Project: Dead End part 4 – I Broke It

After the second playtest session I Tweeted that I broke the game. Well, I did. In an effort to make the game a bit longer, and somewhat deeper, I ended up also making it exuberantly dull. It was a very frustrating session that left me stumped. The previous session had ended with a game that was playable, yet too chaotic and short but that brought a bit of charm with it. I wanted to dress things up a bit and calm the game down, so I tightened up the deck, increased the house values, and toned down the zombies a bit. I thought that this would bring a bit more strategy into the game while simultaneously opening up more tactical decisions. What actually happened was something completely different.

The first session went much like I had expected. I very rarely test games solo before showing them to my friends, preferring instead to just go with it and see what happens. I have found over the years that my friends are very good at finding flaws and while I may be good at it, I’m not perfect. I honestly don’t believe anyone is when they are working on something of their own. It becomes too personal and can be very difficult to judge objectively. So, my method is to bring a fresh idea to the table and try it. Instead of just my opinion shaping the game from the early stages, I have four or five unique opinions that can bring out some really fun ideas. With all that said, the resounding feedback from that first session was that it was too short. There were some overpowered cards and the players just didn’t have enough defense to survive. The good news meant that the system was not broken, it just needed to be tweaked.

So instead, I broke the system.

This wasn’t intentional. Honest. I fully thought that what I had was a solid plan, but that it just needed tuned. I added a full 10 points to the defense of the player’s houses and chopped the zombie’s strengths down. I reduced the number of power cards and added plain zombie cards to the deck to make things more structured and less chaotic. That all sounds great on paper and makes logical sense. What all this actually did was make the game really annoying. Reduced defense and increased zombie strength meant that the deck needed to be nearly played out as zombies in order to kill someone. Reducing the action cards meant that players were using those more as removal and less as zombies which ultimately resulted in what may have been a complete stalemate. But, the most annoying feature was counting. Now players could have 10 or more zombies on their house which meant that on your turn you had to add all that Strength up just to see who was winning and losing. Counting up those totals is the opposite of fun.

My goal in starting this project was to have a zombie themed game that was actually fun to play. My definition of fun is something that is simple enough to teach in minutes, is highly interactive, is completed in a short time, and doesn’t require so much thinking that it impairs the social aspect of getting together with friends. There are a few zombie games out there that fit this criteria, but the ones that I have played are devoid of the zombie theme. Yes, they feature zombies and maybe even some guns and chainsaws, but they don’t have any actual survival horror mechanics. They are essentially just taking other games and pasting the zombie theme on top. I wanted something that was not only fun with zombies, but also captured the genre of survival horror with zombies breaking down doors, running towards noisy gunshots, and players dying and turning into zombies. What came out of the second playtest session was neither of these things. It felt like a cheap math-based game with zombies slapped on it, took way to long, and was annoyingly fiddly.

Where do I go from here? Well, I was going to write about this immediately following the session, but honestly, I had no enthusiasm. I didn’t want to see this blog die at the hands of another unsuccessful design. I had no positive note to end on, so I put off writing. I put of working on the game also. In my creative endeavors over the years, I have had some of my most productive moments after putting something in the back of my mind for a few hours or days. I have come to rely on my minds ability to just figure stuff out without me thinking about it. I had a long weekend, I played video games. I let things just work themselves out. And they did. I didn’t want to keep tweaking this system, I wanted to refine it, strip out the garbage, and end up with a leaner product that offered more actual decisions while feeling less mathy. While driving home one evening, I had the epiphany that may change this design into just that. It’s yet to be tested, and is not even remotely proven, but I am excited for this game again and that’s really what it takes to keep me involved in this process.

So, my next post will be all about the new iteration of the game. As soon as I have a prototype together , I’ll get some pictures and write it up. If you’ve been following along, or even if you’re new, it would be awesome if you’d sign up for my newsletter and/or follow me on Twitter. Discussion fuels my motivation.

Project: Dead End part 3 – Version 2

I left off last post a bit hastily. I had wanted to talk about the second iteration of the game but I didn’t get it done on time. Have I mentioned that I’m a horrible procrastinator? Yeah. Well, to make things worse, my play group canceled this week. That let me work on things a bit more in my head before sitting down to put it on paper. My wife had something to do with my daughters, so I suddenly found myself with a few free hours to put in some time.

