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Designer Diary: The Suit of Clubs Finally Gets Some Respect!

Dominic Crapuchettes
United States
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Board Game: Clubs
First there was Hearts, then there was Spades, and now we have Clubs!

Clubs is a card game about taking calculated risks. The goal is very simple: Win as many club cards as possible. (That's the only suit that scores points.) The lower the club, the more points you could win – but there's a catch (as there always is): The last player to go out for the round does not score ANY points. So players who get too greedy might pick up a pile of clubs, but end up with 0 points for the round!

The Back Story

About seven years ago, I fell in love with the card game Tichu. Like many gamers, I get excited to discover games that are simple enough to teach my relatives, and strategic enough for me. Tichu seemed like the perfect candidate because it's similar to the trick-taking games I grew up with. When I received Tichu from my Secret Santa several years ago – thanks, Santa! – my parents were visiting, so I decided to teach it to them.

From gallery of domcrap

Opening games from my AWESOME Secret Santa: Ubongo, Through the Desert, and Tichu!

I knew the four special cards would be difficult to explain, so I set them aside to talk about at the end. Instead, I explained the different sets of cards that can be lead in Tichu. I assumed my parents would know the terms singleton, pair, three-of-a-kind, and four-of-a-kind, right? Wrong!! These are terms many of us learned from poker, and it turns out that my mom doesn't play much poker. The ensuing discussion got further derailed when I told them you could lead with a full house. "A full house?!" My mom smirked at me like I was trying to pull one over on her. "Right... so when you put a pair with a three of a kind, it's called a full house... Of course! And it's called a halfway house when you put half a pair with half of a four-of-a-kind," she says as she nods in mock understanding. Needless to say, the eyes of both my parents increasingly glazed over as I explained each new set. Mom and Dad politely suggested playing another game well before I got to the four special cards...

From gallery of domcrap

Playing Ubongo instead of Tichu with my mom, dad, and son.

We ended up playing Ubongo. It was a lot of fun, but I was hoping for Tichu because I wanted a portable game for our day trips. The full story is posted on the North Star Games blog.

Designing Clubs

That night, I started thinking about ways to capture the essence of Tichu without the confusing rules. I considered how the target market would differ from the typical Tichu player. There is no reason to design a game that scratches the same itch as Tichu. Tichu already does a great job of that! My goal was to design a strategy game that could be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers together. Furthermore, I wanted something that gamers could play while they waited for others to arrive or finish another game. To that end, Clubs needed to be playable by two to six players, and always take 30 minutes regardless of the number of players. This last aspect was very difficult to incorporate into the game (more on that later).

Bridge to the Familiar

Most casual gamers are familiar with Hearts, Spades, or Gin Rummy, but probably little else, so to create a bridge to the familiar, I decided to draw upon mechanisms similar to those games. At the same time, the game had to feel completely different from anything they had seen before. The climbing genre is unknown to most Americans, so that coupled with a unique deck of cards would suffice for that feeling of freshness. We chose the name of Clubs because it nicely captures that feeling of being both familiar and new.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

The first thing I did was remove the special cards and reduce the number of playable hands from six types to two. Then I figured out a simple scoring structure that created interesting game play. The scoring systems for most climbing games are very convoluted (especially Tichu). I wanted a scoring system that did not make you refer to the rulebook, and one that was simple enough to remember after the first play. I settled upon Bonus Cards for playing out your hand as quickly as possible, and printing different point values on each of the Club cards:

Board Game: Clubs
Board Game: Clubs

Pictures by EndersGame

Sixty-Card Deck

I chose a sixty-card deck because it can be dealt evenly between 2-6 players, but I learned through testing that fifteen cards is too unwieldy for most casual players, and a six-year-old cannot hold more than seven cards without difficulty. We tested variable set-ups depending upon the number of players, but casual gamers didn't like it. They don't want to refer to the rules each game to see how many cards to deal.

We tested tons of options. For a long time, the rule was to deal out all the cards every round. These cards were placed in a face-down deck in front of each player. Then players drew seven cards for their hand, and replaced a card from their personal deck each time they played a card. The game worked great for the most part, but there were a few minor problems:

-----1) With six players, your draw deck only contained three cards, which is weird.
-----2) Casual gamers AND gamers often forgot to replenish their hand. This is what finally killed this version of the game.

