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Designer Diary: The Networks, or Plugging at MacGuffins

Gil Hova
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Jersey City
New Jersey
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What follows is the long, sordid design history of The Networks. It's been a wild journey over the past six years, starting with me fumbling around in the dark as a part-time hobbyist game designer and ending with me running my own publishing company.

Within, I'll reveal three shocking truths. I'm not very good at clickbait, so here are two right off the bat.

-----• I've heard a few reviewers guess that this game was theme-first. I can see why they feel that way, but it was actually mechanism-first.
-----• The mechanism on which this game is based is no longer in the game.

The third shocking truth is...well, you'll have to keep reading to the end of the article.

In the Beginning, There Was MacGuffin Market

Let's rewind ten years to 2006. I had a game called "Wag the Wolf" that the prestigious Hippodice game design competition put on its recommended list, but the game made it no further than that. It was rejected by several publishers, and after a good amount of playtesting, I realized that the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

I had a lot to learn as a designer. I thought that if I combined a cool theme and a cool mechanism, I'd end up with a cool game.

This cool mechanism was an auction in which players could bid slightly less than the high bid to stay in the auction. In a four-player game, there were two underbid slots, so one player would always be left out. That player could raise the high bid, though, which would make the previous high bid an underbid, and force a mad scramble to the new underbid slots.

An illustration of the auction from Wag the Wolf's rulebook;
maybe I'll get this game on the table someday to see how it holds up!


It really was a nifty mechanism. I wanted to salvage it, so I decided to design a new game around it. That game turned out to be Battle Merchants, which Minion Games eventually released in 2014.

If you've played Battle Merchants, you'll notice that it has no auction. That's because playtesters realized that the auction, while fun and interesting in its own right, didn't fit with all the stuff I built around the auction. Sure enough, when I removed the auction from Battle Merchants way back then, the game worked great.

Designers, never hesitate to kill your darlings. It might just make your game better.

So now it's 2010. I had this auction mechanism recently sliced out of Battle Merchants, and I still wanted to make another game around it. I didn't want to fall into the same trap as before, so I figured that I'd design the game completely around the auction. Stripped down, no theme.

The new game was called "MacGuffin Market". It had no theme — or more specifically, its theme was that it had no theme. The players were bidding money on a "Wag the Wolf"-style auction that would give them turn order and gems. They could spend gems or money on MacGuffins, pick up power cards, or end their rounds by getting income, with players who dropped early receiving more income.

MacGuffins were the big objects in the game that everyone wanted to get, named for the film trope of an object that every character wants, without its actual function ever being explained to the audience. It doesn't matter what the MacGuffin is or what it does; it just matters that everyone wants it.


Sample MacGuffins from MacGuffin Market, with each giving you money or gems & the A, B, and C being a set collection bonus, I think


So in this protoplasmic version of the game, you can already see the seeds of The Networks: Buy big things that give you points, pick up power cards, end your round by getting income.

If only it were that easy!

From MacGuffins to TV

My identity is just as important to this designer diary as the game, so keep in mind who I saw myself as when I began this process. I had a day job that was slowly transitioning into computer programming. I was putting a lot of time into my work, and my career came first. I saw myself as a hobbyist game designer. I'd heard of people who started their own game companies, and I knew with all my heart that I would never self-publish my games.

Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahaha.

Anyway. At the time, I was playtesting about twice a month, maybe three times if I was lucky. It was a decent amount of testing, although I envied my game designer friends who tested once per week. Progress on my game was rather slow.

Still, I'm lucky to playtest with some amazing designers. Eric Zimmerman gave one of the game's most vital early suggestions: the theme (or lack thereof) just wasn't working.

I realized he was right. Teaching the game wasn't easy. You had MacGuffins, gems, and money, but nothing really made intuitive sense because nothing mapped into anything a player would recognize.

It was a lesson that took me years to learn, but one I preach any time I can. It's not enough to have a cool theme. It's not enough to have cool mechanisms. Your game lives at the intersection of its theme and its mechanism. One is not more important than the other, and it's not more important to start with one over the other. You have to find the best possible way to join them, then make that join as tight as you can.

