Making games that are fun and compelling is difficult. Our latest board game, Last Stand, began with large sweeping changes early in development and ended with lots of fine tuning. I wanted to walk through the big sweeping changes to learn something.
Here's 2 of the large changed I made and why.
Finding the Game's Spark and Changing Everything Else
Over the course of it's 3 Month development lifecycle, Last Stand went through several design changes. The earliest concepts began as a fantasy based, five armies battle, token creation game where each opponent has choices to make on fighting, buying items with gold, or shooting some ranged weapons. There were cards to create units, combat steps, and dice to determine battle victories.
There was only one part of that game which had any spark of life. Dice rolling to attack the other players.
Look for the spark of life when designing games.
Part of the design philosophy at 5 Color Combo is that every game needs to be Five Star Quality. It needs to have a majority of the people who play the game give it a rating of five stars after playing it.
One of our key ingredients for ensuring that is a spark. A spark is that feeling of excitement in your heart when you play a game and it comes alive.
Do you know that feeling?
Let's look at the Texas Hold'em poker variant. Where's the spark in that game? It's that moment your opponent makes a bet and you feel like you can read their mind. You know that they just hit a straight and it's clear as day. That's when your mind races. Should I bluff a flush? How did I bet on the flop? Did I reveal anything with that bet? How far should I push my bet this round to get the most out of it? How certain do I know they are going to fold under a lot of pressure?
The balance of known information, hidden information, changing information, and interaction all comes together into a game that is loved, shared with friends, and continues to be played over and over.
Getting back to Last Stand. The game design began with a few elements. It put fighter units in front of each player and then made them interact. The game didn't have any life until we introduced dice and discovered that rolling 3 dice with the option of a re-roll felt compelling but not overpowered. That was the spark the game needed to peak my interest and the rest of the game ended up pivoting under that mechanic.
If you have one mechanic that brings a spark of life in your game, but the overall game is three star quality, change the ground underneath it.
Why should I keep game mechanics that are not fun, compelling, or thematically important? In other games I've been working on, the key mechanic that I was designing around ended up being a big dud, but led to discovering something else compelling. Don't be afraid to make big changes or even put an axe to an entire game. It'll make you a better designer and you'll enjoy it more too.
The first big decision was to change everything while keeping the dice attack concept. The next big decision was how.
Drastically Changing Gameplay by Forgetting My Assumptions
During development I was reading a book by Roger von Oech called A Whack on the Side of the Head. In one section he describes a creativity concept called Forgetting Your Assumptions. Here's what it means.
The concept is simple and there were specific questions at the end of that section that Roger von Oech's book gave on page 48 as well. Let's start by looking at the questions.
- What conventional wisdom are you relying upon?
- What would happen if you forgot the obvious answers that spring to mind and searched for new ones?
With those questions in mind, let's look at his illustration with a scenario and it's outcome. You may see it coming.
His story is about a seminar that he conducted at some time. He gave each participant a stack of 50 sheets of paper. He walked to the other side of a room and marked a line. Finally, he instructed the participants to make as many paper airplanes out of single sheets then can and then fly them. Only ones that flew past the marked line counted and they only had 5 minutes. The person with the most would win.
Participants started furiously folding paper and then whizzed their planes across the room. After each attempt they either repeated that process or adjusted it. That was the most common approach at least.
The winning design however was an individual who immediately crumpled each paper into balls and then chucked them across the room one by one (page 44).
Back to those questions.
- What conventional wisdom are you relying upon? Paper Planes are folded neatly and in a particular way.
- What would happen if you forgot the obvious answers that spring to mind and searched for new ones? You'd crumple up paper, chuck it, and call it a flying airplane.
Exercise your mind by asking yourself, why?
So, I went through this process for Last Stand. I started by looking at different elements of the game and questioning why they needed to be that way.
- Why does my deck need to be face down? That's just what you do? To create variance and keep the game interesting?
- What if my deck is face up? I would see the top card. Would it be fun to know what's coming?
- What if I could arrange the order of cards in my deck and see them coming? That could be a unique strategy. Trying to prepare for a match before the game starts. It sounds time consuming though.
- Why does the deck need to be in a pile? How else would I have it?
- Could I lay my whole deck out to see each card and pick up the ones I need to make my hand? How would that be fun? How would I use the cards?
At some point in that internal struggle I stumbled into the idea of putting the cards into piles that make up six columns. I chose six column since I was designing it around dice rolling. I decided that players would start with zero cards in their hands and when an opponent attacked you with dice, you'd pick up the cards on top of the corresponding column. After a few minutes of playing against myself, I saw the potential in the game and immediately grabbed my wife to play the game with me to see what she thought.
Make It Great
From there, a whirlwind of play testing and adjusting began and it led to the creation of something we're very proud of!
Little changes and fine tuning are great when you have a good structure but drastic measures need to be made if you haven't found the spark of life needed for a 5 Star Quality game.
What have your gameplay sparks been? What assumptions have you intentionally forgotten?