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Designer Diary: Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Theme

Hunter R. Hennigar
Canada
Peterborough
Ontario
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Odd theme, tight mechanisms
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Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters
My partner Kym and I launched Ugly Christmas Sweaters on Kickstarter (link) in November 2019. Being so personally tied to both the game and the campaign has spurred this "self-evaluation" of everything that's come to pass with the design process (which is coming up on the four-year mark).

With Kickstarter fulfillment winding down, I thought I'd bring anyone curious about the game up to speed and, well, writing all this out seems to be consequently cathartic.

The Origins

I love trick-taking games. Always have. They sum up much of my childhood and a major bulk of lunchtime in my high-school cafeteria. For me it was Bridge, Hearts, Euchre, Oh Hell! — any of those games that could be played with a small footprint and a standard deck of cards.

"Write what you know", they say.

Well, this being my first game, I decided: "Design what you know."

I think that idea grabbed me, carried me along, and held me up while I had early game design struggles. It was a nice anchor to tug me in, remind me of what the game should feel like when I started to drift.

"Design what you know, design what you know, design what you know."

That simple mantra beating the back of my brain over-and-over was a big factor in what got us here, but the implications of that mantra (and letting it go in a sense) made Ugly Christmas Sweaters the game you see today.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Trick-taking games have such a wonderful set of mechanisms baked in:

• To start, you have a hand of cards — your cards, your lot in this microcosm. You peel this pile off the table and organize a sundry group of colors and numbers as the gears begin to spin in that pink head-flesh of yours. It's exciting to anticipate what you might do with the hand given to you.

• Then, there's the general play of a trick, each player laying a card down in predetermined order, with a dash of drama as there are inevitably unexpected winners and losers.

• A trick is a relatively quick game atom, with a good built-in pace that keeps players invested in what is happening at all times.

• Finally, someone scoops up the trick and this affects either their score, or other players', or both.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Maybe that is a quick and dirty generalization of this category of game, but the trick-taking system is so well established (conceived in the 15th century) that it felt like a solid foundation on which to begin a design. On top of that, if you look at the physical, tactile components for a trick-taking game, you'll mostly find a deck of cards. This was important to us two-fold: The game has a small footprint in terms of transportation and table presence, but it also keeps the complexity of manufacturing (in both cost and production) to a minimum.

In any case, nostalgia was the name of the game when it came to trick-taking, so when a theme finally tagged along, it was no surprise that it too had its root buried in that field.

I always attempt to pinpoint where my love of the holidays began, and inevitably I fail. To say, "It's just a feeling" is a cop-out of the highest degree, but that's all I end up with. Maybe it's that life gets a little simpler around the holidays, a week of the year where time doesn't stop...but slows. Kym and I have the opportunity to put family and friends before everything else for a few fleeting moments. In doing so, these wonderful experiences with people emerge. Moments away from your phone/computer/television provide an opportunity to simply exist.

That's the same way we both feel about board games. Sure, there's many other benefits to gaming — healthy stress, memory formation, cognitive skill increase, etc. — but at a base level you have these face-to-face, tangible social interactions in an ever-increasing closed-off digital world. So there it was, a theme called Christmas!

Without getting too rambly, I knew trick-taking wasn't the end game, but a mechanism that would dovetail into another, and then again. Tableau building and set collection were always going to be in the game, and to link those two mechanisms would come a third: drafting.

With this in mind, I had to make sense of what a holiday theme meant. What, connected to Christmas, could logically stroll alongside those mechanisms mentioned above, without seeming "pasted on"? I needed something that could be grouped together with multi-use cards and different colors (suits) and could get away with looking...well...mishmash. All of this, while somehow maintaining a strong sense of verisimilitude.

I suppose now you can see why Ugly Christmas Sweaters was born.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

The Grind

We had it! A three-pronged approach: trick-taking, nostalgia, and the desire to design a Christmas-themed game at a complexity level that more seasoned gamers would want to play. It had to be something fun and thematic, while carrying depth and not straying too far from that familiar trick-taking feel that holds a special place in my heart.

Everything was set, a solid grouping of mechanisms, a cute theme, vision for days — easy, right? Oh, no. No-no. Just the opposite.

