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Designer Diary: Unexploded Cow

James Ernest
United States
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Board Game Designer
Board Game Publisher
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Board Game: Unexploded Cow
Unexploded Cow is coming back in a full-color updated edition from Cheapass Games, and I figured it was a good time to write a designer's diary about the project to let people know about the new edition.

Unexploded Cow is a game about savvy entrepreneurs who find two problems with a common solution: mad cows in England, and unexploded bombs in France. Players build herds of bomb-seeking mad cows, give them a pep talk, and march them through the fields of France. It's a quick-playing, chaotic card game and one of the most popular Cheapass Games ever.

So here's a short look at where it came from, and what's changing in the new edition.

Early Days

In 1999, I got talking to my friend Paul Peterson about working together on a card game idea called "Cordon Rouge", named for the (metaphoric) red cord that surrounds fields of unexploded bombs in the French countryside. Yes, it's a real thing: acres of dangerous, unexploded ordnance from the World Wars which real French démineurs must risk their lives to clear away.

This was just on the heels of a big mad cow episode in England, so we came up with the concept of using mad cows to clear those unexploded bombs. Because exploding mad cows are funny. Really, really funny.

Paul had recently designed Guillotine for Wizards of the Coast, and I was on my third year of inventing wacky games for Cheapass, so it seemed like a good project to work on together and probably even something I could sell.

Design notes from ten years ago are pretty hard to find, but I do remember a few things about how the earliest versions worked. I'll mention some of those early rules as I talk through the upgrades.

Board Game: Unexploded Cow
First Release

By 2001, we were ready to release the game. Cheapass had upgraded its packaging from a $6 envelope to a $7.50 box, and the game title had changed from "Cordon Rouge" to the much sexier Unexploded Cow. In part, this was a reference to a British TV series from 1979 called "Danger: UXB", a drama about royal engineers defusing unexploded bombs during the Blitz.

Our artist for the first edition, Michael O'Connor, ran with the idea of British soldiers, and together we developed a backstory in which mad cows believe they are still fighting the war. The art style in the game reflects the fantasy world of the cows, anthropomorphized and rushing headlong into battle. The enemies, represented in just one of the images, are pigs.

The game was a fast seller for Cheapass, and we reprinted it several times before ceasing all printing in 2005.

Board Game: Unexploded Cow

Free Version

In 2010, Cheapass Games began to struggle back to life, releasing free versions of some of its most popular out-of-print games. Unexploded Cow had been given some design attention in the meantime because we'd tried to sell it a couple of times. Those publishers, for one reason or another, just didn't work out.

In the process of updating the game, Paul and I tried to address some of the concerns that potential publishers had raised with the core mechanisms, and we used the significant design experience that we had accumulated in the intervening years. The result was a cleaned-up, print-and-play edition that we posted on the web, completely free.

Board Game: Unexploded Cow

Deluxe Edition

Now it's 2012, and we are working on a full-color, deluxe edition, which will ship with pieces and nice cards and a sturdy box. It's part of an effort to reboot Cheapass Games as a real world publisher, with a mix of deluxe reprints and classic low-budget games. We've hired Cheyenne Wright to update the cow images to full color, and we've taken another look at the game engine in the hope of making it the smoothest-running Unexploded Cow ever.

We changed a lot of subtle things in the original mechanisms in order to update the game to its current state. The rules in the free version linked to above aren't exactly the same as our upcoming release, but we will eventually update the free version to reflect the changes in the deluxe set, when the time comes.

So, What Changed?

Unexploded Cow has always been based on the same concept: Players control herds of cows, marching them through France and rolling dice to see which cows explode. Cows cost money when you buy them and earn you money (usually) when they blow up. So how is the newest edition different from those that came before it? Here's a short list.

-----• The City Deck

One of the primary alterations in the new edition of Unexploded Cow is the function of the City Deck. When you blow up one of your cows, you earn the loyalty and respect of the denizens of whatever French city you happen to be visiting. This means you take the city card. In 2001, the city card was just worth 1 to 12 points. In 2012, it has a special effect right away.

Why the change? Playing the game for points never seemed like a fun end in itself, so early in the design of the 2001 version, we decided that the game should be a gambling game, a zero-sum game in which money that is won by one player has to be lost by another. You can see this used in some of our other games of the time, including one of my favorites, Starbase Jeff.

