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Project: Dead End part 4 - I Broke It

Project: Dead End is a development blog where I am chronicling the process of game design from initial concept through publication. To start at the beginning, click here: Part 1

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.

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On to Part 5 >>

- February 23, 2012