saying “not good enough,” and I wanted to be good enough to emulate that in my own craft. But, man. It can be crushing sometimes.

I think, and this is bold, we should share the rules. You can read them here. They are about 1400 words from start to finish, which we’re really proud of.

Josh: It’s hard saying your own efforts aren’t good enough. This part was kicked off by deciding that a game that people had played and enjoyed didn’t make the mark. That’s rough enough, but continually kicking a bunch of revisions down because they weren’t fun was dreary, but it’s been worth it.

The Like/Don’t Like List

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.

Josh and Grant Discuss 3.0

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

If you read the Raising My Bar blog post, you may have a hunch that we decided to take another look at Hocus Poker to make it better. Spoiler: We did. We actually really liked Hocus Poker 2.0 and most of our testers did as well. Yes, some didn’t, but I (Grant) have to say it’s one of my strongest testing prototypes with a wide range of players in the past few years. But, after a tough discussion, we decided it wasn’t the game we wanted to release. Not under the Hocus Poker name as a full, published title with Hyperbole Games. Join us as we talk about this decision!

Grant: Let’s get the easy part out of the way. I was really concerned, from a business angle, about including tokens in the game AND not taking advantage of all 108 cards. Generally speaking, poker-sized cards are printed in sheets of 54. Once you have 55, excluding art and other things, you’re paying for 108. This is a bit of a generalization, so bear with us.

Tokens increase the cost of the product. You have to purchase a die mold (one time cost) and they add to the manufacturing cost. Plus, tokens more or less require a 2-piece box, which is expensive. Shifting to 108 cards and no tokens allows for a lower cost and more efficient product that can also be made in a tuck box. That’ll really save on price, which can be passed down to our consumers.

Josh: It essentially comes down to the size of a press sheet. You can fit 55 cards on a half sheet, but that’s it. I’ve worked under similar constraints in the past. For instance, you can fit 280 1/2″ counters on a single 8.5″ X 11″ sheet, so for Prussia’s Glory, I had exactly 1120 counters available on my four sheets (which was harder to fit than you’d guess!).

Grant: So many counters. I think it’s safe to say your cup overran with Prussians. And who wants that?

Josh: Of more concern to me is that the mana tokens would have sucked. I played Hocus with nice poker chips. Little tokens would have been terrible. But leaving them out would have been an incomplete game, and upgrading them would have been prohibitive. It’s a rough spot.

So that’s the commercial side. But there’s another reason why Grant opened a discussion on further design, and that’s skill. In Poker, the skill comes from stack management, understanding odds and pot odds, reading people, and patience. In eliminating betting, a lot of that went away.

Grant: Hocus 2.0 was a nice little game that eliminated play elimination, much of the stress from poker, and was relatively simple. I think with the right audience or publisher, Hocus 2.0 would have done fine. I’m just not sure we could have succeeded with it the way we hope.

There wasn’t much in it to make it sticky. When a game is about $20 (which is approximately the old price with the tokens), you need a reason to keep going back other than “this is pleasant.” You need the ability to improve, the desire to win, a slight need for strategy. We felt pretty strongly the game needed a skill component. Not a big one, but something. We didn’t think that 2.0 had that.

We had Uno Poker and we wanted more Coloretto Poker. I mean that in terms of skill and experience, though I’ll admit right now that is a dangerous comparison in both cases.

I was chasing a lot of random mechanics and ideas. Josh wisely brought it to a very high level. We discussed how other simple card games introduce skill and settles on a few suitable avenues for us to pursue: hand management, timing (of the game, moments to move), action building, and bluffing.

Josh: For a card game, especially one with a broad intended target, you can’t have a huge menu of actions and have things work out. The experience needs to be more focused. I thought we needed to decide what levers we should have players pushing before we struck out on new mechanics. Getting the criteria straight first was important.

And I love timing as a skill component. Knowing when to start buying Victory cards in Dominion is a really fun decision, and it comes down to controlling the pace of the game. I wanted that.

Grant: I agree on timing. Knowing when to strike is a great idea. Before we continue, we should also talk about other things we wanted to address. I was excited to get a chance to start without requiring a round structure. There are times when it’s useful to structure play around rounds, but I felt it had made our game a bit too static and predictable. Every round had a very known quantity and it wasn’t really changing much.

Removing the round also let us remove unnecessary structure and rules. In a way, it simplified the game, while allowing for more options. That’s a good win. It already broadens the game in a way that allowed for us to introduce more skill (timing, as Josh noted) and more variety between plays.

Another thing I brought up were our Spells. We really love the variety they provide, but when we discussed them, we felt they were basically variations on the same thing. Some of our spells were really unique, but most didn’t really change the game. In fact, most were just a slightly different twist on a previous spell. That was a hard one to bite off. We wanted each Spell to be potent and unique and we weren’t getting that.

We also asked the question: do we need Hold ‘em? While we were on the topic of bold changes, we realized it might be time to disengage from Hold ‘Em.

Josh: Just to be clear, Hold ‘Em is brilliant, an inner-circle game that deserves every bit of its popularity. And that’s part of the problem: it is so finely honed that we were suffering by comparison. There wasn’t enough oxygen for our design. Grant and I were independently thinking about changing away from Hold ‘Em, so it was time to take off the shackles. By moving away, we opened up a lot more daylight to explore our chosen space.

Grant: Every design should have a box, so to speak. Limitations to work within. We were limiting ourselves a little too much. Hold ‘Em is great, as Josh noted. But, we were not giving ourselves room to evolve and create something more unique. In a way, we dialed it back to the original idea: poker plus spells. Not Hold ‘em plus spells.

Josh: An element sorely missing from the game was bluffing. We’d heard this complaint from testers, and tried to address it a bit, but it just wasn’t there, not enough. For a game to have bluffing, there needs to be risk, signaling, and partial information. We had a little of the first, some of the third, and not enough of the second.

Grant: These concerns and desires led to some of the most thoughtful design discussions I’ve had. We had those “What is a thing?” type discussions that seem so basic, but reveal so much. When you’re designing, I encourage you do the same, even if only occasionally. We often spend so much time to dig around “what’s cool” or make a broken thing work, but truly seeking to understand something is very useful and interesting.

Bluffing is not only a moment that is rules-light, but crazy deep, but it’s a point of humor for players and a great skill element. It’s a great modifier of randomness as well, which is why it factors in so strongly to so many poker games.

As an example, look how much depth and joy comes from Cockroach Poker, which is a game that contains almost no rules and is pure bluffing. We aren’t Cockroach Poker, but we wanted a sliver of that.

Josh: I had a good time trying to deconstruct what goes into bluffing. I think it’s really easy to overdo that sort of blue-sky thinking and never actually do things, but in a case like this, it was a very useful exercise. Sometimes, a little beard-stroking can be the right thing to do.

Grant: I’m tempted here to post a photo of the last time I had a beard a few weeks ago. I had fun shaving that one down into mustaches.

Josh: But let’s move away a bit from the abstract here and talk about remedies. We wanted to have player input in the pace of the game, we wanted to re-introduce bluffing, we wanted hand management, and we wanted tougher action selection. Oh, and we wanted to completely eliminate non-card components. Tall order!

Grant: We both gravitated early to the notion of cards with variable points on them, 1-5, that would be used to form a pot of some sort. I can’t even remember (already, how sad) how we arrived at this, but the gist was that players would all contribute to a pot. Each of them would know a single card in the pot, but nothing else. The element I thought was really cool was that each player would be dealt these cards randomly at the beginning. I may have a bunch of high value cards, which is scary, but it’s information.

