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Designer Diary: Copycat, or How to Design a Broken Game?!

Friedemann Friese
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Board Game: Copycat
Board Game: Copycat
Board Game: Copycat
Board Game: Copycat
Board Game: Copycat
Copycat is the third game in the Friday-Project. I work only on Fridays on these games and blog all details, so it is kind of easy to track what I have done when. In this designer's diary I want to share this information about Copycat with the non-German-speaking geeks.

Why did I choose the title of this diary? After Spiel 2012 in Essen, some gamers were discussing whether this game is broken or not. In my opinion it is absolutely not broken and not one argument from these writers has convinced me that this game is broken, but the topic is being discussed, so I have to deal with it.

It all started on September 9, 2011 during my holiday on the island of Wangerooge, where I had the idea of making a game that combines all the most popular board game mechanisms. The German title of the game, Fremde Federn, comes from an album by the German band Element of Crime – yes, this name is English and they started singing in English, but now they sing in German – which consisted only of cover songs. That started the idea of copying everything, even the name of this album.

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On Friday, Sept. 16th (because it is in the Friday project) I started. Unfortunately, while I wrote a lot on how this project started, the first two pages are lost, unsaved. The most important fact is that I wanted to design this game as a racing game and not as an optimizing game because all the games I wanted to steal from are optimizing games. (The difference is that an optimizing game ends after some kind of event, then a scoring takes place, while a racing game ends when a victory condition is met and the winner is the person who meets this condition first.) I am absolutely not a fan of optimizing games. I lose interest in a game if somebody talks about final scoring or different paths to victory. It's just not my cup of tea. So I hope that whoever thinks this game needs a special scoring rule might be okay with this. There was no problem that stopped me from doing it that way; I just did not want to do it that way as it's not to my taste. In my opinion, there are way too many optimizing games out there, and I do not have to do the same. I always wanted to be different.

The game started with copying stuff that is already there: Start the deck-building game like Dominion with ten cards (7 gold / 3 VP), place your workers on a board with different choices (no special Agricola stuff there at that moment) to buy cards from a market "stolen" from Power Grid. (Yes, again no Through the Ages at the start.) There was card shifting from 7 Wonders (or inspired by 7 Wonders) as each round every player had to give one card to the player on the left.

The spaces for the worker placement: Buy, VP, Draw cards, VP for others (special rule), Copy one card, Money, and Trash a card. Already the very important "Copy one card" is here in the game. (If you look at all the discussions about whether or not this game is broken, it is all about the copy stuff. The game-haters normally hate this game because of the copying.) Yes, I know copying or doubling is always a powerful action in games and is not often used in modern game design because it often creates uncontrollably powerful and hard-to-balance situations, but I like to play with fire or run with scissors. (Yes, I tried to make a novelty game like Weird Al was doing his polka medleys.)

The cards in the first version of the game: Money, VPs, draw cards, more workers, one worker doubled (oops, another copy/double "problem"), catch up, bad cards (the red cards now, but with special bad powers that must be played), and copy-card (third time this evil idea).

This was the start!

Now follows the whole records of the Project Friday blog on the 2F-Spiele website so that you can follow the development progress of the game.

Board Game: Friday
Friday, September 23, 2011: Nothing done (as I worked only on the Friday solitaire game).

Friday, September 30: Only printed, cut, and glued the game – not played.

Friday, October 7: First game test with Friedemann vs. Friedemann vs. Friedemann vs. Friedemann. Still the Power Grid market for the cards. Threw out all the cards to buy that you already have in your starting deck because this does not work for this game.

Friday, October 14: First F2F game with four players. Start deck changed to 6/2 cards and I am not happy that copying a card is not strong enough. (Strange, the action most people are complaining about as being too strong was to weak.)

Friday, October 21 (Spiel 2011): Last time with the Power Grid market; after that Through the Ages came in. I said goodbye to the copy-another-card card, no longer in. Again: the shifting of one card felt bad.

