Over the winter, Neil Roberts took charge of Dead End development. He quickly noticed that one of the major flaws revolved around my artificial means of forcing the game along. Early in development, I saw that the players were most likely to build their defenses rather than attack the other players. The game revolves around two-factor cards. You can either play a card for its ability, or to give zombies to other players. With this choice always available, it often resulted in long, boring games where players became difficult to eliminate. My fix was to introduce “zombie” cards that did nothing but add zombies to the game. Suddenly, games had large swings where players could build up their defenses one turn, then struggle to survive the next. It worked wonders… until it didn’t.
What Neil noticed was that near the end of the game, as people started to die, drawing zombie cards was terrible. They did nothing to prevent you from being overwhelmed. On your last turn, if you drew a hand of them, you felt cheated. It didn’t feel like you were defeated because of your own failures, but because the game just beat you. It felt cheap. Neil fixed this problem by adding long-shot effects to these cards. These abilities were only really useful when you were overwhelmed and carried a large chance that you would be eliminated anyways. When I first played Neil’s version of the game at Protospeil Milwaukee, it was obvious to me that this was the direction that we needed to go.
But, there were other problems that needed to be fixed first. Neil was a fairly green designer. He had worked on a few ideas of his own, but only really theory. This was his one of his first adventures into full-blown game design and it showed. The cards were very word heavy with lots of different outcomes based on the current game-state. The cards made perfect thematic sense, and at their core, the mechanics worked well, but they were overwhelming to new players. One of the first things I mentioned to Neil about the future of the game was that we would have a general rule: no more than 2 options on a card, and no more than 3 outcomes for dice rolls.
So, we set out to refine the game even further… together. We started simplifying Neil’s cards. Distilling them to their core reason for existing. We trimmed words and used icons as much as possible. We streamlined some of the core rules that felt clunky and tedious.
But we still had this huge problem:
Players sill weren’t pushing the game along naturally.
Neils cards, in theory, fix a huge problem. When playing with experienced players, it’s obvious that they work. When playing with inexperienced, or casual players, they see an ability on the card and basically refuse to use it to add zombies to the game. They want to hold the card for a while, then ask questions like: “when would I ever play this?” or “when is this useful?”
“Um, well, it’s not. That’s kinda the point.”
One day, we suddenly realized that we could likely fix the problem with nothing but semantics. I guess that’s the whole point of this post. I wrote a 500 word introduction to get to this point… and it’s a first for me. I’ve designed a veritable boat-load of games in the past 15(ish) years. You will never see 99% of those games… but out of all of them, this is the first time where presentation was breaking the game.
The rules previously stated: On your turn, you must play two cards from your hand. There are two options when playing cards: play as an action or play to give zombies.
This was the semantics issue. People inherently want to “play” cards. That’s not a big deal. But playing a card brings the connotation that you are playing it for the ability on the card. Some cards still give zombies as their abilities. They also provide other game-balance effects like removing weapons and upgrades from the player whom you give the zombies. They are important for not only bringing more zombies into the game, but also to provided needed balance when a player has built up their near-impenetrable defenses. The duality of “playing” the rest of the cards to add zombies just doesn’t make sense. It’s clumsy.
My fix: On your turn, you must play or discard two cards from your hand.
Read that sentence over. It’s amazing how simple semantics can suddenly make a complex problem almost go away. When you were using a card to add zombies to the game, you were really only discarding the card to begin with! So, you either play the card, or you discard the card. When you discard a card, you add X zombies. Simple. It’s actually the exact same thing, just worded in a way that makes sense.
In addition to the semantics, I changed the physical presentation of the cards. Previously, the zombie number of a card was a part of the card. It didn’t stand out. Neil suggested that I make it seem like not a normal part of the card. So, I added a torn edge to that really makes that portion stand out.
In addition to the cards, I made a few more adjustments to the game presentation. Doing math sucks. This game had math. Constant addition. It amuses me that I left it in for so long because I hate the need to constantly count in games. Players needed to keep asking how many zombies you had… he had… she had… they had. It’s tedious and honestly, if your game requires you to keep count, make it dead simple. I accomplished this by getting rid of the defense number on your house, and replacing it with individual squares you place zombies in. It’s now just a quick glance to see if someone is overwhelmed. You will still need to count how many zombies a player has once all their boxes are full, but when that happens, it’s often moot and much less annoying.
So, we have arrived at Dead End vCN10. This is around the 23rd iteration of the game if you count all the steps in between major revisions. With over 18 months in development, I feel like we are closing in on a finish. Maybe it’s not THE finish, but it’s A finish. I will have this version at GenCon 2013 if you want to play it. I am confident that it will leave Indianapolis in the hands of a publisher. I already have some interest, so I’m hopeful. For now, you can download the print and play and make your own copy.
Neil and I are constantly revising and re-writing our rules. Please, even if you have no interest in the PnP, check them out and provide feedback. They need work and are confusing in parts. They may even need a complete re-write from scratch, but I don’t consider myself good at that part.