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Designer Diary: ...and then, we held hands.

Board Game: ...and then, we held hands.
The following diary is from the perspective of designers Yannick Massa and Dave Chircop, with the author of each section signing off at the end.

The Jam

So we were asked to write a diary for the development process of ...and then, we held hands., and this has proved a bit difficult for us because ATWHH wasn't developed over weeks of painstaking design and playtest sessions; it was designed, developed, and printed in 48 hours (many of which Dave and I spent in blind panic, but we'll get to that). Thus, we thought it might be a good idea to run you through a play-by-play of our experience at Global Game Jam 2014! Scared? Me too. Okay, let's go!

Friday Night

Dave and I arrive at the Institute of Digital Games at 5 p.m. full of vim and vigor. We-re not scared of our first ever game jam. After all, Dave has been into board games since he was in short pants, and I've been designing adventures for pen-and-paper roleplaying games since I was 15. Games are just what we do. With a confident wink at each other, we take our seats and wait for the presentation to begin. We sit through a few talks, waiting impatiently for the theme to be announced and inspiration to strike.

Finally, the chosen hour — 7 p.m. — arrives, and we're shown the theme that will guide the design of our game: "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."

Okay.

Not what we would have chosen, but we can work with this. I already have a few ideas going in my head, and I can see the hamsters working furiously in Dave's head. But first things first, we need more people for our team. Both Dave and I come from a design background with some programming and art skills thrown in between us, so we were looking to strengthen our numbers with a programmer and an artist. A cursory look around the room showed that everyone had already formed their own little teams, but we had a go at trying to poach someone, at least an artist. Alas, no dice, so we knew we were making a physical game right off the bat.

We find a quiet spot to settle down and brainstorm, and we come up with a number of fun, novel ideas that neither of us wants to work on. After a few hours of pitching ideas to each other and getting nowhere, we decided to change tack. We made our way over to a table, affectionately nicknamed "The Hoard" which holds everything we could need for making a board game prototype, picked up a bunch of graph paper, Magic cards and meeples, and started experimenting with new mechanisms, some way to play that we don't usually see done in board games. We already knew some things at this point: Dave wanted to make a game about hand-holding; I wanted to beat the idea out of him.

Midnight rolls around and still no ideas. Despair starts to creep up on both of us. Maybe we're just not as good at this as we thought. We're players, not designers! "Have you ever actually made anything WORTH playing?" I'm screaming to myself. I look up at Dave and see panic in his eyes. I'm even considering relaxing my hand-holding veto. Everyone around us is busy working on their games, and we don't even have an idea yet — just a few half-formed mechanisms we think would be really cool, maybe. It doesn't look good.

By 4 a.m., we're ready to call it a night. Defeated, we trudge out to Dave's car, and he gives me a ride home. "I'm not sure we're cut out for this", he tells me, and I can't find it in myself to disagree. We agree that he'll come back for me at 9 a.m. and we'll give it another shot when we're a bit fresher. I fall asleep that night thinking about the ideas that we DID like: co-operation, an open hand, and a circular board.

Saturday Morning

I wake up feeling refreshed despite the short sleep. Dave picks me up, and we head to the Institute where we get right back to work. I head to the Hoard and rummage around to find the last thing I had been thinking about before I fell asleep: a piece of graph paper made out of concentric circles. I show it to Dave. I want this to be our board.

Dave hasn't been idle, though. He's drawn up a few cards with a different color on their left and right borders, and he's come up with a mechanism in which you can see only half a card at any one point but can switch. Dave calls this "Perspective" and thinks it will fit in nicely with the theme. I agree. While he's busy finishing off a prototype set of cards, I draw up a rough draft of the board.

From gallery of davechi

Pretty soon, we're ready to playtest our first prototype, a game in which you color-match cards to nodes to move to the center, using each other's hands and switching perspectives when you cross over the board's main line. This first playtest shows us what we already knew inside: that this game was incredibly boring. We know we want to use the mechanisms, but the gameplay is dry, and there's no flavor. I suggest that maybe the colors could be emotions. "Spend emotions to move across a board representing a psyche", I say. "Why are two people in one psyche?", Dave replies. "I don't know, maybe they're in a relationship", I quip. We pause. We make (intense) eye contact. We know we've found something we love. It's decided.

