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Designing for the mass market, a worked example

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
New York
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Disclaimer: I don't have much experience with what I'm going to write about here, but readers know that that has never stopped me before!



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In the early 2000s I can remember seeing a billboard in Watertown, MA for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and thinking it was bonkers that someone had made a movie out of a Disney ride. But to my and everyone's surprise, it ended up being really good; a good-enough story, good writing, good performances from the principal and supporting cast, just a good fun film all around.

Well, now the world of Disney rides has come to board games, with the Forrest-Pruzan studio and its Prospero Hall pseudonymous designer taking on some beloved Disney rides in game form, after finding success taking on beloved movie properties (Jaws, Top Gun, Back to the Future) and other stuff like the Choose Your Own Adventure book series and iconic painting enthusiast Bob Ross.

The first title is The Jungle Cruise, beloved by Disney fans for its self-awareness as a relic of a bygone era and most of all the corny jokes that the skippers tell in monotone fashion during the cruise.

The game seems to have captured the spirit of the ride quite successfully. You are trying to get passengers and cargo through the jungle, with a simple turn system: roll and move, and then face perils, which, depending on how you roll, will cause you to lose some cargo or passengers. In the peril system, you flop out 4 cards and must resolve as many of those as the amount you moved. Each peril specifies a number of dice you must roll and the area of the ship that is targeted. So, sometimes you'll have to decide between taking a less-risky card that, were you to roll poorly, would cost you your most valuable (cargo, passengers) or a more-risky card that is more likely to hit but you won't feel as bad about the stuff you lose. The idea of being a skipper resigned to the fate of having to throw some passengers overboard is pretty in keeping with the spirit of the ride.

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From my perusal of the Prospero Hall games, it seems they understand a few important things about mass market games that designers aiming for mass market success would do well to keep in mind:

1db The turn structure MUST be rigid. It can have a few steps, but they must always be the same steps, and there can't be many of them. Something like Acquire or Carcassonne is ok, something like action point allowance or worker placement is not.

1db Moving on a track is a familiar concept and is encouraged. Moving around a map is familiar enough that it's an acceptable alternative. Moving around on hexes or a grid are more abstract and probably not as desirable.

1db Rolling for movement or for resolution are familiar and therefore highly desirable.

1db Players don't want to be ultra-competitive. All this stuff we talk about like friction and opportunity cost mostly go out the window; players just want to kick back and have fun. Trying to win is a given but having to exert tremendous effort to win is unrealistic.

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I think it's an interesting thought experiment to think about how a game you've designed could be streamlined to potentially be a mass-market-viable game. The goal of the exercise isn't necessarily to turn your game into a mass-market game, but I think it can be beneficial in two ways:

thumbsup It's a way of thinking about accessibility. If you hope for your game to appeal to non-gamers or new gamers, many game elements that gamers take for granted will present steep learning curves to non-gamers. Dominic tweeted out recently that most non-gamers' tolerance for unfamiliar-to-them concepts in a game is 2, 3 max. And I think he's exactly right about this. Games that we think are not hard seem hard if they have elements that a non-gamer finds unfamiliar.

thumbsup It's a back-door way of asking whether your game needs to be as complex as it is. Having gone through the brainstorming of what a streamlined version would look like, you have come to a crossroads: is the more elaborate version of the game actually worth all of its cruft, or would the streamlined version actually be a better one to pursue?

A classic example of this is Elfenland, a streamlining of Elfenroads. Having played the re-released Elfenroads, I can see that Elfenroads is a better gamer's game, with its bidding phase and coin management, but I also understand why the streamlined Elfenland was an SdJ winner, and I'm glad it exists because it was one of our family's favorite games throughout my daughters' childhood.

(Example B: Wits & Wagers Family was a massive hit with them whereas original Wits & Wagers would have been just a bit too hard for them until they were into their pre-teen years I think).

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Here's a worked example of mass-market hypothetical streamlining. I've talked here about my adventure archaeology movie co-design with Steve Sisk, “Lost Adventures”, and here's a video about how it works.



The basic gist is that there's a map phase in which you get information about the perils of the lost temple and gear for said temple, and then there's the temple phase where you face those perils with a bidding system: you bid how much 'poison' you're willing to 'drink' in facing that peril, add it to the gear you acquired in the map phase matching that peril, and that's your bid. Highest bid moves the most. Game end, you must purge yourself of the hubris you've acquired or else your face melts off.

It wouldn't take too massive of a streamlining of the game to make a mass market-weight version of the game, maybe. I think it would work something like this:

Basics:
indigo The map is made up of 9 (?) cities, of three types (signified by a city shape). Each has an icon corresponding to one type of temple information (location, perils, artifact)

indigo There's a display along the bottom of the board into which temple information cards are placed

indigo Players have an identical set of “adventure cards” which each have two icons. There are 4 icons that help in the map phase, 6 that help face temple perils. You can have up to 4 cards in a tableau, representing your character. Everyone also has four “selection” cards in their hand.

Map Phase
In the map phase, on your turn you:

corn Move to another city, and flip an “encounter card” for that city type. It shows the type of challenge you face (luck, wits, fight, escape).

corn Count up the number of that challenge category's symbols you have in your tableau. Roll that many (custom) dice. Count up your hits.

corn You may peek at temple cards whose “value” adds up to the number of hits you rolled. (The board says how many hits are required to look at each temple card in the display). The temple cards you can look at must match the icon in the city you're in. i.e. one city has info about the temple location, another about perils, etc.

corn Then, you can add one adventure card from your hand to your tableau, and remove one if you want.

The map phase lasts for 5 (?) turns. After that, the temple location is revealed, and we begin the temple phase. Everyone place your marker on the “temple track”.

Temple Phase

In the temple phase, most of the action happens on the temple perils:

coffee For each peril, at the same time, everyone places a selection card face down, reveal together. The card you've chosen adds 0, 1, 2, or 3 to your bid; you must take that many hubris tokens.

coffee Reveal the temple peril. Count the number of icons in your tableau matching the peril (e.g. “blades”, “asps”, etc), add that to your bid. Highest total bid advances on the temple track the most, lowest bid advances the least.

Final Hubris Challenge

After we've resolved all the temple perils, then there's the “final hubris challenge”.

sugar Roll all of the dice 5 times, and for each hit, remove one hubris. If you don't remove all of your hubris, your face melts off and you are eliminated.

sugar Whoever is not eliminated, and is the furthest along the temple track, wins!

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Now, that already feels maybe a little bit heavy for mass market weight; probably it's at least a 10+ game. And yet there are two small modifications I'm inclined to make:

corn In the map phase, once per turn, after you look at a temple card, you can remove a token from the board next to that card, which means that anyone else wanting to view that card needs one less “hit” to view it. That token makes the final hubris challenge easier for you in some way.

This is the interactive piece to the map phase: I can help myself in the long run by helping my opponents get info.

corn/coffee The role of the Nazis. In the map phase, maybe the dice you roll have an “enemy” symbol, such that if you get that result the enemy pawn moves toward you, and if it catches you you must [dump a card or get one less hit or something]

In the temple, the enemy is also a bidder, and they have a flat bid, indicated on the board, that increases the further into the temple you go. This means it's more important to be well-prepared for those later perils (but the info for those is probably also harder to get).

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If you've designed a game ostensibly for a mass market audience, or are interested in doing a theoretical mass market streamlining of the sort described here, let's hear about it in the comments!
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