From Idea to First Playtest

The first game I designed was actually a co-design, and Louis onboarded me after a few playtests of his own. For a while, I was an active game designer without any idea how to start a design: I had gotten in right after that part. I’d go around and ask established designers at conventions, or on panels and Q&As: Every time, the answer would be something along the lines of “you just do it”, which is… well, not that useful.

I’ve seen a few people around the Twitterverse asking these questions recently. Remembering my own questions from back then, here is MY method for going from an idea to a first prototype.

Disclaimer: This is a method that works for me. If you have a different method, awesome! If this one doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry! This is just meant as an example: you can try it out and see what sticks.

Step 1: Define your core

Whether I’m inspired by a mechanism, a theme, an experience, my first step is always to define what I want the game to be. This takes the form of a pitch, a short, 2 or 3 line paragraph about what I want the game to be. I want it to be snappy and dramatic to begin with (it will get longer as the concept solidifies) because (a) it’s easier to grab attention that way, and (b) it helps me identify what is the core I’m aiming for, and what is just brainstorming around that idea.

Usually, I’ll try and get some feedback on this pitch. I’ll talk about it with friends, other designers, or just in general on social media. This is useful both to gauge interest, but also to help me smooth out any rough edges: in a way, I’m playtesting the pitch!

Step 2: Deconstruct that core

Once I’ve identified this core, I need to figure out how the game will fulfill that promise. Where marketers often try to represent their target audience with an imaginary character, I try to represent my central idea with a target moment that represents the experience I want the game to offer.

From then, I identify what building blocks I need to make that work.

A few examples:

  • For Off the Record, the core was the growing-pile mechanism, exemplified by that decision between a huge, 6-card pile, or that one card you really need. I needed a reason for you to need a specific card, but a way for any card to be useful for you, which led me to turning in Poker hands for points.
  • For Cybertopia, the juice was that free-flowing roster of workers, where you’d get a different group of options every time you’d gather. That means I needed workers which were different enough for that to matter, and a way for them to be grouped in the actions where they were sent. I also needed those “groups” to be unrelated to the workers’ unique traits, so that they wouldn’t all be piled up in the same groups: instead of workers, we started looking at them as multi-use cards, which made a lot more sense design-wise.
  • For SuPR, the pitch is a large thematic thing, but the core is “you have to save the town, but the more dire the situation, the better it looks”. I knew that the central mechanism needed that risk-reward, where you were not completely able to control your actions, nor perfectly plan them ahead of time, or else, there would be no luck for you to push! This made dice drafting feel like such a good idea!
    Then, coop dice drafting suggested the idea of a “love draft”: instead of “what can’t I leave my opponent?”, I loved the idea of “OH! I NEED THAT DICE! PLEASE LEAVE IT FOR ME!”, which meant, like with Off the Record, I needed a way to have something that was just *perfect* for a player, but for every player to be able to use it, leading me to the idea of a dice you used for both the number and colour.
  • For my untitled coop roll-and-write, I wanted to merge that moment at the end of a game of Pandemic or Spirit Island, where you look at the map and go “this is what’s left of the world”, and the permanence of a roll-and-write sheet. Because of that, the gameplay must be centered around a map, which players are building up while the game is doing its best to tear it down.

Step 3: Good artists borrow…

Even with that central idea fleshed out some, you’re still far away from a playable prototype. This is where I follow the famous saying, and outright steal another game’s frame.

Sometimes my inspiration starts from a game in particular: as I mentioned previously, the coop roll-and-write idea came up right after a game of Troyes Dice, and the first prototype was, more or less, a cooperative version of it.

If not, I try to find a game that would fit my building blocks: with SuPR, I started from Pandemic: the Cure, another coop dice game, and added the “scoring” system I wanted; with Cartographia, we started with Blue Moon City, but with players getting bonuses when others would map the same space as they previously did; Cybertopia started from Imhotep, with the worker cards replacing the boats; With a Smile & a Gun started out as Cat Lady, with the dice-drafting rondel to go with it.

I then make my first prototype as close to that game as I can. But…

Step 4: Start with the second prototype

“Your second try is always better than your first.”
“So how do I start with my second one?”

My first prototype never actually touches the table.

The simple act of building a prototype, to me, is a first round of testing: I ask myself how things will interact, I write cards and get cool ideas, I find a cooler way to present a decision, I imagine myself playing a round and cursing my friends out.

You can argue it’s semantics (and you’d be right), but it highlights one of the biggest problems I have with creative endeavours: I can’t start creative without knowing what I’m making, but I need to start making it to figure out what I’ll be making. Therefore, I have to trick myself, and start making something I know I won’t ever be using, just to get the gears in motion.

Sometimes this “first prototype” is writing a bullet-point rulebook, sometimes it’s taking pieces from the seed game and moving them around, sometimes it’s opening up PowerPoint and making cards. The zeitgeist says “get it to the table ASAP”, but you can use a metaphorical table: in a way, a spreadsheet is a table, right?

Step 5: Schedule a playtest

If you are gifted with the ability to solo playtest your game, go ahead and do that.

Otherwise, if you’ve read last week’s post, you know that the best way to finish a prototype is to schedule a playtest and give yourself a deadline.

Oh, it’s not finished? Of course it isn’t: that’s WHY you playtest.