This is where I start really looking at details. I laid the existing cards out and started to think about what changes, if any, each card needed to round out the balance issues. I knew that the deck needed some serious tweaking, so my main focus was to reduce the quantity of some cards. “Shh…” is a particularly powerful card that needed to be reduced. It allows a player to reduce the level of threat on his house while simultaneously increasing the threat on another players house. If it is a 5 point Zombie, that’s a 10 point swing! That is a much more powerful ability than say “Shotgun” which allows you to kill one Zombie on your own house, and may come with a penalty if an opponent is holding a “Noisey Neighbor.”

House and Zombie markers.

With all that in mind, the first thing I did was increase the base defense of the player’s houses to 25. The first time we played, the game was extremely short. I don’t want the game to stretch on and on, but we had effectively eliminated the last player before he even took his turn. I don’t mind wild swings like this, but my ultimate goal is making the game FUN. For me, a simple game that goes on and on is not fun but losing before you even get to take a turn just sucks! I’m not sure this number will stick either. It may be a variable based on the number of players after more playtesting, but I plan to cover the theory of that in my next post. In the spirit of full disclosure, the zombie artwork used on the player tile is not mine. I lifted that from a Google image search.

Now that I’ve looked at the major changes needed my method gets a little more scientific. I still have the cards laid in front of me to trim the count of individual cards, but on paper, I have to start thinking about the math involved. In this particular game, I have to make sure that there is enough Zombie strength to actually have an end game. Because zombies stay in play unless killed, the deck thins quickly. In a 4 player game, it would take at the very least a combined strength of 75 to kill three players and end with an ultimate winner. That number is a bit misleading though because as players die, they can shift the zombies assigned to them around meaning that I don’t need to have that full number represented by the deck. I also don’t want the deck to be over-saturated with powerful Zombie cards. One of the key play choices in the game is deciding to play cards offensively or defensively. If there are too many zombies in the deck, this decision becomes less important.

So, I didn’t take notes on this process, but this is what I ended up with:

# Name Text Zombie Strength
6 Pistol Kill one Zombie with Strength 3 or less. 1
4 Shotgun Kill one Zombie. 3
3 Shhh… Move one Zombie from your house to another player’s house. 4
4 Axe Kill one Zombie. 5
6 Barricade +4 Defense. 2
4 Noisy Neighbor After an opponent plays a GUN you may move one Zombie from your house tho their’s. 4
2 Here they come! Flip the top 4 cards of the deck. Distribute all cards as Zombies to your opponents. Each opponent may only receive one Zombie in this manner. None
4 Fast Zombie Fast Zombie cannot be killed with an axe. 3
3 Strong Zombie When you play Strong Zombie, you may destroy one barricade on that player’s house. 3
2 Wandering Zombie At the end of your turn, move Wandering Zombie to a player on your left or right. 2
2 Double Zombie When you play Double Zombie, flip the top card of the deck. If it is a Zombie card, attach it to this one. Treat them as a single Zombie with a combined strength value. 2
10 Zombie 2
4 Zombie 4

Working on card desgin in Inkscape.
After I got this all worked out, I wrote out the changes on the backs of new business cards. As it turns out, this was wasted effort. My play group didn’t meet to try this version, and when I have too much time on my hands I tend to take things a little too far. For a second test set, I shouldn’t be putting any time into card design because so many of my designs fail after a few playtests when it is revealed that the game has an inherent flaw. I’m determined with this project though, because of this blog, so hopefully it will not be a wasted effort. So, with time on my hands, I have a hard time resisting. I fire up my favorite editing/drawing sofware, Inkscape and make up some cards.

The first printed prototype, in sleeves.
The design is not particularly elegant. It is still a playtest set, but I’d like for my playtesters to be able to actually read the cards and not have to ask a hundred questions. I had a brainstorm on the layout of the double-purpose cards, but after printing them and sleeving everything, I’m not sold that it is a good design. If there was art in place, orientation may be more obvious, but we’ll see after tonight’s test. I plan on focusing my next post more on game theory, but I may do a test report in between.