Dealing ten cards to each player regardless of the number of players was a nice solution to all of these problems. The biggest detriment in my eyes was that it reduced the edge you could get from counting cards – but then I learned that some people preferred the uncertainty of not having the whole deck in play each round. After polling 30+ people, I learned that both gamers and casual gamers were split on this issue. Many people prefer a game in which counting cards does not lead to an advantage (more on that later).

When Is a Game Done?

The game hit its stride when I figured out a simple way to simulate the tension you feel when you are worried that someone might play a "bomb" on a trick that you are expecting to win. That version of the game evolved into Clubs (more on that later). By this time I had played the game several hundred times, so I knew it was good – but there were four specific signs that lead me to believe that Clubs was ready for publication:

-----1) Several casual gamers asked to play again immediately after their first encounter with it.
-----2) My parents started asking to play every time they came over.
-----3) It was the hit of a summer vacation at a large beach house. Clubs was played over thirty times by the kids (ages 7-12).
-----4) When our Internet went down at the office, an impromptu Clubs session broke out.

By this time I knew that Clubs was simple enough to teach to kids and casual gamers. It had passed the "let's play again" test on many occasions. I also knew that there was enough strategy to keep the interest of the gamers in the company, but I still didn't know how the larger BoardGameGeek community would react to it. Many finer details are brought to light on BGG once a game is released.

BGG Testers

Over thirty people responded to my blogged request for testers, even though it required people to make their own prototype. BGG users recorded their games on this GeekList. At this point, I had two main goals:

-----1) Ensure the game had enough depth for gamers.
-----2) Ensure consistent playing times regardless of the number of players.

Board Game: Clubs
Board Game: Clubs
Board Game: Clubs

Prototype and pictures by Mike Hulsebus

The last goal required everyone to record the number of players, the scores, and the time it took to play EACH round. I put this information in a spreadsheet, then I tweaked the point values for the clubs, the Bonus Cards, and score that triggered the end of the game. Those spreadsheets quickly turned into a nightmare! But it was essential to figure out a configuration that would result in a 25-35 minute game for two players as well as for six players. This was important to me because I wanted gamers to be able to play Clubs as a filler when they were waiting for others to finish a game.

Although I accomplished the second goal, I noticed an interesting observation in regards to the first goal. Tichu and Haggis players were not impressed with Clubs. This makes sense. If someone has already taken the time to learn the rules to Tichu, then the simplicity of Clubs holds no value to them. So let this be fair warning to you. If you are a Tichu whore, don't buy Clubs before playing it!

Board Game: Clubs
"Ameritrash" versus "Euro"

The final decision was a difficult one. We had developed two versions of the game. One of them was more Euro. You could plan ahead more precisely by counting cards, as in Hearts and Spades. The other version was more Ameritrash. It led to more bluffing, more risk-taking, and more table talk, as with Poker and Texas Hold'em. Both versions were preferred by roughly an equal number of people. In the end, we went with the Euro version because it feels more similar to other trick-taking games.

To be honest, more people in our office prefer the "Ameritrash" version of the game, so we did not feel good about making it a variation to Clubs. We've noticed that very few people play the variations which we included in Wits & Wagers, so we wrote a standalone rulebook for a game called Crazy Clubs. We gave Crazy Clubs a separate BGG entry so that people could give it a different rating than Clubs. Hopefully after several hundred ratings of each game, we'll finally learn which version most people prefer.

The Pre-Launch Hype

Clubs had the best reception at NY Toy Fair and the GAMA Trade Show out of any game we have yet released. We had so many pre-orders that we started working on the second print run before the first print run even arrived at our warehouse! (Don't blink or you might end up with the second edition,which I can assure you won't be worth a million dollars when you retire.) Two companies are interested in the European rights, and Cartamundi is interested in the worldwide rights in order to place Clubs next to every rack that sells a normal deck of cards!

Read that last sentence again. Wow. It barely makes sense to me, but that's what they said. We will see whether anything comes of it (highly doubtful). We are also in negotiations to have a mobile version of Clubs released by the end of the year, and you can subscribe to the North Star Games blog if you would like to be kept informed.

Dominic Crapuchettes

Board Game: Clubs
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