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The Spoiled Flush Free Games Design Diary Blog

For years, we've been working on a series of new games you can play just with playing cards, dice, dominoes, and other common household objects. Our original plan was to put out a book of them, but we later decided we were better off raiding them for ideas for full-blown publishable games. Our combat/betting/deck-building game Gladiators, which was one of the winners of the 2010 Rio Grande Game Design Contest, was one such example. Anyway, we've decided to post one of those games on our website each week, and then to post a design diary of each one, going over our process.

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Spycard Designer Diary

Kevin Spak

Cambridge
Massachusetts
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This post refers to the playing card game Spycard. You can read the full rules and download everything you need to play for free at http://spoiledflushgames.com/spycard/

When Kevin first got interested in game design in the late '90s and early '00s, he was obsessed with CCGs. His favorite company was AEG, which always seemed to hit it out of the park with flavorful, innovative games like Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Doomtown, and Warlord. So when he heard they were working on a spy game, he was naturally psyched. The coolest part: You could play cards face down! How cool and flavorful was that?



When Spycraft hit, he rushed out to buy some starters and enlisted Sam to try it out. The game was fine, but somewhat disappointing. And naturally, the most disappointing thing was the thing we were most excited about: the face-down mechanic. It seemed pretty tacked on. For a card to actually do anything, it usually had to be turned face up first, making the whole affair seem much less shadowy.

So when we were coming up with every which thing you could do with a playing card, we hit on the idea of making our own spy game with face-down cards, one that did everything we'd wanted Spycraft to do. It would be all about the face-down cards.

Fool Me Once...
This is trickier than it sounds. Face-down cards convey no information. In a card game, it should matter what your cards are, and it's hard to pull that off when they could be anything. We also wanted cards to be more powerful face down than face up, so players would want to keep their cards that way, but what mighty power do you bestow on any generic unknown card?

The obvious answer was to make the lack of information conveyed a feature instead of a bug, to make the game about sneakiness and subterfuge. Face down cards, we decided, gained power precisely because your opponent didn't know what they were. Face down cards could do anything, provided you were sneaky enough. Suit Abilities seemed like a good way to accomplish this. There would be four distinct powers to remember, and they would form the basic actions of the game. A face-down agent could pretend to have any ability.

There are a handful of reliable tricks in the game designer's arsenal that pretty much always work, and one of them is to introduce bluffing into the game. It's a fairly simple formula: Introduce hidden information. Give one player the ability to lie, and an incentive for doing so, but also a risk for being caught. Give his opponents a reward for catching him, but a downside risk if they're wrong. Ideally, there should be clues a savvy opponent can pick up on to help him decide if you're full of shit. It's a familiar dynamic, but it's constantly tense.

Fool Me Twice...
That seemed like just the kind of thing you want for a game about spies and subterfuge, and we needed a way to make sure the front of the cards mattered, so it seemed obvious that opponents would have to be able to call you on it when you pretended to have an ability. This posed a bit of a conundrum, because then you'd have to reveal the character even if you were telling the truth, so we had to give you some compensation. Using the ability twice felt powerful and fun for the player doing it, and good enough to give you pause instead of calling out every ability.
As an extra measure to make face-down cards stronger, we made face-up cards easier to get rid of. We created the Spade ability, which can kill any face-up card in the field. This gave you another reason to keep your agents on the down-low, and it made flavor-sense--of course exposed agents are more vulnerable to attacks!


Play me face down, I dare you.

Your Mission, If You Choose To Accept It
Our game system was starting to come together, but we still didn't actually have any idea how you won the game. Since the game was all about subterfuge, it seemed like it might be fun if your objective itself was a secret.

We should pause for a public service announcement for designers out there: Giving each player a different, random victory condition is perilous territory. We've had it backfire in more than one design. When all your game elements aren't focused on a constant victory condition or set of victory conditions, they tend to lose focus. It becomes hard to tell what's "good," and hence hard to cost and balance things. And it's really hard to balance the dang victory conditions themselves.

But for Spycard, it worked. Indeed, it became the secret sauce that made the game fun. Giving players the ability to expose each other to knock them out of the game gave the proceedings an awesome level of tension. It wasn't enough to move towards your goal, you had to do it sneakily, and that made you feel like a spy. Quirks of the game suddenly became features. Yes, sometimes calling out someone as a liar and being wrong was advantageous, but we had no problem with that if you were intentionally doing it to reach your goal. The actions don't seem focused, but that's fine; it's not like you're stuck with the ones you draw. You can have whichever action you need if you're willing to lie. Finally, all players still have a common victory condition: Expose everybody else. We'll be honest, we're still not entirely sure all the missions are balanced, but in our tests they seem reasonably close. The game is also pretty fast, which makes players more forgiving of slight imbalances. In long games, if you have a very difficult objective, you might feel a sense of hopelessness creeping in. In Spycard, you'll probably have a bullet in your brain long before that, and you can always switch to detective mode and just try to expose others, or get them to guess wrong when trying to expose you.

