In early 2014, we recorded a podcast on creating vs. consuming. It was something that I had discussed a few times with the guys on the podcast, which is why we ended up talking about it on the podcast. Personally, it’s also something that I’ve grappled with for a long time. I got into the tabletop game hobby pretty much because I wanted to design my own card game, but years later I find myself playing all these fun games and not doing any design work of my own. Sure, I’ve previously done a bit here and there (some of which I’ve written about here even before the podcast came about) but I’ve never really progressed any design significantly.
2014 was a pretty great year. We started doing a lot more with the podcast, and I started to reach out and connect with the community of board game fans and designers here in Australia. It’s been an amazing experience, but one thing that did go a little slower was getting back into my own board game design. I had started on a design that I think has some potential, and there was another that I had worked on a bit with Adam. We had done some initial prototyping and playtests, but I hadn’t really followed up on them as much as I could have. I had a starting point, but I felt like I needed to learn and do more. Also, having now interacted with other talented designers, I wanted to challenge myself to step up and get more experience designing games. Thus, I signed myself up for the Global Game Jam in January and also for another micro game jam that was organized with Alex, Paul and Josh from Blue Room Games. Here’s how I went:
Global Game Jam 2015
I’ve spoken about my experience at Global Game Jam 2015 on the podcast, along with teammates Adam, Stephen and Stacey. However, if you’re not podcast-inclined, I will also set out some of my thoughts on the process here.
I had pre-formed a team with Adam and Evan before signing up for the jam. Since it would be the first time for all three of us, it made sense to stick together. It would still be a learning experience, as we had not done much game designing together. Unfortunately, Evan and his family fell sick right before the jam weekend and he had to forgo the jam. Serendipitously, I bumped into Stacey at the kickoff presentation and he introduced me to Stephen who was interested in doing a tabletop game. I had played some board games with Stacey before and had seen Stephen post about his interest in board games in the Facebook group, so it wasn’t all luck, but it was nice to bump into them right at the start of the jam. It ended up being a really great experience for me. It was nice to work with Adam, since we knew each other’s sensibilities but it was also exciting to meet and work with new people and gain insight from them. I think that is definitely one part of the jam experience that you shouldn’t miss out on. Since the jam I’ve played more games with Stacey and Stephen and have had them on the podcast to chat and it’s just really great to meet and interact with other people who are excited about games and making games. Even if the game we made was terrible (and it was certainly threatening to look that way on Saturday night), I would have still counted it a win to have met these 2 guys.
Ok, enough of the sappy stuff. The theme of the game jam was “What Do We Do Now?”. As we started brainstorming ideas, the first thing that came to mind was a co-op game. I was focused on the “we” part of the theme, and thought a co-op game would pretty easily fit the theme. You could imagine the players asking that question generally in a co-op game, but I also thought about it being a more directed question, where one player could be tasked with the burden of leadership and deciding what the group would do. Adam brought up the bidding for leadership and group movement mechanic in Isla Dorada, but I also toyed with asymmetrical powers like in Battlestar Galactica where you could decide how to use your abilities to help or hinder the group. We also thought about thematic ties to the theme, such as using a post-apocalyptic setting or a post-win screen scenario. We discussed setting a game immediately in the aftermath of defeating the so-called final boss of a typical storyline. What would happen to Mordor after Sauron was ousted? There seemed to be volcanic soil all around; maybe the orcs could settle the area and turn to an agrarian lifestyle. If they didn’t all die, you’d have a whole bunch of prisoners who then had to be dealt with, refugees to re-settle, economies to rebuild etc.
At this time we also branched into a possible historical setting and discussed setting a game in the post-colonial era, once independence had been achieved and you had to work together to set up a new nation. I was personally interested in using post-independence Malaysia as a model, since you could have players balancing the needs of the 4 former colonies (Peninsular Malaysia – itself made up of various states, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore) that were frederatored. Yes, Malaysia is on Cartoon Hangover. However, we quickly realised that trying to do justice to a game about post-colonialism in 48 hours would be a hard task and filed that away as a potential future project.
I did like the idea of focusing on rebuilding after a major incident and as we were talking about it, somehow Stacey brought up the idea of Pacific Rim and that just hooked me. I wanted to design a game about dealing with the aftermath of a giant monster attack and what you would do with the giant robots after the monster threat had been eradicated. Would you have to decommission them? It would be like holding onto a nuclear weapon. Literally, in most cases, as nuclear power was often used as a source for these giant mechs. Would you repurpose the technology for more peaceful uses? I was pretty stuck on this theme at this point and the idea we came up with was to make a co-op game that would reach a tipping point i.e. when the mech was built and the monster was defeated, and then focus on rebuilding after the damage and figuring out new uses for the giant robot.