The problem with "Wag the Wolf", and now with "MacGuffin Market", was that there was no theme/mechanism join to speak of in either game. Nothing tied together. It wasn't even a matter of "pasted-on" because there was no paste. The theme and mechanism were like an estranged couple, sitting at opposite ends of the room and refusing to talk to each other.

Kill your darlings, again. The game needed a theme. We discussed possible candidates. Secret agents? City building? Making movies?

I thought about the last one. Making movies was done beautifully in Traumfabrik, but what about making television shows? No games about making TV shows were available at the time.


Three different covers, three different names, one fine game


We talked about the various ways we could reskin the game. MacGuffins would become the shows. Gems could become stars. Everything else would pretty much remain the same. Simple, huh?

Not Ready for Prime Time

I renamed the prototype "Prime Time" and started testing. Viewers were points; that was in from the start. When you got a show, you immediately got money or Viewers; that was grandfathered in from "MacGuffin Market".

A few new mechanisms quickly fell into place. First, you were limited to three time slots, so your fourth show would mean you'd have to cancel one of your existing shows and send it to reruns. The player with the most Rerun Viewers got a bonus.

Second, instead of always scoring a flat value like the MacGuffins, your shows would score you a different number of Viewers every round. They would constantly age. I have to give credit for this mechanism to the brilliant, underrated auction game BasketBoss, which deserves a lot more love than it got.


Seriously, play this game!


Third, the Gems became Stars. I felt they needed some differentiation, so I made Male and Female Stars and put requirements on the Shows for the different genders of Stars.


Nine shows from the first draft of Prime Time. Some shows took up to four stars. The shows with clapboards also require a director, which you had to get by winning an auction. These cards were from before I put in the aging mechanism, so they all scored a flat bonus when you picked them up.


Things seemed to be going well until BGG.CON 2011. I had a fateful playtest in Dallas that year. I thought the game was in great shape, but I got a bunch of feedback that pushed me right back down into the hole again. The feedback I got was familiar: The testers realized that the auction, while cool, didn't fit in with all the stuff I built around the auction. Just like what happened in Battle Merchants, it was time to drop the auction.

Kill your darlings.

I wasn't ready. I was going through a tough time. I had an abusive boss at work at the time, I was suffering through a move and the after-effects of a divorce, and I was working on getting Battle Merchants ready to pitch to publishers. (It would get picked up the following year.) So I shelved "Prime Time".


Yes, the board looked like this at one point. No, I'm not a graphic designer, why do you ask?


In the next twelve months, I brought the game out for testing only once. It was a halfhearted test, without any different Seasons. Just one continuous flow in which you chose a new Show, immediately scored it, then a new Show came out.

It was terrible. It was boring. Back on the shelf it went.

At some point in 2012, I realized that if I didn't replenish cards as they were taken, and if I split the game back into discrete Seasons, that might add much-needed tension. I finally tested it late that year and was stunned to find that it felt good. There was something there.

At some point, I set the game in the 1980s and 1990s, during the dawn of cable. I made up a bunch of silly show parody names and pasted in the pictures of various 1980s Stars. Sure enough, that became a great part of the experience. People loved putting, say, Ricardo Montalban on Knight Rider.


+
If only


I was heartened again. "Prime Time" was back on its feet!

80% Is Halfway Done

Let's fast-forward to 2014. This was a huge year for me and a huge year for the game.

I'd been testing the game steadily at my twice-a-month intervals. It was feeling close to done. I'd balanced the Male and Female Stars, I had a great set of Network Cards, and I had this brilliant mechanism where, at the start of each Season, you reached into a bag and pulled out these Drop and Budget chips. They varied in value from $2 to $20, and you pulled out only as many as the number of players. Some Seasons, you'd get a ton of money; other Seasons, you'd get almost nothing.


Another old rulebook excerpt. In a three-player game, you'd draw five chips, sort them, and remove the second and fourth. Why did I keep this fiddly mechanism so long? Some questions have no answers.


But things were beginning to change. Battle Merchants was close to coming out; I'd been hard at work on writing and editing the rulebook, helping guide the art and graphic design, and handling final playtesting. My day job was starting to feel distant from me. I was rebuilding my social life from my divorce. I tried my hand at sketch comedy and improv. This pulled me away from game design, but gave me some nice perspective, good times, and a few good friends.

Who was I? Was I a computer programmer? Was I a comic? Was I a game designer?