Friday, October 28: Not played, but the complete set of cards changed to adjust it to the Through the Ages market.

Friday, November 4: Only glued, cut, and printed again.

Friday, November 11: Gamer's weekend. First game: Too many cards. Fewer cards used for the second game. The red cards got the rule that you get them if you buy something "higher". I really like that rule a lot because it creates every time a different game, depending on when and where the red cards come into play.

Friday, November 18: I was ill, but Agricola was integrated because for Caylus I had no idea.

Friday, November 25: Only worked on the files to have Agricola in the game, and I added some Puerto Rico by marking unused worker-placement spots with 1 VP markers.

Friday, December 2: Finished all files, played against myself, and changed the numbers of the starting cards to the same numbers for each player. Had to add the tiebreaker rule because of that. Thought six players might not work with this game.

Board Game: Copycat
The starting cards for each player: seven money cards and three VP cards.
Can you identify those handing out the money?

Friday, December 9: First game with two players. No major changes. Known problems: Cards bought late in the game might be useless because they might not get played, and the game is shorter (that is, has fewer rounds) than Agricola.

Friday, December 16: The idea for the last cards in the game, with which you can convert money into VPs immediately. No name for them now. The other thing I tried – Play all cards immediately after buying – was horrible. This is a well-known problem in all game designs. The cards get better over the course of this game, but they also get weaker because you can use them less often. The problem is solved in "18XX" games by just trashing old cards or in Outpost and Power Grid by limiting the number of spaces/slots. The problem for game design is that gamers are often surprised that a "better" card is not much more expensive. I solved the problem by making these last cards better because you can play them immediately, and I also added a lot of really cheap cards in the fourth phase, which gain big benefits in combination with the cards already owned. Since I know that it is important in this game to get a lot of "double-your-card" actions, a lot of cards let you get these spaces by doubling a worker or placing a worker next to another player or playing two workers at the same time.

Friday, December 23: I had to think a lot about the problem of when to play cards. The first idea was only after the worker placement. The problem: When you draw more cards, they must be played in the next round. This was awkward. Here is where I started with different kinds of cards and different times to play them. Not played during that Friday, only worked on the files.

Friday, December 30: Played against me. Better with the new way to play the cards when you need them. Worked on the rules for the double-a-card (copy) spaces.

Friday, January 6, 2012: Here starts the phase in the design process with the little changes. Cards are no longer trashed with two markers; the markers are just stacked up. Changing the number of cards in the different phases. Every leftover gold is transformed into VPs. (Later this will be changed back as it was one of these balancing ideas, which I normally hate, because it felt flat, no tension, because you can just not make a bad move). The discount card (50% off) is now double your money to avoid rounding problems.

Friday, January 13: The day for the theme. On that day the theme came into the game. I remember that I had the idea very late on the Friday before, but it was too late to post it, so it came into the project on the 13th. The idea came with the last cards in the deck, where you just buy VPs for money and these are now Drs. so that the politicians can polish up their careers. On that day I gave all the cards thematic names and worked completely on that theme.

Board Game: Copycat
The worker placement part of the game board – look familiar?

Friday, January 20: Played the game with Andrea Meyer and Marcel-André Casasola Merkle. The motto "Yes, We P(l)ay" was invented. The idea of using the error in the Ticket to Ride scoring track, too.

Friday, January 27: The idea of using the "Yes, We Can" campaign poster as the cover. (Just the cover idea, not the use of my face.)

Friday, February 3: Played the game with Stefan Stadler at the Nürnberg fair. You no longer receive VPs for unused money, and giving a card to the person on your left each turn is no longer in. Trashing of cards is no longer as many as you like. It was a very good day for streamlining the game.

Friday, February 10: Only little changes.

Friday, February 17: Three new cards: Copy-a-card is back. Exchange-a-card-with-the-market is out. Way too strong, but maybe a good idea for an expansion.