You can keep on changing and tweaking and editing and adding, but a 30-minute playtest will help your design more than another 30 hours of modifying your prototype.

I just beat designer’s block

I ran my first Kickstarter campaign in July to publish Subsurface’s first release, With a Smile & a Gun. It’s been an extremely rewarding experience, but it’s also been draining, especially during a worldwide pandemic. Since then, between said pandemic, the lack of a regular game night, and the remaining amount of work related to producing and shipping a game, I have not worked on any of my designs. Actually, I’ve only run two non-WaS&aG playtests in the last 12 months.

Truth is, inertia is a pretty major hurdle to jump. After focusing on the business side of games, I’ve lost my design momentum, and in these circumstances, it’s been really hard to get back.

I’m sure I’m not alone.

Before I dig into how I got back into it, let me say that it’s okay if you can’t get yourself to work on your projects. If it’s doing more harm than good, don’t. Don’t beat yourself up: these are difficult times. It’s okay if you’re not being productive. You’re not less than because you’re struggling.

However, if you feel like a creative endeavour would improve your quality of life, but you’re not sure how to get back on the horse, then here’s what’s worked for me:

Play some games

When I was younger, I’d read a lot of YA books, and I’d keep on wanting to write my own books. Then I read webcomics, and tried to learn to draw. Then it was movies, and standup comedy, and short stories.

For me, consuming any form of art makes me want to produce my own. I’ve been told it was hubris, thinking that I could make better versions of these things —and to a certain extent, it is–, but to me, it’s less a question of “better” than “more to *my* tastes”.

It stands to reason that this dry spell of design coincides with an equivalent dry spell of playing. No game night means that, slowly but surely, gaming is less common. Sure, we used to play over BoardGameArena and Tabletopia, but it sort of fizzled out over time.

Then I got back into it. I started my weekly online game of Arkham Horror LCG again; then a friend bought roll-and-writes and offered to play them over Zoom; then I started playing games with my daughter after she comes back from school.

Inertia is a thing, but so is momentum. A little push puts stuff in motion. After a game of AHLCG, all I can think about is levelling my deck, which makes me think about how cool this card combo could be, and oh, I haven’t played Underwater Cities in forever…

Be it games over Zoom or BGA, with friends or strangers, or even in person with your partner or roommate or kid, or even solo or on an app: starting to enjoy the hobby again might give you the spark.

Get excited!

That friend who bought all of those roll-and-write games? He said “you know, if you were working on a roll-and-write, we could have a weekly playtest night!”

After every new game we’d play, we’d talk about the design, and eventually, we played both Aeon’s End and Troyes Dice back-to-back. “Wouldn’t the Troyes system be a great skeleton for a coop roll-and-write?”, he asked, and, well, we talked about it for an hour and a half.

I find that while playing games brings those sparks, talking about those sparks with others is the kindling that starts the fire. It’s what turns idle ruminating into forward progress, and gets that rolling stone moss-free.

Procrastinate about something else

Even with a good idea that excited me, making that first prototype is such a big hill: without super-momentum, you roll back down all Sisyphus-like.

LPT: If you just cannot seem to get Sisyphus to offer his quest to buy his  freedom -- make sure you actually talked to Bouldy. : HadesTheGame

Then, November arrived, and for the first time in forever, I thought about NaNoWriMo in late October: finally, I could try this writing challenge, use social media for added accountability, and…

Well, having this other, much more daunting task made making the prototype look like the easy way out: isn’t that interesting?

I’m not sure you can reproduce this feeling, but when I had to write 1700 words of a novel, for which I only had a two-line description to go from, I managed to trick my brain into making that prototype and thinking it was procrastination.

Again, this is what worked for me! Please don’t use this blog post as an excuse to not finish a work assignment or a school project!

Schedule a playtest

Here’s a veteran tip:
The best time to prepare a prototype is an hour before the playtest starts.

If you wait for your prototype to be ready before you set a date, it will never happen. If you schedule other people, magically, your prototype will be ready.

livememe.com - 60% Of The Time, It Works Every Time

Momentum might be a thing, but a deadline is another.

The clarity of “up to”

I’m an ardent supporter of clarity in games, to allow players to focus less on what they can do, and more on what they want to do. A big part of this is to only add rules when they are necessary, to keep the structure as light as possible.

This week, playing Arkham Horror LCG, I found one rule I think you should always add: the “up to”. Compare these two cards:

Pictures from ArkhamDB.com

These two cards are very different, but both share the “Gain X, where X is _____” format. I love those so much, mainly because of how satisfying they are: the timing aspect gives it a push-your-luck vibe, and you feel like you’re getting away with something when you get it to the high values! You feel clever, there are opportunities for awesome combos, and your game is memorable.

Such cards are hard to balance (but, remember, balance schmalance), because the timing aspect is very limiting, but the value is also very variable. However, it feels good to pull off a high number on these, so I’d assume they are balanced assuming you’ll hit pretty close to that maximum value.

Crack the Case is based off of your location’s shroud, which usually hovers between 2 and 5. Search for the Truth is based off of the number of clues you currently have, which is almost limitless, and therefore, they put an upper limit: “up to 5”.