In the meantime, noon has almost come 'round, and we need to lock in a name for our game. In a last-minute panic, Dave types in "...and then we held hands" and saves. "We'll change it later", he assures me. In any case, it's better than our original title: E-motion.

Saturday Afternoon

We break for lunch and fill up on pizza and beer. We're feeling a lot better than last night. Now we have a concrete idea of what we want to make: a cooperative game about a couple trying to fix a broken relationship. The theme seems to slip snuggly onto the mechanisms, and the gameplay felt intimate, but even so, there were a lot of problems to fix.

First, we needed to balance the board, and we got this out of the way quickly, so our playtests would reflect the gameplay we wanted. Second, we needed to fix the fact that players could move as much as they wanted, provided they had the cards they needed, and thus the Balance track was born. Third, we needed to add short term goals to the game, stepping stones to the game's final objective, and after relatively little playing around we had the Objective deck.

By 5 p.m. we had performed the first successful playtest of the barest bones of what would become the print-and-play version of ATWHH. It's at this point we realize we're the only team at the Jam working on a board game; all the others are making digital games. This doesn't bode well for us. After all, digital games are bound to be more impressive. We don't care. We finally have clarity.

Saturday Night

It's 7 p.m., and we're running to the closest stationery store with a printer. I've only just finished designing the final board, and we want to see what it looks like on paper. Unfortunately, Dave hasn't finished the cards yet (there really were a lot), so we'll have to find another printer tomorrow. On a Sunday. In Malta. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The board looks great. The red nodes look a bit orange, but other than that, we've got ourselves a solid board. Dave settles down to finish the cards, while I keep running a few more playtests. By 3 a.m., all the legwork is done, and we settle down to do a final playtest before calling it a night.

Six beers later, Dave drops me off at home. There's no self-doubt this time. We made something we think is great. We agree to meet at 9 a.m. again to start looking for a printer.

Sunday Morning

This is it. The Jam is scheduled to finish at 3 p.m., so we have six hours to find an open stationery store that can print and cut the cards we need. If you've never been to Malta, finding any shop open on a Sunday is no small feat. We hit up a number of stores: all closed. When we do find one that's open, it can't print to our specifications. The next one we find open has terrible print quality, compromising the polished feel we'd managed to achieve using Dave's Photoshop skills.

Finally, in a desperate last try before we settle for awful printing, we go looking for a vaguely remembered store that may or may not have been there. But lo and behold, it was there, open, and could do what we wanted — that is, all except for the cutting, for which the shop owner kindly let us use her paper-cutter and even lent us a hand to speed the process along. Thank you, kind-hearted stationery shop owner.

Sunday Afternoon

By this point it's 1 p.m., and we're taking it pretty easy. We're driving back to the Institute at a leisurely pace, confident in the knowledge that we've finished everything. We have a printed board and two decks of printed cards, and we even found some glass beads to use as fancy tokens.

And then I realize we never wrote the rules down. I mean, we'd scribbled notes of the main points, but we'd never formalized them into a proper rulebook. Suddenly Dave's driving a lot faster. We somehow make it in time with thirty minutes to spare and I speed-write a rulebook and submit.

The Jam's over. The rest is history.

—Yannick

Board Game: ...and then, we held hands.
Cover of the print-and-play version from Global Game Jam 2014


Inspiration

I had the crazy and annoying idea of making a game about holding hands. I still don't admit today that it was a terrible idea, mostly just to stand my ground. Yannick immediately shot me down. ...and then, we held hands. is essentially the game I subdued Yannick into making with me so that I could still keep part of the "holding hands" idea alive.

Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly like that, but the original idea was about closing our eyes and holding hands and trying to communicate using just that, without speech. Sound familiar? Looking back, this seems to have survived in the no-talking rule, which Yannick had brought up again much later in the design process.