A newer board, with help from a graphic designer friend, who I had asked to make it look "Eighties"


About this time, lightning struck. I'd been trying to get into The Gathering of Friends, Alan Moon's invite-only convention, for a few years. Somehow, I lucked into an invite.

To say the convention changed everything is an understatement. First off, I ran 13.5 playtests of "Prime Time" in ten days. I did a lot of tinkering with the game's economy. One interesting phenomenon was when I once accidentally made the economy too loose. Playtesters didn't tell me that they had too much money; instead, they started suggesting adding all these mechanisms that would be ways they could spend their money.

A few years before, I would have listened to them. Thankfully, I'd learned enough as a designer by then to understand that they were trying to solve a problem that had a different root cause. I re-tightened the economy, and the players no longer suggested extra money sinks.


The old prototype in action!


I showed "Prime Time" to three different publishers: two rejected it, and one was intrigued, but wanted a different, more interactive scoring system.

I looked for more publishers to pitch to and realized just how many more designers there were in the room than publishers. I was fighting a losing battle, and none of these publishers had the passion for my game that I did.

I didn't know it then, but the seeds of change had been planted at that fateful convention, surrounded by people who made games for a living. A few weeks after I came back from the convention and after an especially troubling day at work, I thought to myself: How much better at game design would I be if I did it every day?

I backed away from comedy. I started pushing my playtest group to meet every week instead of every month. I had already had some experience with this through running my annual 4P challenge every January, but I was amazed at how much more progress my games made with more frequent playtesting.


An old show from when the game was set in the 1980s and 1990s


One day at work during a meeting, a co-worker criticized the job I'd done on a project and I realized I felt nothing inside. I spent a difficult month not telling anyone but family and friends, making sure my mind was set. It was.

In November 2014, I quit my full-time job to freelance part-time as a sound editor and open up more time for me to run Kickstarter campaigns and attend conventions as a game publisher.

My mind was made up. I was going to self-publish "Prime Time".

The Last Throes of Design

After The Gathering of Friends in 2014, I realized there was a lot I needed to change about the game. Having Male and Female Stars bugged me; why did gender matter? I had show genres on the cards, but they were just flavor, with no accompanying mechanisms. Players who started a Season with little money had to drop out early. I had that "brilliant" Drop and Budget mechanism. And most of the twenty-somethings I played with humored me with my 1980s and 1990s references, but really had no idea what any of the Shows and Stars were referring to.

These problems resolved with thunderous effect in the game. One tester was surprised there were no ads in the game, and I smacked my forehead. Of course! Get rid of the genders of Stars. Instead of Male Stars and Female Stars, you have Stars and Ads. It's incredible how late in the process the Ads entered, and how right they felt once they made it in.

At first, you paid for Ads, just like you paid for Stars. The always-clever Paul Incao, who develops Vital Lacerta's games, tried "Prime Time" and suggested that players should earn money from Ads instead. Not only was it thematic, it solved the problem of poor players dropping out too early. He also suggested the Attach Star/Ad action, which I fought because I didn't want to complicate the game, but the suggestion turned out to work perfectly if I made some Stars and Ads optional on Shows.


An old Ad with the same information as what's on the current ad cards, only more confusing!


I also reluctantly changed the time setting of the game. No more 1980s and 1990s references that confused millennials. Once I switched to modern shows and stars, everyone seemed to get a huge kick out of the experience, regardless of age.

It was about here that the "rotation" mechanism entered, which has become one of the most defining features of the game. I could finally play off of Show genres, with some Stars preferring to be on certain kinds of Shows, like Dramas or Sitcoms. They seemed to work with Ads to, although it took quite a few frustrating playtests to get income and upkeep working properly!

Finally, after months of begging from my playtesters, I relaxed my iron grip on my "brilliant" pet mechanism in the game: the variable chips that decided the Drop and Budget values. I went with a flat track of values instead, with a number of spaces equal to the number of players, and amazingly no one missed my weird, ingenious system.

Kill your darlings.


For a long time, I had separate Set-up Cards reminding you of how to set up each Season


That left two problems. First, the Genres still didn't feel like they were pulling their weight. Second, the game felt like a tactical grind. It lacked an arc. Each Season really didn't feel different from the next, and no one was working towards anything; it felt like a rinse, later, and repeat exercise.

