Doug BassUnited States
Garden Dice, my first game, went live on Kickstarter in early April 2012. I've been working on it for over two years and the launch represents an important milestone and an exciting moment for me. In this designer diary, I wanted to provide some information on the design and development of the game.
The Game's Genesis
The original idea for Garden Dice came to me while my wife and I were driving to Baltimore to visit my sister and her family over Christmas 2009. I had gotten Carson City a few weeks earlier and was really enjoying playing it. While we drove through Virginia, I kept thinking about the initial setup of the board and wondered why that couldn't be turned into a game in and of itself.
Starting with a foundation of placing tiles on a 6x6 grid, I began to think of other ways for players to use their dice that would create interesting decisions. The first few ideas came quickly, naturally. First, the tiles placed on the board needed to be paid for beforehand, using the pips of the dice as a sort of currency. The next idea was that once tiles were bought and placed on the board, they could be flipped over, then removed for points. These would be separate actions and would also require dice. Each tile would earn the player points equal to its purchase price, and players would also get points for collecting sets.
Next, I searched my mind for a theme and one and only one appeared to me: gardening. I realize it's not an even remotely original or exciting theme for many, but it seemed to work well with the mechanisms: buy seeds, plant them, water (flip) them, and harvest (remove) the ripened vegetables. I wracked my brain for other ideas, but in the end kept circling back to gardening. I recognized that the game was going to be relatively light, and the gardening theme seemed to work for that, too.
After the theme was decided on, it was a no-brainer to come up with other ideas. There would be birds that eat seeds and rabbits that eat veggies, while scarecrows would protect against them.
The game's chaining mechanism came to me over the next week or two: Players could place their tiles next to each other so that watering or harvesting one tile would chain to adjacent tiles. Chaining would work only one direction, though – from higher value tiles to lower or equal ones. The chaining rule was one element of the game to receive further refinement down the road, much of it with the help of playtesters.
I decided players would roll four dice each turn, enough for them to place two tiles. Tile ownership would be indicated by having players place wooden discs on their tiles, with a limited number available for each player. Points would be awarded at the end of the game for completing sets, both like-kind and different-kind.
Goals and Challenges
My primary goal from the start was to create a friendly but strategic game that many types of players would enjoy playing. I wanted it to have interesting decisions, but not at the expense of complicated rules. I also didn't want a heavy or aggressive game, which I felt would run contrary to the theme. I doubt I could design a heavy game just yet anyway!
I also liked the chaining mechanism idea and wanted it to be a predominant feature of the game. As it turned out, this was far easier said than done, but I am pleased with the final result.
The rest of the game didn't come as easy as those first few days. To borrow from a software development maxim, the last 10% of the rules took 90% of the time. I faced many design challenges while developing the game, most of which are recounted here.
From the very beginning, I wanted the chaining mechanism to be a highlight of the game, but I was continually dogged by challenges in making it shine.
Initially, it was difficult for players to set up chains because it was difficult for them to get the precise rolls they needed. However, after I introduced the sundial tile, players had a way to modify dice coordinates used for tile placement (two pips worth, up or down). A side effect of the sundial was that it created a certain amount of analysis-paralysis (AP) for players who are prone to it, but I decided it wasn't excessive and I was okay with the amount.
The chaining mechanism was also hurt by aggressive use of the bird and rabbit tiles, which rendered chaining all but useless. Planting, watering, and harvesting a single tile was always a better strategy than investing in chains. It also made the game devolve into a bloodbath, which is something I didn't want it to be. After many unsuccessful attempts to fix the problem, I ultimately addressed it by requiring the player controlling the bird or rabbit to also spend an ownership disc by placing it on the captured tile (taking it as his own) or to stack the disc on the bird or rabbit (probably losing it for the rest of the game). This cost also made it easier for players to analyze the risk of their own tiles being eaten by one of their opponents.
The chaining mechanism also seemed less than stellar because you could chain only to your own tiles. In what turned out to be a brilliant suggestion, Ben McJunkin (BGG user chally) wondered how the game would play if players could chain off of each others' tiles. When I tried this variant and saw how well it worked, I immediately adopted it, tweaking it a little to give a bonus when a player harvested another's tiles. This was a pivotal change in the evolution of the chaining mechanism, and I am grateful to Ben for the suggestion.