From gallery of hunterrhennigar

I am a big proponent of doing my research, and in game design that generally means playing a LOT of other games. Kym and I hit the ground running, and since she actually hadn't played many trick-takers before meeting me, we revisited all the old standard 52-card deck trick-taking games that were beloved in my youth: Hearts, Euchre, Bridge, Oh Hell! Also, we began tapping into the "new-ish" wave of standalone trick-taking games: Diamonds, Skull King, Blend Coffee Lab, Tournament at Camelot, The Fox in the Forest, The Bottle Imp, Potato Man, Voodoo Prince, etc.

Doing so gave us a heck-ton of insight as to what a great trick-taking game should play and feel like; not only that, it helped us identify game elements or mechanisms that weren't yet present in a trick-taking game. Essentially, the more games you play, the better equipped you are to add pieces to make your own game unique.

With that said, this process began a few years ago and was our freshman effort — and when your game design instincts aren't honed, it can be a double-edged sword. When you play so many good games, you are bound to think, "Oh, I liked that little thing", or "Maybe this piece can work in my game". I'm not really sure what other designers call this, but when we finally became self-aware, we dubbed it "rule hedging".

Early in the development process, we found ourselves intensely focused on making Ugly Christmas Sweaters feel different round-by-round because while I enjoy many trick-taking games, they can begin to feel a bit rote after a while. You can see in the final iteration of Ugly Christmas Sweaters the gameplay cards like "Trendy Yarn", "Perfect Fit", and "Fads" shift at the start of each round. We feel this, paired with the "Secret Santa" objectives, provides that sense of change without adding too much complexity.

This wasn't always the case as earlier we had two other gameplay cards in the mix that changed the way a trick would play out.

From gallery of hunterrhennigar

The first gameplay card was labeled "Stars & Stumps", which effectively could shift card strength round by round, so in some rounds low cards (1,2,3) would be stronger and in other rounds high cards (12,11,10) would be stronger. (At this point the "Perfect Fit" cards were middling values 4-9.)

While this value shift might have its place in some games, it didn't here. The only thing it accomplished was throwing players for a loop when they entered a new round where the values had shifted. We quickly scrapped it and used a simplified approach that was tied into more traditional trick-takers: high cards best. We then shifted the "Perfect Fit" (super trump) cards to the 1-6 values so that a low card could have its day once in a while.

Lesson learned: Added complexity can be a great thing for a game, but you need to check yourself at every avenue because needless complexity can kill a game.

From gallery of hunterrhennigar

The second gameplay card I take all the blame for. I wanted a way to break away from that "follow the suit led" rule that is a staple of most trick-takers. Not in an effort to "be cute" or "add something different", but rather because we needed a way for the sweater draft pool to have diversity in color and icons; by doing so, "Fads" could be achieved at a higher rate, and players could more easily control what would end up in the draft pool for their own sweater builds.

Like the "Stars & Stumps" example, I hedged my bet on the rule and added cards to the trick that would shift between you following the color of the card led and you playing a different color than the card led. Again, this just ended up being confusing and admittedly not at all elegant.

In the final iteration of the game, you can follow either the color or the icon of the first sweater card led in a trick — which means you can have various outcomes. Some tricks could be all the same color, while another trick could be a rainbow, and most fall somewhere in between. Looking back on it now, it's almost humorous to think that "Aha!" moment didn't come sooner — especially considering the way the sweater cards are designed as the solution was slapping me over the head every time I sat down to playtest — but hey, we got there!

As a designer, you will inevitably struggle with the bad rules and mechanisms that find their way into your game prototype. Eventually cycling them out takes many playtests, a strong self-evaluation, and other points of view. I hope including these "facepalm" examples helps other first-time designers know that they can make mistakes, while also being critical of their own designs. I am nowhere near infallible when it comes to game design — none of us are.

I will say, through those early-to-mid stages of design, it was amazing to have Kym. She was always up for a round or two of Ugly Christmas Sweaters, someone to jabber my ideas at, and most importantly she was as much a cheerleader and developer as she was a plain-speaking, critical, gatekeeper with any ideas I had. When you're self-publishing, you really need someone like that in your corner.

