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Designer Diary: Carrossel, or How an Over-the-Top Dungeon Brawler Became a Merry-Go-Round Game

Antonio Sousa Lara
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Dear Diary,

How the hell did this happen? Could you please tell me how a weird over-the-top dungeon brawler became a game that features...a merry-go-round??

Well, to make a long story short: time.

Wow, that sounds so incredibly boring, so let's go back to the beginning and look at things in more detail...

Concept (or not)

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away from here, there was this young designer working on a game that featured a sort of Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom vibe coupled with a Cutthroat Caverns type of theme.

This theme was the most interesting part of the game because the mechanisms were not. It was any insane combination of three different boards connected together in which each player would play on all three boards — wait for it — simultaneously! The boards that had a player's character(s) when that player was the one playing on that board would activate: move, attack, get treasure, yada yada. When a player would play on a board with none of their character(s), then that player would perform a bunch of boring upkeep steps for that board: refill treasures, spawn monsters, activate monsters — the whole shebang. Suffice it to say that the game was nearly impossible to play as so many fiddly things were going on that players' brains started to melt due to the sheer number of options they had, let alone tracking other player's options.

Like many other prototypes of this young (and quite handsome) designer, it was thrown in the (trash) drawer. Later that year, the theme would be salvaged and converted into a (upcoming) great game. Also later that year, some people involved in playtesting that first game demanded to have their brains melted again. (It seems there is a kind of masochistic pleasure in doing that.) Since they refused to take "no" for an answer, finally the young and quite handsome designer reconsidered and began reworking the crazy-simultaneous-multiple-board-brainburner (which was now themeless at this point).


I knew that the game would have to be dumbed down to a very (very) basic set of options, something like "On your turn, draw a card and boom, you're done, son", but better obviously. Also, I knew that the game would have to be playable by both young and old, noobs and leets, so yeah, I had my work cut out for me.

When building a prototype, I decided to save on cardboard (because ecology, man!) and joined the three boards into a single board divided into playing areas separated by thick borders. Since I had no theme, I began using simple abstract strategy solutions based on classic games like Rummikub and Go. I loved the idea of using other players' pieces to gain points. From that idea came a grid with numbers on the different spaces that matched a set of numbered cards for each player. Then a bunch of cardboard tiles (in different colors) would be shuffled and dealt randomly to each player; these tiles would be placed on the board via the numbered cards. The board, the cards, and the tiles allowed players to play simultaneously and have zero downtime.

However, the game still wasn't playable, this time due to the physical aspect of needing to place tiles in areas farthest away from the players, which would result into players bumping their hands as they stretched to reach distant areas. It was one big mess.

Then a few geniuses (not me) suggested that the board could move instead of the players. It could rotate like (guess what) a merry-go-round. BOOM, there was the theme knocking at the door — and that theme brought its best friend, playability, to join the party.

Developing with a Theme

So yay, we've got our theme going forward, but the game is still lacking that brain-burning fix; it was a mere activity that functioned well, but nothing in it allowed for deep strategy and forward planning.

Thankfully, yours truly works much better when a theme is in the mix, and it was natural for the "merry-go-round" game to have things like wooden ponies on a stick (i.e., an equal starting set of animal tiles for each player) and kids (client cards awarded to the owners of the animal tiles on which they ride).

Now the story is that we're building the merry-go-round while the kids are at the door screaming their lungs out to jump in for a ride. What this means is that players are no longer trying to do fixed combinations of sequences as in tic-tac-toe or four-in-a-row games, but rather variable combinations for three types of kids (of four different colors/animals). These card combinations do not move with the board rotation, which means that a specific set of three kids (clients) will be waiting in a ticket booth for the right sequence of animals (in a row) to rotate their way. Sounds simple, but because each player plays only one tile, then the board rotates away with that tile, players are constantly forced to work with tiles from other players and have other players work with theirs. The burn is on!

The Brain-Burning DNA

In the final design, it's almost impossible to complete any sequence with only your tiles. At best you can complete a sequence with two of your tiles if this sequence is on the edge of two separate areas. (You'll place one tile near another player's tile on the edge, then rotate and the complete the sequence from the other side of the same border.)

Most of the time, you'll be completing a sequence with two tiles from different players and only one of your own. This is fine if you are getting the most valuable card of that particular sequence. Oh, I forgot to mention, but points points points. You win the game by having the most points when the game ends (which is not a novel concept, but hey, it works). You earn points from client cards and from endgame objective cards (which give the game a nice replay value). On top of that, client cards that you win during the game have special powers that can be used alongside your card plays for really cool effects.

With all that going on, as soon as the game starts, you are immediately faced with objective cards and groups of client cards that have variable values according to their points. You start to wonder: "Should I play tiles for the value cards, or should I play the tiles that match the type of card most present in play currently so that I increase my chances of having it used by another player? Do I place them in the center or somewhere on the edge, or should I save up a specific tile or card for later...ssssssssssss..." Brain burn! And it gets worse as the board gets more and more crowded.

Still, at its core, the game is just "play a card and a tile". Simple, right? NO!

Do not let this game fool you into thinking it's a pleasant ride on a merry-go-round. You are not the kids; you are the short-tempered, sleazy salesman who owns part of the merry-go-round. Though the game is designed to be accessible to anyone — heck, you could even shuffle all the cards and tiles, then just play from the top and the game would still work (kinda) — it carries this brain-burning DNA that will eat you up for breakfast. And isn't that fun? YES!

If you ask me, I love the idea of the hardcore Chess players having this innocent-looking little fella on their shelves at home to play with the spouse and kids. To me, that says "Job well done. Let's move on to the next crazy game" — and I will happily do so.

Thank you so much for reading this diary of mine. Great games to all of you!

Antonio Sousa Lara
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Tue Nov 26, 2019 1:00 pm
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