Unfortunately, the player-to-player chaining created two different problems. First, it caused a lot of AP as players analyzed the board, as well as already harvested tiles, to see whom a water or harvest action was most going to help. And when a player did decide to pull the trigger, many times it would result in the entire board being wiped clear with a single action. It felt like the game was starting over – and that was not very satisfying. Fortunately another playtester, Christian Youngman, had an idea: Chaining would affect only lower value tiles. It was a simple solution and it worked.
Rolling a six gave players the most flexibility: They could buy, water, or harvest any tile of their choosing. Knowing this, I wanted to create additional decisions for players using any sixes they rolled:
----- Sixes could be used to buy special tiles (later reversed for reasons explained below)
----- Sixes could be used to flip a special tile, from bird to rabbit or sundial to scarecrow (or vice versa)
----- Sixes could be used to place tiles in the bottom right corner of the board, where they would be worth double points
----- Sixes could remove other players' special tiles from the board (the coordinates would need to be rolled as well)
Adding these decision points to the game made it far more interesting and thought-provoking for players.
Another big challenge I faced was self-created: I had imposed a rule that a six was required to buy the special tiles. Although the reason for this requirement was sound (at least to me), it was crippling for a player who could not roll sixes, especially in the early rounds of the game. A player who lacked an early sundial, in particular, was severely disadvantaged.
Josh Cappel (Outside Lime), who has done such a nice job with the art for the game, had a thought. He suggested adding a one-time token that allowed a player to change a single die to a result of his choosing, with the idea that it could be used to convert any result to a six. The idea worked well enough, but in the end I decided that each player would start the game with a set of special tiles and place them when desired. Although the sun token would no longer be needed for its originally intended use, I did leave Josh's suggestion in the game because it was a good one that added an extra option.
I addressed these issues with three changes. First, scarecrows would no longer protect veggies against rabbits. This solved the thematic problem and also the problem of an omnipotent scarecrow. Second, the scarecrow would award three bonus points for each surrounding tile harvested. Third, I ruled that scarecrows and sundials could not be removed from the board by rolling the coordinates of the tile and a six; only birds and rabbits could be removed in this way.
The End Game
Originally, the game ended when the last tile was taken and any unplanted tiles counted against their owners. Although it was a clean idea, in practice it didn't work well and created an unsatisfactory ending. In a close game, players would often use their dice to move their bird or rabbit randomly to avoid taking the last tile (or tiles) and losing points. After testing different ideas, I finally hit upon one that worked. Each player would have a "gimme"; they would be penalized for all but one of their remaining tiles. It worked well.
I also had to come up with a tie-breaker; I personally find draws to be a bit of a letdown. A good friend, Chad Bowser (cjbowser), helped me with this one: Tied players add the face value of their harvested tiles, and the highest total wins. Perfect!
The basic scoring during the game never changed, though mechanism changes did alter the dynamics, in particular the ruling that chaining should proceed only to lower-numbered tiles. The cheapest vegetables are still the easiest to harvest, of course, and are especially nice for end-game set bonuses. However, because of the efficacy of chaining, higher valued ones can collect a player more points with a single move (including the bonus from harvesting other players' tiles). Higher value tiles are necessary for straights and will also gain players a better return when planted on bonus spaces.
In-game bonuses were changed or added over time. Already mentioned were the new bonuses for chaining and scarecrows. The game also has a number of multiplier squares in the lower right corner of the board. The original game had many of these, with some awarding triple points. Unfortunately, this became the source of wild swings in score; the finished game has only six bonus squares, and they all double the harvesting points.
The end-game scoring had a few changes during development, but for the most part it looks like it did originally. I lowered the points awarded for making complete sets from 25 points to 15 points because they were also the source of large swings in the score. I wanted to make sure the game wasn't weighted in favor of a particular strategy.
A Word of Thanks
I have many people to thank and I'm indebted to many who have been patient and supportive as I make my first foray into the world of board game design and publishing. Among them are my super wife Heidi and my parents, Chad Bowser (cjbowser), John Coates (jbbrwcky), and Chris Kirkman (ckirkman), as well as the many people who've put up with countless requests for playtesting. Without your help and your confidence in me, I would have never gotten to this point and I am grateful to you all. I hope to return the favor someday.
To all those reading this, I thank you for taking time out of your day to do so. If Garden Dice sounds interesting, please consider becoming a supporter of the game during its Kickstarter campaign. If it doesn't appeal to you, but you know someone who might like it, I would be most grateful if you'd help spread the word. Thank you in advance!