This Message (And You) Will Self-Destruct
The exposure rule is dramatic and appealingly simple: If you guess right, they're out, if you guess wrong, you're out. But you might notice that it's also kind of harsh. The upside is eliminating one of your opponents, of whom you have more than one, increasing your odds of victory, but the downside is losing the game entirely. This is intentional. Getting kicked out of a game isn't a feel-good moment for most people, so we don't want it happening all the time. Making the downside worse than the upside ensured you'd only do it if you were really sure--it's almost never the mathematically correct play if you assumed you had no knowledge.

From its first playtest on, Spycard was a blast. We were a bit surprised by how fast the game was, but it wound up working in the game's favor. Getting eliminated when an opponent guessed your identity would probably have felt bad in a 45-minute game, but not in a 15-minute game. What's odd about Spycard is that usually games with its play time are very simple, whereas Spycard is very complex. We were initially worried that players wouldn't want to learn so much for a game so short, but in our tests people were usually perfectly willing to shuffle them up and play again... and again... and again.

Try it for yourself -- you'll be glad you did, or your money back, no questions asked.
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Tue Apr 3, 2012 4:05 am
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Matrix Solitaire Design Diary

Kevin Spak

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This post refers to our game Matrix Solitaire. You can read the rules and download everything you need to play at http://spoiledflushgames.com/matrix-solitaire/

This is one of those rare games that sprung fully birthed from the designer’s head like Athena, and worked pretty much right away. The total opposite of Baseball, Matrix Solitaire started with mechanical goals, then mechanics, and finally a game that supported those mechanics and goals.

Design Goals and Inspiration
Even a casual observer of the game’s rules can easily spot the influences: Computer puzzlers like Tetris and traditional solitaire. It’s no coincidence that as Matrix Solitaire was being designed, Sam‘s now-wife-then-girlfriend Janine was filling every spare moment with these activities.


The Culprit!


People love playing solitaire. It’s included as a freebie on most computers and phones, and folks get a lot of mileage out of the these simple apps. You don’t need an opponent, you probably already know the rules, and it doesn’t require much thought. We’ll mark two of those three factors as positive — as semi-professional game designers, a game that requires no thought and offers no choices will not ever meet our design goals. In traditional solitaire, you’re not rewarded for clever play, but simply for noticing stuff (red eight on black nine, black seven on red eight…). We took it upon ourselves to make an interesting, engaging solitaire game, and Matrix Solitaire was the result.

The very first thing we did was turn the deck upside-down, so the player draws from a face-up pile. This was directly inspired by Tetris, which shows you the next piece in the queue, allowing you to plan ahead.

The second thing we did was outline the idea of a limited play-zone (the Matrix) which can be filled, causing the player to lose the game. This was also inspired by, you guessed it, Tetris. It also served an important game function. In a game with two or more players, your opponents provide the conflict, the opposing force that could cause you to lose the game, and the threat of that loss generates suspense. In a one-player game, you need something else. We thought the threat of filling the board would do the trick, much like filling the screen does in computer puzzle games.

Since we’re dealing with real, physical space, and we wanted people to be able to play the game anywhere, we settled on a manageable 3X3 grid. Matching suits seemed a natural direction, and we settled on the suit-chain mechanic very quickly.

Scoring
Despite the shortcomings of traditional solitaire, Janine was playing it on her laptop again, and again, and again. When she was losing a game, she would quit and start over, not playing it to the end. Why was she doing this? “To get the high score.” This was, we felt, a useful game design insight. Players tended to shoot for goals, even if those goals were beating their own personal best. This was definitely something we wanted to leverage in our solitaire game, so we devised the scoring system you see now. It is important that the reward for scoring a big chain is worth the risk necessary for attempting them in the first place, so we chose an exponential increase (1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 points per card) to really give players something to shoot for.

