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Designer Diary: The Big Book of Madness, or Through Designing Vagaries and Multiple Themes

Maxime Rambourg
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Every time I start working on a new idea, I always ask myself the same question: "What would I like to play?" This time I thought: "I like the feeling of cooperative games; I love the dynamics in deck-building games...okay, let's make a cooperative deck-builder!"

The best ideas are often the ones for which you don't immediately realize all the work needed to make them come true. It actually took five years for The Big Book of Madness to come to life and hit the stores.

The story began with a simple thematic idea: run across a temple, loot a sacred relic, then manage to get out alive. From this theme, game mechanisms came flowing very quickly, almost on their own. A series of various rooms with challenges to overcome, enemies, obstacles in the way, traps, room cards to progressively increase the difficulty of the game, and decks with four types of cards: Strength, Intelligence, Speed, and Special Abilities.

As in most deck-builders (like Dominion or Thunderstone), basic cards evolved into more powerful ones (1, 2, 3...) and special abilities allowed various chain combos.

From the start, several things seemed obvious to me: A deck-builder is particularly hard to balance because you need the possible combos to be exhilarating when they happen, without being overkill. I had already explored this issue with a few previous prototypes, but I found out it was an even more challenging puzzle to balance a cooperative game so that it turns out to be neither too easy to win nor too hard. From the first version of the game to the final one, difficulty remained a constant issue.

Interesting things started to come up during the designing process. New interactions between players that I never witnessed before emerged from this mix of cooperation and deck management, with everyone sharing cards, helping to build each other's decks, and giving up cards to support others.

I fiddled a lot with all of this, but something was missing, something that would set the game apart from other deck-builders. Than I thought: "Why not invert the process? Let's start with decks already well-built and spoil them as the game goes. But what would be the thematic reason for this? What if the temple had a curse that made the adventurers inside slowly turn mad?"

That's how the madness first appeared, even though the idea of "unbuilding" the deck didn't hold up for long.

Here I was, spending weeks looking for a mechanism that would prevent the common and obvious strategy in every deck-building game; I didn't want my game to feel just like another quest for a lean and efficient deck with combos that end up with you having all of your cards in hand in a single turn. "But how could I avoid this? What if each time you shuffle your deck, a card comes to spoil it? That's it!" The idea just fit perfectly with madness, which became a core and constitutive element of the game from then on. At that time, the release of Friday (a little card game by a certain green-haired designer) strengthened this idea for me.

After the cursed temple, I tried moving the poor adventurers into a maze reminiscent of strange horror movies, but the game had too many ideas — that I won't disclose here because even if they haven't made it into the final version of the game, I haven't entirely given up on them! — and game sessions were always lost in length and intricacy.

While madness had eventually fixed what annoyed me with the deck-building mechanism, several issues specific to cooperative games remained, especially the alpha male syndrome (or as I like to call it, the "Do this already, you idiot!" problem). I didn't like the fact that a seasoned player could dictate what to do to others. After a few tries, I decided to remove the standard turn order; the players would not play in clockwise order, but in the order of their choice, gathering fatigue and managing their resting time. I actually solved the issue later in the sharing of information.

It was still too intricate, but there was really only one thing left to change to come close to what would become The Big Book: Special abilities were chaotic, messy and unbalanced. I had to move them from the deck to personal boards that each player could activate with skill points. This last change streamlined the mechanism of the game, which eventually allowed me to gather enough courage to show the prototype to a publisher. Or did it?

I am amazingly lucky to work at a boardgame café in Nancy, France ("La Feinte de l'Ours", which literally translates as "The Bear's Trick"), so I have a lot of willing playtesters at hand. Showing my prototypes to our regular customers already felt slightly uncomfortable to me, so submitting them to a publisher seemed quite impossible. I had to wait a whole year of work on the game before I dared to do so — and even then it's really because Gabriel, a good friend of mine at IELLO, played the game several times at the café and insisted on showing it to his workmates. They all approved the game almost instantly! "That's it! My game's getting published!"

But there were still so much work — several years of work actually!

Back then, we enthusiastically named the project "Asylum" and pictured a game in which players would play as Allied agents posing as lunatics to spy on a mental hospital run by undead Nazis! We were young and boldly inventive, so IELLO's management had to kindly got me to understand this theme was..."too difficult". Too bad!



Allied agents became magicians


Another element of the game made things too intricate: a board game composed of a random series of rooms. This issue took us a long time to solve. Reluctant and weary, I eventually gave up and threw all the boards away. To help streamline the game, I conceded another theme change; instead of moving from room to room, players would fight against a book and turn its pages. Deep down, I liked the new idea, but what was I to do with the madness, which was the game's core element? The book would be plagued by demons, and the players would have to prevent them from getting out and spreading terror and destruction! "I like it, it sounds quite epic!" The Big Book of Madness had found its final theme at last, and that made fine-tuning the mechanisms a lot easier!



Some of the monster cards from the Big Book


At first, game sessions were too long and brainy. Gabriel had to fight to make me give up the chosen game order and resting time. Eventually, I agreed to work on a version with more usual, clockwise game turns. It shortened game sessions by half and made the thought process more intuitive. "I have to admit that it's much better this way."

Then, magic allowed us to bring everything together. Personal boards were dropped, and skills became spells. Strength, Intelligence and such were replaced by four common elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. And the element cards were now used for all actions. The game was more clear, better balanced, but also much more exciting to play!



Sample element cards


Later, I received the first roughs by Naïade. I felt so proud that I was exultant, while people at IELLO were pouting with discontentment. There was no way I could judge this without bias because it's my game and because I think so much of Naïade's work, so I stepped back and silently watched new briefs and sketches come and go. It took quite a while, but now that I see the result, I think it was really worth it!



Spells that you can learn


Now that we had chopped bits off the prototype, it looked like a real game. Game sessions at the boardgame café were looking increasingly exciting. As soon as I could get my hands on a little of Naïade's art, I made a new, better-looking prototype. I kept on fine-tuning and balancing, one bit after another. Changes became smaller and fewer. Playtesting progressively seemed less necessary. "It looks good! Now I just need to wait for the actual box to get on my shelves..."


Prototype at the 2015 GAMA Trade Show
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