You could say that both are more or less the same. Crack the Case has a similar cap of 5, but it’s hidden: you need to have played a few games to understand what those shroud values usually are. Putting the upper limit on the card feels less elegant, because it’s a rule they have to spell out rather than let you learn, but it also raises the barrier to entry. If an experienced player uses it on a 3 and reveal a 5 on the following turn, it’s a “fun” frustration: you played it safe and shouldn’t have. If a new player does it, it’s just frustrating, because they weren’t shown what these values could be.

Still, you can just say that this is part of your learning process: your second game will be more satisfying, and that’s just part of the depth of the game. Sure.

However, one place where calling out the limit makes it clear is by pushing you towards action. Without a limit, you can spend turns and turns boosting up a single action, which leads to a static, stale game. Sure, that one action will be cool, but will it be cool enough to warrant that big of a warmup?

By putting this hard cap, you tell players exactly when they should stop planning to boost it. Without a limit, players start planning dozens of turns ahead, which means they plan dozens of possible outcomes for each, which quickly pushes them towards AP. With an “up to” clause, you tell your players that they can plan… up until this exact point.

When they get to that point, they use their cards, and then get planning cool combo #2, looking 2, 3, 4 turns into the future instead of 20.

Identical vs Equivalent

I often say that board games are the combination of psychology and mathematics. More exactly, they use mathematics to induce specific psychological reactions: tension, angst, euphoria, excitement, satisfaction, all just because your number will be lower than your opponents’. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now let’s take that vision of games and look at them through a game design lense. A game’s elements (be they components, theme, or mechanisms) are not the point: they are tools to create a specific experience. Sure, all of these elements are important pieces, but the sum of the parts are what’s important.

This sheds light on one easy pitfall of design: to look for identical alternatives rather than equivalent: too often, I hear playtesters suggest alternatives, and designers turn them down because of some minor mathematical differences. This is especially true when we talk about streamlining, about suggestions that could simplify an entire system but are turned down because that one action would now give 4 rocks instead of 3. Is that a meaningful difference?

I talked about one similar situation in this blog’s very first post, when we had included 5 different ways for tokens to score, and 4 different mini-games, which were technically different, but did not affect the game’s experience or the players’ decisions at all.

Another example is from the roleplaying games side: in 13th Age, players roll obscene amounts of dice for damage. The designers strongly suggests to instead either (a) take the average damage, (b) roll one die and multiply it by the number of dice, or (c) roll two or three dice and take the average for the rest.

These are all mathematically different: the static number obviously stands out, but even multiplying one die leads to much swingier results than the standard die roll, which itself is swingier than just rolling a few and averaging the rest. However, while all are mathematically different in how extreme the results will tend to be, the game does not change much between the two. You could have a group where each player chooses a different way of calculating damage, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference: while not identical methods, they are by and large equivalent.

When designing, every design element should be there for a reason. During your process, it’s important to look for equivalent alternatives, which could fill the same role in the design, without being identical.

For example, High Rise, Lords of Waterdeep, London, and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects all have a Corruption mechanism: some things you do are stronger, but come with this negative token you then have to manage, and try not to have the most of. They all have a different associated mechanism, but they all have the same impact: give some actions a delayed, and uncertain cost. If you took any two and switched the Corruption mechanisms, they would mostly still feel the same. There would be differences, but I’m not sure they would be that meaningful.

Of course, the difference between identical and equivalent is very subjective, and highly context-dependent: you might disagree with my example above. Yet, I would still suggest you err on the side of openness, especially early in your design process: it’s so easy to try something, and, if it doesn’t work, to just CTRL+Z the change.

Lifehack the complexity budget!

When designing a game, the balance between depth and weight is a tricky one. Every system, element, or even just rule, you add to a game brings strategy, tactics, balance, but also complexity. Fun : weight ratio, which many prefer to think of as the complexity budget, is an important aspect of game design.

Here’s the thing: there’s a lifehack to this. I have a tool to share with you which can add a lot of depth for minimal complexity, in an almost “too-good-to-be-true” infomercial kind of way.

That thing is Space. More specifically, spatial relations. Our brains think spatially, and a lot of these things are so ingrained in us that it’s harder to put in words than to actually interact with.

Think of the tiles in Isle of Skye: it takes a second of looking at it to parse all that it contains, not only the scrolls, buildings and barrels, but also the land types, roads, and their position on the tile. If these were cards in a tableau building game, no mechanism could make up for that depth.

Now, of course, tile laying games are built around that spatial aspect, and not every game can be about tile laying, or route building, or map skirmish. Yet, even game types which are not intrinsically spatial can be enriched, at no extra complexity, by leaning into our brains’ innate spatial understanding.

Not only good for tiles

Early in With a Smile & a Gun‘s development, you would draft a die, and place influence in the district of that value: 6 districts, each associated with a number. It was easy to grasp, but a bit boring, a bit stale.

I added a lot of strategic depth to the game by making each die value affect two districts, and each district be affected by two values (using my favorite tool, the power of combinations):

By using adjacency, players grasped the relationships just as easily as they did the first version. The decision were more interesting, because of the depth this added to the game, but players didn’t have to spend more cognitive bandwidth on this system.

