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Designer Diary: Bugs on Rugs

Peter Hayward
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Board Game: Bugs on Rugs
There's an old saying that I'm sure you've heard: "It takes a village to design a game." I'm about a dozen games into my career, but I don't think any of my designs has been quite as collaborative as my small drafting game Bugs on Rugs.

After each convention, I have a steak dinner. It's a treat, a way to wind down, an excuse to put meat in my mouth-hole. At the end of Field Marshall Gaming Con 2016, as I was eating my New York strip, I decided to go through the "game ideas" folder on my phone.

I'm sure every designer has something similar: a list of themes, names, mechanisms. Most of them will never leave the folder, but sometimes you'll find a 3:00 a.m. idea you had that has some potential.

Board Game: Bugs on Rugs

In this case, it was a drafting mechanism that caught my eye, specifically a Rochester draft — a draft from the table, a là The Networks — in which the undrafted card affects everyone.

When I originally thought of the mechanism, I was imagining it as a small part of a larger game — players choosing a Greek god to worship, with the remaining deity getting mad and smiting the town — but I'd just started to find success with Jellybean Games, so my focus was on small, family-friendly games.

Instead of this mechanism being part of a whole, what if it were the entire game?

I landed on the bug-catching theme pretty quickly: The cards had to be something collectible, and the unchosen card having an effect suggested it had to be something active, alive.

I could have gone with hunting safari animals or even my original "picking a god to worship" idea, but once the idea of bug-collecting struck me, I knew it was the perfect fit. My love of ants (no idea why, but I truly love ants) certainly helped.

By the time my meal was done I had two pages of notes, and within the week I had a prototype:

Board Game: Bugs on Rugs

My worst habit is overdesigning. The first draft had 21 unique bugs, in four types: standard, pest, butterfly, and dragonfly (which existed as an elaborate mechanism to determine each round's starting player). For comparison, the final game has nine bugs, and the first player role passes to the left at the end of each round.

This is where the village began to weigh in. Two designer friends of mine — Allysha Tulk and Kevin Carmichael — had a design night at their house. The first time we played, the (then-untitled) game wasn't fun. A lot of the effects involved cards moving in and out of your hand, so you'd pick a card, then immediately lose it. Kevin made the first big suggestion of the development process: Have everyone take two cards before the effect kicked in. The game immediately got a lot more interesting.

Before I left, Allysha made the second big contribution: "Net It", a working title for the game.

Over the next few months, "Net It" became my most playtested game. It was the easiest to teach, it required very little set-up or table space, and people understood it almost immediately. I remember playing it in a Korean restaurant at 1:00 a.m. with Eric Lang, who suggested I start everyone with a card to discourage everyone memorizing each other's picks.

Cardboard Edison (Chris Zinsli and Suzanne Karbt) helped me tweak the numbers higher and lower, seeing how the incentives for different bug combinations changed.

But the next huge change to the game came after BGG.CON 2016 when I showed the game to Jonathan Gilmour — but before we get to that, let me lay out a few details about gameplay at that time:

The game is simple. To set up, shuffle the deck and have everyone draw a card. Each round, lay bugs on the table: twice as many bugs as players, plus one, so in a three-player game, seven bugs and in a five-player game, eleven. Choose a starting player. They take a bug. Go around to the left until everyone has taken two bugs, then trigger the final bug and move it to the side. (At the time, this was called "the garden").

Keep playing until the first butterfly card is exposed — these are placed at the bottom of the deck at the start of play — then finish that round and calculate points from your hand. Whoever has the most points wins!

Each bug had a different scoring method: Fireflies gained a point for each bug of a different color in your hand; ants were worth more the more you have; bees were worth 2 points each, plus a point for each bee held by another player; flies were worth 2 points each; and spiders were worth 2 points for each fly you held.

The garden effects were pretty simple as well: Everyone draws a card; everyone discards a card; discard all other garden cards; activate some more garden cards.
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Gruesome twosome?
I'd first met Jon at Metatopia. To my amazement, he recognized me as the guy behind Dracula's Feast (which had just wrapped up on Kickstarter). Dead of Winter was one of my gateway games, so I was more than a little starstruck.

