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Designer Diary: Mindbug, or Four Minds, Eight Hands

Christian K
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Board Game: Mindbug

Christian's Story

In January 2020, I listened to a bunch of podcasts about game design. One I especially enjoyed was Nerdlab. Unlike many other such podcasts, it was quite focused on card games, the kind with monsters fighting, cool card combos...you know the kind. This genre has a huge place in my heart, so I wrote to the guy behind the podcast, Marvin Hegen, and we discussed making a game together. While making the first prototype, this was the recipe in my head for making a cool simple two-player game about monsters fighting with gameplay inspired by TCGs:

1) Come up with a ruleset (as simple as possible) for how cards behave while in play.
2) Come up with a mechanism that keeps the player who draws the best monsters from winning automatically. (Let's face it, if the big companies cannot balance these types of games perfectly, neither can we.) This mechanism could be, for example, draft, auction, or something else.
3) Make a bunch of cool monster cards. Try not to make them too complicated.
4) To play, players will draw some random monster cards. They will use the protocol from (2) to put them into play, and attack with them using the ruleset from (1).

I figured that if the system from (2) is "fair" enough, if the rules from (1) allow some depth, and if the monsters from (3) are not too complicated, you would probably get a good strategic game out of it.

For (1), I used the simplest thing I could come up with: Play a card or attack with a card. Highest power wins battles. This is nothing revolutionary — just a fine simple system. Keywords and special abilities are needed in this system to prevent the creature with the highest power from dominating the battlefield.

For (2), I was inspired by the secretary problem from theoretical Computer Science. In short, this is a problem in which you see a bunch of values and try to guess when you see the biggest one. In Mindbug, players are allowed — twice each game — to steal a card that the opponent plays. You have to steal it at that exact moment, though, so you are trying to guess when the opponent is playing their strongest creature.

This idea turned out to work super well in practice. Players have a lot of fun deciding whether they want to steal this particular monster or wait for something better to come along. This idea almost always results in players wanting to discuss "what if" scenarios after playing and whether they could have changed something to win.

Showing this initial prototype to Marvin, we were both surprised that it was actually fun. Normally, first prototypes need a lot of polish to get somewhere good, but I think we got lucky here and started with something really fun.

As a first-time designer, having seen this game go from idea to finished product has been a ton of fun. I was, of course, really excited when the game started getting some buzz. Some of the first coverage was this video from The Dice Tower, my beloved board game reviewers that I have watched for almost ten years.

They were not as excited as I had hoped (and the image there is the prototype artwork for some reason). They somehow initially thought Uwe Rosenberg was also a co-designer, and they mostly seemed confused about the whole thing: "..and Christian Kudahl? Who is a computer scientist? From Denmark?"

A friend of mine found it so hilarious that he made a comic about it to mock me further:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

After releasing one thousand copies of the game at SPIEL '21, we luckily had a lot more positive (and less confused) feedback from the people who bought it there. As a new designer, I am incredible humbled and excited to see where this journey will take us, and I couldn't wish for a better team to be on this journey. Having Richard and Skaff join the project with their unrivaled experience in card games, insane attention to detail, and exploding creativity has really moved Mindbug forward in a completely new way. And the cherry on top is of course getting to hear a lot of crazy old "back in the day" stories, especially from Skaff...

Christian Kudahl

•••

Marvin's Story

Board Game Publisher: Nerdlab Games
My journey began about three years ago when I decided to work more intensively on my own game ideas. The goal was clear: In the end there should be a self-developed and published card game — but the process of how to get from an initial idea to a polished product was not so clear to me at that time.

That's why I launched Nerdlab in 2018, a podcast in which I describe my journey from being a gamer to becoming a game designer and publisher. For the podcast, I conduct interviews with leading experts of the industry to get advice for myself and create value for my listeners. Through the podcast I made invaluable contacts in the industry. I met Christian, as well as Richard and Skaff, but without the Nerdlab community itself, Mindbug would never have emerged into what it is today. They actively supported me during playtesting and always motivated me to continue when times were tough. Putting yourself out there and surrounding yourself with supportive people is one of the most important things you can do.