The Polish

All right, all right, so we've talked about what we removed from Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Now, I'll start diving into all the little micro-decisions and tweaks Kym and I had to make with mechanisms we ended up keeping!

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Tricks → Drafting
I've heard a lot of folks say, "When you play a game with trick-taking in it, no matter what other mechanisms exist, trick-taking will overrun them." I think this is very true in most cases, but I don't think it has to be this way. That criticism living in the back of my mind at all times is a huge part of why Ugly Christmas Sweaters balances its three mechanisms evenly. To make it work, we needed to dial down the "10" that was trick-taking, and the solution we came up with was changing the way our tricks were resolved.

I would say a majority of trick-taking games play out as such: Each player plays a card, all cards are compared, one player wins, the winning player places all the cards from the trick in front of them (for better or worse). This way exists because it is simple, has low rules overhead, and is easy to track.

But what happens if that game is also a tableau-builder? If players aren't drafting similar numbers of cards in the same round, a score could quickly cascade for one player, especially with the randomness of a trick-taking hand. Of course there are many solutions to a problem, but for our game flow, we chose to mitigate it by playing tricks for draft order of cards, rather than having someone win the whole kit and kaboodle. (A fellow game designer said this part of the game feels like a blend of trick-taking and auction, which is wonderful to hear.)

There was another layer to this process, though: We liked the thought of a draft order, but we didn't want players to be drafting cards from the trick they were currently playing. To us, that wasn't really a gateway to strategy. It leaned further on the side of output randomness, and we are much bigger fans of input randomness. Players needed to be informed of what their spoils could be before they decided how to play for them, not just fumble or luckbox into a good draft.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

So the loop became this:

• A current draft pile of cards would always be present.
• The trick you are playing now determines your draft order for the current draft pool.
• After drafting, the cards in the current trick become the new draft pile for next trick.

This not only allowed you to make a plan for the current trick/draft (playing strong if you were looking to draft a specific card and therefore wanted higher draft priority), but also gave you a "plan ahead" dynamic for building your sweaters on the back end. It became really fun to play with this decision within a decision: "Do I play a strong card so I can draft early this round? Do I really want any cards in the draft pool right now? Should I hold back and play a weaker card that will be useful for my sweater build if I can draft it next trick?"

I felt this also managed to solve the "strongest hand wins" problem that can be present in trick takers. With all players drafting equal numbers of cards, players who didn't have a hand that would win a majority of tricks could still keep an opponent's score at bay (or even come out on top) if they were observant and played their trick/draft/knit loop well. We always aspire to make a game that rewards those who are thinking on multiple levels, and I am happy to say we got there on this one.

Anyway, finding this nice loop that had a range of complexity was a big crux for the game. To me, it was something special and different that swayed a bit from the traditional trappings of a trick-taking game, but still kept that mechanism important.

Tension
Another built-in feature with many trick-taking games is a straightforward flow: Play a card from your hand, resolve the trick, rinse, repeat. Eventually you find yourself out of cards and that triggers the end of the round (or the game). This method works well for games with bidding or when the amount of tricks taken matters because as long as you haven't hit your goal, there is potential for tension right up to the last card.

In the early stages of Ugly Christmas Sweaters, we had the round playing out as listed above, and to be completely honest it felt flat and anticlimactic. Having changed the dynamic of the trick, we desperately needed to find another way to give players that same tense feeling. It became clear we would have to choose a specific game state that would trigger the end of the round, and for us that was adding a race mechanism:
Once any player completes three sweaters in their tableau, the round's end is triggered.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Three sweater builds means that the majority of a hand could still be played, yet players didn't have an exact idea of when a round would end — could be nine tricks, could be twelve. On the flip side, you and your opponents' sweater builds are all open information, so even though you don't know exactly when a round will end, an observant player who is continually assessing their opponents' board state will have a solid idea.

It was important the game give you freedom to build as many sweaters as you want, though. That way the round's end adds another question mark as players are never forced to complete a build (or trigger the end of the round) if they don't desire to. By doing that, other strategies emerged: If you felt someone was going big with their builds, you could choose to quickly (and sub-optimally) knit three sweaters to end the round, a lot of times leaving the more ambitious player with a sweater (or two!) unfinished.