At BGG.CON, I didn't really know anyone. That was the con where I met my future best friend/business partner Nicole Perry, but I'd literally just met her and didn't really love the idea of saying, "Hey, can we hang out all day every day at this convention please?" Jon saw me wandering around, found me on Facebook, and sent me a message asking whether I wanted to come play with him and his crew.

If you're looking for a physical representation of the spirit of kindness, warmth, and inclusivity in this community, you need go no further than Jonathan Gilmour.

I spent most of BGG.CON playing games with Jon and his group — the "Jontourage" — all of whom I'm now good friends with. We played published games, prototypes, the whole gamut. By the end of the convention, I'd shown him every game I was working on, and he'd offered valuable feedback on all of them.

The trouble with someone as nice as Jon Gilmour is that he's nice, so after we played "Net It", he told me that there was no real feedback he could give. By that point, I'd spent months cleaning everything up and sanding off the rough edges. It was a difficult game to give feedback on because there was nothing obviously wrong with it.

But I pushed.

"I know it's fun", I asked, "but as a product, why would anyone buy this if they already have Sushi Go?"

I assured him that I really did want an honest response, and after a few moments of thought, he told me the truth: He couldn't really see a reason.

When you're designing a small drafting game, the comparisons to Sushi Go are inevitable — and I'm sure the fact that Phil Walker-Harding and I are both extremely handsome Australians doesn't help.

Sushi Go is incredible, a flawless execution of a very simple idea. It's a small game that casts a long shadow, so I asked JG what he thought I could do to differentiate my bug-drafting game. He looked through the deck, pulled out the ant and the beetle, and pushed them towards me. "These cards," he said. "These cards have you interacting with other players in a way that Sushi Go doesn't."

Board Game: Bugs on Rugs

As I said above, most of the cards had simple, global effects — effects which, looking back, weren't particularly interesting. The two that Jon pulled out? The ant's effect was "Pass a card to the left", and the beetle's was "In turn order, each player swaps a card from their hand with a card from the garden."

I thanked him for his candor, then put the game away for a year.

Jon's advice was absolutely correct. I knew it was the right direction to go. The trouble was that I had no idea how to do it. The game was so simple that I didn't have eight different ways for players to interact.

"Net It" ideas continued to brew in my head, and almost exactly twelve months later I sat down and assembled a new prototype. The changes were simple: "Draw a card" was still there, as was "Pass a card to the left". Joining them was "Pass a card to the right", "Return a card to the top of the deck" (so it would be an option in the next draft), and "Everyone places a card in the middle; shuffle them and redeal."

I was surprised by how effective these changes were. The game was still 90% the same, but it was suddenly so much more dynamic. Interactive. Fun!

It turns out — and this may shock you — when it comes to game design, Jonathan Gilmour knows what he's talking about.

Over the next month or two, I continued to clean up the game, all little things at this point. For a long while, "Net It" had cards that you removed for two- or three-player games. This was unnecessary, and including all cards at all player counts was a flat improvement to the game.

Buffalo-based game designer Joel Colombo spotted and immediately solved a problem I hadn't seen. Going last in a five-player game was a miserable experience because you got last pick twice, then second-last pick twice, then third-last pick twice, so by the time you got an early pick, the game was almost over and you had a hand with zero synergy. He suggested a snake draft (with players drafting one card in clockwise order, then the second card in counterclockwise order starting with the last player), and this change eliminated the issue entirely, while also making the role of first player more interesting. Now you got first pick (giving you the most options) and last pick (which meant you were choosing the global effect to activate).

After another few months of playtesting, I'd taken the game as far as I could.

I was still getting notes (too many cards in-hand for a two-player game, too much math in scoring), but I didn't think any of them were solvable — at least not without making the game significantly worse in other ways.

Board Game Publisher: Kids Table BG
I'd shown "Net It" to my team at Jellybean Games, but the theme didn't grab our art director (and I wasn't interested in changing it), so for the first time since starting my company, I decided to try my hand at pitching to outside publishers. Kids Table Board Games was also based in Toronto, and I was a huge fan of their aesthetic — the look of a game is so important to me as you'll know if you've played any Jellybean title — so I sent them a prototype and waited to hear back.

