Let me set the scene for you. That image above is what I’m working towards. Now let’s take a look at where I’m currently at.
That right there is a pretty accurate depiction I think of where a finely polished game design can end up (top artwork), and where many designers start out (bottom image). They also both happen to be images I’m using for my latest project, Gaido. How does a budding game designer get from the bottom bit of clip art to the top piece of art? Let’s dive in!
Game imitates art
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about small, compact yet satisfying card games. I’ve been reading up on a lot of them, dreaming about Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter and toying with ninjas, zombies and pirates. All of that is very fun and totally worth it as far as gaining design experience.
I wanted something a little different though – something that was inherently my thoughts in theme and design and not a reflection of popular or easy mechanics and pop culture. I had also been spending a little time thinking about the artist in the above picture and all of her artwork. Normie Herd was I think an exceptional artist, who loved Japanese culture, language and art. She also didn’t start studying all of this until in her late 50’s. The painting above was done when she was nearly 80 years old, about half a decade before her death.
That picture above, combined with my thoughts on compact games sharing what little space is left in my head inevitably smashed together and I knew I was going to use Normie’s artwork in a game of mine. Preferably a nice, subtle and almost calming card game, but with a bit of the bite and whit that I enjoy playing with in other games.
Last, I want to keep this game very small – on the order of 24 cards or less. I was really looking to challenge myself to do this and still create a 2-4 player game. Working on sharpening my skills as a designer, part of that is learning to cut away the neato stuff if it impedes a game. What better way to force that on myself than limiting the range of cards and components I could use.
Now the art gets put away
I will use more of Normie’s artwork in this game, but you won’t see any more in this post. I browsed through my collection of seventy or so images from her, set aside a bunch of favorites and now I’m not allowing myself to open that particular folder on my computer again. I don’t want to get hung up on the artwork, how to use it, how to do a layout that does it justice, until I actually have a good game to use it in. But I did grab the theme of my game from this artwork.
Gaido is a Romanization of the Japanese word for “guide” or “see”. This was going to be a game about wandering the backwoods of medieval Japan. Each player would assume the roll of a guide and attempt to make the most out of their trip, until the journey ended and the best of the guides would shine. Or something like that. The language is still a bit to fluffy for my tastes so I’ll work on that a bit.
Great! A guide, medieval Japan, cards. What about a 16 card game, where four different landscapes would be traveled, some with better guidance than others, until one of four Journey’s End cards were played? I liked the name “Journey’s End” for a card almost immediately. This would also be a 20 card game – 16 landscapes with varying powers or abilities and 4 cards that would effectively end the use of each set of 4 cards in a round. I grabbed some very simple iconography and four clip art landscapes from the internet.
The ideas are starting to flow! Then, this next bit hit me while I was walking into my building at my day job.
Imagine something a little different. Many people can travel through the same bit of countryside but take away totally different trips in their minds. A good guide would point out cultural and natural bits of interest, know the history and most importantly, know the safest and most comfortable way to make it through that particular bit of countryside. Lets face it, medieval Japan wasn’t the safest place to be wandering around.
What if each card could be played on the table in any direction, but the key to this is that each card also had a series of arrows pointing up, down, left and right. These orientations are taken from a card as you would play it normally on the table in front of you. So a card with one arrow in each direction might look like this:
Depending on where you were sitting in a 2-4 player game, the arrows pointing at you and the other players would determine how many points the players would score off of this card.
I eventually worked out a progression like this, with 4 cards per landscape, and the number of arrows being defined as Bottom, Left, Right and Top.
1,1,1,1 – 2,1,1,1 – 3,2,2,1 – 4,3,3,2
That would mean that a set of four landscape cards would look like this:
I really liked how simple this was. Which drove another thought into my head – what if I could do this with no words, no numbers, just iconography and art? From there, the rest of the initial rules set popped into my head.
Draw 1 card, play 1 card.
Each player would start the game with 3 cards. They’d draw 1 card at the beginning of their term with the base game being this:
You’ve got four different sets of landscapes, so there would be a draw pile or any extra cards, and then four stacks for the landscape types. You could only play the same landscape type on itself. If a type that you held wasn’t on the table yet, you would start a new stack.
Once you drew and decided to (or had to) play a Journey’s End card, you’d put it on one of the four landscape stacks and those cards would immediately be scored. Cool!