Version 3, the one the final game still uses, adds a lot more depth without much weight:

GIF by the amazing Jon Merchant

Now your die moves your meeple around the city, and you place cubes in the row/column in front of it. In addition to the added thematic aspect of moving your meeple, here’s all of the strategic difference this adds:

  • You affect 3 districts instead of 2: the most obvious one, but a pretty big impact on depth;
  • Relative numbers matter, not absolutes: going to a spot might require a 2 for me, but a 4 for you, which means I can keep you from going without having to go myself;
  • Distance matters: You place 3, 2, and 1 cube, starting from your meeple, making the choices regarding the area control more granular, more dynamic;
  • The possible combinations are clear: not every combination of 3 districts is possible, and that is clear to every player, even on their first game.

Not only did this system add the thematic resonance of the movement, and all of these interesting levels to the game, but by and large, players found this version simpler to grok than the first two. Of course, other effects come into play, but still: this added a LOT of depth, for virtually no complexity.

Even more intrinsic

I’ve brought this up in one of the designer diaries for the game, but it bears repeating here: there are fundamental differences between the corner districts, the side districts, and the central one, simply based on spatial aspects.

First, the 3/2/1 placement mechanism means that while a side district can receive 3, 2, or 1 cube, depending on where you’re hitting it from, corners can only get 3 or 1, and the center only gets cubes by 2s. It affects how swingy the majority for those districts are.

Second, the distance between two spots that affect a given district vary. The 4 spots to influence the central district are exactly 3 spaces apart. However, after you pass a corner, it can take a while before you get back to placing on it, especially if you need to place 3 cubes.

Now, these aren’t large differences, but they’re still there. What’s more, I didn’t even design them in: it’s just inherent to the spatial design of it. It took me a bit of time to even realize it was the case.

Remember when we were talking about depth : weight ratio? I added depth to my game without meaning to. Isn’t that some magical, snake oil kinda tool!

Other examples

Tzolk’in famously uses these large, interconnected gears to represent the passage of time. In addition to the gimmick and eye-catching aspect of the gears, this entire system would have been so much harder to represent without a spatial aspect.

Final game board with gears and stickers.
Image from publisher

Pandemic is one of many examples of games which feature movement on a map, and you could say that’s an inherently spatial game and I’ve broken my own premise. However, I think it’s worth pointing out how the links between cities naturally create different experiences based on which cities are targetted at setup: 3 cubes on Santiago, with its single path out, is not the same as on Baghdad, with its 5 neighbours, or Madrid, which also has 5 neighbors, but 2 of which are of different colours. If the map didn’t include those spatial oddities, the setup variety would not be as meaningful.

Pandemic, Z-Man Games, 2013 – game board
Image from publisher

Battle Line (also known as Schotten Totten) is, to put it simply, a mix of War and Poker, where the two players play cards in front of a line of 9 flags, trying to make a better poker hand than their opponent. To win, you must either gain 5 of the 9 flags, or 3 adjacent ones. That extra winning condition adds a lot of tension, makes some sites more important, makes the ends of the line feel different from the middle, and all of that at no extra cognitive load.

uncaptioned image
Picture by @BoardGameGeek

Think about the design(s) you’re working on right now: is there a part of your game that you could improve (either by simplifying without making less engaging, or by enriching it at low complexity costs), simply by presenting it spatially?

The Power of Combinations

Modern board games are about choices, difficult choices. Where old games gave you a roll of the dice or a card draw, modern games give you a decision to make, putting you in the driver’s seat, and that’s where most of the fun of board games comes from: meaningful but difficult decisions.

I’ve talked in an earlier post about how to make those choices meaningful in a more theoretical, academic way. I’ve talked about four aspects to consider: opacity, comparability, uncertainty, and interchangeability. I’ve also mentioned that choices, while they are at the core of what makes games interesting, also take time. Today, I’m here to share with you a more practical tip to designing interesting decisions without breaking a game’s pace, and probably my go-to design tool: combinations.

First, I guess I should offer a definition: combinations are what happens when you put two things together. Rather than offering your players a display of 5 cards, and telling them to draw 2, you make 3 pairs of cards, and tell them to choose a pair.

There are a few interesting things that happen when you combine decisions:

  • The game speeds up: Like I said above, a decision takes time. By combining 2 decisions into one, you half the number of decisions players have to make.
  • The choices are harder to compare: If I need a wood, could use clay, but already have a million stones, would I rather take a wood and a stone, or two clays? The decisions instantly become more interesting.
  • It makes you work on multiple fronts: It is a pretty boring game where you just focus on one plan, complete it, then go to the next. It’s a lot more interesting to push your players into juggling multiple different tasks. Combinations lead to players piling up “kickers”, stuff that they got as bonuses for the things they were trying to do, and eventually, they’ll figure out what to do with them!
  • Sometimes, there’s a perfect storm: Sometimes, the two things you need just so happen to be paired together! Sure, it defeats the purpose of the “difficult decision”, but if it happens only a few times a game, it is a great feel-good moment!

Combinations are already often used in games, in ways we’ve come to take for granted. For example, in worker placement or card drafting games, taking an action or card does not only affect you, but also limits what your opponents can do; in many Euros, you build buildings that give you points and a special ability; in rondel games, the space you go to matters, but so do the ones you skip over.