Thanks for reading!

Project: Dead End part 2 – First Test Rules and Cards

In my last post I discussed how the design for “Dead End” came about. This time I’d like to talk about specifics. When I was working on ideas, I had a few vague plans for rules, and some card ideas, but I hadn’t finalized anything. When I sat down to write out the cards, I had to at least consider limits so that I could stay within boundaries.

What I had at this point:

  • – Hand Size: 3 to 5
  • – Play 2 cards per turn.
  • – Draw up to maximum hand size at start of turn
  • – At the end of the active player’s turn, if the total strength of zombies at their house is greater than the current defense, that player dies and becomes undead.
  • – Undead players cannot be the target of zombie cards and cannot play cards such as guns, barricades, or axe.
  • – In addition to playing cards during their turn, undead players may move one zombie off of their house to a living player’s house.

With these basic ideas in place, it became time to actually start working on cards. I knew I wanted weapons because… well, this is a zombie game. It just wouldn’t be the same without weapons. I wanted the players to be able to boost the defense of their house with boards and nails or heavy furniture. I really wanted players to be able to move zombies off of their house. I struggled for a bit figuring out various ideas for this. The main idea was ripped straight from Walking Dead where the characters are all quiet and don’t move and the zombies walk on by. I also wanted to add a bit of uncertainty to using guns. They universally seem to attract zombies in the movies, so why not make that a setback of playing them?

Also, I didn’t want there to be useless cards. If a player dies or doesn’t have zombies on their house, what would they do with all those action cards? I decided that all cards would also serve as basic zombies. This led to some problems when writing out the cards because I didn’t spend any time working on the correct ratio of cards and zombie strength, but I figured that would be corrected through playtesting. So, the cards:

# Name Text Zombie Strength
8 Pistol Kill one zombie Strength 3 or less. 1
6 Shotgun Kill one zombie. 2
7 Shhh… Move one zombie to any opponent. 5
4 Axe Kill one zombie. 7
6 Barricade +2 Defense. 2
5 Noisy Neighbor Play after an opponent uses a gun. Move one zombie to that opponent. 3
4 Here they come! Reveal the top 4 cards of the draw pile. Play one zombie from the revealed cards on each opponent. None
5 Fast Zombie Cannot be killed with an axe. 3
3 Strong Zombie When played, destroy one barricade on the opposing house. 3
2 Wandering Zombie At the end of your turn, move the Wandering Zombie to the player on your left. 2

As you can see the power level of the deck was not really taken into consideration. I really wanted to just see how these cards work together, so I went really heavy on action cards. Also, I started the houses at a defense of 15 which is either too low or the zombies are too strong. The second version of the deck will have less action cards, more zombies, and the strength of zombies will be adjusted. I have a few ideas for some new types of specialty zombie, but there may also be some that are just plain old zombies.

The main thing that needs work is the total distribution. This is also one of the parts I enjoy the most. Whenever I design a new card game, I like to lay things out and look them over. I used to play a large number of CCGs and tuning my games cards feels a lot like building a deck in those games. I like looking at the total power of the deck versus the expected defenses of the houses. I enjoy figuring out the correct mix of offensive versus defensive cards to achieve a balance, but which slightly favors the game ending. Otherwise, it would be very easy to make defensive cards completely useless or make it so that the game never ends because players can easily survive each turn.

I know I promised to talk about the second playtest version in this post, but to be honest, I haven’t worked on it yet. I have ideas in my head that I’ve been stewing over for the week, so I’ll put it together before the playtest session…………. tomorrow!?

Gotta go. More to come!

A New Look!

The whole site got a bit of a redesign today. I was never really satisfied with the layout and I finally worked out how to get a reliable two column design that allows me to put all sorts of nifty little things here and there. I’m new to all of this HTML/CSS stuff, so if you find something doesn’t look right, or you can help me make it better, please feel free to let me know.

Also, thanks to my good friend DT Butchino of Sketchpad Studio, I now have a cool logo to show off! D is a great artist and designer that has helped me on many projects through the years. Check out his awesomeness at DeviantArt.

