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Project: Dead End part 11 - Starting Over-ish

So, I got to test Project: Dead End with a publisher. If you aren't aware of the story, about 2 months ago I was contacted by a well-known publisher who asked to look at Dead End for consideration. My response was that I wasn't ready for publishers, but I'd let him see it because I respected him as a person and I was very up front about the game not being done. I sent him the rules, sent him a playtest deck, and waited. I didn't want to keep developing the game while he was looking at it because I was sure he wasn't going to accept it the way it was and I thought he'd have some great feedback.

Turns out I was right.

The test was at GenCon with Matt Worden (who I have total respect for as a designer and a dude) and Travis Worthington (of Indie Boards and Cards), aka The Publisher. I hadn't played in over a month at this point and I actually had to refresh myself on some of the rules. This was sign #1 to me that something was wrong. The rules were ambiguous enough that I couldn't remember how to play my own game after only a month! It was worse than that. What went horribly wrong during this test is that I wasn't having fun. It was dry and boring. Play a card here, flip a card.... blah blah blah. Both testers told me that they felt there wasn't enough tension and that the best moments in the game were when they played Molotov Cocktail and almost (or successfully) burnt their houses down. I agreed. This is a zombie game. My zombie game. The entire reason I started this project was that I wanted a fast, fun, zombie game. Not some boring drawn-out creep fest.

I have ideas for changes... all currently untested. My group only meets once a week which makes it difficult to rapidly develop games. I wish I had more playtesters to bounce this off of, but, well, I don't. I'm going to make changes and take it to my group next week, we'll see what happens. If you want to test, and you'll actually take the time to print and cut 72 cards to play the game please let me know!

Here's what I'm thinking:

Problem: Randomization

The game uses card flipping as a randomizer. There is a zombie icon in the upper right of roughly 40% of the cards. When you do something that you must pass a check, you flip a number of cards. Zombie icons are failures, no icon is a success. While I thought this streamlined things, in reality, it is cumbersome and difficult to explain. It is also limited in scope unless I want players flipping a bunch of cards and adding up successes.

My fix: DICE!

Who doesn't love dice!? Dice will help clean up some of the odd rules that happen when events are flipped as well as open up more options on the cards themselves. The question is whether I should use just a single d6 or 2d6 or maybe d10? Does 2d6 help control the randomness a bit over just a single d6? Is that a good or bad thing!? Not sure.

Problem: Complexity

There was a whole lot of non-excitement and card reading. There are way too many cards that are text heavy and have weird rules. There are also a good number of cards that require checks for this or that but only if this is in play or that happens...

My fix: Cut cards

I'm going to cut a bunch of the fat out and leave mostly just the core stuff and some fun cards like the generator and it's various accessories. I went a little overboard with crazy card ideas that added theme as well as complexity. Now that dice are in, I will have more options to make cool cards that don't hamper the game with a bunch of text or card combinations. I can have fun effects that require you to roll some dice and consult the results chart on the card. Fast, simple, and FUN!

Problem: Excitement

There was none during this test. I was bored, so I know the others were also. They both told me the Molotov Cocktails were the most fun and tense moments in the game. The chance that you may burn your house down was awesome and they wished the game had more of those moments. How do I capture that feeling more? There needs to be more tension early and it needs to be maintained throughout.

My fix: Coming Back to Life

I want the players to be close to death the whole game. There needs to be a tension from the very start. My main idea is to have players start the game with a number of zombies already on their house. This should make the early game ramp quickly as players scramble to survive because you could end up dead in a few quick turns. I'm also pulling the In the Basement card from the main deck and making it an always available option. Dying is not meant to be absolutely permanent but players horde the card that brings them back and that sucks for everyone. It means a dead space in your hand as well as an inability for the other players to draw one. In the Basement (the card that lets you come back to life) will now be readily available for everyone, every turn. You can be more risky because death is always an option when you can come back from it! I am also considering a second come-back-to-life card with a different penalty. When you die, you have the option of which to choose and you can effectively come back to life twice! This will require me to tweak the way dead players turns work so that they may come back a bit more often but not too often. Right now, it's difficult to get your zombie number low enough to survive the first turn you come back. This is going to be tough to balance because I don't want the game to be able to stalemate with players never staying dead. Someone has to win.

I think that's enough shaking for now. I don't want to get too radical and throw things around so much that I break the game again. That was a bad month for me. I'd rather try a few smaller changes at a time like I have been and see what works. I honestly think that the game was better a few iterations ago but I added too many complex things that made it less exciting. I'm going to try reverting to a similar card set as that and with these changes, I think things will be on track again!

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- August 24, 2012