When I first talked with Christian about the idea of a dueling card game, we had a common vision for the most part. Our basic premise was that the game should be super simple, but still feel like a classic strategy card game. Based on that simple idea, I did something I often do to prepare for my podcast episodes: I asked the community, specifically by asking the following question in a public forum: What do you like/dislike about TCGs/CCGs? From the results, I then created a Google spreadsheet (something I also love doing) and developed the core principles for Mindbug. Here are a few examples of the 50+ responses from that discussion:

• The problem that I have with TCG games is that usually the fault of all my losses is because of the deck instead of my skill.
• I like it when the outcome doesn't depend on who has the biggest collection.
• I like the incredible amount of depth in terms of tactics and strategy.
• I like when your strategy is going to change every time you play.
• It is so difficult to explain those games to someone who has never played it before, so I can basically play it only with my existing group.

I then clustered those answers and translated them into four design principles for Mindbug:

1. Easy to play
2. Fair and accessible
3. Diverse and exciting gameplay
4. Strategic depth

When I first played the new Mindbug mechanism with Christian, I immediately knew that we could achieve these goals with it. The mechanism allows a player to steal a creature from an opponent two times per game at the moment they play it. It was simple, it was elegant, and it was a lot of fun.

Later, I then told Richard about that Mindbug mechanism during a podcast interview. I said that we had developed a mechanism that allowed us to design incredibly strong creatures without breaking the balance of the game, and that we could do it without needing a resource like mana or crystals. He then said: "That must be an overstatement", which it probably was — but it got his interest, and we started playing the prototype of the game, and since then we have worked together on the development of Mindbug.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

At one point, the card above was a serious card that existed in the game. Who designed it, came up with such an over-the-top powerful effect, and matched the name and image will be a story for another time...

Marvin Hegen
Nerdlab Games

•••

Richard's Story

I was immediately interested in Mindbug based on its simple but interesting concept of each player being able, twice in a game, to steal their opponent's play. My first plays intrigued me in another, unexpected way — the very simple rules that managed to get a lot of the character of more sprawling card battling games.

One of the first things I questioned in the original was how big your starting hand was and how many cards you drew during the course of the game. We were dealt a hand of seven cards and the remaining three would be drawn when we lost lives. While I liked the way this played, and it did feel fresh, I worried that it would be too chesslike, meaning that you could plan out so much in advance. This ability to plan meant that for new players or for players who didn't want to analyze too much, they would make stupid mistakes until either the game became second nature or they relented and thought their way through the possibilities. Giving a smaller hand — five cards, with five unknown cards to be discovered as play developed — allowed players the ability to make plays more from the gut. Playing a card just to see how their hand developed and possibly lure out a mindbug was more viable.

This also led to us dropping the idea of drawing cards when taking damage. This mechanism is reasonably fresh and often feels good to beginners, but it has been done before and had some consequences that I had concerns about. The problems come when players don't mind losing life or, in fact, seek it out. Something I have seen play out with other games that have this mechanism is beginners attacking successfully, then feeling like rather than doing something good, they have simply given their opponent a card. Of course, it doesn't really matter whether this is true; what matters is how people choose to play, and making it so that attacking generally has a negative consequence will push people away from that. As a "catch-up" feature, it succeeds by making loss of life much less actual progress than it appears, and really a catch-up feature as strong as that is more necessary in a long game.

Another area that interested me with regard to how the game played was whether the game would play better with some of the cards duplicated. Is the best play environment one with all unique cards? To get a handle on that, I mixed together a dozen decks; each was 50 cards at the time, so there was a stack of 600 cards. We started to play and quickly found that the presence of duplicates often led to interesting situations for a number of reasons. For one, you couldn't count on another copy of a card not existing. Also, some cards get more interesting with multiples because whatever they do stacks well with itself.

It is my experience that multiples also help people play better faster since the environment of cards is easier to learn. Many games, and Mindbug is solidly among them, become more fun when the players get better at them, so I like any tool that helps players speed along that route.

We ran into a major hitch with the first implementation of duplicate cards, however, and it confused me until we figured out what was going on. I began by adding common cards and made the easiest cards common. From trading card games, I firmly believed common cards should be broadly powerful and easy, while the rares could be more specialized and complex.

The feedback was that the game got duller. Soon we realized that the standard shouldn't be simplicity as none of the cards were that complex anyway; the standard should be cards that become more interesting when the possibility of a duplicate is out there. For example, Gorillion, which is simply a power 10 creature, I would have made a common before this but is instead unique. It just isn't that interesting if two are floating around as often they simply cancel each other out. On the other hand, Grave Robber, which when played allows you to play a card from the opponent's discard, is more interesting if there are two because this effect going off twice can be more interesting, and if both of you play one, they don't cancel each other out in the same way.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

This new philosophy lead us to be less aggressive with the duplicated cards and also very selective of which ones contributed to the environment in such a way that they benefited with multiple copies.

