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Designer Diary: Keeping the Sacred Cows While Slaughtering the Rest, or Redesigning Wits & Wagers from the Ground Up

Dominic Crapuchettes
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Bethesda
MD
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North Star Games designs party games that don't suck! Play them with your non-gamer friends over the holidays.
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In the Beginning...

Wits & Wagers Party is a simple game with a dark and stormy past. The saga begins in 2004 when Wits & Wagers was still a prototype drawn by hand.

My business partner and I had just graduated from school. We were working 80-120 hours a week. We were lost, lonely, and low on blood sugar. That's when we decided to attend a craft festival to sell our first game, Cluzzle. (Yes, a craft festival. Like I said, we were low on blood sugar.) While there, I was going to drum up some support for our next game, Wits & Wagers. This was my first foray into the bizarre world of non-gamers. I was prepared. I had spent hundreds of hours streamlining the rules until it was idiot proof – simple enough for a small child (or perhaps a precocious puppy).

I enthusiastically showed Wits & Wagers to the first people we could rope into our booth. After a pithy two-minute explanation, one of the girls looked up at me and said, "Wow, that's the most complicated game I've ever seen." Huh?!! The most complicated game you have ever seen? I called her on the exaggeration, but she stuck to her guns. This was indeed, the MOST complicated game she had EVER seen. I quickly dismissed her as being "on the slow side".

Then a weird coincidence happened. Someone in the very next group laughed about how complicated the game was. Similar things kept happening throughout the day. Part of me was confused, part of me was frustrated, and part of me was wondering if I was in the Twilight Zone. I could not wrap my head around what was going on. By the end of the show, I had stopped teaching people how to organize the answers around the median, and I had stopped telling people about the payout odds. I took this as a sign that maybe I should think about removing these aspects from the game.

That night I started thinking about versions of the game that would be easier to teach. The goal was to remove the confusing elements of Wits & Wagers without removing any of the fun elements. This was back in 2004, a full year before the original Wits & Wagers had even been published. And so the idea of Wits & Wagers Party was born...



Redesigning from the Ground Up

Over the next eight years, I looked closely at two things: Which aspects of Wits & Wagers did people like, and which did they dislike? Learning the rules always falls under the category of "things that are not fun", so I paid special attention to the aspects that people find confusing when they are learning how to play for the first time. Although I spent a lot of time designing the original Wits & Wagers, I had never deeply analyzed why people had so much fun playing the game. As is the case with most beginning game designers, I was focused on the game mechanisms, not on the user experience. With my newfound experience, I would attempt to create a game that gave the same experience as the original Wits & Wagers, but with fewer rules, and ones that are more intuitive.

•••

NB: The colored section below covers the nitty gritty of the rule changes. I would skim it unless you are a major fan of the original Wits & Wagers and want all the details...
•••


The Sacred Cows (The Fun Stuff)

The following are things that people enjoy when playing Wits & Wagers. They are the sacred cows that I did not want to lose in a re-design. In fact, a good re-design would accentuate as many of these elements as possible.

• Interesting questions: As Aristotle said, people are curious by nature. When people hear a good question, they are immediately intrigued, and start wondering what the answer might be. They want to talk with others about the question, and are curious about what others think.

• The Guesses: It's fun to see everyone's guesses to a question laid out on the table. Why? I'm not sure. I guess we're a social animal and it's fun to see what our friends think (though I suspect J.C. "clearclaw" Lawrence would disagree with me on this). The answers often reveal something about your friends: what they are interested in, and what they couldn't care less about. It's always fun to see the outlier answer that's three times greater than the next highest answer. The banter that follows is often hilarious.

• The Betting: Simply put, gambling is fun. It's especially fun to gamble on something you're unsure of because you're taking a risk (as opposed to gambling on something you know nothing about, or on something you are absolutely sure of). It's fun to think about who wrote each answer, look at the odds, then decide how much to bet. Sometime you bet based upon the odds, and sometimes you just bet on the friend you think is most knowledgeable on the subject.

