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Designer Diary: Most Wanted, or The Love Child of Happy Salmon and Evolution: Climate

Dominic Crapuchettes
United States
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Board Game: Most Wanted
This is a story about what can happen when the designers of Happy Salmon collaborate with the designer of Evolution: Climate (a former pro-Magic player). The result is a game that's simple enough for casual families, packed with superfun moments, and a design that grows into a full-fledged game system right out of the box. Casual gaming families can follow a hidden travel guide that will slowly take them into the gamery territories of fifteen additional wild west actions. Serious gamers like yourself won't need the travel guide; just choose the specific actions you want in play at the beginning of each game.

Getting to this mythical place which sits halfway between gamerland and your typical Trivial Pursuit family was not a simple adventure. Here is the story as told by the designers. Happy trails my friend...


Part 1: In the words of Quentin Weir:

From gallery of domcrap
Happy Salmon designers Ken Gruhl and Quentin Weir

I had my first game design idea when I was with my friend Ken in the summer of 2009. We were holed up in his apartment after Ken tore his ACL in a soccer injury (because he plays like a drunken Yeti). After eight thousand games of Catan and Puerto Rico, things got repetitive, so we started designing new games. And then...we never stopped. Nine years later, we've had over twenty games published including...

Board Game: Happy Salmon
We apologize for the disturbances at your local convention

From gallery of domcrap
To be fair, Happy Salmon was also a disturbance at Ken's wedding

I'd like to say I'm creative, but that's a lie. I fake it. Ken, on the other hand, is a creativity champ. You know the training scenes from Rocky? There are scenes like that in Ken's life, except where he trains his creativity. He practices real Eye-of-the-Tiger creativity training exercises. I wouldn't have believed in their effectiveness but for the fact that Ken has become really creative in recent years. We've been refining our process for years, and that has culminated in Ken regularly pitching me scores of ideas — and me rejecting nearly 100% of them.

From gallery of domcrap
This is one of the game ideas I rejected

Most Wanted was born during one of our weekly calls when Ken pitched the bare-bones concept to me: "It's set in the wild west...and you're robbing trains, and dueling each other and bluffing and stuff, and you do it by playing a bunch of simplified poker-style hands, and..." He got about halfway into the pitch when I stopped him: "I love it."

Pitching is a brutal sport for us. We've known each other for 32 years, and we're, um, practiced at giving each other's ideas swirlies. Even the ideas that survive initial criticism tend to die right after. But Most Wanted was a glimmer of hope that afternoon, and one of the few that fulfilled its early promise.

Even in its earliest, sloppiest incarnation, players had a grand time of it, laughing at the heady duels and relishing the chance to run off with the cash from another player's train robbery. The game also created improbably goofy moments, like players tying five times in a row while dueling and, with no cards left in hand, high-carding from the top of the deck.

If starting the design was easy, finishing it wasn't. Though the game had magic, there were niggling imperfections that, combined with our designerly pride, kept us from pitching it to publishers. So when we were prepping for Gen Con 2017, we didn't include it among the games we planned to pitch. Good call, us.

That's when Dominic Crapuchettes kicked in the doors. We were eating with Dominic at the Subway on the first floor of the Hyatt Regency at Gen Con, showing him the games we'd planned to show. " looks kinda You guys have any lightweight strategy games?" Ken and I paused for a moment, then grabbed a napkin and pitched Most Wanted on it. "Okay...yeah...that's the one I want to see."

Later that same evening, we sat down with another North Star Games development guy, Nick Bentley, and after pitching him a bunch of other games, gave him the napkin pitch for Most Wanted that we'd given Dom. "Yeah. That's my favorite", said Nick. "Out of curiosity, which one was Dom's favorite?"

The prototype was in the mail the next week.


Part 2: In the words of Dominic Crapuchettes:

Our Gen Con 2018 Release

It was becoming increasingly clear that we wouldn't release Super Wits & Wagers at Gen Con 2018.

From gallery of domcrap

An interesting scientific phenomenon occurs when I design games: the closer a prototype gets to completion, the bigger the scope of the project becomes. I don't think the space-time continuum actually warps (though I'm not ruling that out), but I tend to embellish game concepts when I find them innovative or compelling. It helps distinguish our games from the other four thousand games that get released each year, right? Of course it does! (That's what I tell myself, anyway.)

Super Wits & Wagers was no different. In this case, I decided to include short stories in comic book form to help bring our homegrown superheroes and supervillains to life. And I secretly wanted put the entire rule book into comic book form — a project that was clearly outside of my wheelhouse.

From gallery of domcrap

But if we couldn't release Super Wits & Wagers at Gen Con 2018, what would we release?

I stumbled on the answer at Gen Con 2017 when the designers of Happy Salmon pitched a game called Most Wanted in which players compete to be the most notorious outlaw in the Wild West. Most Wanted had the feel of King of Tokyo but with an old west theme. It was a simple game, jam-packed with fun moments and hilarious opportunities. In other words, it was exactly what you'd expect from the designers of Happy Salmon.