To my delight, they loved the game and immediately signed it.

I consider myself a good designer, but a better developer. I'm also handsome, witty, and extraordinarily modest — just spectacular on all fronts, basically. As a result, I (arrogantly, I now realize) wasn't expecting to see many changes from the prototype I sent them. I'd spent two years developing it, after all. What else was there to fix?

Helaina Cappel (the woman behind KTBG) and I live in the same city, but we mostly see each other at conventions. At Origins, we made the time to sit down and play "Shutterbugs" (as she'd renamed it), and I was absolutely blown away by the changes.

One of my design weaknesses is this obsession with things being fair. Fairness can obviously be a good thing, but I almost always take it too far, adding unhelpful rules and restrictions in pursuit of Ultimate Fairness.

Each of the bugs in the game had its own unique scoring mechanism, and many of them relied on collecting the same bug repeatedly. Seeing every card in the deck, I reasoned, was vital. What if you started collecting one type of bug, and it came up less than the others? So I had added butterflies. Eighteen of them were placed at the bottom of the deck, and they served as the endgame trigger. You'd reach them only once you got through every other bug, and I used eighteen of them because I'd sat down and done the math; it was the exact number that meant even in the worst-case scenario, you'd never run out the deck.

Did I mention I tend to over-design?

Helaina (and her husband Josh Cappel, who did the graphic design) had very wisely taken that mess of a mechanism out and simply added a card that triggered the end of the game. This may sound like a simple change, but it more than tripled the speed of set-up ("Shuffle the deck, then add the 'Game End' card" — no more sorting out butterflies) and fixed the problem that I'd falsely seen as unsolvable, that is, each player having too many cards at the end of a two-player game.

They'd also swapped out the words for icons — which makes the first play a little confusing, but by the second play you'll know them all by heart — and cleaned up basically every card in the game, reducing the amount of math at the end of the game and removing a bunch of rare, unfun interactions.

Here's an example: In the draft I submitted, flies were worth 2 points and spiders 3 points for each fly in your hand. This was a lot of fun, but it made two-player games really cutthroat. If one player got all the spiders and flies, they won. Every time.

When I'd been developing, I'd thought this was interesting, but Helaina decided that "mandatory hate-drafting" wasn't well-suited to a light, family-friendly game. In retrospect: Duh. They kept flies at 2 points apiece, but bumped spiders up to 7...but only if you discard a fly. No more multipliers, no more out-of-control point engines. Simple, clean, and much more fun.

I could spend pages listing the changes they made, but by the end of the process, Helaina and Josh had solved every problem I'd seen as unsolvable. It was a genuinely humbling experience; the amount of time and love Helaina and Josh poured into this simple card-drafting game has put KTBG (and their Burnt Island Games studio) at the very top of my list of publishers to work with.

They love their games, and they know what they're doing.

The final step was to come up with a name. "Net It" was a fine working title, but it hadn't tested well with her retail partners. For a while the game was "Shutterbugs", but another publisher had a game of that title in the pipeline. We spent some time brainstorming:

Board Game: Bugs on Rugs

Finally, they landed on Bugs on Rugs and brought Shawna J.C. Tenney on board to bring the gorgeous bugs to life, while Josh provided the titular rugs.

I took the game as far as I could, and Kids Table Board Game took it much, much further.

Board Game: Bugs on Rugs

I'm the credited designer for Bugs on Rugs, but without Kevin Carmichael, Allysha Tulk, Eric Lang, Cardboard Edison, Jonathan Gilmour, Joel Colombo, dozens and dozens of playtesters, and — most of all — Helaina and Josh Cappel, the game would be one-tenth of what it is now.

Fortunately for me, there's not enough room on the front of the box to list everyone, so I get all the credit!

The reviews for this game have been overwhelmingly positive, and I was thrilled to notice that so far, each of them has specifically mentioned that the game stands alone from Sushi Go. It started as a simple concept in an idea cocoon and, thanks to the tabletop design community, has become a beautiful butterfly of a game.

Thank you, village. I'm extraordinarily proud of this game and literally couldn't have done it without you.

Peter C. Hayward

Board Game: Bugs on Rugs
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