These are examples of basic combinations: we take them for granted because, most of the time, one of them is very secondary. Most of the time, when I play Le Havre, I’ll choose my action based on what I need, and if it blocks you, that’s just icing on the cake. It’s solid design, but we can still take it further.

One of the games which best represents this, to me, is Sentient, an underappreciated game by J. Alex Kevern. In Sentient, you place workers on a display which (a) determines the card you’ll draft, and (b) counts for the majority scoring for the tiles in between each card.

Investors and bots
Picture from BGG user Zedsdead

What makes this mechanism great is that, sometimes, there’s a card you really need, and sometimes, there’s a tile you really need: either of them could make the scale tip. There so rarely is a tableau where none of the possibilities fulfill one of your goal, and sometimes the stars align, and the perfect choice comes up, and you get to stand up and cackle fiendishly as you place your meeple at that perfect spot. Maybe your opponents will even give you a standing ovation.

And isn’t that why we play games?

Designer Diary #3: The Nuts and Bolts

This post is Part 3 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, initially posted during the Kickstarter campaign! In this section, I talk about the mechanical evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it. There is some overlap between this post and the “5 Lessons from” post from early January, 2020, but I think they still stand on their own.

Picture from Eric Yurko

With a Smile & a Gun’s core conceit, as I said in the first post, didn’t change since the first draft of the game. Just to recap, that core is:

  • Dice drafting: draft a die for your movement around a 3×3 grid, and a die for your action;
  • Grid: After moving, you affect all districts in the row/column facing you;
  • Area control: Most cubes in a district is how you get points;
  • Laying low: Actions for higher values are stronger, but having a lower action sum than your opponent gives you a bonus
  • Shared enemy: As 2-player area majority tends to lack competition, there’s a 3rd faction, which both players can affect, but not control, and both compete with;
  • Leftover die: to make sure the last player has a decision to make, the leftover die as an effect on the game.

There has been a lot of small tweaks, of course, but there are three sections of the game which have seen dramatic changes since that first draft, and those are what I want to discuss in this post: the scoring system, the effect of the leftover die, and how the area control works.

Scoring
The scoring is without a doubt what took most of my time throughout the development of this game. I wanted to have a system that made the value of each district different, but also dynamic. I didn’t want every district to be the same, because then the whole concept of “affect a whole row” loses its meaning, but I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, a District was just a must-win, where you didn’t mind affecting Districts you wouldn’t care about if you could get that one. I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, second place would be just as good as first, and other times, it was first or bust.

I tried a lot of different things, and most of them fell short, but the one recurring theme is definitely related to complexity. Designers often talk about complexity budget, basically pushing you to ask, with every rule that you add, whether its impact to the quality of the game is worth its complexity. What I learned in developing With a Smile & a Gun’s scoring system is that you should spend as much of your complexity budget where the actual hook of the game is.

I tried a lot of very complex things to make the scoring system more interesting, but the truth is, no one is playing this game for its scoring system: the interesting part is in the dice selection, in what you’re leaving for your opponent and for the shadow. The scoring system, as any good supporting actor, is there to make the dice drafting shine. To do that, it needs to be as simple as possible, so that players can easily spot which districts are worth a lot, which districts are must haves, which districts are of little interest.

A simpler scoring system also means that most districts are scored very quickly, because choosing between 5 and 2 points is a lot easier than choosing between a set collection item and a majority tile. Decisions are nice, but they take time, and when the scoring phase takes as long as the action phase, the game’s pace suffers. In the final version, most rounds will have 7 instant evaluations, but 1 or 2 interesting choices. Not only is that quicker, but the fact that these moments are rarer means they are much more special, more tense, and it becomes interesting for both the player choosing and their opponent.

Grid
Up until quite recently, players would add a single cube to every District in the row facing them, rather than the current 3/2/1. This might seem like one of the secondary changes in that tweak-level, but it’s one of those small things that had a big impact on the way the game evolves:

  1. Come backs in majorities are now possible: before, if you were down 2 cubes, it was almost impossible to get back on top, and placing a cube there felt like a waste. It made the initial neutral cubes feel like a mountain to climb, rather than just an obstacle. It makes the game so much more dynamic, because it takes a lot of effort for a majority to be 100% safe. More dynamic also means less time spent calculating every cube, which means a quicker pace!
  2. Where you land is more important: Before, there were 4 ways to affect each district, and each of them were of similar value. Choosing a die was about which combination of districts you wanted to hit, not about prioritizing them. Now, sometimes its about hitting two districts in one move, sometimes its about dropping 3 in a specific districts, and that adds a lot of depth to the game. Plus, sometimes a die gets you to do both in one swoop!
  3. Districts are inherently different: When you added a cube to every district, the board was very flat: every space linked to three Districts, each District was linked to four spaces, and they all were very similar. Now, the Central district always gets two cubes; Corners can get 3 or 1, and the spaces to place 3 cubes are adjacent to one another; Sides can be hit by 3, 2, or 1, but no back-to-back numbers. It’s minor, and most people would say I’m stretching, but over time you treat them differently. It’s also the reason why I added the 3rd control token to the Central district, to put that difference on display.
Picture from Eric Yurko

The Shadow
This one is a mixture of two things I’ve been toying with throughout the game’s development: one was the leftover die, and the other a desire for replayability.

