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Designer Diary: Clocks – A Game Designed Against Time

Sander Vernyns
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Microbadge: Aquarium fanMicrobadge: Essen attendeeMicrobadge: Experiment fan
Board Game: Clocks
This designer diary tries to "shortly" describe the ideas, thoughts and evolution of the game design and mechanisms behind Clocks. Of course there is a lot more to the production of a game for a small-scale game company as we have to do everything ourselves (game design, graphics, rules, etc.) but I think that a little insight in how Clocks came to life is a more interesting read than the worries and troubles of getting from the prototype to the soon-to-be-published version.

The Basic Idea

A Saturday morning after Spiel 2011: My design partner Tim De Rycke has come over to my place to discuss the past fair and our future plans. In the middle of the conversation he says that he would like to design a game about the auctioning of dice. Some other game design concepts and ideas were mentioned by both of us, but the thought of the dice stayed.

The plan was to discuss the business matters and the company plans, but I couldn't resist going upstairs to get dice out of the game room – or as my wife sometimes calls it: the room she actually needs for other things but that is unavailable because of all the games in it.

The Mechanism

With a pile of dice in front of us, we start brainstorming about the possibilities that dice offer. Auctioning dice as a concept...fine...but why would players want those dice? What makes that one particular die better than another die? You get action points or victory points for them? Resources maybe?

While placing dice in a row from 1 to 6 in front of me – I have no OCD, but am just a perfectionist who likes to have things in the right order – the idea of placing dice was created. What can we do with this? A couple of seconds later a look at our living room clock was the spark of imagination needed for the game concept:

S: Make a clock! 1 to 6 and then again 1 to 6 … while putting 12 dice in a circle on the table.

T: A clock goes from 1 to 12. Let's just add a 6 to the last 6 dice and we have a perfect clock!

S: But that will unbalance the value of the dice as you will need more "6" dice than other dice.

T: Balance is your task, my friend!

S: We will add them to the board.

T: We will have a board?

S: We will have four boards, one board for each player!

From gallery of Verbal
From six dice in a row to twelve dice in a circle – the start of a new game

At noon we went out for lunch as we planned to celebrate us surviving the Spiel fair once again. The weeks before the fair are nerve-racking as you're never sure whether the games will be ready on time. The days at the fair are fantastic but also very exhausting (especially since you have your real life job the days before and immediately after the fair). But the fact that you see people enjoy playing a game that you designed (and spending their hard-earned money to have their own copy of it) makes it all worth it. That's what Spiel does to us: It motivates us to keep designing games because we see how much our customers like the games we create.

Instead of the planned financial and business talks that were on the agenda, the conversation soon went into the direction of the new game. (Some other games already in further development were put aside in our minds; this had priority.)

We can use action points and special actions to influence the dice. The goal of the game is to get all of your dice on the right spots, using actions or special abilities to change their values or their places. The seed for a new SandTimer game was planted!

That evening when Tim went home we both had a good idea of how the game would work, so we started working out the whole game concept, each on our own. (I can't stress enough how much I like being part of a design team as we complement each other very well, but that's a whole other story.) The next time we meet, we see that although the basics were the same, we had each taken a different approach to the game.

The Action Point Dilemma

There were three possibilities when placing dice: The larger value with the cash bonus and the perfect die with the bonus action were implemented in the both versions. It was in the smaller values that the big difference appeared.

Tim gave a number of action point markers depending on the difference between the value of your placed die and the value of the space. He had actions to both increase and decrease your dice; the flip action and swap action were also available as we had discussed during the first brainstorm session.

The big difference with my design was that there were no action point markers given, but you could upgrade your dice by increasing them by one or more pips to pay for an action; as a result there was no action needed to increase the value of your dice. The now available action space was used on my game board to include a leapfrog action.

From gallery of Verbal
An overview card of one of the many early versions of Clocks;
some interesting concepts disappeared in the final version: limited access to actions; 1 payable with action points; 1 payable with money

After many, many playtests, decisions had to be made. The action point markers meant a need for more components and so a higher production cost (and they also meant that people could save their action points to do a lot of actions at once). The system with increasing the dice for action points worked, but it was too fiddly as people were always turning dice to be able to do actions to turn even more dice. A radical decision was made:

S: Wait a minute...

T: I'm waiting.

S: We change the action system. You can do only one action in a turn, that's it.

T: That might solve the problem of collecting action points until the end by some players.

S: Why don't we drop the action points?

T: But the actions have different strengths, so you have to make a difference.

S: Let players pay for their chosen actions.

T: I thought you wanted to drop the action points?

S: Let them pay with money.

T: But they will need the money for the auction.

S: It creates interesting choices: Spend your money in the auction, or use it to improve your dice?

I think this was one of the best design steps that we took in this project. This decision streamlined the game tremendously, and looking back we couldn't even explain why we ever started with the action points, (although the fact that I really like action point games like Java certainly had something to do with it).