So what about the arrows? Here’s the part that I find really neat. How you play the cards affects the scoring. Not just in what order they are placed on the table, but in how they are facing. You can start off a stack with any landscape card. To put a card on top of it, you must play a card with a larger number of arrows (and here’s the key part) facing you. These arrows don’t just affect your score though. Every player gets points as soon as a card stack is scored, based on the number of arrows on the top card pointing at them.
If the 3,2,2,1 card was played by another player, with the 3 facing them (up) and the 1 facing you (down), on top of it you could play the 2,1,1,1 card with the 2 facing you (down) and the 1 facing the other player (up). You’ve just taken their potential score of 3 and reduced it to 1, while your potential score of 1 has increased to 2.
This dynamic looks to be interesting in a 2 player game,and really interesting in a 3 or 4 player game. You’ve got to pay attention to which cards you’re putting down and in what direction because a fellow guide with a ‘lesser’ card could still get themselves, and even those playing to your right or left more points than you had intended. I know some gamers who have no problem keeping mental track of the cards in the deck, what has been played and who may be holding on to what. I’m not one of them. This deck is fairly easy though, being 20 cards deep. With all of the cards that have been played out in the open, by the 2nd or 3rd go around, you’ve seen a good chunk of the deck.
And those four Journey’s End cards, what about them? You’ve got to play them when you think it will most benefit you of course, but you may not necessarily want to play them on your cards. When you do play a Journey’s End card, you have a chance to tweak the top card, by rotating it left or right by 90 degrees. In a two player game this factor tends to even out the score, giving you a chance to at least negate the other player’s advantage on that one card stack. In a 3 or 4 player game it adds an interesting dynamic in which you’re changing everyone’s score on that card stack.
What I like most about this design from a designers perspective is that it all came to me in that moment when I was walking into my building. Almost literally in a flash. I had to hurry in to my office even before I got my morning coffee to jot it all down. I think it’s fairly elegant as it stands as well, although I know there will be things that will change as I actually get to test this thing in play. I may have to add something, I may have to take a few things away, tweak mechanics, change numbers, alter the card design and all that fun stuff. But that’s all part and parcel for developing a game – and honestly that’s the hard work. A neat idea is quick and easy, making it into a workable game that’s fun and engaging, that’s where the work comes in.
But what about the bits?
Crap! I knew I forgot something. I want these card stacks to be scored as soon as the Journey’s End card is played. This could render someone’s hand almost entirely moot, plus I thought of a neat way to end each round of play. The only reasonable way I could think to do this is with some tokens. My initial inclination was to use 40 tokens – say little wooden cubes, or for play testing purposes, pennies. Why 48? Well if everyone scored the maximum they could off of all four stacks over a full round of play, that’s what it works out to. Each stack could give out 4*4 tokens to the highest scorer, 3*4 to the 2nd highest, 2*4 to the third and 1*4 to the last place scorer. Fire up the old Windows 7 Calculator and enter (4*4)+(3*4)+(2*4)+4 and you get 40.
That’s great and all, but I wanted to add a little more tension to each round of play. I whittled away 16 cubes to come up with 24, which is a neat number. Neat in that it divides nicely by 2, 3 or 4. Now I had a way for people to easily keep track of the running score, but what happened when the cubes ran out?
That’s easy. When the cubes run out, that round of play is over. Similarly, once all four play stacks have had a Journey’s End card played on them, the round is also over because there’s nothing left for anyone to do.
Who then wins a round? As each card stack is scored (and we can start calling them Journey’s, I think…) the players get the cubes that are due to them. With 24 cubes, that means that unless there are a lot of journey’s ending with a low number of arrows on the card, that the round is over fairly quick. But even in my mind, I could sense that there was something of a chance to reward more based on luck of the draw than strategy. I wanted to add a little something to change that as well. Then it occurred to me. What if scoring was done by the player(s) with the lowest number of arrows collecting their cubes first? The round instantly ends when the last cube is taken from the pool of cubes, which means someone could screw themselves (or the other players) by letting the lower scorers in a stack collect their cubes first. Neat!