From gallery of domcrap
The original game we received from Ken and Quentin

Early Development

Developing Most Wanted was a cakewalk compared to Super Wits — exactly what I was looking for. I wanted something simple so that I could get back to the pet project that had taken over my life. The first development took place at PAX Unplugged. It took Bruce Voge, Nick Bentley, and I one late-night session and a few games over breakfast to streamline the actions. We made them more distinct and thematic, and grouped them in a logical progression that was easier for players to remember. We also removed all of the deterministic ways to get points. It was anticlimactic for someone to win without taking any risks. In fact, all of the deterministic points felt more like earning interest on a bank loan instead of riding into town and robbing the bank! By morning, the game looked like this:

From gallery of domcrap

When I took Most Wanted home to play with my eight-year-old son Daniel over our holiday vacation, something unexpected happened. Daniel became addicted to it, and not subtly addicted like someone who drinks a lot of coffee; I mean over-the-top addicted like it was crack. We played eighteen times on the plane to Florida. Every morning at breakfast. Just once or twice before bed if he could convince us. If we had a spare three minutes, Daniel would look at me and say, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" And sometimes, like once when he was taking a bath, I actually had no idea what he was thinking.

Daniel has been keeping meticulous count. "We've played 78 times together and that's a fact", he tells me. This is why he's the first playtester listed in the credits. Also included in that list are his grandparents, who have played it over twenty times on a family vacation.

Life Lessons

Daniel learned how to trash talk over these playtests. How's that for a life lesson? I'm not normally a trash-talker, but it fits the spirit of Most Wanted and it was part of the fun for us. I started off each game session with a taunt that went something like this: "Daniel, you know deep in your heart that you're wanted, right? You're wanted by our entire family. But I should let you know that I am the most wanted." We would then argue about who was more wanted for a few minutes before starting.

But that's not all. He also learned how to look me in the eye and lie. You see, I used to ask him if he had aces (or a double crosser) during critical robberies and he would answer truthfully like a good, honest, loving eight-year-old — but that changed suddenly in one perfect instant. The first time he misled me without cracking a smile was one of the most fun games I've ever played and lost. We giggled for a long time over that critical hand because he had me completely fooled.

Actually, Most Wanted inspired us to giggle endlessly on many occasions. That's probably why Daniel got so addicted to the game. It's also a large part of why this game is so near and dear to my heart. Playing Most Wanted brought me closer to my son during a time when we were having trouble together. We've been noticeably closer ever since, and for that I feel tremendously grateful.

From gallery of domcrap

The Science of Game Design

Then a weird thing happened. Remember the space-time continuum thing that happens to me around game design? It happened again. This time I decided Most Wanted had to be playable with as few as two people (so that I could play it with my son) and as many as eight people (so that I could play it at a large get-together). Simple, right?

Just taking on that one simple design goal doubled the development time. There's a reason few two-player games play well with eight players. I learned my lesson. Every time I fixed an issue with the two-player game, it caused a more horrible issue for eight players. The obvious issue with any eight-player game is excessive downtime and an over-long playing time. Our first eight-player game took an hour-and-a-half!

I got into a routine where I would play an eight-player game everyday in the office, make some changes, play several games with my son in the evening (and sometimes before taking him to school in the morning), make some more tweaks, and try it again with eight players in the office. I slowly wrapped my head around the tools I could use to fix issues in two-player games that would not break an eight-player game. Although I pride myself on being a good game designer, my greatest edge is probably that I'm willing to test a game hundreds of times — long after most others would have burnt out on the project. One of my favorite breakthroughs during this time was creating a game accelerant that was tied to shuffling the deck. This works incredibly well because the deck gets shuffled increasingly more often with more players.

From gallery of domcrap
Early iterations of the game

Most Wanted had become an wonderful casual game by this time, working exceptionally well at every family get-together we brought it to. One family made their own prototype so that they could keep playing it that night.

From gallery of domcrap
A homemade prototype from an early fan of the game

But for all of our success with casual gamers, Most Wanted lacked some of the strategic depth that hobby gamers seek, so we devised a way to include more actions in the game without complicating it for casual gaming families. In the end, we decided to include six other complete games designed to be played sequentially as incremental steps for a family unfamiliar with poker hands. The space-time continuum did not merely bend at this point — it completely broke!

From gallery of domcrap

We created over one hundred different actions before settling upon the best ones to test. Then we created sets of actions that worked well together. And finally, we worked on the best sequence to go through for families unfamiliar with poker hands. All of this required a tremendous amount of testing. That's why, though we created eight lovable characters, we decided to push back the variable player powers to the first expansion. (Yes, don't worry, they're coming.)

Board Game: Most Wanted

Board Game: Most Wanted

Board Game: Most Wanted

What had started as a simple project from the Happy Salmon guys had morphed into a full fledged production. So much for a quick distraction from a pet project! But working on Most Wanted helped remind me of why I design games in the first place. Nothing makes me happier than thinking other dads might have a similar experience. And hopefully the fifteen alternate strategic actions will bring countless hours to gamers as they challenge other gunslingers to prove who among them is more wanted.

From gallery of domcrap
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