Much of our Friday night was spent struggling, thinking, scrapping, starting, and restarting different designs, with frequently repeated walks to the pizza place on the other side of the university, walking back with a slice.

Our second game was something that had to do with double-sided cards and the ability to be able to look at each other's hands and manipulate them, flip them over, change them, take them from each other. Sound familiar again? Well, yes, now that I think about it, part of this game survived in the final product, too, in the card-splaying "perspective change" mechanism. I never really thought about it this way, but the final product (which we actually started explicit work on only on Saturday) became a sort of conglomeration of all the previous failed concepts that we tried before.

In this photo, you can see two designers hiding their inner despair as they can't find anything that works. That night we went home disheartened, desperate, knowing we would never be game designers, thinking about our future careers as fast food (not servers — the food itself as we wanted to be burgers).

From gallery of davechi

But Yannick has told us a lot more about despair in his previous post. I'm supposed to talk about inspiration! Happy thoughts, Dave, happy thoughts.

I think the moment of truth came on Saturday morning. Yannick and I had managed to catch a few hours sleep. I picked him up in the morning, and we drove there in relative silence. Maybe it was our disappointment in ourselves, or in each other. We arrived there around 9 a.m. Most other jammers had spent the night there, working on their cool ideas. We were there knowing that we would need to register an idea on the game jam website by the 11 a.m. deadline.

Simon, a fellow jammer and designer, pointed out to us he had brought some paper with grids for us to fiddle around with. Yannick went to check it out to see what there was, while I started setting up the profile for a game with no name. Yannick came back and showed me a grid printed on an A4 paper of consecutive circles. Yannick looked at me with a cheeky smile; I looked at him with a face begging "please be good news, please be good news". He sat down on the floor and started moving pieces around the grid.

"Two people, a failing relationship", he said.

My face slowly transformed to a wondrous smile. "They need to get to the center to save it", I replied.

We paused for a moment.

"Dammit, Yannick! We have the game", I said, breaking our awestruck silence.

"Really??" he said in disbelief.

"Yes, man! This is it", I assured him.

"Okay."

And then we took this photo.

From gallery of davechi

It was cold.

We knew we had our game. Now it was a matter of finishing it, joining it up, and compiling the bits together to create the early version of the game you see today. The perspective change and the no-talking mechanism were inspired by previous ideas that our minds were still swimming in from the previous nights, but there are many other things that showed themselves to us and not the other way round.

Yannick and I, separately and without having told each other, were going through a difficult period in both of our relationships. This fact came about months later, but it was quite eye-opening to understand why the theme was such a resounding YES! for both of us. Mind you, the game was not designed with this in mind, but the mindset that we were in at the time appears through and through.

...and then, we held hands. is a game about altruism, I like to think. Altruism in that you often have to look out for your partner more than you have to look out for yourself, and this works only if your partner is doing the same. If one player is looking out for only himself, then the game will crash very, very quickly. It's quite fascinating how some players, and even ourselves, fall into a problematic rut and don't realize it until only our partner can save us.

—David

Board Game: ...and then, we held hands.
Print-and-play version


Development

Development of ...and then, we held hands. was quite a particular process, I would say. The game was already a simple, distilled concept when it came out of the proverbial game jam oven, so it was hard to simplify and distill it even further. Many of the discussions of issues we knew the game had ended up in no result. We often would find something we didn't like about the game, and three hours of discussion later realize that that's the only way we would have it. Because of the scale of the game, we also noticed that even little changes had amplified effects on the game in general, so we needed to treat the game with a certain feel of delicate trim.

The first and perhaps easiest change for us was the dropping of the extra lines in-between the nodes. The original design which we had made included connecting lines between nodes that did not allow movement. For us, back then, the board looked significantly better with them, but they had no other significant value for the game. This was the first exercise in detachment. It's interesting how often time allows you to change perspective on the game. It is good to note that the game had a significant period of time between when it was signed and when it came to be published. Interestingly, what seemed important right out of game jam began to seem less and less important as we went along. By the end, the lines were cut without remorse.