Project: Dead End part 1 – The Design

Project: Dead End is a development blog where I am chronicling the process of game design from initial concept through publication.

When I started this site, my intention was to share the design process with anyone that wanted to follow. I am marveled by the transparency of some game designers of both video and board games. Their ability to connect with people and allow the community as a whole to engage in design decisions fascinates me. This will be my first attempt at “open game design.”

My regular game group meets on Wednesday evenings. We used to playtest designs regularly, but I found my creativity sapped these past few years due to starting college, and changing careers. Well, I’ve graduated, and work is great so suddenly my desire to create has returned. This past Wednesday (Feb 1, 2012) I brought out the first new prototype that we’ve tried in a while. The codename for this new project is “Dead End.” It is a zombie themed card game that is intended to be quick, light, and fun.

Design notes.  Where it all begins.

This is how my projects begin. A few scratch notes on a yellow notepad sets the ball in motion. I have tried maintaining notebooks. I have tried taking notes electronically. I have tried to maintain a “file.” Nothing has worked for me creatively like a plain yellow notepad. When I start a design, I generally just have a few ideas. For this one, I wanted it to be about zombies and I wanted there to be a possibility that everyone loses. Developing on that idea, I have placed the players in their homes around a cul-de-sac when the approaching doom begins. The players have fortified their homes and must attempt to be the last survivor.

That’s about it for my first note taking session. I had a ton of ideas for various things, but at this point, I just let things stew around in my head for a while. I find that I solve problems better when I am not actively thinking about them, so I let everything just work itself out in thoughts. This process might not be efficient, and I very well might let great ideas go while cultivating bad ones, but it’s my process and it works for me. Over the next few weeks I developed various ideas. I wanted players to play zombies on their opponents while also being able to kill zombies that have been played on them. I also wanted players to “die” but I hate player elimination. So, why not let players that “die” become zombie players that attempt to kill off the survivors? I like that! So, I’ve introduced the idea that the players can all lose and the zombies can win, but don’t be fooled, this is no co-op.

After I think I have something in my head that I want to try, I start putting it in writing. I’m not talking about writing out a set of detailed rules, I’m just trying to facilitate the design process with committed ideas. This is when I work on things like card types, powers, hand size, play limits… all the “nuts and bolts” of the design. Initially I had imagined that there would be zombie cards and action cards. Players would play zombies on their opponents and actions would either help them or further hinder their opponents. I realized when writing things out though that if a player got turned into a zombie, all those action cards would be useless to them. I don’t like having useless things. Why not have the cards do both? The action cards could also be zombie cards. This gives the player a decision to either play the card to help themselves or to further hinder their opponent. I like this!

Ink on business cards.  My prototype begins.

This is where my prototypes start. I have had various jobs in the past that have provided me with an abundance of business cards. These things make great cards for game design! I can write on them, scribble on them, draw on them and I always have plenty of extras for adding new cards or changing the design. I didn’t sit down and write these out until an hour or so before game time. I wanted to test out the various event cards so I went a little overboard with the total number of each card. I also wanted to have cards that were just zombies. This adds a bit of hand management into the game because it opens up the action cards a little instead of constantly playing them as zombies. While writing all these cards, my friend John says, “why don’t you have zombies that do things?” I had cultivated this idea once, but it struck me as brilliant in that moment. Sure. Let’s try that! So now we have zombies that break down barricades and zombies that can’t be killed with an axe.

I have a deep feeling that this first prototype is wildly broken and I am absolutely correct. Our first playtest session didn’t reveal any inherent mechanics that are flawed, just the power level of the cards compared to the defensibility of the houses. This is when the “fun” starts. The game is not broken beyond repair, it just needs tuned. The number of action cards needs turned down. The strength of zombies needs adjusted. The base defense of the house needs tweaked. A few things need removed. A few things need added. Some rules need adjusting. That’s all. Not a bad start really.

I hope this wasn’t too vague and boring for those of you that made it all the way through. My next post will involve a detailed description of the first iteration as well as a full description of the second version. My plans are to make this game as “open source” as possible, allowing anyone that wants to try it at any stage of the process to make their own version and give it a go. Stay tuned!