I think that's one of the most difficult tasks in game design: You always have to reconsider your total concept. Is this rule still needed? Each change to the game concept forces you as the designer to look over the whole game to see the impact of even the smallest change. Can this rule be replaced by a simpler mechanism that has almost the same effect and game experience? The action points provided no extra game experience, they made the game unnecessarily complex, and they introduced another resource (dice, money, action points) to be tracked in the game. Less is more.

Of course this decision wasn't made as quickly as it's represented here as we were both defending our own design. (That's the nice thing if you know each other very well; you don't always have to be nice in these discussions and the other person understands that all the criticism is not personal but just to get to a better end result.) The decision to drop the action points was followed by us remaking the game board together, so from here on we tested the same game.

The Bidding System

Or at least we were testing the same game board. It was only at the next meeting that we discovered that the action point system was not the sole difference in the design as we had each used a different bidding system. Tim went for the closed bidding system, and I introduced an open bidding system in which the active player who divided the dice into groups wasn't allowed to bid but he had the opportunity to buy the dice for one coin less than the highest bid.

This created a big dilemma. As the more strategic orientated gamer, I had problems with the fact that I had less control on the game. I had the feeling that the open bidding system added to the game in its own way; it also gave the start player more options in the bidding round as he could sit and watch what the other people were willing to pay. There were some nice tactical decisions and you had more control on the game.

From gallery of Verbal
One of the early game board designs with a special ability for the start player during the auction phase;
note also the other special abilities that have been removed or replaced

It was only during a discussion after a playtest with Dany Stuer (our graphic designer and Photoshop wizard) that I started thinking about the goal of the game. The game is not about the auctioning of the dice, although that was the original start of the design; it's about where to put your dice and how to make clever use of the right actions to make the perfect clock.

As I was used to the closed bidding system – my version included it in the auction system from the moment that only two people remained in the auction – I tried the "less control" version in games with more players. I was impressed by the fact that it didn't bother me at all that I had less control in the auction as the game was now more focused on how to get your clock right than on how much you should bid for the most perfect dice. It also simplified the gameplay as the bidding system was now the same whether you played with two, three or four players.

I'm pretty sure that some of my early playtesters will miss the original open bidding system in the beginning. I'm certain, however, that they will also see that the game is not hurt by the change as the most important decisions come after the auction. (Of course there are these moments in the game that you just have to go for it in the auction and try to maximize your chances.)

There was a moment that we considered adding the open bidding system as a variant to the rules, but in the end we decided that the game worked best with the current rules and that we shouldn't mention the open system (except, of course, here in this diary).

People who want more control in the auction can easily introduce the open bidding system, but I would strongly advise trying the rules as written because it offers you a much cleaner game that focuses on the real challenge: what to do with the dice you get from the auction instead of calculating the highest price that those specific dice in the auction are worth to you or your opponents (which doesn't mean that the auction isn't important at certain times).

Balance in the Game

The next step in the design process was to make the game a little bit more balanced. How much would an action cost? Where are we putting the actions? How much money do you get at the start of the game? All things that you can think or calculate about for hours and hours, but the only real good answer for such questions is to playtest, playtest and playtest again.

You can even make computer simulations, but in the end players might do unexpected things. That's one of the reasons why in early playtest sessions where I'm still involved – that is, before our blind playtests – I sometimes try to break the game by using an illogical approach to the game just to see what happens.

After some calculations and many, many playtests and changing the board and actions and the locations of the actions from time to time and playtesting all over again, we were very pleased with the end result. The game board was finished, the balance was fine. There is some luck in the game, but good players have a lot of control and can do fantastic things with suboptimal dice results.

Colors of the Dice

Board Game: Clocks
The fifty dice in each game of Clocks
To add extra spice to the dice, we decided to use different colors so that we could give special abilities to each of them. (This decision resulted in me ordering more than 50,000 dice from Chessex that I then personally had to put in Ziploc bags in the right quantities, just to have the highest quality of dice in the colors we wanted.) This idea was already in the early concept, but only after fine-tuning that concept did it become clear which special abilities would work and which wouldn't.

Cards...or Not

The game was balanced and worked well, but we were thinking that there were more possibilities with the game we had in front of us – some extras for experienced players to get even more out of the game. So the cards were introduced in the playtests. Most playtesters liked this extra dimension of the game as it gave more options during play and the possibility of nice tactical combinations.

When the production deadline got closer, however, I decided to drop the cards (at least for now, a decision that some playtesters have already complained about). There were multiple reasons for this decision: cards meant extra components and extra costs for a game that is already pretty expensive to produce for a small scale game company. Besides the game worked perfectly without the cards. (There were even players who just ignored the cards during playtest.)

The most important reason, however, was that the cards in my opinion had great potential. I still believe that the cards can add to the game experience, but I think we need more time and more playtests to get everything nicely balanced to the standards that we expect for our games.

