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Designer Diary: Designing – and Re-Designing – The Big Idea

James Ernest
United States
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Board Game: The Big Idea
I created The Big Idea in late 1999 during the formative years of Cheapass Games. We were firing off games at a steady clip of one every month, including some of our best-ever titles like Deadwood and Button Men. The Big Idea was a relatively small game – just 54 cards in a little plastic bag. This is some of the story of how that game came about.


I enjoy coming up with funny game ideas based on crossing two unconnected themes, like fast food and zombies. I will commonly ask my brainstorm groups to mix two wildly different genres and think about the implications of the combination. With The Big Idea, I wanted to make a game about that process, and I decided to reduce it to just two words: an adjective and a noun.

So, that was the basis of The Big Idea. Players have hands of cards – adjectives and nouns – and they must invent new products by combining their cards in interesting ways. The fun part of the game is pitching your crazy new product, like this:

Board Game: The Big Idea
Image by Gregory Duff
How many times has this happened to you? The party is over, the guests have gone home, and your beautiful birthday cake is gone. You worked and slaved over that cake. It had layers. It had two colors of frosting. You even made roses out of icing. And just like that, it's gone forever. But not anymore! Introducing the Permanent Cake! This sucker is so durable, it will probably outlast the birthday boy. Made of durable polypropylene and iced with all-natural chocolate-scented silk, the Permanent Cake is the answer to your post-party cakelessness. Buy one today!

My goal when I wrote the cards was to make many crazy creations possible, but not to make a single card stand out too much. Cards should seem fairly generic on their own, but funny in different ways when mixed with other cards. Sometimes I succeeded, as with Permanent and Cake, and sometimes I failed. It's hard to get rid of "Monkey". But the more subtle words, those that mean very different things in different contexts, are my favorites.

Interestingly, even when seemingly similar words came together, there was still room for improvisation. For example, once a player invented the "Feet Sock". "It's like a sock for your feet." We were not impressed at first, but the inventor said again slowly: "It's like a sock... for your feet." A-ha, that is different. One sock for both feet! Imagine the savings!

I think what's great about The Big Idea is that it gives people the tools to be funny, and funny is usually really hard.

Along with the "inventing" part of the game, we also created an "investing" part, with the basic story that the players are all managers of investment capital, and along with coming up with the world's coolest products, they are also convincing investors to put money into them. So the original version of The Big Idea had a second, more mechanical phase in which players invested money in products, then rolled dice to see how well those products did in the marketplace.

One of the noun cards in the original game was just ".com." The Big Idea was in final playtest shortly before the "dot com" bust of early 2000. I should have seen the signs. When I played it on the West Coast, any product with ".com" was a guaranteed winner – but when I took it to New England, anything with a ".com" was a surefire loser. If I was smart, I would have dumped my tech stocks right then. Unfortunately, I would have had to buy some tech stocks so I could dump them.

In Print

Soon after its release, I was approached by a big board game publisher about licensing The Big Idea – but after consideration they rejected the game because it lacked a "mass market play pattern". I don't know what that means, but I think it was code for "We don't care for it, but we don't know how to fix it."

Board Game: The Big Idea
Then I fixed it myself, a little, and rereleased it as the "semideluxe" edition in 2005. I tweaked the mechanisms, adding "foreign investors" who bought into products when they were not initially successful. I also loosened the item construction rules. You no longer had to make a product with exactly two cards. Now you could use one card, three cards, all nouns, or even your whole hand because really, there was no reason not to let you make "Edible Mexican Electric Space Monkey" if you wanted to.

The Semideluxe edition was very successful for a Cheapass Game in that a few years after I sold the last copy, a publisher asked me for the rights to it: Philippe Nouhra from Funforge.

Philippe's impression of the game was similar to that publisher who rejected it many years before. The game's investment phase seemed too bulky; the fun part was making products and pitching them. But unlike the other guy, Philippe had a solution: remove the investment phase.

We went back and forth on this change. I agreed with Philippe in principle, but I got stuck on the execution. I know that Apples to Apples was pitched as a much more complicated game, and boiling it down to its essence was the key to its success. But, I figured, this game was already fairly successful in its current form. Why mess with it?

To add to the difficulty, my gaming group can't be casual about a game with a score. We tried five ways to redesign the scoring in an attempt to keep my gamers from feeling obligated to thwart the leader, but none of them worked. Philippe's group, on the other hand, didn't seem to have those problems because they were happiest with the simplest set of scoring rules and never bogged down trying to pick on the leader. Ultimately I said to him, I trust you, use the simplest rules you can, and ignore my group. I think that was a good idea.

The New Edition

I'm thrilled at what Funforge has done to brighten up and show off The Big Idea. The new card art is gorgeous, and as soon as I saw the new box design, I knew we had a hit on our hands (because I also knew what was inside).

One of the biggest challenges that I've had with The Big Idea was the card layout because of the way we added helper text to the cards. The helper text is a little extra flavor, so in case "Electric Chicken" isn't enough, we add "It's like a whimsical farm animal... that's powered by electricity!" But because the "it's like" goes before the "that's", while the "chicken" goes after the "electric", we had a real layout challenge. How can we make the titles read one way, and the subtitles read the opposite way?

My first solution was to write the subtitles upside-down at the bottom of the card, so when you arrange the cards upside-down in front of you, the rest of the table can read "Electric Chicken" and you can read the subtitles in order. It was a first shot.

In the Semideluxe Edition, I got a little more clever. I put the subtitles down the left side of the card, so when the cards were overlapped, you could read the titles in one order, and the subtitles in the other order.

Board Game: The Big Idea
Board Game: The Big Idea
Board Game: The Big Idea

Philippe's solution was much simpler. He translated the game into French, where the adjective and the noun naturally switch places. Then he could write the subtitles right-side up across the bottom of the card. Clearly, this game should always have been in French! (Editor's note: The Funforge edition of The Big Idea is also being released in English and Japanese, but Philippe Nouhra hasn't revealed cards from those editions yet. —WEM)

Final Thoughts

My goal for this game, aside from making me rich, is this: Someday I want to meet someone who actually developed the product that he invented with my game. If you're already out there, don't be shy. I don't need a piece of your fortune, except I'd like a free copy of it – especially if it's a Permanent Cake.

James Ernest
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