Suit Abilities
Matrix Solitaire is the first free game that features “suit abilities,” but nowhere near the first game we designed that explores this idea. Over and over again in making these games we found that suits were one of the most powerful tools at our disposal when using a playing card deck as a component. There came a point in our design process where we would automatically say “OK, so what do spades do?” It became a natural part of designing playing card games (or PCGs) for geeks: we like having cards with powers. We like having choices and different ways of using a card. Suits allowed us to marry abilities to a strong visual cue. Matrix Solitaire had a solid engine without the abilities, but it needed something to spice it up, so we went back to the well.

Hearts came first, as this mechanic gave you much more flexibility in terms of how you filled the matrix, and allowed for chains larger than 5. Spades came next. Whether because of the dead man’s hand, or the ace of spades, the suit was always synonymous in our minds with death and destruction, so a common theme in our PCGs is that spades destroy. This is true of Matrix Solitaire as well.

Of the remaining suits, we knew that one should give you control over the cards you draw, but that left one ability that needed to be created out of whole-cloth. The limited scope of the game practically dictated to us that it needed to move cards that were already in play — the only question was how. Since the mechanics of the game force cards to “fall” to the bottom of the grid, we were restricted in the way that a card could move in the first place. Eventually we settled on the diamonds jacking other cards upward. Playtesting revealed this to be an excellent decision, as it enables unique, high-scoring plays.

Chain Upgrades
The chain upgrade was a late addition to the tapestry. At the time, Kevin was playing a lot of Super Puzzle Fighter, a fighting / puzzle game that, since it involved matching colors, bore some similarities to Matrix Solitaire. He observed that his favorite part of the game, and of other puzzle games like it, was setting up and pulling the trigger on chain reaction combos for extra points. Such mechanics are common in puzzlers for good reason. While combos will occasionally fall into your lap, more often players will attempt to intentionally engineer them by putting off completing something easy, in exchange for setting up a more impressive play later.


Matrix Solitaire: Apparently a hurricane kick of fun! The chain upgrades mechanic was inspired by Super Puzzle Fighter.


This is spectacular from a design perspective, because it does so many things you want to do. It creates suspense, allowing players to raise the stakes at the risk of failing spectacularly. We often liken games to stories, and as any fiction writer will tell you, raising the stakes and inducing suspense are critical tools for writers. As game designers, we can sometimes raise the stakes or create suspense for players, but it’s much better when players naturally do it themselves; then it’s not our story, it’s theirs. Games are about player choices, and the more often players feel their experience is crafted by their own hand, the better. When the combo does come together, players feel a sense of relief and triumph. One of the reason players play games is for the thrill of accomplishing something difficult, and the chain mechanic gives you a fist-pump-worthy play. In story terms, players set an objective for themselves (creating the chain), must overcome an obstacle (the random vagaries of the deck), and finally get a satisfying climax (a boatload of points). Last, but not least, combo systems give players a sense that they are in control of the game. Instead of merely trying to deal with what the game throws at you, you are shaping it into something, developing a master plan. Of course, the reward for different length chains does this too, but this gave players more complex, robust things to shoot for. This sense of mastery over a system, what designers sometimes refer to as “flow,” is another reason players play games.

Playtesting
Matrix Solitaire was blessedly easy to playtest, because it could be played solo. We didn’t have to scrape together a playtest group, or ghost-play for absent players. We played the game repeatedly, and were able to send it out to friends to play on their own. The game worked perfectly almost right out the gate, but Sam was surprised that at first nobody actually understood the rules he’d written.

One of our many helpful diagrams.


The concept of the cards falling downward, like the blocks in Tetris, seemed obvious to him as a designer, but even hardened gamers balked at the concept (or perhaps the awkward wording). This was an important lesson in rules writing. Be as specific as possible, using direct language, not metaphor, to describe game actions. The player is not in your head. (It also clued us in that we’d need a whole bunch of diagrams for this one, as you can see from the post.)

Lessons Learned

1. People love to compete, even with themselves. Whenever possible, design in methods of tracking specific metrics, such as a scoring system. Players immediately seize on this aspect, more so than trying to complete an abstract goal, such as collecting X items. That’s why even pieces in Chess have been assigned point values.

2. When a game resonates with people, ask why. You might hate a game, the way we hate traditional solitaire, but people have fun playing it. The insights gleaned from studying why can be extremely useful.

3. Give players the right goals, and enough restrictions, and you can create a tense, exciting game full of narrative conflict, even without direct conflict with an opposing player.

4. When writing a rules book, be as specific and direct as humanly possible. Even if you think you’ve clearly spelled it all out, you probably haven’t. Have others read the rules and then explain the game back to you.
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Tue Mar 13, 2012 7:09 pm
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