I have a tendency to hyperfocus on games, and play them very frequently in a short window of time, then forget about them for a bit. That’s even more true for 2-player games: in the first 3 months after it came out, I played 7 Wonders Duel 27 times, and to be very frank, I grew kinda sick of it. That happens with a lot of 2-player games for me, mainly because they often end up happening against the same opponent, and can often get stale.

I knew that for a game like With a Smile & a Gun, I wanted a variable setup which would allow some mechanical difference from one game to the next, so that after a game, you could go “hey, let’s try again with this one”. I tried a lot of different things, from changing the players’ action lists, to special action cards, to an event deck, even making one of the District different from one game to the next.

On the other hand, I also had that leftover die, which for the longest time went to the “Police Chief”. It made sense to me that the neutral character would, just like the players, use a die to move a meeple around the city and place dice. Therefore, the Police Chief used the final dice, moved around and placed more Police cubes. Usually, players would forget about the Chief, and either wrap up a round without activating it, or would think of it, move it, and make everyone angry because you hadn’t included it in your calculations.

I’m not exactly sure when those two wires ended up connecting, but at some point they did. Gone was the Police Chief, and his annoying blue cubes everywhere, and in came the Shadow, with an effect that changed from game to game. Still moved around, and affected the district in front of them, but now its effect is different with every play.


And that is the final entry of the With a Smile & a Gun designer diary! Thank you so much for your interest in its development, and feel free to post any comment and question you have!

Designer Diary #2: The Setting

This post is Part 2 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, currently on Kickstarter! In this section, I talk about the thematic evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it.

Once I started work on what would become this game, the mechanisms had created some requirements for the theme:
• I needed a setting that would support and suggest the theme of intrigue and underhandedness;
• I needed the players to have a third entity to compete with, but one which worked under different rules and therefore couldn’t just be a third of whatever role the players would fill;
• I needed a thematic explanation for the bonus of the player who took the lowest sum of action dice.

The first theme I went for was the discovery of Atlantis: the players were rival researchers, trying to be known as the world’s leading expert, and would stop at nothing to discredit their opponent. There was also a capitalist mogul who had sent a ship to find those relics, and that acted as the third player.

That theme didn’t really last. It only took a few tests before I realized how clunky it made everything, and as much as I liked the more original theme, I defaulted to a gangster theme—which checked all the boxes, but was a bit bland—, covered everything in GTA screencaps, and told myself I’d figure theme out later.

I developed the game around that gangster theme: the police as the third player, the thematic explanation for needing to lay low, the brawn-vs-brain decisions. I always saw it as a placeholder though. I wanted to avoid making yet another game about generic organized crime: while I was working on this game, three Godfather-themed games came out, and I wanted my game to stand out. If I could set the game anywhere, why not go for a more unique theme?

Every time I’d try out a new theme though, it added expectations that I never intended to meet: I made the game about a mutiny on a pirate ship, and people asked “when do we go out and plunder?”; I made it about sorcerers and people asked “why can’t I just shoot fireballs at them; modern politics led to “when do we get to the debate?”; Caesar’s assassination to “what if people stay loyal to the Emperor?”

By then, what I realized is that a game’s theme is not just about fitting the game’s mechanisms, but also setting up what the players expect to do. Sure, the game is a perfect representation of a mutiny, but this is not the game people want when they hear a title about pirates. However, it all makes so much sense when you apply it to a game about gangsters—which, of course it does, that’s the theme I developed the game around!

I think that, rationally, I knew the gangster theme was the way to go, but I couldn’t convince myself it was the right call, kind of like when you know you should go to bed but instead browse Netflix until 3 am. That is, until I found the Al Capone quote. I don’t remember exactly how I fell on it, but it was love at first sight:

“You can get pretty far in life with a smile, but you can get a helluva lot farther with a smile and a gun.”

I love this line, but I also thought it was such a perfect representation of the game’s tone: it starts all nice and kind-hearted, but then gets darker. The abrupt change of direction makes it funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, but the kind of funny where you smile and exhale from your nose. There’s a threat in that sentence, but there’s also the smile. It’s the bravado of those who know they’re in control of the situation.

That was the time where I committed to the mobster theme. If the theme wasn’t the most unique, I could find an art style that would make the game stand out.

That was last December. Over the holiday period, I was at my parents’ house, scrolling through Twitter, and I fell on this tweet:

external image

That barn illustration blew me away. Black-and-white, the cross-hatching, the pop of colour, the atmosphere that was somehow both peaceful and spooky. I wanted to see more of that art. I wanted my game to take place in this universe, in this palette. I contacted Justin that day, and I was overwhelmed with joy when he accepted to join the project.

And just like his Christmas cards, the game devolved into a spooky flavour. He is who he is.

I grew up on D&D and Lord of the Rings, and I’ve started loving those fantastical aspects into non-medieval settings, be it Westerns like in the Dark Tower, modern times like in Dresden Files, or sci-fi stuff like in Shadowrun. Fantasy Noir sounded like a fascinating universe, and Justin rolled with it.

The fantastical aspect is subtle: I don’t with to overshadow the noir. I don’t want to fall into creating expectations I can’t meet again: if you’re looking, you’ll see the easter eggs. You’ll see the signs.