Then came BGG.CON 2014, and the final huge piece in the puzzle. I had one test with three players, and I nervously introduced a new mechanism: If you got three Shows of the same Genre, you could draw Stars from the Star deck, or Ads from the Ad deck (along with some money).

I was flabbergasted to see what the change did. Suddenly, the game had strategy. You were working to a goal. You wanted to become Comedy Central, or Syfy, or ESPN. It was thematic, and it was strategic, and it worked perfectly.

Even better, it was no longer a grind. Getting the Genre Bonus injected your network with new resources, and you could jump right back into the thick of things without having to tediously pick up new Stars and Ads.

Up until then, testers had mildly enjoyed the game. They'd found it, y'know, fun, they liked it, it was good. From this point on, they loved the game — as in, they asked me when it was going on Kickstarter, and they enthusiastically signed up for my mailing list.

There was still some buttoning-up to do. The three-player game took a lot of massaging, but I realized that removing a Genre would make things much smoother. I made a solo version of the game that had a new mechanism of card burning, and after a bunch of boring two-player tests, I realized that the two-player game needed card burning as well. The solo game was logistically easiest to test, of course, and went from good to great once I figured out how to put in an immediate-loss condition and midgame feedback that let the player know if they were doing well or not, score-wise.

But it was time to put on the publisher hat.

Networking

There was a storm cloud on the horizon. I found out that there were two other games called "Prime Time" in development: One was a deckbuilder that unfortunately didn't fund on Kickstarter, while the other was a heavy strategy game from an established designer/publisher.

I didn't know Elad Goldsteen at the time, and I was pretty sure he would beat me to market. I hated the idea of changing my game's name. "Prime Time" was perfect! But I did what I had to do. I let Elad have "Prime Time", and I renamed my game The Networks.

My next order of business was to find a graphic designer. I thought of all the graphic designers I knew of and who would be a good match.

You've seen pictures of the prototype all throughout this post. It's a lot of cards with a lot of numbers. This game throws a huge amount of information at the players, and I needed a graphic designer who was amazing at distilling a large quantity of information into a streamlined form. I needed someone like Heiko Günther.

I am ashamed to say that I spent a measurable amount of time trying to figure out graphic designers who could a job similar to Heiko, until I realized that I could just, well, email Heiko myself and see what he thought.

Here's what I didn't know: A few years previously, Heiko and a very talented illustrator, Travis Kinchy, worked on Silver Screen, a Knizia-designed card game version of Traumfabrik. It was to be published by Cambridge Games Factory back when Heiko did most of their work. Sadly, CGF encountered financial difficulties and stopped releasing games before Silver Screen could be published.

Heiko and Travis were disappointed; they had come up with a unique visual style for the game, and for a long time, they thought it was just a dead project. But then there I was, with my TV network game. Couldn't they resurrect the visual approach?

I checked it out and realized that it was perfect. I wanted something that was light and funny but not cartoony, yet somehow didn't present itself as a simple take-that filler game. Travis' illustrations somehow perfectly walked the line, and were incredibly funny to boot.


Card images from Silver Screen, done in the same visual style that Travis would adopt for The Networks


Meanwhile, Heiko set about taking my confusing mess of a visual design and putting it in order. He figured out a way to push all the information for the cards to their edges and leave most of the card available for Travis' excellent art.


It still blows my mind that the thing on the left became the thing on the right


The boards became modular. My system would have been ugly and text-heavy; his system allowed for the clean, elegant presentation of information. Instead of having set-up cards to remind players of how many cards went out each Season, he printed it directly on the rightmost board and had players swap out different boards based on the number of players. This let us put just about everything onto punchboard, using only a single cutting pattern to boot.

Make no mistake, Heiko and Travis were essential to this game's success. There is no The Networks without them.


Heiko, on the right, is plotting trouble at Spiel 2015


I had to use my "publisher's hammer" only a couple of times; most notably, I insisted on a scoring track that wrapped at 100 Viewers instead of 50, only because I'd tried that in a previous prototype and my playtesters hated it. I also insisted on testing the graphic design, and I came back to Heiko with quite a few revisions when I saw players were confused by a given graphic design element.