In the 2001 edition, collecting the most city points earned you the pot, which was all the money left over in the middle. Since this was a highly volatile reward – which often was nothing at all – we added a "bank", which was basically a part of the pot that couldn't be touched until the end of the game. This meant that the winner didn't ever win zero, but the value of taking all the cities was still highly variable.

Because the cities were valued 1 through 12 points, taking a low-point city always felt bad. In fact, we gave players ways to avoid taking low-valued cities (Mechanics, Standoffs, etc.) because we believed it was sound strategy to force other players to take low-valued cities. Well, it wasn't all that sound, and players tended not to use these tricks, opting to take a small number of points over no points at all. Because of this, the points race often felt futile when a player had taken a few points, but still couldn't compete with others who had taken one or two large cities.

In 2010 we decided to make the cities have an immediate in-game effect and made their point value secondary. All the immediate effects were beneficial, and winning the points race was of minimal value: The player with the most points goes first in Sudden Death, rather than scooping the whole pot.

-----• Sudden Death

The 2001 edition of Unexploded Cow had two piles of money in the center: One was "the pot" and it could change dramatically in-game; the other was "the bank" and remained untouched until the end. One potential publisher had real problems with this mechanism and rightly so as it seemed like a hack, and it was. The goal of the bank was to ensure that the player with the most points would always get something.

We eliminated the bank and added a new rule: When the pot is empty, unless it is the end of the game everyone must re-ante. This actually solves a number of tough problems that arise when the pot is empty, including "no value for winning on points" and "you have to play very strangely when the pot is empty".

The winner of the point game doesn't get the whole pot. Instead, he goes first in a new round called "Sudden Death" in which players take turns making bomb rolls until the pot is empty or all the cows are dead.

Sudden Death has two important effects on the flow of the game: one, to minimize the value of the point game by giving just the first roll to whoever wins it, and two, to give some value to the player who has amassed a huge field of cows at the end of the game. In Sudden Death, if you have a lot of cows and your neighbors have very few cows, you can make a lot of money cashing those cows out (as opposed to older versions of the game in which a field full of cows is worth nothing in the end).

The best thing about Sudden Death, aside from the name, is the excitement it brings to the end of the game. It is a joy to roll the die and let your carefully built field of cows blow up and earn money.

-----• Other Changes

There are a lot of other subtle changes from the first edition to the latest. For one thing, the minimum denomination of bill has risen from $50 to $100 to make math easier.

One pretty large rule change is that a roll of 6 is no longer a 6. Instead of counting to 6 and blowing up that cow, you pass the die left, and let that player make a bomb roll. This rule means that really large fields – that is, those larger than five cows – are no longer a "lock" to explode one of their own. Instead, there is always a chance that you won't succeed in blowing up your own cow, no matter how big your field.

The ante is a lot bigger now, too. In 2001, the ante was 100 (twice the smallest bill); now it's 500, which is 5x the smallest bill. We have also added a rule that whenever the pot is empty, all players must re-ante 500, so the pot is never empty. Good players can usually make sure that the pot never empties by making other players buy more cows, but that's an advanced strategy and hard to counter; when the pot refills, there is less pressure and less reward for players to use that tactic.

Mad Bombers no longer blow up entire fields. They hand bombs only to their left and right, which is still pretty good. In some cases, it's even better, in case you have a field of cows that you would rather not explode.

Board Game: Unexploded Cow

What Stayed the Same

The goal of the game remains the same: Make more money than you started with. We're happy to let players regard the biggest money maker as the "winner", but as in any gambling game, you should feel good if you end up with more money than you started with.

There's still a Mission Creep card – two of them, in fact – and there are still ways to fish it out of the discard pile and play it again. Mission Creep is the strongest event in the game, and despite costing twice as much as any other event, it's still everyone's favorite as it makes all players pass their fields to the right. As super-chaotic as this card sounds, we actually feel that it improves the game as smart players will learn not to overextend their fields, holding some cows in reserve as a hedge against another player's Mission Creep.

Fine-tuning continues even now on prices, values, and special abilities of the cows and cities in the game. Paul and I are confident that we've kept all the wacky fun of the original, improved on it, and made a more solid foundation for good play – and the new art is absolutely amazing.

James Ernest
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Subscribe sub options Fri Aug 24, 2012 6:30 am
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