Josh: It was introduced pretty early. Specifically, once we decide that Runes are cards again, making them variable value is natural. From there, given that we want bluffing to be in the game, having the values of the Runes in the hand becomes a really great starting point. For me, it reminds me a bit of the demand tiles in Automobile: you have some idea of the value of a particular hand, but not complete information. Knowing that your card is powerful changes your behavior, and the other players can key off that. But, you might be able to confuse the table and get them to chance garbage. It certainly seemed to have potential.

Grant: I was also thinking a little of Arctic Scavengers. Every round, one player knows the value of the item everyone is fighting over. It’s a fun and simple twist to the competition.

Josh: It’s a mechanic with a grand pedigree, in other words. Stuck at the end of that email was a simple note, which was: “Oh, what if you’re building more than one hand?”

Grant: That was such a genius idea. We did away with strict rounds and had this roving series of hands. Basically, players could fight over the pot whenever they wanted. But, if you only had one hand, it was a bit of a high risk and somewhat of a showstopper for you. You’d spend your hand in the Action and would have to start over. But, if you had two hands, you could pick one to use while building the other. The right tool for the job, so to speak.

Josh: Basically, at any given time, I’m always looking for ways to steal Uwe Rosenberg’s ideas. But not from Agricola, from his early card games. Here, it’s a little bit of a Bohnanza thing. Trying to decide when the right moment was to push in a hand seemed like such a fertile field for exploration.

Grant: I feel there’s a bean joke here.

Josh: You’re the guy with the farming game on his resume, that’s probably your turf.

Grant: Sadly, the bean card is the card I want to replace more than anything. Thanks for bringing up my shame.

Josh: There’s also a little bit of a little-known Martin Wallace here, 1630 Something, which had you slowly building up influence in countries and then trying to decide what the right moment was to cash those in. It’s a mechanic that has always stuck with me. Trying to gauge the table and decide when to commit your resources, when you’ve spent several of your turns building it up and there’s no reward for second place, that’s going to be a tense, difficult decision if it’s done correctly.

We also had quite a lot of discussion on what to do with spells. How players acquired them, what they were going to cost now that we were ditching Mana, what sort of effects there were available to us.

Grant: We shifted to an Action system. On your turn you’d choose one action and do that. We’ve evolved it a little since, but it basically revolves around drawing cards, getting a spell from the few available, USING a spell (which are often enhanced basic actions), or declaring a showdown to compete for the prize of variable and hidden runes discussed above.

Each turn, you’d obtain more cards, but at the end of your turn, you had to add them to one of your two hands that you were building.

Josh: I think the key decision leading down that path was your proposal of a continuous turn structure. Basically, the observation was that the game might be better served by not having the rounds/turns be so predictable. Previously, you knew exactly how many actions you had to improve your hand, and it made the arc of each round pretty predictable. Spell costs could only really increase a certain amount, hands would only evolve so far, it felt pretty static. By making the Showdowns intermittent and dispersed within the regular turns, there was more unpredictability. It also meant that the cost of spending a turn was both a more viable thing for players to do and also harder to evaluate, giving another area for players to be skilled. We both have admiration for the continuous, rapid turns of Ascending Empires, and aiming for that type of pace was a laudable goal.

Grant: There’s a lot of inspirational thievery in our new design. So, let’s recap, because we’re getting a bit long-winded here.

  • Limited information on the value of the pot. Everyone knows something.
  • Brisk turns built around a single key decision. What do you want to do right now?
  • Roundless structure that allows for more variety in play. Do you go for the pot now? Do you continue building your hand? Do you grab a spell? We put the pace under the control of our players.

We haven’t yet talked about Spells, problems with people being able to compete for Runes whenever, or Runes being uniformly good and the problems that leads to. We also haven’t discussed why this all doesn’t quite support bluffing, yet. But, it’s a good change and it shows a lot of promise. Any final thoughts, Josh?

Josh: Restlessness is good! Whenever you’ve gotten antsy with this thing, it’s gotten better. And, the nice thing is, the 2.0 version of the game is still there. It’s still good! By the time we’re done, we might actually have a couple of poker-with-spells games when the dust settles.

Grant: Yeah, whatever art we obtain for the final version, I’d like to use some of it to make Hocus 2.0 look nice. We can then make a nice PNP or put it on a POD site for interested folks. I think we can make $8s of dollars with such a venture. I try not to be restless for restlessness sake, but pursue this with the intensity of a bean farmer chasing that gold harvest.

BOOM. Nailed it.

Death in the Family


Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

This post is a part of our weekly series discussing Hocus Poker.

Grant: Game development is always about choices, opportunity costs, and making the best feature set. One of our goals for Hocus Poker has always been to create an expandable, highly replayable game with a ton of variety. You can see it throughout our mechanics.

  • 26 Spells that are randomly drawn to create a new pairing every round.
  • Spells are chopped up into 3 tiers so new players can ramp up simply without being overwhelmed or confused.
  • Hexis cards and other Arcana, which introduce yet another layer of hidden information as you build your hand.
  • Variants to support 5 and 6 players.

Sometimes a feature doesn’t work out, and then you have to ask yourself: Is this worth developing? Or, should we set it aside and move on?

Choosing the latter is you admitting to failure and you may not have a replacement.

Josh: At various times in this project, I thought that we had hit the bottom of our creativity in developing spells. We were still finding bad ones, and I was really skeptical of the idea that we’d be able to cook up better replacements. That fear turned out to be unfounded, as we did manage to basically land that ship, but the thought was in the back of my mind: had we done all we can?

Recognizing that you cannot go further, that’s a tough thing to think about. It feels like admitting defeat because, in a lot of ways, it is. It’s also hard to look at a thing you created and proclaim that it’s not good enough. If it’s just a single card, component, or other piece of content, well, that’s not so bad. But what if it’s an entire thing?

Grant: We should stop beating around the bush. While Hexis, as an Arcana Suit, works really well and has tested well many times, Mechana and Alchemis just don’t work. The reasons they don’t work are pretty clear, too.

Briefly, let’s talk about why Hexis works. For one, you can always activate them. The only requirement is that you Show the card by placing it in front of you. Hexis card isn’t always useful to play, but that is fine and intended.

Josh: It fits seamlessly into the flow of the game, providing more options and more color without gumming up the works.

Grant: Therefore, we went and violated that for both Alchemis and Mechana. Both of these have very specific requirements to play, which means they rarely actually happen. And when they do, they have questionable value.

Josh: That, incidentally, was a conscious choice at the beginning. We both thought that it would be an interesting thing to have additional suits that provided a qualitatively different way of approaching the game. It would allow players to have options in what sort of game they were playing. At least, that was the idea.

Grant: Alchemis, for example, requires you have a very specific set of cards and that you discard them. Not only do you need to get incredibly lucky, but then you have to toss them in the hopes you get something better! Sadly, this is the second time we’ve tried it. It was my first idea actually for how to activate spells – discard things to use the spells. Josh, not knowing this, independently came up with a similar idea. It seemed better. Sadly, it works about as well.

Josh: Sometimes parallel evolution leads you down the same blind alley. Here’s the thing: discarding cards in most card games is fine. It’s a cost, sure, but it’s a straightforward cost for players to evaluate, and it can be a simple way of balancing strong abilities. That logic just doesn’t really work for poker, apparently. Players have to constantly re-evaluate what the hand they’re holding is worth, and that dynamic is apparently toxic when combined with having to discard as a cost.