And when the surprise happens, you’ll think “oh, I should have seen that one coming”.

In the next entry, I’ll talk about the mechanical evolution, the real nuts and bolts stuff. Again, hopefully a few of those lessons I learned throughout the development will be helpful to others.

If this game sounds interesting, you can go look it up at withasmileandagun.com

Designer Diary #1: The Spark

This is the first entry in my Designer Diary series for With a Smile & a Gun, coming to Kickstarter on July 14th, 2020. In this installment, I talk about the inspiration for the game, and core of the game, and how I filled it out to a workable mechanical framework.

Two-player games were my entry point into the board gaming hobby and, fwo-player games were my entry point into the board gaming hobby and, for the long period before I managed to get a steady game group, mostly the only way I played. I had two opponents: Josianne, my best friend and partner of 15 years, and James, one of my closest friends, a relationship based on ribbing and schadenfreude.

Ever since I started designing games, I knew I wanted to make a two-player game one I could play and enjoy both with Josianne, on a more casual, feel-good level, and with James, where I’d get to explode into laughter at his swearing whenever I messed up his plans. 

With a Smile & a Gun is that game.

First Steps

When I first started working on a two-player game, there was one core concept I was interested in exploring: I wanted the players to share a pool of actions, but to be able to use them for different objectives. In Agricola, to block you from taking wood, I need to take wood myself but I might not want wood. For that, I wanted each action to be used in different ways, to be interesting regardless of strategy.

The idea of a “shared action pool” led me to try and make a game about a  werewolf — one player would play as the human, the other as the beast within⁠ — where each action would take the form of either a helpful companion or potential prey. This was my first game design, and it never got anywhere; I realized I needed to start smaller. I might still make that game one day, but at the time, I wasn’t a good enough designer for an asymmetric project like that, like Vast or Root. To be honest, I still don’t think I am.

The question became: how could I make “shared opportunities, used differently” work without drowning in asymmetry?

Second Draft

Eventually, in mid-2017, I started playing (and loving) a lot of dice-drafting games: Sagrada, Roll Player, Blueprints, Grand Austria Hotel. It took me a bit before I realized that mechanism was exactly what I was looking for: a shared pool, which players would be able to use in different ways. 

I usually tend to spend a lot of time in the early stages of design thinking about game ideas in an almost academic way. Once I find a core, I break it down, trying to find what makes it interesting, and then trying to see what other mechanisms would be best suited to support the core. I often start with “key moments”, which are what I want to cause, as often as possible.

In this case, the key moment was the turn angst of leaving the last 4 in the dice pool, hoping your opponent doesn’t take it… Then, either it got back to you, or it didn’t: either way caused a strong, emotional reaction. 

For that type of moment to happen, I needed players to have two ways to use dice: one that required specific numbers, to cause that turn angst, and one where you could use a bit of everything, to allow for that denial drafting, where the numbers mattered, but it lowered the cost to block. It’s not exactly what I had in mind from the get-go, but it checks all the boxes: you don’t need to hurt yourself in order to block your opponent. I was already imagining doing it to James, and was grinning just thinking about it.

From there, the blocks started falling into place: 

  • The simplest way to require a specific number was to make it a draft-and-move: drafting a die to determine your movement, and the spot you fell on determining the actions you’ll do. Like a roll-and-move, but with a decision point instead of a random result.
  • To avoid a single hate draft costing you the game, I took the 3×3-grid mechanism from Cat Lady: if there was an action you desperately needed, you could access it from its row or its column.
  • To make sure the second die still mattered, I was inspired by Signorie, and made higher dice better, but penalized the players for taking only high dice. In a two-player game, making it a majority-contest opened up a lot of interesting decisions related to the shared pool: the last low die can become a decision maker in a tight race.
  • The best way to incentivize the players to deny opportunities to their opponents, without falling into take-that or wasted turns, is area majority. With a mechanism where placing a cube is worth as much as keeping your opponent from placing theirs, you have to focus on what you leave for them. Piece o’ Cake and Hanamikoji are two of my favorite games, and definitely inspirations for this limited-opportunity approach to area majority.
  • With a two-player game, area majority games often don’t work very well, because there’s no incentive to try and catch up: if a single presence is good enough for 2nd place, why bother trying to get 1st? It’s a flaw often raised by Rahdo, amongst other people, and one I definitely agree with. By adding a third value, not a dummy player per se, but a set value the players have to beat to get their piece of the pie, you often solve this problem: it’s a simple solution that’s often left behind, but it was perfect for this game.

And suddenly, there it was: the skeleton of a game, which still stands to this day, which survived iteration after iteration.

In the next entry, I’ll talk about the game’s thematic evolution. If you’re a mechanism-first designer like me, and you also struggle with finding a theme, maybe my process can help you out?

If this game sounds interesting, you can go look it up at withasmileandagun.com

When to use randomness in your design?

I feel like randomness in game design is like salt: when you start cooking, it’s a quick, easy, cheap way to make anything taste good; then you realize how it overpowers everything it’s in, and kills any sort of deeper flavor, so you throw it out and stop using it; then, eventually, you realize that salt, when used in moderation, is a powerful tool that can help you bring out certain other elements of your dish.

