I guess it could be true for me to say that Mad City was the game I designed the fastest — and from a certain point of view also the game that took me the longest to design.
Around 1999 or 2000, my wife and I played Canasta a lot with my aunt. I enjoyed it, but I was getting tired of playing the same game over and over. I had not yet discovered the wider world of gaming, but I knew there had to be something more out there. Instead of researching other games — something I didn't do until 2003 — I decided to just make up my own game with a standard deck of cards. At the time I was a bank teller, so one slow afternoon in the drive-thru I figured that I'd try to make the game. An idea hit me quickly, I scribbled down some notes, and in literally ten minutes I had a game. That game was called GRIDS, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.
GRIDS was sort of a mix between a speed game, cribbage hands, and scoring from the dart game Cricket. It was a numbers game, but it was a lot of fun and we played it for a long time.
Fast forward a couple of years and I discovered "German-style games", and GRIDS, Canasta, and the like were put to the side. I suppose I became a game snob. I couldn't just play a game with a standard deck of cards! Pffff.
Fast forward to 2010 and I was laid off of work. In 2009 I had started thinking about designing a game and had a bunch of different ideas written on scraps of paper, but nothing concrete. One day while I was jobless, I decided to focus on one of my ideas. It turns out that focusing is a good thing for me because that game turned out great and got picked up by Rio Grande Games. "Is that game Mad City?", you ask. No, that one is called Pressure Cooker and you'll have to wait until later in 2014 for the designer diary on that one. For Mad City we're going to fast forward one last time...
One day while going through old notes I found the rules for GRIDS. Oh yeah, that little card game I designed back when I didn't even know about games. I pulled it out and we played a few games. Hey! This thing actually holds up and is fun despite the hundreds of professionally designed games I'd played since. Maybe I should see what I can do with it and get it publisher ready.
I changed some of the numbers so that the game didn't use a standard deck of cards, I gave it a slapped-on city theme that was pretty much just pictures of buildings on cards for no real reason, and that was about it. It was a fun little numbers game, and I didn't think it needed much more, so I contacted a publisher that I thought it might fit. They were interested enough to ask for a prototype and put it through a few months of testing, but in the end they passed. They said they liked the overall feel of the game, but the scoring was a little too complex for what they were looking for and the theme was just slapped on and not exciting.
The scoring is not really complex, but it is different, so I can see how it might not fit their line of games. And they were right: The theme was just slapped on. It was just a numbers game. It was fun, but abstract — so I put it aside and worked on other designs.
Maybe I'm easily distracted, but that GRIDS box sitting on my shelf kept calling to me. I knew there was something to the game; I just had to find it. I thought about the game fleetingly here and there, but never gave it any focus — until one day in February 2013 when I was sitting in a meeting at work and got a picture in my head. (That's how most of my designs happen. I have a picture of a finished game being played in my head, then I have to figure out how that game is played. The people in my head are always having so much fun...) I started sketching on my meeting agenda and writing notes, and by the end of the meeting I had GRIDS 2. Clever name, I know.
GRIDS 2 had the same basic mechanism and scoring as GRIDS, but the numbers were gone and the game was all about theme now. You were building a city. Quickly. Here's a quick overview of the game in case you don't know how it works:
Players are dealt a hand of nine square tiles, and they have one minute to simultaneously arrange them into a 3x3 grid in order to build a city that scores them points by connecting or breaking apart different zoning areas. Scoring is similar to the dart game Cricket in that you don't score points in an area until you've hit it a few times. You can also score bonus points as you race against your opponents if you watch what they're doing with their cities.
I thought about the notes I had written, worked a few things out in my head on the drive home, and by that night I had made a prototype. Luckily the people at work enjoy my games, so I was able to talk them into trying a completely untested game. And whaddyaknow, they loved it. Two cards in the deck needed to change and a few of the scoring numbers needed to be tweaked, but the game was exactly how I wanted it from the first play.
For the next few weeks my co-workers would ask me almost every day if they could play GRIDS; it was addictive. They even recruited other people in the office to try it out. I knew I had a winner on my hands.
I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a name for a city-building game with a speed element. My friend Espen Klausen gets the credit for the name Mad City. It's perfect as it fits the theme, the gameplay, and I'm from Madison, Wisconsin which is often referred to as "Mad City".
In March 2013, I attended my first Protospiel in Milwaukee. Mayfair Games was there, and they had interest in one of my other designs. We played it and talked through component costs and all of that, then we just sat around chatting with other people. I was hesitant to bring out Mad City because it was only a couple of weeks old, but we had six people at the table and I didn't want to miss the opportunity, so I pulled out Mad City and said, "Interested in trying a six-player game that takes only 30-40 minutes?" They were. We played through a full game and everyone had fun. I even got the comment from one player that I've heard many times since: "I don't like speed games, but I like this one." Alex Yeager at Mayfair offered up a number tweak in one area and said that he'd like something that kept players paying attention to the bonuses through the entire game — as at that time you were locked out of the only bonus after a certain point — but that he was very interested in the game, even more so than the game they initially asked to try.
On the drive back home, I came up with a way to keep players engaged in bonuses through the entire game, but more importantly it kept them interested in what other players were doing, too, so it didn't feel quite as multi-player solitaire. I tested the idea and it worked, so after multiple testing sessions I sent a copy to Mayfair. Mad City made its rounds around the country for a few months, going to all of the Mayfair offices and getting play from all kinds of people. I was told that tests were going very well, but I didn't know how well.
I met up with Alex again at Gen Con 2013 to talk about Mad City, and he told me that the decision had just been made to publish the game. Woohoo! Even more, he said that every single person that had played it loved the game, and that was extremely rare. Mayfair was so excited about the game that they were going to fast track it and get it to market faster than anything they'd ever done before. Double woohoo!
Since then it's been all about figuring out components, and tweaking a few gameplay items to fit with the way the game needed to be packaged. Luckily I was able to sit down with Mayfair's development team at Gen Con and work through some of that and make it an even stronger game than it already was. They are hoping to push the game a little more mainstream, so we went with a box cover that will fit well in that space.
So that's it. Mad City was designed in a day, but in a way it was twelve or thirteen years in the making. I hope you enjoy it and find it as addictive as we do. Thanks for reading, and have fun playing Mad City!