Solitaire Game

Already in the early days of the game design process, it became clear that Clocks had the potential for a good solitaire game. The game was perfectly playable with the standard rules. Since you didn't need money for an auction in a one-player game, we removed the free action to take three silver coins in the solitaire game, which balanced the game further as it was more difficult to reach the perfect clock. The problem was that you had only two possible outcomes: You have a perfect clock or you don't.

That's why the current solitaire rules were designed. With the extra rules, the game evolved into a puzzle about how to improve your end result to the perfect clock in the most efficient way. Now you have an effective way to see how good you played. As we don't like to use paper and pencil to calculate our scores, we introduced the concept of the "scoring dice", with the dice that are removed from the game for solitaire play being an elegant way to track your score.

There Is Another Side on This Board?

We couldn't believe it. Clocks was our first game design completed well before the production deadline (at least if we don't include the cards). Experiment and Aquarium were finished only at the last moment before our deadline for Spiel. During a meeting several weeks before the deadline, my contact person from our manufacturer, Cartamundi, asked what we wanted on the back of the game boards.

S: Back of the game boards?

C: Just black, a picture, or your logo?

S: Can we put an extra board on the back?

C: Yes, that might be possible.

S: ... Extra board ... extra work ... a lot of extra work ...

C: What are you thinking?

S: How much time do we have left?

C: We have about one or two months left if we want to get it done by Spiel.

S: An extra board ... a lot of extra work ... not that much time to balance things ... but the possibilities ...

C: Do you have an extra board?

S: Not yet, but give us some time.

C: We will have to respect the deadlines if we want to make it to Essen!

S: I know ... but ... the possibilities ...

I couldn't forget the idea of giving our customers a second board to play on. We both started working on a new board, and this time we decided to work separately on the new boards to have as many fresh ideas as possible.

Tim came with a totally new board with new placing rules and all. It had great potential – and perhaps in one of our next designs some elements of this idea will be used – but it was too complicated as the rules were to different from the original board. (Only the components remained the same.)

I was immediately thinking about my "leapfrog" action that was lost in the early design process. The most innovative idea of my clock, however, was to make a "backwards" clock. It seems a small change, but it has a huge impact on the playing style. The costs are higher, and you get less money in the beginning, but it's a more challenging board with nice combinations to the end. The rough idea was finished and more playtests helped balance this game board.

Board Game: Clocks
Choose Your Side

A bold idea, but what if players could use both game boards at the same time? It would be very hard to get this done as there was a big chance that one board would seem superior after time and that players would prefer this board.

The good news was that we had a game that could be played by one player, so we'd need only one fool to do many, many playtests. So I started doing solo playtests while recording all my steps just to see where more balance was needed. Both of the boards seemed balanced – but what if you put them against each other?

That's why I worked on a simultaneous playtest system to see whether both boards had equal potential. For this I played the game on one board, then after each turn I took exactly the same dice (same color and same value) from a spare set of dice. In this way I could see whether I could score more points with one of the boards with the same dice at the same moment in the game. As an experienced player I could play up to ten games in an hour in solitaire gameplay, so it was "easy" to get the necessary numbers for a good comparison of both game boards.

Most of the time the scores were very close to each other, but each board needed its own playing style. Whereas the forward clock is pretty straightforward (although you have to make the right decisions at the right moment), the backward clock has more potential for nice tricks but it can overwhelm new players easily by the high costs of the actions and the lack of early money.

After more than 200 simultaneous solitaire games, I came to the conclusion that both boards had an almost 50% chance of winning and that the scores were generally not more than two points from each other. Thus, I didn't had the feeling that one board was superior to the other. (Note that the results for this comparison are the temporary scores in the solitaire game as the score-tracking rules for the solitaire game were not yet designed at that moment.)

Then we went back to multiplayer playtests, which confirmed this statement. Players have an almost equal potential to win the game on both boards, but each board has its own playing style. The fact that players now had different interests in the dice made for extra suspense in the dice auction.

Production and Release at Spiel 2012

The graphics, the production of the game boards, the packaging of the dice, the translation of the rules (which are now downloadable on BGG in English, German, French and Dutch), the text and pictures for the back of the box, the editing of the rules – all of this is, of course, a whole other story.

The most important thing is that as the deadline came closer, we finished the project just in time (as we did in all previous years) but with an even better result than we had ever thought possible that Saturday morning after Spiel.

Thanks again to our translators and especially to Dany who has invested a lot of time in this project! And also a very special thank you to all playtesters who wanted to play and replay Clocks in all its versions!

For the moment the games are in production, we are packaging the promotional metal-plated dice for the first preorders/customers. We are preparing ourselves for another insane but very satisfying five days in Essen, where people will have the opportunity to discover Clocks.

Board Game: Clocks
Board Game: Clocks
Board Game: Clocks
Board Game: Clocks

And after Spiel there will be without a doubt new meetings and telephone calls with new ideas for the next SandTimer game...

Sander Vernyns
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