Grant: But, let’s say there’s value in making the trade-off. Getting it alone is nearly impossible. You’d have to chase the entire round hoping you get the cards. It became another game all by itself, but it just didn’t really work. We evolved the mechanic so that instead of discarding all the cards, you’d just discard the Alchemis card. And instead of having to have them all in your hand, you just needed them in your possession.

Aside from the fact the balance of the abilities was bonkers, it still wasn’t really something you could count on. At most, it’d be like “oh! Hey! I can do a thing.” Which isn’t really what we were going for.

Josh: Well, in my head, I had pictured the this suit being high-value and rare, but that dynamic is really only appropriate for a game with longer hands, I think. Here, there are only three action rounds you have in which to make it happen, and you can’t even count on saving to help you out, because the rest of your hand gets cycled. It’s not a game where you can simultaneously build a winning hand and put together a tricky formula.

Grant: Players just have to juggle too many things. It’s impossible to properly gauge the value of choices.

Josh: I do think that maybe the concept could be rescued down the road. But it would be a more radical change to the game’s structure: playing with hand limits, number of action rounds, the activation mechanism. Stuff like that. But that’s a tough road, and not really appropriate for an in-the-box thing.

Grant: I agree. I think the 3 Action Phase structure right now is too short and limiting. It needs to be paired with a longer game. Perhaps something a bit more meta than Hocus Poker.

Let’s discuss Mechana a little. The idea here was inspired by another original mechanic in the game — building a tableau of abilities. Which we tried in a variety of ways, including owning spells after a round if you lost. They were also inspired by Constructs in Ascension, or Star Bases in Star Realms.

The idea was that if you lost the hand, you could “build” a Mechana card in your possession. You would then gain its passive bonus if it was triggered. You could also use them in a hand, but then you’d lose their bonus. Clean trade off, right?

Josh: Sure sounded that way! I really liked the concept, anyway. There wasn’t anything else persistent in the game, with the exception of Runes/Charged status, so this seemed like a great way to fill that gap. But, the first problem with this suit can be summed up in one word: flush.

Grant: Yep. If every player has a Mechana suit in front of them, well, they are 20% on their way to a Flush. Guess what? In many tests, the two people with Mechana suits would tie out with a Flush in the same Hand.

Josh: It seems obvious now, in the cold light of day. I’m not sure why we didn’t spot that right away in the design phase.

Grant: Especially after we spent SO MUCH TIME balancing hands. Did we learn nothing? Answer: No.

Josh: Sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded that we aren’t so smart.

Grant: The other problem is that Mechana added yet another thing to track. So, players would need to worry about the cards in the Square, the cards in their Hand, the 4 spells (2 of which change every round), and the status of the Actions. Our players’ cups had runneth over. I’ve maybe played more Hocus Poker than anyone else and I constantly forgot to even use the ability.

Josh: This is a reprise of the problem we used to have with giving Spells as rewards. People would just forget about them. In some ways, this objection is not as bad as any of the other problems we’ve discussed, as people can train into being able to pay attention to this. But it’s a bad first impression, and having it in the box of the basic set gives people the idea it’s going to work.

Grant: The other issue is that in shorter games (2-3 players), they rarely mattered. You MIGHT see the trigger occur…but you probably won’t. So, now they were only really good with 4-5 players and even then, if it’s not interesting most turns, why add the complexity of the feature?

Oh, and it was super easy to forget which card in front of you was your Built Mechana, and which one might just be Shown.

Josh: Here’s the thing: we already have a way to play the game where you’re not getting cool abilities from the cards. You can ignore the Hexis abilities. And it works fine! We don’t need two other, fancier ways of not having cool stuff to do with your cards. It sounds cool to have these powerful, rarely activated things, but it just doesn’t fit with the snappy, rapid nature of Hocus.

Grant: On a slight tangent, we both clearly want a proper meta for Hocus Poker and really, if this thing funds and is successful, that’s what we should pursue. We’ll make a Trajan styled Euro where Hocus Poker is our Mancala Bowl.

I can begin speaking German, if it expedites ze process.

Josh: You people don’t even know. I have this idea of using Hocus Poker as the resolution mechanism in an adventure game, sort of like the way that you pull poker hands in Doomtown, but so much heavier.

At any rate, we have a problem. One of our cool ideas, of swapping out Hexis for entirely new suits, isn’t working. What now?

Grant: The idea was super good as a really clean expansion. In the same way that in Dominion you set up 10 different Kingdom cards, our thought was that you’d swap out your Arcana for an entirely new mechanic and experience.

Josh: It’s a great idea, I’m still convinced. But, this experience has taught me that maybe, what we should have is alternate Hexis suits. But that’s down the road, I think.

Grant: I am too. I just think, like the Hapsburgs, our pool has run a bit dry. That’s a genetic joke, so we’re clear.

Josh: A HISTORICAL genetics joke.

Grant: I might tap myself while laughing so hard, which will cause me to bleed unceasingly due to my hemophilia.

Here’s the other rub; it’s approximately the same cost, manufacturing wise, to print 80 cards as it is 104 cards. Cards are, typically, printed on sheets of 54 cards. If we print 55, we’re paying for 104.

Josh: The full press sheets are 108, but printers all can do half-sheets. It’s why you see those magic numbers come up in so many designs. You also have to worry about the size of your punch boards and whatnot, but the cards are a killer for printing costs.

Grant: We’re basically throwing away 24 cards now that we don’t have Alchemis and Mechana. Now, it isn’t a black and white issue. The art for these 24 cards would/will cost money and these cards also increase the weight, which could affect shipping and so forth.

The other cost, though, is quality. If we have a really good game with 80 cards, but 24 cards that are only so-so, that’ll bring down the overall rating. People won’t give us an 8+ because they like most of the game. They’ll give us a 5 because it all isn’t good.

You see this on Yelp reviews. I always laugh when someone raves about the food and the service, but gives a restaurant 2 stars because the music in the bathroom was weird.

Josh: I imagine someone playing a first game, then deciding to play a second with an Arcana suit. They pick one of the ones we’re discussing here because they like the theme, and it just does nothing. Nobody hits a formula. One play number two, they tried to use an advanced rule and it didn’t change the game at all except make it play slower. That’s a terrible, terrible experience, and even if we tell them that those suits should only be used after 20 games, or whatever, some people are still going to ignore that advice and jump right in.

Grant: The first few times I played the Power Up expansion for King of Tokyo, none of us evolved anything. We kept thinking “what’s the point?” Now, I’ve played it many times since and that opinion has changed, but initial impressions can be damming.

Josh: The standard has to be different for stuff in the basic box. Everything in there has to work great, essentially from the word go. Unless you seal it up in a separate envelope, Legacy-style, some subset of your audience is going to jump in head-first. And that’s great, the game should accommodate those people. It’s not for us to tell them how to play their game. It’s theirs! It’s presumptuous and strange for us to think we get to control their experience that way.

Grant: Both of us, potentially because of our background in software and design, are really into the idea of people creating variants and “modding” Hocus Poker. We’ve have testers sometimes say “well can I play this way?” And we always wink and say “we’re not in your living room. Go for it!”

So, let’s say we want to take advantage of those 24 cards. Technically, 28. What do we do with them. There are some easy ideas, including:

  • Adding 2 Joker cards. Shuffle them in. If you draw one in your hand, it’s a wild-card.
  • Adding 4 more Reference cards so that every player has one. I don’t think this is necessary, but we might as well.

Is there something cooler we could do?