Now I needed a way to finish not just the round, but the game itself. When a round is finished, the person who receives the most cubes, who will be named the Gaido for that round, takes 1 cube into their posession to signify the honor that goes with the title. There may be a tie, and this is fine. More than one person can be named Gaido in a round. Each of them will receive 1 cube. Not only does this give the players an easy way to track how many rounds they’ve won, but it also reduces the cube pool for the next round, making it potentially shorter and increasing the tension of play slightly.
Now how many rounds does this game go on for? Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Three just feels like a good amount.
This also brought me to the discard issue. In the game you will not normally be able to discard a card. If you have a card in your hand, on your turn you must play it. What if a card stack has already been completed with Journey’s End card though? In that case, discarding your card is now a legal move. There are cases where you may not want to do it, and cases where stalling to draw a new card may be beneficial.
That new play test smell
I love the smell of new cards when you open up a game. Sure, it’s off gassing of chemicals and probably harmful to me in some way, but nothing smells just like that. I don’t love the smell of newly printed inkjet pages as much, but I really do love the site of those paper scraps left over from that very first play test attempt. Maybe it’s the zombie aficionado in me, or the fact that I’m terrible at math but I like to call these very first, flimsy paper play tests Play Test Zero.
This is that first initial attempt, actually on the table, to try out a game. I always set these up with myself playing against myself. That way I can try out the mechanics for myself and hopefully spot any awful, glaring mistakes right off. It also gives me a chance to see how these mechanics work in real life, rather than in my brain.
To accomplish this with my card games, I use a silly little template in .docx format, some quick art, symbology or text and a printer. The rules I generally take a first, very rough pass at in a document written on Google Drive. The templates I do locally in Word and then save to Gdrive. I like using Gdrive because I can get to it from anywhere I have a connection and I can share out some initial ideas and documents with a few folks if I need to without emailing tons of attachments around. Here’s what this first play test of Gadio looked like before I printed it out.
I managed to get a few 2 player games against myself and one four player set-up finished as well. I already know there are things that are going to need changing, but I haven’t focused down on them yet. I am also reasonably sure now that the base mechanics at least aren’t broken. That doesn’t mean they’re awesome, fun or the next big game, but there wasn’t any smoke coming from the table, which is a good thing.
I also managed to get in a game with my seven year old daughter, which is always good. She doesn’t grasp the deeper strategies behind why certain cards should be played at certain times, but she got the core game concepts very quickly. I take that as a good sign for this game. Further more, she made decisions that I wouldn’t have, which is vital to see in a play test. Plus it’s cool to hang out with one of your kids and play a game you created. Really, really cool.
Next I have to bring this game to a wider audience of play testers. I need to get a bunch of opinions on the game, and see it in action playing against other people before I can really start chipping away the parts that don’t work and enhancing those that do. I’m no where near ready for blind play testing yet, which is where you hand the game and the instructions over to some folks and then get out of the way. The instructions have to be clarified as the game becomes more polished, and of course I’m going to have to switch out that artwork with the real deal waaaaay up at the top of this post. Along with going the good art route, I’ll need to figure out things like symbols that work that aren’t hard to read arrows, layout for the cards and the book and all the other little touches that go along with a game.
All in all, I’m happy with this where it stands right now. I can’t predict the future though, and I may find some fatal problems with the game, or it may turn out to be mechanically sound and utterly dry and boring.
What happens if three people score a 1 on a stack, but there’s only 1 cube left in the pile o cubes? Who gets it? The person closest to the dealer’s left? The person who played the Journey’s End card? I’m going to have to work on that one.
Rounds. Three feels good, but it may not be good. The best way to determine this will be through play testing. What happens if we go 5 rounds? Is it too long? And just how long does a single round take anyway?
You made it way down here!
That post was a lot longer than I had initially intended, but I feel like it covered a lot of ground that needed covering. Hopefully you found this thing useful too! As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I really enjoy designing games even though I’m fairly new at it, having only touched on board and card game design for the last few years. I know over the past year my experiences in finding out not only what goes into getting a game made, but how to design the things has been an interesting and fun experience, but I’ve not found as many resources out there as I would have liked. That’s one of the reasons I’m going on this public journey of design. I want there to be more out there for people like me a year ago, who had no real clue about designing, prototyping, play testing and eventually selling your games.
As another cool aside, the artist Normie Herd is dear to me not only as a wonderful artist who was full of amazing stories and have some pretty interesting adventures in life. She is also my Grandmother. The thought of using her work in one of my projects has always been niggling at the back of my head.