The second change we made was the fusion of the objective decks into one. In the original game, players would take turns drawing an objective so that each was associated with one of the players. When we originally designed the game, it was designed within a community that significantly valued the figurative. Initially, there was value in leaving them separate. The emotional choice, and the metaphor of allowing your partner to complete your own emotional goals, was a meaningful and grounded addition, providing quite a bit of flavor to the game.

When it came to bringing the game to the real world, though, and away from the sheltered experimental shed of game jam, these quirks became less valuable and needed a bit of ironing. A similar rule to this was one in which if you use six or more cards, even if you don't reach balance, you still get to refill your hand. This rule was there to represent a person having an emotional outpouring and the emotional replenishment and relief that often comes with letting out something you had been keeping in for a long time. Again, outside the game jam environment, this rule became redundant as it was never used or found valuable in our playtesting, so it got chopped.

But the changes were not all about reducing. We knew that the game, once players start understanding and collaborating well with each other, would become easier to solve, so we needed to add a mechanism that would add longevity and scalability to our game. I think out of all the development, this is the section that took the largest amount of time and iteration. We playtested more than five fully fledged systems of difficulty scaling for the game, but all of them were a lot more complex and didn't quite fit the rest of the game. Some required too many components, some were too fiddly, others made the game too long — until we finally managed to come up with the arguments concept that we have today.

LudiCreations supported us throughout the testing process, but in the meantime they were working in the background to do something a lot more amazing: getting Marie Cardouat on board for the project. The publisher had quite a difficult task at hand. I had made very functional art for the PnP game that was quite iconic, so they needed to give that art a professional touch while staying true to the original feel of the game. We had a very strong trust-based relationship with the publisher. We made it clear to them what we liked and what our vision was, then we let them do their magic in the back room, and they came back to us with what you see today. There wasn't much iteration in terms of the illustration; it was more of a choir of wows and sighs.

—David

Board Game: ...and then, we held hands.
Emotion cards from the LudiCreations edition


The Future

So, the future might hold some exciting things for ...and then, we held hands. Dave and I are currently working on a new layer to the game, trying to add a real-time element — our wonderful composer Niccolo's music — to the turn-based gameplay. This has proven to be especially difficult.

Whatever mechanism we were to implement, we knew right away that it could not punish the player by, for example, having a different hindrance enter gameplay depending on which song of the soundtrack was currently playing. Since players don't have timed turn limits, they could just wait any especially hindering song out, slowing down gameplay. We needed something that affected players positively, maybe even granting shortcuts under certain circumstances.

Right now we're experimenting with the idea of giving the player opportunities to earn stackable bonuses by performing certain challenges under certain time-constrained conditions, such as while certain songs are playing. Stacking a bonus with another bonus would then give the players a spectacular advantage for a very limited time, forcing speedy play but only if the players choose to take their shot at the challenge. This leads to tricky moments when players need to empathize much more quickly, possibly making snap decisions their partner would then have to react to, with the promise of gaining advantages that will in turn allow them to finish the game in less time, effectively amping up the difficulty. Most importantly, the players have agency as to if and how they want to tackle these challenges.

It's been very important to us during this process to not add any dead weight to what we feel is already elegant, simple gameplay and also to not have any real-time mechanism that required a lot of physical additions. ...and then, we held hands. is a small and discreet game, and we felt that whatever is required to play the add-on needs to fit in the current box and, most importantly, be inexpensive to print and distribute. To that end we've been pursuing our usual minimalistic design approach and hope to deliver something new to all the great fans of this tiny board game.

In closing, we've also often been asked if we ever plan to open up the game to more players. To these people, we say that we briefly discussed the possibility of a three-player variant using a triangular board, but we haven't really committed any time to developing the idea. Maybe after the real-time expansion!

—Yannick
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Wed May 11, 2016 1:00 pm
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