Friday, February 24: Working on the files.

Friday, March 2: Yes, we can. Artist Harald Lieske and I discussed whether if we use the Obama poster, it should be with my face and I decided, yes, do it. The card where you get 1 VP for a leftover card and 2 VP for a leftover worker feels not so good but is still in the game. Some thoughts about the difference between the two-player and four-player game.

Friday, March 9: Played a lot and only added the card for two buys. The game is almost ready. I won three times in a row, but always with a different strategy – or would you say a different path to victory? Most importantly, it is a game of timing; it is a lot about when to start collecting VPs instead of buying new cards. (Somebody called this point in Dominion the point of no return, well-known from sex.) I really love games where timing is important and where timing depends on the other players' decisions. In this game it is absolutely clear that you can win only if you copy cards you bought with the special actions. This is easy to see, but the question is not what to do; the question is when and how. It is clear you have to copy, but knowing which card is not an easy question to answer. Doubling high VP cards is very good, but doubling cards to draw cards, workers to place, or more money to double is also very important.

Friday, March 16: Working on the files again. Started to ask the other authors for permission to use their game ideas.

Friday, March 23: Only three Fridays to go before the Gathering of Friends will start. Worked on the name of the offices to get thematic names. Donald X. was the first author to respond, giving me permission to use Dominion.

Friday, March 30: I decided that this game is good enough to publish it for Spiel 2012 in Essen, and Vlaada gave permission to use Through the Ages.

Friday, April 6: Uwe says "Yes, you can" (use Agricola). Printed a game version with the graphics Harald Lieske made for use at the Gathering of Friends.

Friday, April 13: Played in Niagara Falls – good game.

Friday, April 20: Added a second game-ending condition: All Drs. are sold.

Friday, April 27: We had to change a lot of the artwork because it would not have been a good idea to copy things from Disney, Hasbro, and other big companies without permission and it's impossible to get the permission. Little card changes. Changed the numbers of the cards, too. Streamlined the gaming structure.

Board Game: Copycat
Even with the art changes mentioned above, lots of copying and referencing stayed in place

Friday, May 4: Color-coding of the cards and offices. The third game-ending condition: All steps played.

Friday, May 11: Just one more test. To win the game it is very important to know which cards are in which phase of the deck, so the advanced players are better because of that knowledge. An overview of all cards in necessary for the product.

Friday, May 18: Very important that doubling a double action is not a quadruple – only a triple use.

Friday, May 25: Not so much done because of a hangover.

Friday, June 1: One test game in Göttingen.

Friday, June 8: The game is almost finished. I gave the rulebook to be written by Birgit.

Friday, June 15: I wrote a description text for Copycat to be used in the rulebook or on the box.

Friday, June 22: Nothing special.

Friday, June 29: Starting a new Friday project: Funny Food.

My conclusion based on the reactions I've seen. First, it is a very good game. The sales are good, too. There are very good comments and reviews.


Some people just dislike Copycat for the wrong reasons (IMO):

-----• If you play it once and find a very powerful combination of cards, you might believe that this game is broken because you found a very powerful combination. Copycat just has so many powerful combinations that you have to find out which one works best in which situation.

-----• You see that doubling 10 VPs is the best way to score the most points. Now you know what you want to do, but even if you know what to do, it does not mean that you know how to do it.

-----• You stopped buying cards early in the game (or Derek: very early) and just collected VPs and won. Winning once does not mean this will always work; it is possible that others just let you do this, and even more likely they didn't play well against this strategy.

-----• As I said, in Copycat you absolutely know what to do to win – get high VP cards and double them – but you have to find out every single game how to get there and when to start collecting VPs. It depends on the other players' actions, and this is where I think the tension comes from.

If you dislike this, okay, it is your taste, but the game is not broken.

Friedemann Friese

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"Everything's a copy of a copy of a copy."
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