At the start of the game jam, several people spoke about some of their lessons learned from past game jams. Two key ones that I remember were to not get too attached to any idea, and to keep the scope of the game manageable. I remember them all the more now because I basically went directly against that advice. FORESHADOWING.
After settling on the broad concept of the game, we set about designing some mechanics to present that concept. We discussed at length how we would set up the board and the pieces that each player would control. We were deciding between whether players should represent different nations or different departments within the same nation. We discussed whether to use a pie-chart shaped board, a network diagram or a grid. We drew up diagrams on the whiteboard and on paper, and just threw out any ideas we had. Finally, after a long period of theoretical discussion and what-ifs, we just decided to pick a promising idea and mock up a quick prototype to test it out using markers on some blank cards. Stephen highlighted that this was one of the great advantages of jamming on a board game as opposed to his previous experience with video games: you can very quickly mock up a working prototype and make changes, allowing quick iteration of the game mechanics.
I think the first version of the game had a pre-set grid where the monster would appear based on die rolls setting out the X and Y co-ordinates. We then decided it would follow some directions and turn at certain points, so we had to decide how to represent the front of the monster. Adam put two red cubes of different sizes together, with the smaller cube representing its “head” and Stephen commented that it looked like a snail. Thus, our giant monster was born. Stephen later put together a great image of a giant space snail and that became an inspiration for many of the anti-snail powers that are in the game. It’s quite amusing to see how a small action (putting the two red cubes together as a quick fix to our directionality problem) ended up being a big inspiration for many parts of the game.
The first version of the game had us placing tokens representing soldiers to fight off the snail but also die in glorious battle, which we soon concluded felt not as exciting as building a giant robot. We quickly put together a second version that focused more on working together to generate resources to build a robot. We separated the robot into different parts, which would represent the progress to completion and handily also ended up serving as a motivation for the competitive aspect. Players would gain more points if they contributed the most to different parts of the robot as well as to the overall completion. Early on, we just put in whatever numbers felt reasonable for the resources required and continually tweaked them as we playtested. In fact, I’d hazard that we’re still not at the right numbers to make the race for the robot parts interesting. Adam also came up with an elegant way to control the giant snail’s movement and health through a movement deck. I really like the system he came up with since it meets multiple needs and allows some nice design space for special powers. We also came up with a worker allocation system that encouraged players to help each other while also allowing for some selfish moves. The idea was that once the threat was over, the players would be jockeying for points to be elected the new world leader.
One early decision that we made was to try and design this game for 3-4 players and to try and target a play time of 60-90 minutes. We ended up focusing purely on the 3 player version of the game as we quickly realised that it would be difficult to playtest and balance the game with the different player counts. In this case we started with the smaller scope and decided not to expand it. It was also due to availability of players for playtesting. Once Stephen got started on the artwork, most of the playtesting was necessarily done with only 3 players. The target time was also an issue as playtesting took quite a while. We could have broken up bits of the game and playtested those, but you really do want to get the full game experience most times and time is tight when you’re doing a 48 hour jam. In future jams, I’m going to try to keep the playtime to 30-45 minutes to maintain our sanity.
After we figured out the first co-operative phase of the game, I got to work on the rebuilding phase. Thematically, I wanted to highlight the change in the purpose of the giant robot after the threat had been dealt with. I made the robot give a discount to resources needed to rebuild the destroyed areas and we also tried a version where the robot immediately rebuilt devastated regions. In my first draft of the second phase, I made a second deck of events that replaced the giant snail’s movement deck and dictated how players could get points by rebuilding or moving their workers around. We playtested this version with Clinton and Ben, who were also working on a board game of their own: Yo Ho Votes! (which you should check out too). The first phase went alright, but when the second event deck came out I could see their enthusiasm diminishing. It was too much of a swerve, took too long and it bled out all the tension that was integral to the first phase of the game. This was late in the afternoon on Saturday, and it was quite a blow as it left us with not much time to fix the problem.
Immediately after that playtest, I hacked apart the second phase and we simplified it as much as we could. We also cut down on the number of available worker spots and increased some of the resource costs from the playtest results to ratchet up the tension. The second phase events were drastically reduced and changed to just provide new workers to allow players who had been most affected by the giant snail to stay in the game. End game goals were also introduced to direct the players’ efforts in the second phase and the process of rebuilding destroyed regions was simplified. We did a final playtest late on Saturday night, and thankfully the game was not utterly broken. Some of the numbers would still be tweaked the next day as we were creating the PnP files, but the general gist of the game was done. It was a huge relief to be able to get to that point in the last minutes of Saturday night and we could just focus on getting the graphics and rulebook completed the next day.