Josh: Those are very prosaic and utilitarian. Nobody would object to that stuff, but nobody is going to get excited about them either.

Grant: Now now, Josh. There are some very weird people who will.

Josh: No dividers either!

More ideas that we’ve pitched back and forth, plus some new ones. Live brainstorming, people! Some of these ideas will suck out loud:

Grant: “Suck out loud” is one of my favorite phrases. It cracks me up every time.

The Brainstorm

Josh: Events in the main deck. This was Grant’s idea. This is a grand tradition in card games: you turn over a card to add it to the community, whatever, and Something Happens. I like this idea, with one of my favorite games that does this being the aforementioned Doomtown. You don’t want too many of these, though, or the impact is dulled. It seems like maybe you have a set of them, choose four, and randomly shuffle them into the deck. The advantage is that it’s low overhead in terms of people’s thinking. This seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do with at least some of our card budget.

Grant: The Arch Wizard draft. We create a deck of cards, from which the Arch Wizard has 4. He plays one at the start of the round that is public or kept secret until the end. It changes the rules. The Arch Wizard passes the 4 remaining cards, 1 more is drawn, and the next Arch Wizard chooses. This would be an advanced variant.

Josh: I thought that this style of deck could also work without drafting. Basically, you flip over one card each round that changes up the game. Sort of like how you reveal two Spells each turn, but a different type of card. What this would do is provide more options for players, because there’s a third card being added to the middle of the table, but it limits things to just that one extra card each turn. If they were something more environmental than the current Spells, you’d end up with a very different feel to the game.

Grant: Yahtzee style Hand scoring. We have a card with points on it tied to every hand, so one card for a Three of a Kind, one card for a Two Pair. If someone wins a hand, they claim the card tied to it. Obviously, only the first player to do so can claim it. When the game ends, you tally Runes earned normally, the person who won while charged gets a few bonus Runes, then people score Runes for scoring their collected Hands. A slight meta-game.

Josh: I’ve been sort of noodling with some scoring variants off on the side as well. There’s some possibility there.

Here’s a new one: what about a variant suit for one of the regular suits? But instead of being spell-like effects, like Hexis, the new suit would play around with values. So, the 1 might actually be a 1 or 2. The 2 would count as both a Goblin and a Froggle. The 3 would…well, you get the idea. Here, where recognizing that the Hexis works in part because it doesn’t provide a bunch of new options for players, and gives interesting private information for the players. A replacement suit that has fun stuff baked into the values continues in that vein.

Grant: I really like the hybrid, weird thing. Many of these cards wouldn’t even need text, like Hexis. They could just have alternate symbols and such on them to communicate their purpose.

Josh: Note that we have a budget here of 28 cards, so some of these ideas could be combined. 2 jokers, 8 Goal cards, and an 18 card Environment deck provides new modes of play and all kinds of fun stuff without over burdening the player. Maybe you end up with even more variety than just the original “swap out the Arcana” thing.

Grant: The question now is focus. Player accessibility. In a sense, what if someone sees this as the “full game” and instead of picking and choosing variants, they toss in the whole mess when they start?

Josh: In some ways, I think it comes back to what we want from this game. If we want to keep it pretty light, and I think we do, that informs the maximum amount of stuff that we reasonably can cram in. We have to see what the full kit and kaboodle looks like and say “does this seem like it would be overwhelming to most of our audience.” Jokers don’t have that problem. Some of these other ideas might. It’s hard to tell right now. But there’s another issue, which is that we have to decide which of these ideas to pursue as well. We don’t have the energy or creative juices to chase all of them, at least not right away.

Grant: Stamina really comes into it. We’ve worked very intensely on the game so far, and that’s been the case since February. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but we’ve done a lot of development and testing in those 5 or so months.

The other is art. We’re going to begin art production soon. We can prioritize these features last as we have lots of other work to cover first. But, can can’t keep an artist dangling on the vine.

There’s a lot to think about. But, I think we can both say that Alchemis and Mechana, right now, just don’t work. And, we have an opportunity to fill this box with one, maybe two more special things that really make it an incredible value and joy to play.

Josh: It’s tough to admit, but yeah, these forms of Alchemis and Mechana have to go. I really liked the names of the cards, too!

Grant: Goodbye, Ornithopter.

Josh: You fly forever in our hearts.

The Strategy of Hocus Poker


Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

For this week’s Hocus Poker post, we thought we’d take a break from writing about developing the ins and outs of the game and instead write about some of the strategies and ways to play. The game has a high element of luck in the cards dealt and drawn, but that doesn’t mean one can’t be skilled at Hocus Poker.

Terminology Note: If you haven’t played Hocus Poker yet, Runes are points. Mana is used much in the same way as chips in standard Poker. The player who wins each hand purchases Runes with all the Mana spent in the round.

Grant: Something new players always miss, but more experienced players tend to grasp, is learning how to chase in Hocus Poker without spending the bank. Chip management isn’t quite as important in Hocus as you can’t get knocked out and if you lose, you’ll get more chips at the end of the round. However, every chip you waste pursuing a hand is a chip you give to the opponent who does win to buy Rune. Essentially, your rabbit hole dive is fueling their victory.

Josh: Pot management is still there, it’s just more subtle than in poker. If you can get away from an obvious loser of a hand while giving up only a couple of Mana, that’s a solid result. I always try and think of how many hands someone needs to win. If my bailing out means that they can only really afford three Runes without crippling themselves, that’s a big win.

But the equation changes for heads up play, of course.

Grant: Yes, in 2 player, the landscape really changes. If you Yield, you DO get to save a card, but you’re going to give your opponent a guaranteed Rune. You really need to consider it carefully. This makes paying 1 to The Void a better option than it typically is in a 3-5 player game. Surging is another good choice here. Spend 2 to hinder your opponent’s chances of building a winning hand. Arcana is another good way to be thrifty as choosing one for your action doesn’t cost any Mana. It preserves your purchasing power while also denying it to your opponent.

Head to head actually has a lot of tactical choices. There are fewer parameters to consider and the game is more in control of each player, whereas in 3-5 there are just more things outside your control. This makes penny, err, Mana pinching crucial.

Josh: I really like the third round Surge as the non-Archwizard in two player games. You’re basically grabbing a Rune either way, forcing your opponent into a spot where a fold is less painful and hopefully nailing down the hand.

In 3-5, a Surge is dicier. I actually like pulling those early in the round, to try and knock out some people chasing. It’s akin to a pre-flop raise in Hold ‘Em, making people pay for trying to fill in those Flush hands. If you have a good hand from the initial draw, forgoing that constructive action can still improve your odds more than a spell, by knocking out competitors.

Grant: The Surge is a great way to protect Square cards that are precious to you, especially when a Fireball or Tidal Wave style spell is in play. Surge is a great way to price them out of “chase” range and potentially net more overall Mana.

It isn’t always the best strategy as more Mana in the pool translates directly to more Rune purchasing power, but I’ve seen a few people VERY successfully slow play (me) by using the Void and Surge. I don’t think there’s enough bluffing in the game to refer to it as a bluffing game, but I’ve seen people let me fruitlessly spin while they sit on an okay hand. I think their thinking is that they have something okay and they’re betting very little that I’ll bet more to end up with nothing. Sometimes it works. And, if me or another player is stuffing the Square with more cards, they are basically getting free cards.

Josh: There’s certainly a tendency to overrate Cauldron in particular. It looks like a free card, but your hand cards had better be on the high side or you’re just as likely to help your opponents. If I have a four-flush, with three in the Square, I won’t churn the Square unless I’m holding a high card of that suit. Don’t get so caught up in your own hand that you ignore what other people are doing. The chase can be addictive.

