Tag Archives: #Top-Deck

#24: If It Ain’t Broke

This was a fun lesson to learn and falls right into the most common question I’ve seen asked of experienced game designers / publishers. “How do I know when my game is ready / done?” Many people shy away from answering because we don’t want to give you bad advice. I don’t have the “right” answer, either. From personal experience, though, I can tell you that if it ain’t broke, fix it anyway!

“Fix it anyway” because recognizing a broken game is easy. Improving a not quite awesome game can be really hard. Remember when I said that better does not mean right? Hold that advice to heart because it can make all the difference.

Way back when, I had a really scary situation arise with Top-Deck. I’ll go into more detail elsewhere, but, for the sake of this post, I’ll say it experienced a couple of big changes. Originally, the game was just the Play cards and Bonus cards. Then, Gamer-Friend recommended some kind of Role. The idea sounded thematically fun and gave additional player interaction. Thus, the Roles were born. A lot of effort went into creating a slew of Roles with unique passive abilities and cool, theme appropriate Bonus cards. Months of development, balance, and polish followed. It was fun, but felt a little flat and excessively chaotic. After the “flat” feeling had time to ferment, I realized that it WAS too random because I was putting all of the unique Role effort into the fat Bonus card deck which had to be sifted through to reach YOUR cards. The most common request (and what the game really needed) was stability. What I needed to do was move those thematic abilities onto the Role cards, instead. Which meant I had to completely redo the Bonus deck, rebuild all of the Roles, figure out some-kind of cost for the new abilities, and re-balance the whole game. I was mad, broken-hearted, and scared. It took about 2 weeks just to start the process. But, Top-Deck is so much better for that extra effort.

More recently, I’ve been working on The King’s Highway. I felt confident enough with the work I had put into it to declare it as done to Peter Vaughn and plop down money for art. HOWEVER, it always felt a little flat to me. Not broken or wrong, just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. It just seemed like it could be better – even though I couldn’t find anything to actually change. I almost ruined my interview with Chris Handy in order to ask him if my game was okay. One week, I played it with a new friend at my FLGS’s game night. He listened to my concerns and started throwing out ideas. Most of them I had already considered. There was no way I was adding even more dice or extra complicated rules to what I was trying to make as a micro game. Then, he suggested something pretty special: marked faces which MUST be played. Brilliant!

You see, that flat feeling I had, the root of my concern, was because the game had NO conflict. Sure, through timing and selfishness you can put another player in a tough spot of sub-optimal plays, but it’s a pretty minor inconvenience at best. Plus, I was usually the only person at the table taking advantage of the special rule allowing for a re-roll. This new mechanic makes the game harder by removing some of the flexibility, making your multiple dice and re-roll option more vital and leading into more player vs. player conflict. Players are now forced into that semi-cooperative environment that I originally wanted. Even if this change doesn’t completely fix the game, it has, at the very least, reinvigorated my excitement for getting this game published – and that’s pretty important.

So, the point I am trying to make today is that, if you are not completely confident in your game’s readiness, you probably need to work on something somewhere. My 2 favorite games (right now) from Lagniappe were drastically altered and improved by a very small suggestion. Maybe all your game needs is a little tweek, too 😀 What do say?

#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!

#20: Where the Bonus Began (Part 3)

I immediately grabbed for any paper I could find and furiously scribbled notes from the dream. I then told my wife and a few friends about it – I would NOT be forgetting this dream. Bringing the game from that dream into reality became a passion.

I had never made a game before – hadn’t even tried. I know many designers had at least made custom rules or custom characters for games they enjoyed. Not me. I’m a rule follower. That was all crazy stuff for crazy people! Admittedly, if it weren’t for Poker-Friend’s suggestions a month or two before, I would not even had considered making Top-Deck. Although, the original plan had just been to do the design myself, have some friends do a little art, and print a copy or two for fun.

My job, at the time, involved a lot of time in front of a computer, so I started searching for ways to print. I had a remarkably difficult time. Real printers require large orders. Some playing card companies would do small runs, but on quality card stock. My friends didn’t know much, either. It is surprising how difficult it is to get into printing when you know nothing about the industry. I had actually found The Game Crafter in my initial searches and dismissed them because I didn’t fully understand what good they would be.

Helpful blogs about game design, like Hyperbole and Stonemaier, were much easier to find. Reading advice and playing prototypes of Top-Deck became a regular part of my nights at work.  Eventually, someone recommended The Game Crafter.com for printing demo copies, and forever changed my testing. Those early days of typing up new cards in MS Paint and trying them out with a coworker kept me excited in my new endeavor. Being able to print professional looking games through The Game Crafter gave me confidence in showing off prototypes. Following Mr. Stegmaier’s journey through his Kickstarter Lessons blog helped me to see that even a little guy like me, with enough drive, a good game, and smart business practices could make a career out of this tabletop game thing I was loving so much.

I also have to give credit to Colby Dauch. I learned about his company, Plaid Hat Games, through an ad for Mice and Mystics (which is fantastic). I jumped on the pre-order band-wagon and emailed the company asking what size card sleeves I would need. I was blown away when Mr. Dauch personally responded with an email. You see, due to the professional looking website and several high quality, well received games, I had this impression of Plaid Hat as being a big, long time successful company. Therefore, his response simply improved my opinion of the company.

