Project: Dead End part 12 – Help Wanted

This post has been a very long time coming. It has been almost a year since I last wrote about Dead End. I completely abandoned the game for almost seven months of that time. I was fed up with weekly changes and testing. The grind to get this game done became  a burden. Looking forward, I didn’t see the big finish to be worth the effort. The game was such a disappointment that I just needed to step away and re-evaluate it.

Enter Neil Roberts.

Neil and I became acquainted through Twitter during the summer of 2012. Not sure how he found me, but he responded to a calling asking for help on some rule sets I was working on. He put in a ton of work helping me refine my rules for many projects and became a regular spring-board for my ideas. Around November, I hit a serious slump. I lost interest in everything and was really digging for inspiration. I took on some art projects for friends and just let my work slip.

Then, one day, Neil hit me up on twitter:

Neil: You working on Dead End?

Me: No. I want to. I really do.

Over the next month, Neil read everything I ever wrote about Dead End. He dug through the rules and cards, playtested, and asked a ton of questions. His goal, I learned later, was to try and understand what my true vision was for the game and help mold it into that. I had threatened to make huge, sweeping changes to the core of the game and he encouraged me to hold off on that until he was done analyzing it. Finally, after hundreds of questions and half-interested, non-answers from me, Neil finally decided he was going to take charge:

Neil: I think I might just make some changes to it myself and see how it plays.

Me: I like that plan.

That’s exactly what he did. He started early in December and worked through a few iterations of his design over the next few months. I kept brushing off direct questions and tried to avoid paying too much attention to his ideas. I told him that I was taking a break and I’d re-visit the game in March. Lucky for you, if you are interested in what happened during his development time, you can read about it on his website.

March 2013 brought the ability for us to get together with our now joint-project and give it a spin at Protospiel Milwaukee. Neil had a nice prototype made up at and it was my first real encounter with the work he had done. We played a game and I quickly saw the merit of the changes he had made… but that’s not to say it wasn’t without flaws. Neil has no problem telling you that he’s new to game design. He’s a software engineer at heart, and took a very analytical approach to the process. He also made the cards as unambiguous as possible… which means they had a lot of words on them.

We both left Protospeil excited… well, I did. He left in a hurry for fear of being snowed out of his house.


What changed?

I feel that there were two major changes that contributed to better flow:

#1 – Neil cut out the cards that did nothing other than give zombies. When he explained it to me, it made perfect sense. These cards were added to the game to force it along. In early tests, I found that players were more interested in turtling than harming their opponents. I needed to coerce them to push the game along.

The cards worked great, except when they didn’t.  Specifically, if your house was overwhelmed, and you drew nothing but zombies, your last turn was a waste. It felt cheap. Neil added abilities to the cards that would only really be used in this situation. The cards he introduced meant that on that last turn  you had a chance of surviving. They worked really well… but introduced a whole new problem that we’ve been fixing. I’ll talk about all that in a later post.

#2 – The end game. In my version of the game, when you were the last living player, you were the target. If the player to your left was overwhelmed on their turn, leaving you the last alive, that meant that every player after them focused on killing you… and you had a very slim chance of surviving. It felt wrong. Again, it felt like you were killed by the game, not by the other players or your own failure.

Neil tweaked the end game, introducing a “last chance” round that prevented people from ganging up on that last player and giving them one last chance to get back into the fight. It was very much what the game needed… but it was weird. When we introduced it, everyone just gave us this weird look of confusion. It was confusing, but it’s been repaired… again, I’ll cover that in the next post, promise!


Where are we now?

Neil and I have revised many of the cards and mechanics since that test. Our groups have each tested our new changes and we have refined things even more. The game is very close to what I would consider a finished design, but we still have a bit to go. Again, Neil comes to the rescue with a nice write-up of our post-Protospiel work.

We are headed to GenCon with what we hope to be our final iteration. Like most games, we could tweak on this idea forever, but at some point, we have to be satisfied with our major rules and themes and I think we are approaching that point. We have been prototyping with and because of that, I haven’t been sharing print and play versions of our changes. That’s coming.


Over the next week, I hope to write again. I’m going to try to dig a little deeper in to the changes that we made collectively and talk extensively about specifics. If I can get the GenCon version done by then, I’ll share print and play files also. I miss the feedback I was receiving for this game. I hope people still care!

When I started this blog, this is the exact response I was looking for. My work became someone else’s work. This is the definition of “open source” and my vision of it in the boardgame industry became suddenly real. Someone took my ideas, tweaked them, tested them, and out the other end came a new thing… something bigger and better than what went in. I haven’t been sharing many prototypes over the last year… mostly out of laziness, but somewhat because of a fear of failure… I’m eternally grateful to Neil for helping me see the power of collaboration and openness. 
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2 Responses to Project: Dead End part 12 – Help Wanted

  1. Roger Hicks says:

    This is an awesome story. I love the idea of open source game design – great to see what collaboration can lead to. I look forward to seeing the new Dead End.

    • chevee says:

      I’m really looking forward to seeing the end of the project. If it wasn’t for Neil, this game would have likely laid dormant for years as it had become an anathema. I am satisfied with it now… even happy with it… so I know we are close.

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