You can download the prototype PnP files for Giant Snail WIll Not Prevail! from the Global Game Jam site to see where we ended up with the game. Although the game is pretty far from being complete, I’m quite proud of what we managed to achieve in those 48 hours. One thing you may notice in those files is that we’ve double-coded the colored pieces with geometric symbols. I think it may not be noted in the rulebook what the symbols mean, but they’re just there for accessibility. I also still have the physical prototype that we constructed, if you’re curious to try it out after reading this and are in Melbourne. If anyone does end up having a look at the game and has any feedback, I more than welcome it.
There’s still more work to be done to further clean up the end game, expand the game to 4 players, add more variety for replayability, and balance the resource costs. We managed to get it played a few more times after the game jam and the feedback has been helpful, noting that the second phase of the game still doesn’t hold up to the first phase. Now that the game jam is over, there’s no real reason to stick so closely to the theme of rebuilding which could mean cutting out the second phase altogether. I wanted to have a game tackle both the conflict as well as the aftermath, but the conflict is more compelling. Perhaps it would have been better to start with an already defeated enemy and a defunct weapon of mass destruction if I really want to focus on the rebuilding aspect. However, for now I’m quite happy to continue with the game we did design, which is a scramble to gather resources to build a giant robot to fight a giant space snail.
Blue Jam Micro
Two weeks after Global Game Jam 2015, I was at it again. I had been helping Alex, Paul and Josh of Blue Room Games to put together a game jam focused purely on tabletop games. I suggested putting the focus on micro games, and put in a stipulation that the game should be able to fit into one of the pouches used in AEG’s line of small games – Love Letter, Lost Legacy, Cypher and Empire Engine. I was quite keen to work on a game with not only a thematic guide, but also a component limitation and explore the design process for a micro game. After the experience of Global Game Jam, I was enthusiastic to try my hand on a slightly different challenge, and more importantly connect with some of the other board game designers.
We got together on the Friday night to go over the structure of the event and determine the theme of the game jam. I also took the opportunity to play some of AEG’s small pouch games with the others to give an idea of what could be achieved in the design space. The theme was determined by having every participant submit a suggestion and then 3 of them would be chosen at random and at least two would be implemented. The chosen themes were Tea, Footsteps and No Empty Hands. I teamed up with Sye, Jaeger, and Hwa Loong and there was a very different feel to the brainstorming session than at the Global Game Jam. I suspect the key difference was the perception of designing a small, quick game would allow us to get multiple ideas and playtests realised. There was the feeling that it would be possible to produce more than one game between the four of us and so we didn’t really absolutely pin down an idea on the first night. We came up with the broad strokes of a game that night and reconvened the following day, but actually ended up working on something substantially different by then.
One of the early ideas we had was “footsteps” representing an antagonist chasing the player and “no empty hands” leading me to think of a group of thieves or adventurers trying to get away with handfuls of loot. When I was on a toilet break and peeing in a stall, I was also struck by the idea of hiding away from someone while trying to conceal your presence. Have you had the experience of being in a workplace toilet stall and using a silenced phone while on the crapper? Just me? Okay. Well, I thought of trying to hide from someone while something was leaking water and you had to catch it in your hands so the sound of the water drops would not alert your pursuer. Transferring that to the thieves idea, I thought of trying to get away with handfuls of probably jangly items and trying not to drop any of them which would alert a guard of some sort. We even discussed a tomb robbing idea where you awakened a mummy and had to make sure none of the artifacts dropped and alerted it. I thought you could even let the players pass items around to try and make other players drop items, by imposing a hand or weight value limit (Funnily enough, one of Harry’s games went into similar territory though with the addition of a push-your-luck mechanism). I also had an inkling of incorporating dexterity mechanics by balancing the items in your actual hands but that didn’t really go far.
We ended up testing the idea of a group of burglars trying to hit up several shops but also tipping the cops off to other shops that may be visited by rival crooks. There were a number of locations with goods on them and you would secretly choose which location to steal from and which location to snitch on. This worked out reasonably well and we decided to stop there for the night. Later, I had the idea of applying a theme of a bungling anarchist group that couldn’t agree on which tea warehouse to liberate and it would be called Proper Tea Is Theft. I love puns, okay?