On the other hand, if you don't want a round to end, then draft aggressively, taking a piece needed by your rival to ensure they can't complete three builds! I love how these little sub-strategies formed with our rules implementation. I think for designers it is a good thing to keep in mind when adding a mechanism because it can really affect how your game feels; you just want to make sure it is positive.

Secret Santa
Who doesn't love a hidden objective card? Especially when the name of the card ties in with the theme!

Okay, okay, seriously though — aside from loving personal objective cards in games, there was one huge reason why I decided to introduce these cards into Ugly Christmas Sweaters: front-end opaqueness.

During playtests, I found new players having trouble with what cards to play/draft at the beginning of the round. On average, it was taking until their third draft before folks began to have a clear vision of how their tableau was shaping up, and therefore what to cycle through the trick/draft/build process. While your strategy and builds will constantly change in a round, I didn't like that "lost" feeling players were having initially.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

My solution was to give players a little anchor, a small "build path" push right from the hop. Of course, there are the rounds' "Fads" to tempt you, but cards of that color or icon are not necessarily going to be present in that initial draft. Whether they chose to use it or not, I felt having a secret objective gave players a nice strategy bearing to begin a round...

...and hey, a fulfilled "Secret Santa" is worth the same VP amount as a fulfilled "Fad", so it allows players to make a little treasure from an otherwise underwhelming sweater.

Two-Player
With two kiddos to raise (and now this COVID mess), larger game nights can be hard to schedule. This means my partner Kym and I play the majority of our games at 2P, so when designing Ugly Christmas Sweaters, we couldn't make a trick-taking game that was accessible only to three- and four-player counts!

I will admit this was one of the hardest challenges to wrap my head around in development. There were a few musings about taking out an entire suit or taking out a certain number of the higher cards, but because the sweater cards were designed to be evenly balanced between the four colors, removing a suit was pretty much a non-starter. I also felt like it would be best if the game's set-up and draft pool count was the same through each player count (with some minor changes).

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

We eventually landed on each player putting two cards into the trick instead of just one — and we never looked back. This was nearly the identical set-up as the other player counts! You and your opponent playing cards back and forth twice added a nice little cat-and-mouse layer and allowed each player to have more control of what goes into a trick and what ends up in the draft pool. I wanted to highlight this player count because I think many trick-takers work well at the 3-5 player count, but there seem to be only a handful of trick-takers out there that play well at two.

Scaling
I know Ugly Christmas Sweaters is on the heavier side of a "family game" (depending on how much your family plays trick-takers). Personally, I love the fact it plays much meatier than its theme might suggest, but I wanted players who aren't familiar with trick-taking to settle in and not be overwhelmed with rules overhead. On the flip side, I wanted those who love ramping up tension and wringing out every drop of strategy an opportunity to do so.

So I made a scaling chart in the rulebook as well as a few "hard mode" variants to really push you. I won't ramble into great detail about them here, but I did my best to ensure that the game had layers that could be peeled back, or added on, depending on your play group. I hope that it helps the game be more versatile and gives it some longevity without having to add a whole cavalcade of expansions.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

The End

Well, folks, that's essentially four years of work boiled down! We ran a successful Kickstarter and were overjoyed with the support and response for this esoteric little card game. I challenged myself in many ways on this project. We set out to make a trick-taking game that added a fresh feel to the genre.

Even though some cautioned against it, we made a Christmas-themed game, hopefully one that folks who love board games will want to play. On theme alone the game will likely be divisive, but hearing folks say things like "It feels innovative", "You've got something really special here", "A challenging puzzle", or even "There is crunchy, multi-layered trick-taking hiding inside this lovely game of sweater creation!" means the world to us. Our Kickstarter was a lot-lot-lot of work, but holy smokes, was it a blast to see all the support folks gave us "unknowns"!

I am excited to hear what those who have played, or who do play, think of Ugly Christmas Sweaters and thrilled to show you the other quirky-and-odd-games Kym and I have been working on for our "mom-and-pop-shop" Hen House Games.

Thanks for the read, and happy gaming!

Hunter R. Hennigar

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters
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