• The Anticipation: The anticipation of hearing the answer is exciting when you've placed a bet upon the answer. People can get addicted to taking risks. This is where the adrenalin rush is highest. I often wait a few extra seconds before reading the answer if a few players have something riding on it.


• The Reveal: There is often a mixture of cheers and curses when the answer is revealed. This is where the tension gets released. The best questions lead to surprised expressions and lively conversation. It's fun to look around and see whose answer was closest, then wonder whether that person is knowledgeable in the subject or just lucky. It's especially fun when the outlier guess turns out to be the winning answer, and the person you just made fun of gets a chance to gloat. People act in surprising ways, and any game that can prompt the unexpected is sure to be entertaining.

Tom Vasel & Alan Moon

So those are the elements that a re-design had to maintain. Everything else was clutter that could obscure the fun aspects of the game.

The Slaughter Cows (The Not-Fun Stuff)

The next thing I looked at were the aspects of Wits & Wagers that people did not like. The first four points pertain to game play, and the remaining things pertain to learning the rules for the first time.

• A Runaway Leader: It is not fun when players know who will win the game before the game is over. This happens when the chip leader wins a large bet on a x4-x6 payout answer. I've seen this happen halfway through the game, making the remaining questions less fun. This issue was addressed by not allowing players to bet their previous winnings, and by removing the high payout odds.

• Accounting: Waiting for the banker to clear all of the losing bets, place them in the tray, and pay out the winning bets is boring. This issue was also addressed by not allowing players to bet their previous winnings, and by removing the high payout odds.

• Losing Chips: It sucks the wind out of people to lose their chips before the final question of the game. You can see them losing interest in the game. They will be less jovial, less playful, and less vibrant. This issue was addressed by not allowing players to bet their previous winnings until the last question. We found that most people didn't care about losing all of their chips on the last question. In fact, going out in a blaze of glory turns out to be fun for a lot of people.

• Referring to the Rule Booklet: It kills a fun evening when someone has to pick up the rules during the game to resolve an issue. It happened a lot for the "ordering around the median" issue, but also sometimes for the other issues. We addressed this issue by simplifying the confusing aspects of the game. This helped in two ways. First, people do not have to refer to the rules as often, and second, it takes less time to look through the new rules booklet. It is VERY simple and straightforward.

• Ordering Around the Median: This is the most confusing part of the original Wits & Wagers. Most people know what "average" means, but a lot of people aren't too sure about what "median" means (or how it's different from the "mean"). The fact that the center space is left open when there are an even number of unique answers is an exception that makes this part extra confusing to people. We addressed this issue by removing the board and simply ordering the answers from least to greatest.

• Closest Without Going Over: People who are not familiar with The Price is Right television game show have a hard time with this concept. It's not unusual for a player to look at me halfway through the second game and say something like, "If I think the answer is 150, should I bet here, or here?". We addressed this issue with Rule Set #5, but then decided against that rule set at the last minute.

• Pay-Out Odds: People who are not familiar with gambling odds are confused by them. Even after an explanation, they forget whether their original bet is included in the payout, or whether they get their original bet back in addition to the payout. We addressed this problem by removing the payout odds (though we did keep one variation in which Elvis "pays double" since that's a term that people understand).

Cows, Cows, and More Cows (Versions We Tested)

The road to the final rule set was long and winding. It starts with several years of testing before releasing Wits & Wagers Family and continues with several more years of testing until the 2012 release of Wits & Wagers Party. Here is an outline of the major rule sets we tested over the past eight years. We also tested 20+ other versions that mixed and matched from all the different options.

• Rule Set #1: Changing the odds so they are not ordered around the median. We tried versions of increasing odds (from the "1" answer card) and of decreasing odds (from the "1" answer card). There was still a board in this version.

