#22: Salt and Pepper

There is a lot of great advice out there warning new / indie game designers that adding more to your game does not fix your game. Often, experienced designers will say things like, “My rule for designing a game is that anything I can take out of the game, I take out, as long as it doesn’t undermine the base part” (Alan R. Moon). While the advice is sound, the other side of this token is presenting half a game. One of the most common criticisms that I read about “Kickstarted games” is that they have no replay value. As a backer of 50 projects (at the moment) I can attest that the games I receive usually feel unfinished. I am here to encourage you: be not afraid to ADD to your game!

I understand. If you were the buyer instead of the designer, you wouldn’t want to struggle for 2 hours to complete what felt like 3 different clunky games smashed together. That’s why, as always, my advice comes with the caveat of “all things with moderation” and MUST be followed by testing. ALWAYS test your games! Therefore, I am not saying to just dump into your game every crazy idea that pops into your head. There is a right way and a reckless way. The reckless way might work (if you are extremely lucky) but because of it’s uncertain success, let’s discuss the right way, instead.

“If your gut instinct tells you that your game is missing something, it usually is” (Christopher Chung).

That little voice of reason in your head? It can be tough to find, let alone hear. Fortunately, the more you test the louder it gets. Until I think a game is “done”, I typically am involved in every single play test. When I, as the super-excited designer, start feeling bored or “in a rut”, I rest assured that a customer will have already been feeling that way for a few games. Even if you can’t quite pinpoint what that fatal logic-loop is, if you’ve been asking good questions of your testers all along, their feedback should put you in the right arena. Once you’ve found the problem area, you can slowly and carefully add in those nuggets of spice and flavor that have been rattling around inside your head.

EXAMPLES: I have spoken about The King’s Highway before. It is a simple road and map building dice game. Every play-through felt different because of the random element of rolling dice, but not every game was fun or exciting. It turns out there was no player interaction; therefore, the game relied on the players to carry the conversation. I added in mines, placed by players onto the board at the beginning of the game, which would “blowup” and reset dice around them. NOW we had some conflict. “Don’t go over there! What are you doing?!” Unfortunately, because placement was left up to players, it didn’t always work. So, I removed a few of the paths (it was slightly too easy anyway) and made new special dice, one per player, with new settlements to connect to, boulders to block the path, and other crazy abilities. This introduced just enough control and player interaction to consistently offer fun (crazy), short games.

My current project has no name, yet, and is an entry for The Game Crafter‘s Time Challenge. Players simultaneously draft cards which require a certain number of turns to process and, if finished, offer a certain number of victory points at the end of the game. In order to stir in some interesting choices and conflict, some of the cards have special abilities which modify other cards. At first, I only had the basics: add / subtract a turn, move a time counter from here to there, etc. It felt very redundant to me, and no one was wowed by the game. Testers weren’t displeased with it but they didn’t have a great time, either. So, I went through and readjusted to make sure that no ability cards ever repeated. Then, new abilities had to be envisioned to add much more variety; don’t pass hands this turn, when you would add or subtract do it twice, target player scores target card, etc. This wasn’t just to make the game bigger. These changes were because a small drafting game MUST have a lot of different cards to not get old quick (because everyone sees every card every game). It was also a chance to add more control through interesting choices and increased conflict through player interaction.

Now, a bigger game: Top-Deck! It began as just a blind bidding game which used action points to filter a player’s deck for a better hand and/or buy a few special ability cards. Again, testing quickly showed the need for more variety. As I added cool new ability cards, though, the randomness of the “Bonus” deck became the real problem. This “control” element offered no real control because players were drawing off the top of a shuffled deck. So, I rebuilt the system and added an additional resource. Now, players wield individual character cards with variable powers in addition to a scaled down Bonus deck used as a kind-of reward system. This allows players to choose a specific play style and have more control over how their game progresses.

The point of those three examples is to show games which needed some spicing up. Some of the additions I made were not necessarily needed for the game to function, but they HAD to be made to keep players interested. With the voice of “Fat Cutting” ringing in my ears, I was terrified to make that change to Top-Deck! The addition was big and, at the time, clunky. Something had to change, though.

With all of these examples, adding and refining made the game much better – much more fun. Please, test the mess out of your games and, if something doesn’t feel quite right – you have a little nagging in the back of your mind – don’t release it yet! Flavor it up with a little salt. . . spice it up with a little player interaction. . . see what changes you can make. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll kill that doubt.

P.S. –
Thanks to Cardboard Edison for collecting the quotations I used today!

Let me know what you think