During it's Alpha stage, the game morphed around 30 times. When I look back at the first version, only the bare skeleton of the game remained the same. Almost all the specifics of it were different by the end.
We started with 6 types of cards and dice. At the finish we had 25 cards in each deck, two types of dice, a game board, player abilities, and specific replay-ability mechanics, and a lot of fine tuning.
Here's the quick history of Last Stand and the steps we took to get the game from mediocre to rating 96/100.
The game was born after a three day brainstorm session, right after the Enfutown Bumpers Kickstarter was complete. The game theme I had in mind for the brainstorm was something inspired by the battle of five armies. I was considering a fantasy theme with the possibly of a dragon involved. The only thing that stuck around from the tinkering I did was having dice as the main form of attacking other players.
In the games I design, a key ingredient is having memorable moments. At the start of the brainstorm there weren't any from the test games I made. So I continued to scrap idea after idea.
But the turning point was about to be discovered. I was in the middle of reading A Whack on the Side of the Head and had just finished a section on how to get inspiration by looking at things from another perspective.
So I asked the question, "Why does my deck have to be face down and in a pile to draw cards from?" That thought sparked the idea for having the decks face up and fully known.
Which lead to a second question, "If my deck is face up and fully known, how do I draw cards?" There! Right there! That was the key ingredient that would make this game a tasty dish. I had stumbled upon something that would lead to the main selling point of the game. Your power grows when you're losing.
The idea was that you get to use your resources only after being attacked. It was fun. Instantly. At that point, the juice was flowing and I just needed to get buckets to catch it all with.
The first version was pretty simple. Each player gets a deck of cards which are numbered from 1 to 6 and each had an ability that affects the gameplay. There are thee copies of each card which gives a total of 18 cards. Players placed the cards face up in front of them in six columns.
The game rules were basically the same as they are now. Players take turns rolling dice and assigning them in front of a column to attack the cards of other players. Players pick up the cards that were attacked and can use them during the game. A player loses when they ran out of cards.
It was simple and fun, but only for a little bit. There were only two points of control and strategy involved. Even those were really limited in scope.
- During a turn, a player could re-roll any of the dice once, which allowed for one decision point and strategy.
- The moment in the game when the player chose to use their cards.
The first piece of feedback was that every game felt the same because there was a clear best strategy of what order to try and attack the cards and when to use them.
This lead to the game's first major change.
One Change Gave Huge Returns
It lacked flexibility. The 1 card always was a 1. The 2 was a 2 and so on.
My first thought was to make 18 different cards to allow for variety in each of the columns. I quickly pulled out a Sharpie, but the thought of balancing all the mechanics and making sure each number had the right abilities seemed tedious.
Instead of going to work on creating and writing, I put the Sharpie back down and I thought another few minutes. I wanted there to be a simple way to get flexibility. A moment later, I remembered a part of another game I'd played before where the cards and numbers were separate. So I separated them for my game.
The dots were the card numbers which I covered up.
The boost to the fun was quick and clear. On top of that, there was something even better! It came along with another element of strategy. Setting up your cards in a specific order or position would make a big difference in what cards ended up in your hands at various points in the game. Wow. That's cool.
Another payoff, in the game design perspective, was the immense freedom I had at that point. I had the opportunity to make new abilities in any quantity I wanted and put them into the deck. Wow. That's cool too.
At that point, it was just a frenzy of testing.
The Cascade of Changes After
I was testing the game as often as possible with as many people as I could find. I'm fortunate to have my work space be less than a mile from Cal Poly University, San Luis Obispo (my local college). It's basically 20,000 people who are, for the most part, willing to try something new.
Here's the major concerns brought up and each design decision I made to address those.
"Some of the cards are boring" Change: I went from 6 unique cards to 9 unique cards with varying amounts of each type.
"There's not much re-playability" Change: I increased the deck size to 25 cards and introduced a rule to remove 7 cards randomly so that each game starts with a new pool to work with.
"There's not many cards" Change: I went from 9 unique cards to 15 unique cards spread out among the pool of 25.
"All the decks are the same?" Change: I created player abilities that are triggered when a double is rolled.
Along the way, I stumbled upon a lot of un-fun mechanics, cards that lead to players making incorrect plays often, and imbalances of power level. So I continued to scribble out old ideas and make new ones.
Blank cards and Sharpies are great for making lots of changes
At one point, the player abilities seemed close enough to being finished so I went to my local UPS and printed out boards (just 11"x17" color prints that I cut) that each player could have in front of them, like in the game 7 Wonders. I also felt like the card pool was close enough to print out a prototype.
I used the template from my last game as a place holder until I got the real art from Chris McCoy. The trick in my pocket was using printing out changes to the cards with labels and sticking them on the cards when needed. They were thin enough that shuffling wasn't a problem.
What Was Avoided
Some of the ideas that didn't stick around included discard abilities, preventing players from rolling dice, preventing players from playing cards, getting to pick the dice numbers, choosing to pick up your own cards, etc.
The main concepts I was sticking to were
- Don't allow for a guaranteed win
- Don't keep a mechanic that is un-fun for all players involved
- Don't promote bad game strategy
- Don't interupt turns from their natural flow
These guidelines spawned during my game play testing. Whenever I got critique that was repeated several times I recognized the pattern and made changes. Through it all, I kept listening and converted all the feedback into a set of guidelines for when the game was in it's fine tuning stage.
The majority of the work I had to do was in the last bit. At some point I thought about manufacturing the game and how having 4 boards that were 5.5" x 16" seemed like it was going to be more expensive than I wanted and unnecessarily customized. What could I do to cut down the costs and keep the heart of the game boards?
I pulled out my copy of 7 Wonders at that point and realized that their individual boards were less than 9" compared to my 16" wide boards. I looked at other games and thought about making a single board since I would have a max of four players anyways. When that idea came, it too ended up being a jump in quality. It made it easier to see the cards the other players had and gave a center stage for the dice rolling.
Part of our game design dedication at 5 Color Combo is getting games to hit, what we call, the Five Star Threshold. Nearly every time we give the game to a reviewer we observe and take notes. At the end of the session, we ask for a rating before any other questions or feedback. IT'S VERY important to us that we do not give any direction when watching others play. Especially if they play the game wrong. This is for two reasons.
- We're not going to be there to explain anything once we start selling it.
- They might discover a new fun way to play! Which we'd make into a real rule after.
Now back to the Five Star Threshold. Like I said, we silently watch as they play. Then the first question we ask, before explaining the real rules or asking anything else is, what rating out of five would you give this game?
That's not quite true actually. There's a pressure to say "five stars" in front of us even if they don't actually feel that way. In actually, we give them a link to rate and review the game on their own so they can be more honest.
When we consistently are getting five star reviews from everyone who plays, that's when we've successfully met the Five Star Threshold.
At this point in time, we're only 9 days until the launch of our game on Kickstarter. I'm very excited for the game and it's been a blast to play now that it's hit the Five Star Threshold.
UPDATE: The Kickstarter is now live!
The journey I went through making this game taught me a lot and I hope you learned something valuable too.
If you want to see the Kickstarter click [here]!(https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/5colorcombo/last-stand-1?ref=9fgzet)