• Rule Set #2: Changing the odds to points. We tried versions of increasing points (from the "1" answer card) and of decreasing points (from the "1" answer card). This version did not need poker chips to keep track of the score (a big expense), but it still needed a board.

• Rule Set #3: We removed the board, so all answers were worth the same number of points. Instead, we assigned a specific amount of points to each betting chip. This rule change was independently suggested by Greg Daigle (Hawaii), Brett Myers (The Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game and Nanuk), and Matt Mariani (Pepper & in-house development) because the arbitrarily assigned point values to answers rubbed people the wrong way. We tried all sorts of combinations of between 1-4 betting chips worth between 1-5 points each. Wits & Wagers Family ended up having a one-point betting chip and a two-point betting chip.


• Rule Set #4: Allowing players to bet their points on the last question. In order to bring this option back into the mix, we had to keep track of the points with poker chips instead of on a score board.

• Rule Set #5: Allowing players to bet on the ranges between answers instead of on specific answers. This was very visually intuitive, and allowed for us to remove the "closest without going over" rule. The problem is that it creates an exception that has to be addressed: What happens when someone writes the EXACT answer? While it was easy to address this exception in person, it was confusing when we addressed it in the rules and led to a rule booklet that looked significantly more daunting. We were also worried about creating confusion by having too many different versions of the game available for sale, so we backtracked at the last possible moment and went back to Rule Set #4.

My Dream Cow (A Television Game Show)

Part of the reason I was pushing for Rule Set #5 was because it would make more intuitive sense to channel surfers if they stumbled upon a Wits & Wagers television game show. The host would not need to explain why a bet paid out every time (like they do in The Price is Right) because it would be visually obvious from looking at the screen. The bet paid out because it was in the range containing the correct answer. The host would explain the exception only if it came up, which would be infrequent.

Other people in North Star Games, LLC thought the TV game show was too much of a long shot and that it should not affect our current decision. In the end, I had to relent. If we succeed in getting a Wits & Wagers television game show at some point, the first introduction of Rule Set #5 will be with the board game spin-off: Wits & Wagers: The Game Show Edition. (A board game spin-off of a television spin-off from a board game.)


The Graphics

We wanted to spice up this edition with fun art, so we scoured the web for hundreds of artists. After several internal votes, we decided upon an artist that one of our employees has followed for several years: Ali Douglas. A few phone calls later, and she was on board with the project!

Quick Sketches



The Next Iteration



The Color Roughs



The Final Art



The Final Graphics


The Final Product

I no longer think that people who are confused by Wits & Wagers are "a little slow", especially since have taught the original Wits & Wagers to many brilliant people who also think the game is complicated. Now I understand that gamers are quick at picking up a new game because most "new" mechanisms are simply variations on mechanisms with which we are already familiar.

Contrary to some comments I've read on BGG, Wits & Wagers Party is NOT a dumbed-down version of the game. This version demands the same amount of intelligence as the original. Players still need to make good judgments when estimating answers and placing bets. It gives nearly the same game experience, while eliminating several unnecessary layers of complication. It was not easy to streamline W&W, and I consider it an impressive feat to have done so.

Since Wits & Wagers Party does not have a board, we were able to include higher quality components. The answer boards are more than twice as big, the poker chips are twice as thick and twice as heavy, and the dry-erase pens have erasers on them! We were also able to get some fun graphics for the answer boards and the rules.


The Moment of Truth

Releasing a board game upon the world is the moment of truth. Did I dig deep enough to find an activity which is genuinely captivating to people? Did I work hard enough to refine the rough edges? While there are other factors that determine whether a game succeeds (like marketing and timing), the speed of propagation and the longevity of my creations are things I care about. That's the feedback the world is giving me about my skill as a game designer. I want to create games that touch the most number of people and last as long as possible before they are forgotten.

There are many ways to make your mark on the world. I have chosen the world of board games. Here's to hoping my small contribution is worthy!

Dominic Crapuchettes

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