Throughout this process, Heiko was his typical professional, brilliant, and often hilarious self. After a few iterations, we wound up with a graphic design that got raves from just about all my playtesters, especially as Travis' art started to spread across the game.

I started sending the game to reviewers and was heartened to see people like Rahdo and Undead Viking willing to try out the game. Your Moderator Chris from Flip the Table seemed very excited about the game, so I sent him a review copy, making sure he knew I didn't expect a review of my game on his show. I was relieved to see everyone give the game glowing reviews.

Then one beautiful Sunday I was about to go on a day trip with my girlfriend, when I got this email from Rahdo: "Also, I'm curious, since you're going to be directly competing with Prime Time, which is going to be on Kickstarter at almost the exact same time as you..." It turns out that Prime Time was going to launch two weeks before The Networks!

Of course, Elad had no ill intent. In fact, he had no idea my game existed, so Rahdo was kind enough to introduce us over email. I've had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Elad a few times since then, and we've laughed about this crazy coincidence. I mean, we had both worked on our respective TV network games for six years each. We couldn't have timed this better if we tried!

And Kickstarter was kind to both of us; we both overfunded significantly, and we both got our games out. In fact, I picked up Prime Time from Elad at Essen 2015!


Elad and me at Spiel 2015; he's the taller guy on the right


Final Thoughts

So in the end, why did The Networks turn into a great game?

Obviously, there's the constant, relentless playtesting and iteration. After my turning point at The Gathering in 2014, I was playtesting at least once a week, usually twice. Iterations went fast and furious, and I was never afraid to try something for fear of failure. I got better at killing my darlings and wound up with a streamlined, well-developed game.

Also, this theme is really hard, and I think I backed into some fortuitous decisions. I've played friends' prototypes with TV themes, and they get hung up on a couple of things.

First, scoring in those designs is usually handled with an output randomness mechanism. For those of you who don't listen to the marvelous Ludology podcast (please start!), output randomness is any random event that happens after a player's decision. For example, when you attack the zombies, then roll a die to see whether you hit them, that's generally output randomness as the die roll dictates the outcome.

Input randomness, on the other hand, is when the random event happens before your turn begins. When you get dealt your hand of cards, that's input randomness; your play happens after the random event.

Most TV prototypes I played had viewer scoring as output randomness. This is understandable because it's realistic. No TV executive can predict how many people will watch their shows! That's just the business.

But it makes the game less fun. The whole interesting experience is in assembling the TV show. Having it be judged by a random mechanism devalues the experience of putting the show on the air. It feels meaningless.


One of my favorite stars


Second, remember that publisher who wanted my game to have more "interactive" scoring? That's how most TV games and prototypes I've played try to handle it; the player with the most viewers gets the best ratings, the player with the second most viewers gets the second-best ratings, and so on. Some games even split these into different demographics!

This makes scoring an opaque beast. Logistically, these games are a pain in the neck to score. Worse, it means that a player must evaluate each of their move's potential outcomes on each demographic. This makes for a huge outcome tree and is an invitation to mindbending analysis paralysis.

The Networks gets around both problems by having fixed, deterministic scoring for each show. This would normally be anathemic to the theme, but between the aging mechanism and the extra complexity of the rotate mechanism, there's enough variability in a player's possible score that it feels correct and thematic. Furthermore, if a player's show scores poorly in a given season, the player can easily track that to a specific decision they made. That feels much better than some arbitrary die roll!

Also, the deterministic scoring means that players don't have to study other players' boards and do a ton of math to determine what a good move is. Make no mistake — in The Networks, a player will have to study other players' boards, but what you're looking for is a lot simpler, logistically speaking. Do they need that 8:00 p.m. Drama? Or would they rather go for the 9:00 p.m. Sci-Fi? Or maybe a Star, or a Network Card? There are still decisions to be made and players to watch, but it's not hidden behind an opaque layer of scoring.

That is about it for the huge design history of The Networks. It's been an amazing ride, and it leaves us with one order of business. That is the third and final shocking truth about the game:

-----• I, Gil Hova, barely watch any TV. It's not a hipster I'm-better-than-you thing. It just doesn't fit in with my lifestyle.

I am deeply indebted to my playtesters and my girlfriend for helping me with all the references to modern shows. I couldn't have done it without all of you!

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