But the Void is a good thing to drill deeper in, I think. When do you use it?

Grant: I typically use The Void if my hand is set and I don’t want to spend more in the event things go sour. But, my first preference is to Surge to better control the board. I may also use The Void if it’s a matter of timing.  For example, if I can maximize the effectiveness of a Spell, or an Arcana, The Void is a great way to cheaply bide my time.

In a 3-5 player game, The Void is also really useful to let other people feed the Square and reveal what they have. If they are using Summon and many other Spells, they’ll Show me things, which helps me assess the situation. If I have a trash deal, I can use The Void on the first Action Phase, assess my chances, then use Spells or Yield more intelligently (to Save 1 card).

To be honest, I’m really bad at chasing. I would be much better if I used The Void a bit more often, even just to see what else will reveal in the center to better assess things. Any insights I missed?

Josh: Personally, I almost never use the Void. If I do, it’s almost always third round when I’m holding something I can’t reasonably improve, and First Yield is gone. To me, it’s a half-measure that I don’t like to take. But I’m not shy about Yielding. If I don’t think I have it, I bail to limit the pot and regroup next turn with a bigger stash of Mana.

Grant: Once another player is charged (and I’m talking 3+ players here as obviously you can’t Yield in head to head when your opponent is charged), I’m massively gun shy about Yielding. I hate the thought of giving the game to someone else who can’t keep the leader back.

Josh: Oh, I don’t mind passing the buck on that. I’ll take the extra card and force my other opponent to stay in. Not always, of course, but I’m not shy about it either. Maybe a bad move, but I try and keep in mind that I need to win several hands (at least two) if I’m not Charged, and that probably means I’m going to need help from the rest of the table sometimes.

But, as you mentioned before,  Hexis are perfect in this kind of spot, allowing you to stay in and not increase the payout. It’s one reason I usually save Hexis for rounds without a compelling reason otherwise.

Grant: A jerk move I like to do when able is if I know an opponent needs to use a specific Spell, I like to use it simply to increase its price. It’s a jerk move that warms my heart. Summon’s an easy one to peg — you can see when someone is really digging for something.

Josh: Reading what people need from the Square is huge too. There are a lot of ways to screw up the Square, and analyzing what people care about makes a big difference. I love leaving false trails there – showing a card to make it look like I’m pursuing a straight, say, when I actually might be chasing something else.

Grant: I think this is one of the most compelling elements to Hocus Poker. At its simplest, you’re wisely spending money to build a good hand. But, based on your experience with the game and skills you may bring from proper poker, elements of bluffing, deduction, and not just building your own hand, but foiling the hands of your opponents all come into play.

Timing is really important with the Spells Embiggen and Phantasm. For those not familiar, the former can turn 2 of your cards into a pair using the value of one of the cards used. The latter is the same, but the cards share suits. If you use Embiggen too early, people may Yield (and deny the pot Mana), OR, you’re telling them how to defeat you.

Josh: I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten nothing because of using those spells too soon. But, that can also be a decent bluff.

The question of improving your hand versus trying to trash others is interesting. It depends on your tools, how many outs you have, the Charged state of players, and which action it is. Oh, and of course, if your target plays after you in turn order.

Should we set up some hypothetical situations and see what we’d both do?

Grant: I’m game!

Actually, I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with some cool situations and I can’t help but think we should just play each other and write about it. You have game night tonight (Sunday). This seems like a good article for next week?

Josh: Next week it is! We’ve talked about Surge and Yield, and about the Void. But we haven’t talked too much about individual spells. Any stand out as particularly subtle?

Grant: I’m known for my subtle designs. I really love Abundance where you draw 2, choose 1 to keep for yourself, then 1 to give to someone else. The fact that you get to choose from 2 cards makes it worth giving a card to an opponent. But, it’s not an obvious choice, which I love.

Gust is very interesting, especially if it’s used multiple times in the round. With Gust, every player must pass 1 card to the player on their left. Typically people pass garbage, but in Hocus Poker, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Plus, Gust paired with the Hexis card (the name of it fails me) that lets you name a card and force someone to discard it is devious. For example, I pass a 2 to Merlin on my left. I know he has a 2. I can then play my Hexis card to force him to discard that 2.

I really love the fear that Maelstrom instills in players. Maelstrom forces everyone to discard one. However, everyone then gets to draw a new card. If you’re dealt great cards, you desperately need to play a Summon or gain cards another way to pad your hand. The best way to deal with Maelstrom is to Surge it out of the price range.

One of my favorite Hexis cards, which was originally one of our Starter Spells, is the one that lets you declare a set to be invalid. For example, if I see Josh is about to complete a Flush, and I don’t have one, I can play this card and declare Flush to be invalid. Whoops! No more Flush for Josh. But, if Josh didn’t have the Flush either, I just wasted a play blocking his non-existent hand.

Josh: I think of things like Daemonus,  Twilight, Swapsies, and others which also force cards out of hands. There’s a real cost to dropping to one Hand card, especially by playing a Hexis early, which can really mess you up with one of those other cards in play.

Grant: I love how subtly aggressive Daemonus is. Yes, sure, the recipient gets a new card, but they MUST discard a different card. If you draw garbage using Daemonus, you can really mess with folks.

I fear this post is skewing a little “inside baseball.” Tune in next week to witness a play between the self-proclaimed Hocus Poker masters. Perhaps we can organize a live game on Hangout or something?

Planning the Set List


Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

This week, we want to discuss the sets that players can create in Hocus Poker. By sets, we mean things like a Full House or Two Pair. Just like in normal poker, your goal in every round is to build the best set. Some sets are better than others, and as we narrowed down our list of sets, we found some choices were better than others.

This is a controversial topic and everyone has immediate expectations when they sit down to play a game with Poker in the name. We wanted to take a moment to prove we aren’t nuts and that we’ve made thoughtful choices to choose the right set list.

Josh: Obviously, at the core of Hocus Poker, is, uh, poker. It’s kind of right there in the name. Or, at least, it is now. If you asked people to say what poker is about, they will probably list a few things: betting, bluffing, and the poker hands. One of the earliest things that we tinkered with was exactly which of the poker hands we were going to have in the game.

One of the first questions that Grant asked me, when I came on board originally as a tester, was if I thought that it made sense to expand the number of hands in the game. Being a fan of strange stuff happening in card games, I thought it sounded great. One of the “hands” that comes up in poker is three pairs (ex: two 6s, two 3s, two Kings), which is always good for mocking your friends who have it. That one went in early, along with five of a kind, which was reachable sometimes due to spells.

I was immediately quite curious what the actual odds were for three pairs, which I needed to know in order to slot it into the proper place in the ranking. Being that I’m a software developer, I decided to just write a simulator for the thing. I’ve done that a fair bit in the past for other games, and have always found it to be quite handy.

I could have computed the odds mathematically, of course, but the simulator is more fun to write. It ended up being a tool that we used quite a bit while working on the game. Three pairs was initially slotted below straight, but that turned out to be too low for that hand. We also added double threes (two threes of a kind) at this stage of the game.

Grant: Three Pairs, Five of a Kind, and Double Three (two sets of three of a kind) were all pretty intuitive as far as creating the hand. They also happened with some frequency and everyone always asked about them. Our players had the same gut instinct as Josh — this is already a goofy game, so why not?

This, ultimately, brings us to one of the core issues we’ve needed to deal with for every change in the game: how intuitive is this for players?