However, when we reconvened we decided to explore other ideas and ended up going with a different game. Hwa Loong had the idea of using the pouch itself as part of the game. You would move around a grid of locations trying to collect certain items. There would be an antagonist of some sort that would roam the locations and its movement was determined by drawing cubes out of the pouch. When you were caught in the same location as the antagonist you would drop a card and a cube for that location would be added to the bag, perhaps distracting the antagonist while you escaped. You also had a key card which would let you escape, and if you lost your key card you would be out of the game. One advantage with the micro game is that we managed to cram in a whole lot of playtesting that afternoon and iterations could incorporate fairly major changes.
After some playtesting, we identified that the locations could be simplified from a 3×3 grid into just three locations and while it was cute that the pouch was used as part of the game, it would be simpler to represent it with discarded cards. Each location is tied to a specific colour of item and when discarded would make it more likely for that location to be visited by the antagonist. Another addition we made was that each colour of item would have a value at the end of the game equal to how many of that item was discarded, meaning the higher the risk involved in obtaining that item, the higher the reward. We also got rid of the key card and made it so you lose if your hand is ever empty, which is functionally similar. Themewise, we went with a pretty whimsical choice of setting it in a retirement home and you were Octogenarian Kleptomaniacs (that’s the title of the game) trying to steal the administrator’s prized china.
Again, I’m quite happy with the result of the micro game jam. It led to me working with some other fine board game design folks who I had met through the Incubator group and it gave me experience in trying to condense as much information and decision points into as few components as possible. We pared down the mechanics to work purely with the cards, such that the item cards were used to determine where the administrator would appear, changing probabilities and were worth variable values at the end of the game. Also, Jaeger and Sye did a great job with the graphic design of the cards and rules. I like the probability influencing and risk vs. reward interaction of the core mechanic and I’m quite keen on trying it out on a bigger game. However, I wasn’t done with the game jam just yet.
Sunday morning, after working on the rules with Hwa Loong and sending them off to Sye and Jaeger to be made presentable, I sat down and made another game. I had told Jeannie about taking part in the game jam and when she heard the themes, she suggested making a game about waiters carrying tea trays. That struck me as being a very obvious implementation of the theme that I had missed. I also thought back to my dexterity idea from Friday night and figured I could make a dexterity game about balancing a tray of teacups. I ended up making a simple dexterity game, which I dubbed QualiTea Service, where you balanced a card representing your tea tray on your pointer and middle finger and “walk” along a row of cards on the table using your thumb and ring fingers. You would then deliver cups of tea represented by wooden cubes placed on top of the tea tray card to table cards placed along the path by tilting and sliding the tray card on your fingers.
It’s a silly-looking little game, but I’m actually learning a lot from it. I thought it would be fairly easy to design the scoring system, but I’m finding it difficult to balance simplicity with providing the right amount of challenge and motivation to the player to complete the task. Also, I’m concerned about how widely accessible the game is as some people would find it very difficult to stretch their fingers. I think this could be fun for kids but I have to consider that their hands are smaller and they may find it too difficult to navigate on the card size I’m using to build the path. Again, I am humbled to learn there is so much more thought that needs to be applied to even a simple dexterity game and my hats off to the designers who have made them work.
We got together on Sunday afternoon to present our games to the judges and also check out each other’s games and provide feedback. I only managed to try out Night Terrors, which was designed by Alex, Paul and Josh, and which also ended up being the judges’ pick of the jam. It’s a very neat 2-player game with a push-pull feel as one player takes the role of a scared child and the other plays a bogeyman trying to reach the child’s bed. It was fantastic to be able to get feedback from other designers and board game veterans and something I wish I had at the end of Global Game Jam. Not that we didn’t have feedback, it just wasn’t as organized as in Blue Jam’s case, which is also due to the difference in size of the two jams. It’s easier to have structured feedback time when it’s just 4 games as opposed to 50.
I ended up showing off both Giant Snail Will Not Prevail and QualiTea Service at February’s IGDA Melbourne meeting. I didn’t actually demonstrate Giant Snail as it would have taken too much time, but it did let me practice the pitch and presentation of the game and its rules. QualiTea Service got some actual play as it is quite quick and easy to grasp, and it was nice to see different people trying it out and having fun with it.
I’m really glad I participated in both Global Game Jam and Blue Jam Micro this year. It’s been a great experience designing games under restrictions and it has encouraged me to think of designs in different ways. It has also given me some confidence and motivation to follow through on design projects as I’ve seen how much can be accomplished within a short period of time. Most importantly though, it has connected me with other passionate creators who I now count as friends and colleagues and allowed me to experience working collaboratively with them. The games that have come out of the jams are certainly not complete, but I’m excited to continue working on them with the other designers and applying the experience I’ve gained to them and to my future projects.