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Designer Diaries: Coming Down with Startup Fever

Louis Perrochon
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In Fall 2010, two incidents – watching a friend design a board game and coming across Mob Ties on Kickstarter – triggered the sudden urge in me to create a board game of my own. In retrospect, I came down with a mild form of "startup fever", not only starting up a company to publish my game but creating a game about, yes, startup companies.

Before starting on the design itself, I had a few goals in mind:

-----• Create fun player interaction. Players need to laugh out loud.
-----• Use lots of pieces, but have simple rules. Make it usable as a gateway game.
-----• Avoid downtime. No checking e-mail when it's someone else's turn.
-----• Build something I can identify with.
-----• Design a beautiful game.

In this diary, I'll write about the various mechanisms used in the game, some mechanisms no longer used, and how they all support the above goals.

The Basics

"How many users do you have?" is the number one question for every Web startup, followed quickly by "How much money do you make?" and "How many people work there?" Startup Fever started with that third question by boiling all the different types of potential employees down to two: yellow cubes for engineers (Nerds) and green cubes for salespeople (Suits). Nerds make great products, and their special power gives you more users faster. Suits can sell the product, and their special power is to make more money, which can be used to hire more Nerds and Suits.

Now, if you do good things like hiring Nerds, you'll increase the number of users, not to mention make more money; if you do bad things. users will flee, with you earning less money. That's where the first two questions come into play, and for a while I struggled with how to track the number of users from a few individuals to a billion or so. The answer now seems obvious: a logarithmic-scale user track. The first version of the game used nine fields to increase the user base by a factor of ten, whereas the current one uses only five.

The first playable version of the game board; I've detailed the evolution of the game board elsewhere.

The number at the center of each circle on this game board indicated how much money you earned while your company operated at this level. The user track doubled as the victory track, and at the end of the game, the player with the most users wins.

This design was very nerdy, and nobody understood it. That said, at this point I had all I needed to play the game, mostly with imaginary players. Even today, you can drop all other rules and play the game and it will work, but it's just a complex version of Snakes & Ladders.

Success on pieces and identification. Epic failure on beauty. Failure on everything else...

Making People More Like People

Next came attempts to model employee behavior. New hires are very loyal, but they become a bit less loyal every year unless you give them more money. As their loyalty disappears, the other players will try to snatch them away via poaching.

As a player, you have to balance poaching employees from others, retaining employees (that is, preventing others from poaching from you, and hiring new employees. To stay with the startup theme, loyalty is measured in years, with employees vesting every year. The board contains vesting tracks, and the employees move around on these tracks. The higher the number, the longer they have to vest and the higher their loyalty. The image to the right shows the possible moves on vesting tracks and like the board above has been completely redone.

The cost of a Nerd depends on which field it is on. Similar to Power Grid, you now have resources with constantly changing prices, which are indicated by where a resource is on the board. But unlike in Power Grid, you can buy resources from the other players, and each individual resource constantly changes its price.

I needed managers for the armies of employees, so I added Big Nerds and Big Suits. They are meeples and more powerful versions of Nerds and Suits.

In addition to providing players something with which they can identify, these HR activities also do wonders for reducing downtime. The other players constantly want to poach your employees, and you have to remain engaged to prevent that.

Success on pieces, low downtime, identification. Pass on fun and beauty.

Product Turns and Years

Every player controls one company with several products. Each of these products gets one turn per year. The turn order is flexible, and products that are behind can choose their position first, giving them a little strategic advantage. Having more frequent, but quicker turns keeps all players more engaged.

In each product turn, players roll a d6 to determine how many new users they gain. They add one for every Nerd they employ (two for Big Nerds) and move the user marker. Their new position determines how much money they make, and they get one more for every Suit (two for Big Suits) they employ. They can use the money to hire, retain and poach employees.

At the end of the year, during a showdown, products with lots of Nerds steal users from other products. Being successful here is important, and players need to plan ahead to have a maximum number of Nerds on their products by then.

As I learned how the basic turn mechanisms behaved, I started tuning. To prevent runaway winners, players can cause opponents (typically the guy ahead) to lose users.

I did a lot more playtesting, now with real players. The verdict: The basic mechanisms worked. Poaching increases the decibel level, and players love doing it, so we have a lot of fun. Victims of poaching unfortunately don't have much fun. Imagine Risk where an opponent hires all your defending armies away just before he attacks – but that doesn't last long, and payback time comes quickly.

Success on pieces, low downtime, identification. Fun is getting there, but beauty is not moving.

S*%t Happens

Events in Startup Fever are things that happen independent of turns. I could have a pile of event cards and just turn one over every three minutes or after every turn, but I decided to put some extra burden on players. This also introduces a lot more strategy into the game.

Each player gets a hand of event cards and can play events at any time. This does create some confusion on first play, as most players are used to playing only when it's their turn. Startup Fever is in some ways a real-time board game. Once players realize they can play any time, they start enjoying it.

This is a great destroyer of downtime. You can't check your e-mail during downtime because you need to sabotage the other players. Events are also a major kicker for fun. I have some great video footage, but one of the players refuses to let me publish it...

Finally, events help a lot with beauty. The original version had just text on event cards, but the retail version will have around 80 illustrations just on the event cards. I can't wait for Gary Simpson to finish the art work. Here is the beginning:

 
The first six event cards of the final product.

Success on fun, pieces, low downtime, identification and beauty.

Bloopers

The above history may make the design process sound easy, but it involves a lot of trial and error. Here are some of the more remarkable bloopers:

For a long time I had two dice, a standard d6 and a die with 1-3 twice. I loved that second die, but it complicated everything, including the rulebook where I had to always clarify which die players would use. I still have that initial die, but it's no longer in the game.

Early on, I introduced benefits, but failed to make them work well. You could buy them, and they slow down poaching – but everybody (or nobody) bought them depending on the price. They made no difference. Eventually they got sacrificed on the altar of simplicity.

Initially, I had a "brilliantly" thought out venture capital mechanism. As you get money from venture capitalists, you give up part of the company. You can invest more, but at the end, you multiply your ownership percentage by your victory points to determine a final score. Players had to constantly do comparisons like 0.7*27 vs. 0.6*31 to figure out who was ahead. Understandably, this didn't add a lot of fun and quickly followed benefits to game mechanism heaven. However, a simpler form of this system was reborn for the Kickstarter-only extension: You start with shares, each worth five victory points. If you sell them, you trade victory points for money. The process is well understood and requires only addition.

My "masterpiece" was the IPO! It was very exciting and added nothing to the game as it was just an even more complicated version of VC funding, which already didn't work. Zap! It's gone, and I have no intention of bringing this back.

I seemed to have an unlimited supply of non-working ideas, but I'll stop now. The lesson is that you throw away a lot more ideas than you keep, particularly if you want to keep the rules simple.

Success on fun, pieces and simple rules, low downtime, identification and (soon) beauty.

Outcome

To be honest, I've played almost no games other than Startup Fever for six months, and I look forward to playing something else now. Alien Frontiers is waiting, and Mob Ties should be arriving soon. That said, the other day I played a game with lots of downtime and realized that I'd rather play Startup Fever instead. I am very happy with the game mechanisms, and Gary's art is great, too.

Here's a (mostly finished) look at the final art for the game board:


Startup Fever is running as a Kickstarter project through June 13, 2011, so head there for more information or the game page here on BGG for the full rules.

Louis Perrochon
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Subscribe sub options Thu May 26, 2011 10:55 pm
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