The answer was, not very.

For people who have played poker, which is a large number, we had issues when we changed the core set list. This, by the way, is:

  • Straight Flush
  • 4 of a Kind
  • Full House
  • Flush
  • Straight
  • 3 of a Kind
  • 2 Pair
  • Pair
  • High Card

Inserting a three pair in that list means we suddenly have more hands and things don’t mean the same. It’s like changing the meaning of a single word in a language and expecting people to just roll with it. We learned really quickly that we needed to be really thoughtful about how we altered these hands.

This forced us to take a step back and ask: If we’re going to change the hand list, for what reason? What justifies the change?

Josh: The tell (to use a poker term) is that even long-time poker players were constantly looking at the hand ranking list to see where the new hands fell. The upside was novelty, seeing fun stuff happen that you don’t see in poker. But the cost was significant, in terms of down time in the game as people scratched their heads and tried to figure out what they had and what they could make.

Was the novelty adding much? To my surprise, it seemed like the additional poker hands were worse for poker players and not novices. Novices were having to look everything up anyway, so another entry or two on the list wasn’t really hurting anything. But even just a few new entries on the list was almost reducing everybody back to a novice state, at least for a little while. As a consequence, due to that playability concern, we backed off of the goofy hands and went with a straight set of poker hands for a while.

However, there was another issue that was coming up for both of us: how common flush and especially full house were.

Grant: This problem became so bad at one point that if you didn’t have at least a Straight, you should fold. It just wasn’t right. It reduced our eight hand game to a three hand game.

When we started to solve this problem, the approximate setup for each round was 4 cards in the Square, which is our term for community. All players had 2 cards in hand by default. The two spells in EVERY round let you add cards to your hand OR add cards to the square. This meant players could have 8, 9, even 10 cards with which to make a hand.

We had some really crazy solutions to this, including changing the ranking of the hands (terribly non-intuitive), making it so that the same hand couldn’t win sequential rounds (band aid fix, adds new rule), or just cutting out lots of hands (non-intuitive, ruined our nice distribution of hands).

With time, the right solution was the simplest one — we decreased the number of default cards in the Square from 4 to 3. That one solution had a massive impact and largely restored the distribution in most cases, except for the Full House.

Now that we isolated the issue to the Full House specifically, we took the content route, as opposed to the system’s route, to fix it.

The fundamental issue was that Full House occurred too often for its relative strength.

Josh: If you remember, there was actually a period of time when we had 4 cards in the square and 3 in hand. Add in the extra cards from spells, and a full house was almost a minimum to compete.

Before we get to the full house problem, the next big change for hands was thinking about naming. At the time, we were looking at the possibility of pitching to publishers. We’ve mentioned that thought experiment a few times, and it was mostly good, but one of the blind alleys for us was renaming the hands. The thought behind it was that it would give a little bit more theme in the game, it would further distance our game from poker to help manage expectations, and for novice players, it wouldn’t matter too much if things were renamed. We figured that most poker players would probably just keep referring to the hands by their poker names anyway.

Here, again, our expectations weren’t really met. There were references to the hands in various places on the rules and cards, and people were having to unpack that reference each time we saw it. It was an unnecessary cognitive load on our players.

Grant: Just as a general lesson, never force people to re-learn things that are so common. This goes for a lot of things, and is a lesson for pretty much any form of design. For example, a video game developer is foolish if they mess up the super established UI framework of World of Warcraft when making an MMO. Or the FPS developer who tries to reinvent the console control scheme made standard by Halo.

In card and board games, if you have DOMINANT reference points like Dominion, Magic, and Poker, you want to tread very carefully when shifting standards that are just so well known by so many players.

Josh: It was around this time that we also started getting antsy again about the menu of hands. If we’re trying to distance ourselves from poker, the thought went, why not go all the way! Here’s where my simulator came into play again. I could pretty easily plug in a bunch of different hands and try them out. Why not? We could see where things fell in the spectrum and see what might shake out. Grant and I put on our brainstorming hats (Carmen Miranda fruit hats) and decided to see what we could cook up.

This was also the period of time when we were flirting with five suits.

Here’s the list of hands that were tested in the simulator:

  • Rainbow (one card of each of the five suits)
  • Three pairs (again)
  • Double triple (again)
  • Two pairs, but of adjacent ranks
  • Four card straight
  • Four card flush
  • Skip straight (every other rank), in versions of odd, even, or both
  • All cards ranked below six
  • Three and four card straight flushes

Some of these were clearly terrible, but testing them in simulation was cheap, so why not? Some of them were motivated by an idea that we might be able to transition things to a game where you really only care about straights and flushes, which might be an interesting twist. Due to a bug in my code, it looked for a while like Rainbow was going to slot in at an interesting place, so we tried that one out on the table. Grant played one game with it, and it was ridiculous, which led me to looking more carefully at my code. In the end, most of that junk just wasn’t worth the cost on the brains of our players.

At this point, we basically had the poker hands, minus full house. It was just still a little bit too common, too easy to go for. I want to say that we had also dropped something on the low end.

Grant: We dropped high card as a hand because it never happened and it’s actually not that intuitive. For a while I was really on a warpath about using only intuitive hands. Many of them actually are, except for full house, which is a bit strange.

This was one of those weird phases where we were both scratching our heads and most of our ideas were just bad. For a while I think we both worried about being overly negative — I know I did. Josh would send out a new report from the simulator and even when the probabilities seemed right, some of them just didn’t make sense. Or, they were too clunky.

I especially hated the four card hands. It just felt like a lame, Diet Coke version of the real hand.

Some of the other ones, like “the summed strength of your hand can’t exceed a certain amount” were interesting and may one day become expansions or variants. But, we still had this huge gap in probability between flush and four of a kind. A few times I suggested we just cut straight flush, maybe even four of a kind. Josh, rightfully, thought this foolish.

Many of these ideas never left our emails. For a brief phase, we just tested without a Full House in the set list.

Josh: We did keep getting tester push back about the lack of Full House in the list, though. Players who knew poker wanted it back in there. And, there was a gap in the probabilities as well. The leap from flush to four of a kind was a substantial one, and it would be useful to have something to fill in the gap. Just not Full House – it had proven itself as just a little too easy to get.

We strapped back on the thinking helmets and started firing ideas. What about the four-card straight flush? Would that be confusing? Anything else come to mind? I was standing around at a party holding a beer when I started just visualizing poker hands.

I was thinking that they’re composed of three basic elements: straights, flushes, and sets of same-ranked cards. We had a hand that combined straights and flushes (the, uh, straight flush). What about combining the other ones? Combining a flush with a set doesn’t make much sense. I guess you could do something like two pairs, which are also from the same two suits. But that seemed odd. Straight and set, though, that seemed promising. That’s when I thought about a three of a kind crossed with a three card straight.

As I originally conceived it, the three of a kind needed to be the middle card of the straight, which makes your hand a cross when you lay out the cards. I plugged it into the simulation and, sure enough, it dropped right into the right spot in our probabilities. It then seemed obvious why: this was really just a Full House, but with fewer probabilities for the other two cards. When I proposed the hand, Grant suggested that we loosen it up so that any of the possible straights using the three of a kind would work, and that’s what stuck. It’s about half as common as a Full House, but still much easier to get than a four of a kind, so it slots in really nicely. I also like the way it adds just one unique hand to the list, just to give us that twist.

Grant: I love getting a crossways, so much that every time it happens I send Josh a picture. There’s something special in that it’s a hand that’s Hocus Poker’s. We’re very protective of it. We’re going to patent troll the stuffing out of it.

