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What are you doing!? I don't even know you!
The story behind Tricky Bid is somewhat unexciting – it all happened so fast – so I have decided to write about the publication history as well. This is my first game to be published by a larger company, so it was an interesting process beyond the actual designing.
I had been toying with the idea of designing a trick-taking game for quite a while, but never seriously. One thought I had early on was based on the observation that some trick-taking games require players to play exactly one card per turn, while others let them play any number of cards, but I had never heard of a game that required players to play exactly two cards for each trick.
Now what to do with this idea? The answer came to me in February 2010, when I suddenly thought of tricks in which one card is used for actually winning the trick with the other one being the value of the trick. I carried that thought around for about two weeks until I finally picked up a set of Rage, sat down on a bed, and laid out some cards. (For some reason I didn't do this on the living room table – we might have had guests who slept in that room.) I am not good at developing ideas in pure theory; I always need to physically touch components to find out whether I'm heading anywhere.
One thing I tried out on a whim was to replace the traditional reward for the winner of a trick – namely leading the next one – by something new. I decided to give the winner of a trick a say in the choice of trump color. The trump color is random at the start of the game, and I thought the winner of the trick could decide whether a new (random) trump color would be chosen or whether the old trump would remain in effect. I chose this "reward" on a whim, and it has remained the most dividing aspect of the game (see below).
My first thought was to have two sets of cards in your hand: one for the bidding, one for the tricks. But I noticed immediately that this would be a wasted opportunity: The game gets much of its dynamics by forcing the players to choose which cards to bid and which to use for winning tricks. It was during this first solo test that I thought of the possibility of forcing one's way into someone else's bid, which then became a central point in the game.
This set of rules seemed to work, so essentially the game was done after my first attempt at getting a feel for it. But would it be any fun?
I am fortunate enough to have a group of willing designers/playtesters who meet regularly, so one or two weeks later I was able to put the idea to the test. The reaction from the test players was very encouraging and showed me that the game mechanisms were ready the way they were. Only the fact that I did away with the old "winner of a trick leads the next one" rule was debated quite a bit. Some people were happy to see something fresh here; others preferred the traditional way of trying to get control over the game and felt that the new approach was too luck-dependent. In the end, the dominant opinion was that the opposition to this rule was mostly caused by being used to the old one. What's more, since especially in the four-player game, leading a trick is not always an advantage, we stuck to what I had cooked up in my first draft.
Now the fine tuning began. How many players could play this? How many cards per player would be right? How many cards should be unknown (in the draw pile)? How many colors do we play with?
Since I usually like to play with larger groups (beyond four players), that was what I was aiming at – but almost every time we played with five or six players, there would be someone who scored zero points or almost nothing and was unhappy. I didn't want this to happen when test players tried the game for a publisher, so I decided to restrict the player number to four, at least for the submitted prototype. I didn't think the restriction was necessary once you know the game a bit; instead, it was more of a marketing decision.
Only at a rather late stage someone convinced me to try out the game with two players, and I was astonished by how well that worked. By now, I would almost say that it plays best with two, as it is most competitive (but others disagree here).
Encouraged by the positive reactions from the test players and their desire to re-play nearly each time we put it on the table, I submitted the rules to a publisher known for trick-taking games a mere six weeks after I had first laid out the cards on my bed. This is ridiculously quick, and I have never done it like that before or afterwards – but the publisher was even quicker and responded within less than 24 hours:
You are right, the game rules are super simple and the idea is by all means interesting. Still I have to turn it down. With (…), we have very good and successful trick-taking games in our line of products. That doesn't mean we won't produce anything in this field again, but the requirements are, considering these outstanding games, naturally very high. I believe that (…) will have fairly good chances at another publisher with more need for a new trick-taking game. I am keeping my fingers crossed for you. (...)
(translated from German)
It is interesting how a feeling of being rejected can distort one's reading of what is actually a friendly, encouraging email. After the first reading, my impression was, "We publish only good trick-taking games, mind you. Yours is alrighty."
I wasn't upset, though – it wasn't the first rejection of one of my games, after all – but felt motivated to show them that this could be successful. Another publisher I had in mind asked me to send the prototype and replied after about five weeks (also rather fast):
Your game left a good impression with us. Unfortunately, it is not what we are looking for right now. (…)
(translated from German)
As it was May by then, I decided to wait until the Göttingen Game Designer Convention in early June to present the game to other publishers. I did research about who else might publish trick-taking games and found that many publishers had done so in the past. I noted them down and planned to talk to a few of them during the convention.
That turned out not to be necessary as I managed to steer the editor of Winning Moves to my table in the first attempt and he was ready to test the game on the spot. (Very few editors take the time to do that!) I grabbed two other players and we played a short round of the game. The response was very encouraging – he took the game and promised that the decision for next year's games would be made in September.
September came and went, and there was no news. I was obviously anxious to get a reply, but I thought that if I didn't hear anything, I would talk to the Winning Moves staff in Essen without sounding too eager – but that turned out not to be necessary as in the middle of October I received a short email apologizing for the delay and confirming that the company was planning to publish the game by Nürnberg 2011. Yeah!
Another while went by, and I felt that the rest of the work was no longer up to me – except that there still wasn't a name for the game and that bothered me. I had some possible names, but none that I even liked myself. Finding a name for an abstract game can be a nightmare. Of course, I could leave this to the publisher, but a few days before the last editorial meeting that would decide on the final name, I opened a thread on BoardGameGeek asking for suggestions. The one I liked best was "It's tricky", as it had the trick-taking covered and the decision-making – do I use my high cards for winning the trick or for bidding? So mere hours before the editorial meeting, I phoned the editor and gave him the suggestion. Later that day he told me that "It's tricky" had been considered too cumbersome for the German public, but the name had evolved into Tricky Bid, which I was happy with.
The rest of the story is the usual: More waiting. The game wasn't ready for Nürnberg after all, but eventually hit the stores in June 2011, so it will count as a Spiel 2011 release. Initial reactions are rather encouraging, and of course I hope this will continue. Additional feedback is still welcome!
No green! (Image: Daniel Danzer)