Recently, I hit a slow spot. I’ve been developing games for a year-and-a-half, now, but still haven’t released anything yet. I have several exciting ideas in development, and although Top-Deck is mechanically ready, it still needs a LOT of art (and art ain’t cheap). It felt like I was losing the battle. Then, I finally began listening to the Plaid Hat Podcast. Now, I don’t generally care too much about origin stories, but these guys really opened my eyes. While Mr. Stegmaier helped me see that I could actually make a business and become a publisher of crowdfunded independent games, it was Mr. Dauch’s story which gave me hope of succeeding in the way that I dreamed.

THAT is where Lagniappe Games comes from. A guy who likes challenges and wants to be self-employed had a dream and pursued it. He found some great advice, help, and examples along the way. Now, he runs a company which is not just focused on fun, quality games, but a company concerned about the customer. I chose the name Lagniappe because I want this to be a generous, even charitable, company. Yes, we have to make money to be self-sustaining, but this experience is about more than that – it’s about building relationships with customers, indie designers, and other small publishers.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this little origin story of mine. God willing, I’ll keep sharing the trials and lessons of this journey with you every week and, hopefully soon, even share some games with you :-)

*To read the rest of this story, click part one or part two.

#18: Where the Bonus Began (Part 2)

I walked into a game store which seemed vaguely familiar. The place was packed with people buying, showing off goody bags, talking, and playing with a palpable excitement. As I pressed through the crowd, I had to duck around vertical banners for a new game that I didn’t quite recognize. On the tables were little stands advertising the same game. They featured images of post-apocalyptic characters and proclaimed “Now available”. Looks like I walked in on a launch party! Gamers were laughing all around me, shuffling cards, nudging friends, and having a great time.

A large crowd at the back of the store caught my attention, so I moved that way. As I drew near, I could see an opening centered around 2 people facing off across a table. Listening to the copious side-talk, cheering, and jeering, it was clear this was an important game. “This is for the championship!” Oh.
On my left side was a wiry man confident that he, with superior skills, strategy, and sharp tongue, had the game in hand already. His serious demeanor was echoed by the cards in his deck – they looked like pages out of a “Mad Max” comic book. To my right was a heftier young gamer who seemed happy enough just to be there. A whimsical, lighthearted nature was made overt by his big smile and the colorful images of little anime-style monsters on his deck. This truly was a showdown – between a killer out to show that he’s the best and a goodly kid just having a fun day.
Pocket Monsters
I had seen this game played out across several Slots, progressively earning more points and jockeying for the top position. After a bit of back-and-forth, these two used all of their actions to discard their hands and remove all but the last Slot in a show of ultimate cockiness. Without a hand, these would-be-champions could only top-deck a card for the last slot. Wiry Guy was mocking and trash talking while Happy-gamer was quite and sure. They both played the top card from their decks. . .
And the store errupted! People were cheering for Happy-Gamer and clapping him on the back while others oooooh’ed at Wiry Guy’s epic loss. I couldn’t help but feel excited for Happy-Gamer. At the same time I was dumbfounded by the joy that filled this little building.
That was a great game. I should definitely make. . .
And I woke up.
*To read the rest of this story, click part one or part three.

#4: Make a Design Journal

Notebook BannerMake a design journal! Do it! It will help you no matter what stage of development you are in. Let me explain what I do, how it helps me, and how it can help you:

I have 1 book of general ideas (because I have to keep them somewhere) but I work individual journals for each game I am developing (Top Deck now fills 3 books). I recommend individual design journals because it focuses the mind (you know what game you are working on because you are in that journal), it centralizes information (all notes for Ender Dungeon’s Last Crawl are in one place), and you feel like a bad son-of-a-gun carrying a notebook filled with a year’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears. *If you struggle with information to write you should probably review this post.

I use actual paper notebooks. Writing by hand is usually faster, definitely more accurate, and is a bit more free flowing than typing on my phone. My notebooks are quiet, low light, and can go ANYWHERE with me. When its 0830 and I’m supposed to be in bed so I can wake up for work, I’m not going to whip out my laptop and work on a Google doc. That idea is going to trouble me all day if I don’t record it, though. So, out comes my notebook, I throw down some furious scribbles, and my wife gets to keep sleeping.

Next,  I write as if I am talking to a friend about my game. Ever have those days at work or school where you HAVE to find some help for a confounding problem or assignment? When you chat with the help, you do most of the talking and solve your own problem? Yeah, that’ll happen in your journal because sometimes you just need to talk through an idea. As you write, fill in all that you are feeling and thinking – just like you would when updating that friend. This casual conversation with yourself makes reviewing information a lot easier, too. You can see clearly on those pages what you were experiencing when you came to those conclusions.

Write down everything pertaining to development. In the beginning, write about what you hope the game will look like, how it will feel, how it will look, etc. Dream big! As development progresses, include brainstorms, criticisms, play test results, etc. Now, you don’t have to include specific statistical data, but you should include summaries and lessons learned. That way, when you go in to fix and fine-tune your game, you need only flip back a few pages to see why certain changes were made last time, why you thought that clunky mechanic should be added, and why that thing you love was removed. *If you are struggling with adding information about what works, what doesn’t, and what can be generally better you should probably review this post.

Finally, my favorite part about having one notebook per game with every thought, lesson, and idea written down, is what happens when I open it to the front. There, I see where this beast started, understand just how far it has come, and refresh the values and principles which gave birth to this dream.