We did a lot of experimentation, but at the end of the day, the solutions were quite simple.

  • Four suits, not five.
  • Three cards in the square, not four.
  • Two cards in the hand.
  • Crossways instead of Full House.
  • The rest of the hands? Well, leave them as they’ve been forever. Don’t change what isn’t broken.

This exercise was a classic case of experimentation to confirm that things don’t really need to change. Sometimes you don’t need a massive change or complete overhaul. You just need a tweak. Our contributions in changing the game of poker came mostly in the form of removing player elimination, creating a market driven spell activation mechanic, and introducing spells in the first place. The sets? They worked (mostly) just fine.

Hocus Problem Solving Part 2


We could discuss every problem in every version of the game, but we think it best if we focus on the problems we identified and how we fixed them, roughly chronologically, for Hocus Poker as it exists today. If you have follow up questions about a specific portion of this, comment below and we’ll be happy to answer. This is Part 2 in this series. You can read Part 1 Here. 

Josh: We left off last time with the economy in pretty good shape. We had the market more or less sorted out, inflation sorted out, and the end game condition was feeling pretty good and, more importantly, testing well. But we weren’t satisfied yet. There were still concerns nagging at us.

Multi-Round Decisions

Grant: We had the concern that the game didn’t have enough multi-round decisions. It’s something you brought up and it was very insightful.

Every round was too self-contained. We wanted a way for a decision in round 1 to affect round 2, other than points. We brainstormed quite a few things, one of which was the Jokers and black magic mechanic. I miss that. Risk versus reward, but unfortunately too complex for what it gave us.

Here was the gist: If you had a joker, you could play it as a wild card. If you won the hand using it, you had to take a black magic token. This was worth negative points (back before our ultimately solution for the end game). There were some odd issues with risk avoidance and tuning and it was an oddly out of sync feature for what it provided.

Josh: Man, I still love this idea. It might be my favorite of the various ideas we’ve cut. In general, I really enjoy ambiguity in scoring like this, where you need to consider whether a short-term gain is worth a potential long-term loss. But there were problems with it, issues with how the rule could be written, and some odd incentives. If we could have solved one or the other, it might still be in the game. I still think there’s potentially an expansion in there.

Grant: I wonder if there’s a whole expansion where we just create a meta game out of poker? Both with scoring in examples such as this, but even hands that span rounds more than the “Save 1” notion does now.

Josh: There might be an Arcana suit in it, anyway. The costs/activation of everything are costly and double-edged. What about just having to spend a Rune to activate an Arcana card?

Grant: I’m curious if people would do that? It would need to be very powerful. That would work I think in longer games, but I question the value proposition, at the very least for player perception, in the regular length game.

Fold was the simplest idea that emerged from that conversation and stuck ever since. If you Fold, you can’t earn points. But, you get to Save a card, which gives you a future bonus. Instead of starting the round with 2 cards, you start with 3. The Mechana Suit also does this. Players who Build a Mechana card gain a semi-permanent passive ability, much like constructs in Ascension.

Josh: The nice thing about First Fold (which later became Yield) is that it’s simple and easy to understand, but it adds weight to one of the more significant decisions. We don’t want it to be trivial to decide what to spend your mana on, and we want people to have to at least think about if they stick in the hand at all. But making it only the first player had the fun side effect of lowering the incentives for subsequent players to bail out. That helps ensure that most hands end up in a showdown, which is fun.

There’s another area that we had a close look at, which was reintroducing something like a raise in poker. It was actually inspired by tester par excellence Robin Lees. He was playing a lot of two-player games, and he felt like it was too hard to drive the other player out of hands, that the decision to stay in was always the right decision. And it was basically true: once down to two players, it was very rare for players to drop out. The problem, then, was to ensure that there was still decision pressure even when there were only two people left in the hand.

Grant: We solved this in one way then, and added a new layer recently. With Robin’s help, we came up with Hocus Poker’s version of Raising — Surge. It was originally a 2 player only idea, but we liked it so much and there was no reason to remove it from the rest of the game. Raising provided a few elements to the game:

  • It gave players  a way to punish competitors who were too liberal with their spending. Money management is a subtle, but important part of the game that first time players miss.
  • It gave players a way to increase the pot on a hand in which they were confident. You want to stay in? It’ll cost you.
  • It gave players a way to make it difficult to make a spell they really didn’t want used too expensive. I’m looking at you, Tidal Wave and Swapsies.

The second way we solved it is by adding a simple rule that if the winner of the round wins because everyone else Yields, the winner earns a bonus Rune. This is most effective in 2 player, but still valid in 3+ players. This keeps a single player from constantly folding and saving a card to win big. As he does this, he’s just feeding his opponent.

Josh: This was inspired by the observation that, due to the way the economy is now zero-sum, you can just keep folding over and over in a 2 player game and just seal off the action until you have a saved card you’re happy with. That’s annoying, and it doesn’t make much to make that behavior unprofitable. A single Rune is enough to really defang the Texas Stall ‘Em strategy.

Spell Evolution

Grant: Something else I’d love to discuss is the evolution of Spells. When the game was first tested, every player was dealt 1 permanent spell at the beginning of the game. Then, the rest of the available spells were purely random from the deck.

There was a clear problem in that not all spells were equal. A spell that let one player draw a card, for example, was far superior to the spell that required a very specific situation to be utilized. This led to the suggestion: why don’t you have some spells always be in play?

Summon and Cauldron were the result.

Josh: I never saw the version with the first set of spells, so when I first encountered things, the idea of the basic spells were already in play. It’s a great idea, by the way. It strikes a fine balance between having things be too static and having too much stuff change between turns. That set of four spells available each turn is something that’s been basically constant. I guess in that version, there were only three spells each round in two- and three-player games.

Grant: It also has the subtle benefit of making it so players don’t have to constantly re-learn things. We have SO much content in the game and if everything shifts every round, it can be overwhelming. When I teach the game, I always clearly call out “you don’t need to relearn these. They are going to stay the same.” It’s comforting for new players. I wish the idea for the basic spells was mine. My good friend Matt suggested it.

Josh: In that version, the game still had the notion of players owning spells. One goal of the original design was to try and keep everybody in the game, so the players who were behind were awarded the two Advanced Spells from the middle. They could then use those on subsequent hands, giving them a broader set of choices. That rule had its heart in the right place, but there were a lot of issues with it. Among them: it divided player attention for where they should look for actions, it complicated the interactions in the game, it required additional rules in costs to handle, it provided occasional perverse incentives for players to try and game things to gain a spell, and as a catch-up mechanism, it didn’t really do a whole lot. Despite those issues, it persisted for a while.

Grant: One of the earliest ideas, which mostly died after the first test, was the notion that players were building a tableau of abilities throughout the game. Balance was such a massive issue, though.

Ultimately, the notion of keeping spells died less for the reasons Josh listed (which in hindsight are all fantastic), and mostly because the mechanic simply didn’t provide enough fun for the complexity it added. It required quite a few rules for a variety of edge cases and different player variants. That’s one of my favorite development tools. For any given feature, ask if it provides more than it takes. Provide being fun, the take being complexity. Little complexities over time feel like a death by a thousand cuts.

Josh: One problem that dogged us for a long time was interesting spells. I think you’ve kept track of how many spells we’ve cut over the course of the game, but it’s been a lot (Grant Note: We’re at 25 cut spells). And that cut count only counts the spells that actually made it onto the table. There were plenty of spells that never even got to that point, that had issues right out of the gate (Grant Note: As in, ideas we brainstormed but didn’t bother testing).