Richard Garfield

•••

Skaffs's Story

I came to Mindbug later than the other three designers, so unfortunately don't have as many interesting stories to tell. I was introduced to Mindbug by Richard Garfield. He is my business partner and had gotten involved earlier in its development. He recommended very strongly that I play it, and I wasn't disappointed. When Richard recommends something, especially a trading card game, there is a guarantee that there will be some interesting aspect of the game. It doesn't necessarily mean that the game is good or will stand up to repeated play, but it always means there is something seriously worth paying attention to.

When I first heard a cursory sketch of the rules, I was intrigued, but to be honest assumed I hadn't received the full story. Shortly afterward I played and found the game to be excellent! The most surprising aspect to me, given its stage of development, was how complete it was. I had a similar feeling playing Magic for the first time — the game seemed perfectly "ready to go". Of course there was still a lot of work to be done, but the play experience felt satisfying in a way that often doesn't happen early in a game's life.

But much more important than its completeness was its simplicity. This was the thing that truly excited me in the beginning. The lack of the need for a heavy rules structure while still giving such a complete and deep game experience was inspiring. The key to the release of this structure was the lack of "casting costs", even in a generalized sense, that most card games need. This game had cards of substantially different power levels without the need for the complexity that generally makes up a large portion of card games. This is because the need for a casting cost to make a card "fair" is eliminated by the mindbug mechanism.

Board Game: Mindbug

In some sense, every card play is an auction. You are effectively bidding against your opponent and the future utility of your mindbug cards. The "fairness" enforced by a normal casting cost becomes an iterative decision on all the future possibilities of you and your opponent in a very simple play system. Simultaneously a significant portion of rules structure is eliminated while strategic depth is added. If the base system weren't so simple, this calculation would be a lot less tractable and probably a lot less fun.

The very simplicity of the play/combat system is what allows this thinking to be accessible while thinking multiple moves ahead. The low number of total turns in the game goes hand-in-hand with the low number of mindbugs, and this all works in virtuous cycles since thinking about the endgame is almost immediate. Many games use an auction system in place of explicitly balancing assets, but Mindbug might have the simplest version I've ever seen done well.

But that's all just exposition. The simplicity of the system for me was the exciting part because of what it enabled. The mindbugs freed up enough rules space that you could get a deep play experience cognitively easily. You didn't have to learn a lot of rules or memorize a lot of cards. You didn't even have to construct decks. The simplicity of the system meant that it was easy to reduce playtime. The shorter playtime coupled with the simple board state meant that the possibility for excellent team play was likely. When I first saw the game it was only for two players, but it immediately jumped out that we should be experimenting with teams. Many good trading card games have an excellent team version, but almost always this version has some major drawbacks with length of playtime and complexity of board state. Mindbug seemed like a great opportunity for a much more reasonable team game. The simplicity also seemed to open the possibility of a solo game. Almost always this is impossible for a TCG because the rules for an "enemy AI" are too hard to adjudicate — or at least not fun to do so. At this point, this case hasn't been cracked, but it's one of the few TCGs for which it seems even worth trying.

The simplicity and low rules complexity also had another immediate advantage. Almost everyone who is interested in a card game of this depth already has several other games they are playing, especially TCGs. It's a big ask to learn a new trading card game, but asking someone to learn and play Mindbug in a serious way is trivial. Mindbug isn't quite a traditional TCG, but it has many of the aspects of one — for example, many cards with many possible interactions, and an ever-expanding universe of cards. For a game with a complex system this would take a lot of time to master, but with Mindbug it was evident that anyone, even someone already deeply entrenched in a TCG, could pick this game up and start playing seriously with amazingly low effort relative to the depth returned. We always like games with this quality since players' time is so precious.

Anyway, those were my first impressions of the game. These factors immediately jumped out, and all hinged on the simplicity of the rules system. It was a big bonus that the other designers were extremely intelligent, really nice, and mainly just very fun to hang around with.

Skaff Elias

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Tue Nov 23, 2021 1:00 pm
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