Gearing up to bring PULL! to Kickstarter has been quite an adventure. Unlike past projects, I feel like I need to commit to a specific version of PULL! before I launch. Once the campaign funds and I go to print, there’s no take-backs. I can’t continue to make changes like I would with other projects until long after the dust settles. So, this past month or so since I’ve finalized my intention to Kickstart this game has been full of self-doubt, testing, and changes… and I have Matt Worden to blame… I mean, thank. Yeah. That’s it.
We had this discussion during one of those aforementioned periods of self-doubt:
Me: One thing I DO NOT want to do is put up an exciting Kickstarter campaign that over-sells the game, then end up with a bunch of disappointed people with responses like “This plays like a boring trick taking game.” No duh. If you don’t like trick-taking games, you won’t like this one. There’s nothing “fun” about it. You play the game to win or you don’t play it at all.
Matt: Have you played trick taking games? They ones I play are fun. Why can’t your game be fun?
Me: Yes, I LOVE trick taking games and I have fun playing them but it’s a different kind of fun.
As I so often do, I walked away from this conversation a bit defensive. Trick taking games are dry, calculated and boring. They require players to make perfect plays. That’s their nature, darnit! There’s no way I was wrong!
Then I realized… I was wrong.
That week, as I sat down to play what could easily have been my 1,000th game of Tichu, I paid closer attention to the mood at the table. My regular group is very competitive and we are very serious about our Tichu. We could sit for hours and discuss hands and breakdown play decisions. We rarely make mistakes, but when we do, we make sure to call each other out for it. This type of play is fun but it’s a different kind of fun. It’s fun for the ultra-competitive… then magic happened. The table burst into laughter as one player’s sure hand got busted by a surprise. BAM! Suddenly there was excitement and we laughed about it for many hands after.
I left game night and had a difficult time getting to sleep. I thought about what had made that particular moment so intense. I thought about all the other trick-taking games I enjoy and how they implemented these moments. What mechanics did they use that drove this sort of excitement. Why didn’t PULL! have any of them?
The simple truth is, I distilled the game down to the lowest common factor, and as a result it became un-fun. In my effort to make a clean game without unnecessary fluff, I had inadvertently removed all the excitement before I even got started. It was time to inject some fun back into the game and I had a very short period of time to do so… I had already announced the Kickstarter!
Luckily for me, we had been testing this game for almost 6 months and I had pages and pages of notes from playtest sessions the world over. Thankfully, the wonderful community of designers and enthusiastic gamers that have helped me so many times before came to my rescue again. I tried things. I tweaked this and that and sent a call out to anyone and everyone that had or would test the game. Out of this 11th hour crunch session came the following changes:
Don’t deal the entire deck. This suggestion has been brought up by just about everyone that has ever played the game. I’ve fought it for so long that giving in and making the change may have caused a nervous twitch… but I did it, and I’ll explain. One thing I love about trick taking games is trying to play perfectly. Playing methodically allows me to make assumptions about each player’s hand strength which, in turn, helps me make better plays. Leaving cards out of the deal makes that difficult. On top of all this, however, is that there is already a random factor with the Target deck… so adding more random felt weird. Well, I was wrong. After trying to figure out how to write rules around how many cards to deal depending on the number of players, I finally decided to just make it easy: Deal 10 cards to each player, set the remaining cards aside for this hand. I’m really enjoying this change with all number of players. Sometimes, I love being wrong.
Make the Targets more variable. Yeah… people asked for even more random. I kept the target deck tame for the same reason I mentioned above: randomness. It is extremely difficult to plan your hand when each round there is a random factor that determines what is strong or not. I gave in… a little. I’m set on making this deck only 24 cards. That’s four targets for each suit any more and it becomes so variable that it’s almost not worth trying. So, to open things up a bit I increased the scoring variation on the cards. You can argue this change either way and maybe it doesn’t really change things all that much, but I’m okay with that. Occasionally, cool things happen when two 10’s come out and both teams try to manipulate each other so they only take one.
Pass the Lead. This is something that wasn’t really a struggle. It was a struggle for me to figure out how to implement it, but not that it was necessary. Without being able to take the lead through clever play, going last is always best. It has a huge advantage. Being able to go last for an entire hand was just too much even with the deal rotating. If that last player was dealt a strong hand, it wrecks the entire hand. There’s really no point in playing it out. A few testers offered suggestions on how to handle it and I came up with the rotating Target deck idea. Using the Target deck like a “First Player Pawn” means that it’s easily remembered and doesn’t slow the game down at all. Now going last rotates every round and the game is much more balanced.
Distractions and Kills. I’m clumping these two changes because they both target one thing this game has lacked from the beginning: coyness. Trick taking games rely on sneaky plays to keep things interesting. Climbing games like Tichu have Bombs which allow you to go over-top of any play and bust that players hopes and dreams. Most other trick-taking games have hard rules about following suit as well as a trump suit that makes being short-suited advantageous for wrecking someone’s Ace. PULL! had so little of that it was basically zero. Playing an 8 meant that 99.9% of the time you would win the Target. The only way to stop it was to play the “trump” 8… but there was very little reason to do so because of the lack of variance in the Target deck. So, I added a distraction rule: when a 1 is played, it cancels all 8s. Now, this does a few things. It makes those coy plays possible by wrecking your opponents plans at domination, but the 1s were already vitally important at avoiding Kills. Shooting wildlife is bad… most times… because you lose points up front. Now, however, you also track each Kill and your team loses 20 points each time you reach 5 Kills. Avoiding them may be more important. Do you really want to give up your best chance at dodging a Kill just to wreck an opponent’s 8? Maybe.
All of these changes resulted from dozens of playtest sessions from multiple groups trying various things. Some of them were directly suggested by other players some of them came from me. The awesome part about having a thriving design and testing community around me is this sort of crowd-sourced design. It fits perfectly with the Kickstarter model. Let’s crowd-fund a crowd-designed game. It’s beautiful.
Oh. Um. Yeah. I forgot to mention something… a Variant!
Now, I’m calling this a variant not because I’m hesitant to add it into the main rules… quite the contrary, I love this variant. I’m calling it a variant because it changes the game so dramatically that I’d rather leave it up to the players to decide which version of the game to play. This idea was wholly constructed by Eric Handler, the person responsible for suggesting I design this game in the first place. It’s only fitting that he be the one to propose what may be the most elegantly awesome change to date:
Quick Shot – Players reveal their second shot simultaneously.
This suggestion was so profound, I almost immediately tested it and fell in love. It injects piles of fun into the game as well as some of that subtle “silent table talk” that is necessary in trick-taking games. It dramatically reduces the power of going last. It also opens opportunities for some over-the-top dramatic plays.
The question remains… why is this a variant and not the official way of playing the game?
To be honest, it very well could be. Part of the reason is that I have already sent out preview/review copies without this variant. I’ve notified those reviewers that it is now included, but will understand completely if they don’t want to include it in their review. Part of me still wants that calculated game of subtle manipulation. The truth is, however, this is a community project… and if the community tells me they like this version better, I’ll make the change. We have until the day I hit the order button to make PULL! the best it can be and I’m more than willing to make changes the community wants. It’s no longer my game and my Kickstarter. It’s our game. Let’s do this!
Hop on over to the PULL! page and download the latest rules and files and tell me what you think!