There are things that all of our quality spells share:

  1. They should be broadly useful and not narrow (so spells with trigger conditions are bad ideas). For example, if a spell is only useful 1 out of 10 rounds, based on a specific layout of cards, it’s not good.
  2. They should be easy to read and understand. At times we’ve gotten carried away with too many conditional statements, such as if, then, and so forth. Our best spells, typically, say: Do this thing.
  3. They should be able to be cast many times in a round. Our spell cost mechanic is based on spells being used multiple times with an increasing cost.
  4. They should be fun. That criteria really narrowed things down. It’s probably worth looking at some spells that got cut and why.

Grant: Good call. I just opened up the Photoshop file to stroll down memory lane.

Some Cut Cards

  • Shared Pain: Essentially, you and a number of other players had to reveal some cards. This wasn’t fun and was rarely useful. If you know somebody’s cards, that doesn’t help you WIN. So why would you pay for information you may not be able to act upon?
  • See Thru: This let you view another player’s hand. Again, sounds great in actual poker, but not useful in Hocus Poker.

Josh: These are both good examples of things that seemed like a better idea on paper than at the table. I think both were fairly early, and it was at a time when we were still in a bit of a poker mentality. It sure seems like it would be tremendous to get a sneak peak at things, but it was pretty much always going to lose out to trying to chase cards for your hand.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Chicken: This created a side pot between two wizards. So much complexity and exceptions for a single card. Cut.
  • Bribery: This let you buy runes regardless. But, this defeated the core purpose of the game. Not fun.

Josh: I repeatedly chased this basic idea of things manipulating Runes instead of mana, cards, card state, or other stuff. It sure seems like another interesting thing to play with. It’s a currency in the game, after all, so it seems like you could make trade offs with it. But, compared to winning a hand, getting a small number of Runes was not very interesting. And it’s very important that people have the win-or-nothing mentality which makes the economy go. Softening that in whatever way is mostly a bad idea.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Spectral Wild: This card and others introduced the “Last Wizard” mechanic, which was this King of the Hill style activation scheme where only the last person who used the spell gained its benefit. A tracking nightmare and very confusing.
  • Numeras: This let you change the strength of a card, so, I could turn a 2 of Hearts into a King of Hearts. We had quite a few cards that used to change the state of a specific card. This caused a massive tracking issue where multiple people would have to remember what multiple cards changed to. This was a sad cut, but so necessary.

Josh: These were relatively late cuts. We really wanted these to work, because they’re fun and provide for some skillful play. We tried assorted tracking mechanisms, different ways to place cards, different orientations, all kinds of things. None of them worked. We just kept getting feedback from testers that they were confused. Sad, but we finally had to just dump them. They also fed into the problem we’ll talk about below, which was certain hands dominating winning pots.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Peek-A-Boo: I loved this spell. It let you flip any card in play to its opposite side. What often happened, though, was that people would reveal all cards in the square, then there’d be nothing left to reveal. If people tried to flip them back down, they’d be automatically revealed at the end of the action phase. It was, more or less, a broken card.
  • Dispatch Goblin: This is a good example of a spell that was fine, but too complicated. You chose another player, who had to pick one card to show just you. You could then tell them to keep it, or you could take it from them in exchange for another card.

Josh: At any given moment, we tried to identify what the weakest spell or two was, and then just be ruthless about it. Even when the spells might have been “good enough”, it was still possible to identify what the worst spell was. The question then became if we could improve it by changing it or replacing it. It strained our creativity times, but it was always worth looking at the runt of the herd.

Grant: For a few weeks, every Friday night would result in an email from one of us that would start with “What do you think about .” I don’t think any spell mentioned in those emails lived until Sunday.

Starter Spells

Grant: Interestingly, some of these problems evolved into other solutions. For example, remember the cards that were one offs, as in, they were only interesting once in a round, therefore violating Rule 3 Josh listed above? We turned them into Starter Spells. For these, we gave every player a single card, all matching, that could be used once per game.

Banish was one of them. Once per game, each player could use Banish to declare a single hand (ex: Flush) that was illegal for the current round. These were neat, but inelegant. They were also somewhat expensive. For each starter spell, we’d have to print 5 cards (1 per player). That meant 2 starter spells were the same as almost a third of our total spells. Not a good use of components.

Josh: I still think that stuff like that might show up as an expansion. Having a one-shot Banish was actually a really interesting strategic decision, and it meant that you could never truly feel safe with your flush if it looked kind of obvious. It gave a nice bit of cross-hand thinking, but component-wise, it was probably just not going to fit in the first go around of the game.

I also think that the notion of manipulating the ranking of Sets is something we’ll play with later, if we’re fortunate enough to be able to add some expansions to things.

Grant: I’d love to add expansions. If the ability were simple enough, we could just use a token instead of a card.

For a moment, we cut the starter spells. Then, Josh came up with the idea of Arcana. These were Suits that were normal cards, plus they had text you could use as specified. We wrote about them extensively here. They were one-off, nuanced abilities that violated 2 of our Spell rules, but that was fine because this was the appropriate medium for them. We cut Starter Spells and doubled down on Arcana.

Josh: What it does is gives us a looser set of requirements. After all, an Arcana card is useful on its own — it can form parts of Sets. That’s an extremely powerful base power. So, if the spell associated with it is kind of dodgy, or strange, or hard to deploy, that’s OK, you still have the card to use. It allowed us to unleash some more creativity, which is great.

Dominant Hands

Josh: From fairly early on, there was another thing we both noticed: there were a lot of flushes and especially full houses winning hands. It was somewhat exacerbated by the spell mix we had at the time, but it was still present. At some times in the game, it got to the point where if I didn’t see a flush developing, I’d just fold. That’s really bad.

What was happening, basically, was that if you look at the distribution of probabilities for poker hands, there’s a big gap in probability between full house and four of a kind. As you have access to more cards, four of a kind is still really rare. As a result, accessing more cards tends to bunch the winning hands up right around that cliff, around flush and full house.

I’d like to go into it in a lot more detail in the future, but I had a simulator that I wrote early on in the project to test the probability of various goofball hands (three pairs, two threes of a kind, others). I took a look at the probability of various hands winning in a four player game given certain sizes of hands and community cards, and full house just dominated.

We’ve tried a lot of fixes for this, which is probably worthy of its own post, but for this purpose, what we did eventually is disarm the environment. We took the number of cards in the community down to just three, and took each player’s hand cards down to just two. Without adding additional cards, you only have access to five. So, if you gain a couple cards (through various means), that just puts you back at the familiar seven-card probabilities, which is totally fine for our game.

Grant: I think the simulator you created is incredibly cool and it definitely deserves its own post. Typically designers rely on gut checks, or personally tracking data between tests. With Hocus, we gained the advantage of those two plus hundreds of thousands (not kidding) of simulated hands. It was incredibly useful.

One more thing to note is that although we managed to smooth out the probability of flushes and straights, we never quite solved it for full house. The hand is just too commonly obtained relative to its strength in the hierarchy. We had two choices, really:

Lower the strength of a full house, which is really non-intuitive.

Get a new hand. That is ultimately how we came about with the Crossways. However, I think it took us 2 weeks just to discover it.

Parting Notes

At over 3000 words, though, this post has reached its end. Until next time!

Designer pal Corey Young will be handing out TEN copies of Hocus Poker at the Origins Game Fair. Track him down and request a copy!