What I mean by that very average metaphor is that I think a modern game should only have random elements if they fulfill a role in the design, but that these roles can make randomness a powerful tool. This post is about the 6 roles randomness can play in games. For each of these roles, I’ll briefly cover how to balance it to avoid overpowering any other part of your game.

Also, most of these examples use the language of dice rolling, but it’s as applicable to drawing a card, pulling a token, or pointing at something with your eyes closed. It’s just simpler to write “roll” than “roll/draw/pull/point”, and most gamers have a common understanding of the impacts and probable outcomes of a die roll.

Theme

I’m getting this one out of the way first, because I have a very strong, but very biased, opinion on this one. Theme is only a good reason to add randomness if you are designing a simulation. If the goal is for your players to be feel like they’ve played a baseball game, or that they’ve lived through a specific historical situation, then fine, add randomness to be true to real-life.

However, if you are making a game, trying to make players experience strong moments and a good time, theme is not a good enough reason. If it fits another role AND is thematic, awesome! But on its own, I don’t think it’s a good enough reason.

Surprise

One of the main draws of randomness is “stand up moments”, moments of tension in a game where players cannot help but stand up because of how much is on the line. Then, at the reveal, some curse, some laugh, some cheer, but those moments always end up memorable.

That being said, for that moment to work, you need the players to care about the result. “D’uh”, I hear you say, but so many games throw me randomness before I care about what happens. There are three factors you can use to make me care about a result:

  1. Clear and understandable result: if I roll 10 dice and need to add them up and know if I have rolled more than 24, that moment gets diluted. If I roll 10 dice and know I need 4 Fist-icons, that I can get right away. A great example of this being done perfectly is Las Vegas, which I’ve talked about in this post.
  2. An important and immediate impact: Imagine a combat game where my attacks deal 2d6 damage: I don’t care how well I roll against a Demon with 100 hit points, because the difference will not be felt for a long time. If that Demon has 10 hit points, then suddenly, it’s the difference between defeating them and them getting another turn. If I know their next attack will kill me, suddenly I’m standing up for that roll, because it literally is life-and-death.
  3. Clearly bad odds: If the odds are in my favor for a roll, two things can happen: either I roll well, which isn’t particularly satisfying, or I can roll poorly, and get very, very frustrated. On the other hand, if I need to roll a 10 on my d10 to dodge the robot’s attack, I can either fail and know the odds were against me, or pull it off and feel like the baddest of all badasses.

If you’re adding randomness to a game to cause those surging moments of surprise, you need to use it sparingly, and only when it matters. No big moment will come out of casual randomness.

Variety

My favorite way to use randomness is to seed the opportunities the players can use: in With A Smile & A Gun, the dice pool you can draft from is rolled every round, and that roll creates scarcities and abundances which change from round to round and can have quite an impact on how the round plays.

That being said, it’s easy for that randomness to either not have a significant impact on the game (which I talked about in this post about meaningful variable setups), or to unfairly punish some players and not others based on their previous choices.

If you’re going for variety, you want players to know their goals before they start building towards them: revealing on the last turn that Diamonds are worth 10 points instead of 5 this game is a really bad surprise to the player who just sold theirs. However, knowing at the beginning of a game, or right before the Diamond mine action comes out, that Diamonds are worth a lot in this specific game, is a good way to push your players in different directions.

Reducing the skill gap

Most critics of randomness in game say a lot of things that come down to “I can lose even if I played better than every one else”, and that’s definitely an impact of randomness, but it can be a good thing. Sure, “the best player should win” sounds right, but if you had to play a master of a game you’ve never tried, would you rather it be a small dice game, or a chess-like, perfect information abstract?

It’s not just having a shot at winning, it’s also about having a shot at making an impact on the game. I’ve played over 60 games of card game Hanamikoji, and still have meaningful games with brand new players, but in only half as many games of abstract Taluva, and it’s hard to get interested in a game with someone who doesn’t have a similar level of experience.

Some games can be satisfying even outside of the competitive aspect, making this skill gap less problematic, games where you can build something or pull off some cool combos. Still, randomness is what allows players of various skill levels to have the experience together without one ruining it for the other.

However, if you reduce the skill gap too much, then your game becomes meaningless, because my decisions feel like they’re less meaningful than how well I roll. Yes, FEEL, because it’s not about how often luck determines the winner, but how often it feels like it does.

Increasing the pace

Analysis paralysis is a common problem with gamers. Sometimes, it’s a player problem, and there’s a lot to unpack there, but sometimes, the game itself pushes players to plan for A LONG TIME. If you find that your testers’ planning slows the game down, you can limit their plans in two ways with randomness:

If the planning space is too wide, meaning they have too many options, limit their options. In Dominion, if you had your entire deck in hand, the combinations would be endless, but because you only draw 5 cards per turn, it limits your options.

If the planning space is too long, meaning they can plan too far in the future, you have to add some breaks in that plan, moments of uncertainty such that you can’t plan much after it. In Dominion, there’s no point in planning 3 turns ahead of time, because you don’t know what you’ll draw next turn.

That being said, limitting a players’ ability to plan doesn’t take away the planning time, it just breaks it down: if new information is revealed during their turn, they’ll have to start planning again while everyone is staring at them.


How eager are you to add randomness to your designs? Have you ever run into a problem that you solved by adding a random element?