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Designer Diary: Wicked & Wise, or How My Game Outgrew Its Theme

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From gallery of W Eric Martin
[Editor's note: While at BGG.CON 2019, I heard a number of people talking about an amazing trick-taking prototype from a designer who had attended Tabletop Network ahead of BGG.CON on the New Voices Scholarship, but I didn't run into Fertessa Allyse during that event, so I invited her to talk about the game in this space. Excited to discover the game once it's finalized and available... —WEM]

Hello! I'm Fertessa, and I want to talk about the creation and rapid development of my second game, Wicked & Wise.


After signing my first game, Book of Villainy, with Gold Seal Games for a probable 2021 release via Kickstarter, I was finally ready to start on my second game. I wanted a game that was accessible, particularly to people who weren't normally gamers. Spades came to mind because when I thought of my family and friends, that was one of the few games they knew and loved. It intrigued me how many non-gamers would eagerly jump at the chance to play Spades, so I tried breaking down what was happening in the game and surprised myself with how many mechanisms are in the game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Sell sheet (minus contact info) for Book of Villainy

Spades uses bidding, bluffing, strategy, and trick-taking. In Spades, you work with a partner toward a mutual goal. You and your partner each have a hand of cards, but you're not allowed to talk about what's in your hand. This limited information allows the players to act independently and forces you to trust your partner's decisions. The inability to communicate important information also forces players to pay attention to what their partner does to catch hints their partner may leave through their choice of card play. To me, this was the true form of co-operation.

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of co-op games. For one reason or another, I often feel disengaged when I play them, so I felt like the partnering in Spades was the best starting place to combat that feeling. That's how I started creating a competitive game built on co-operation.

Vague Beginnings

On September 9, 2019, I made a "work in progress" thread for Wicked & Wise. All I had was the name and the idea. I like keeping track of my projects from beginning to end, so I've used the WIP thread much like a diary.

My initial idea was vague. I had only broad strokes of what I wanted to accomplish versus how to actually accomplish those goals. I knew it was a four-player game, with players partnered in twos, much like Spades. Each partner would have a role: Wicked or Wise. Wicked was supposed to be a spoiled heir running wild in the kingdom, and Wise was the heir's accountant, trying to keep them and their money in line.

Wise would have the more consistent role, which directly earned money. They played the tricks each round. Wicked would be the unpredictable, selfish player who was having fun, but also making sure Wise kept a good supply of money coming in — which meant that Wicked was in charge of the action cards that would help them affect gameplay.

I came up with a Dominion-esque money system and made it so that both Wicked players would share a deck of action cards from which they would draw. There was no endgame goal, no matter how hard I thought about it, so I left it at that.

Two days later, I had another idea. It would be much easier to test the design by giving each Wicked a set amount of actions. If I made eight action cards, they could cycle through them, similar to Concordia and Mission: Red Planet. Half the cards could help Wicked achieve their personal goals, while the other half could help their partner. (This split seemed fun on paper, but in hindsight it divided the player's attention and increased the game's duration.)

From gallery of Shintotchi

From Thought to Reality

I didn't actually create a prototype until two weeks later on September 27. I made two iterations of the game that same day. For the first, I used regular playing cards to kind of map my way through how it felt playing both roles. In the next iteration, I introduced customized cards, i.e., hand-drawn blank cards, to add the money element and actions for the Wicked player.

A big issue I found was that the endgame goal was important. If Wicked and Wise weren't trying to achieve the same goal, gameplay felt too much like a tug of war, and you lost that element of co-operation. It also made it less important to pay attention to what your partner was doing.

From gallery of Shintotchi

This led to my third iteration, in which players were trying to buy two out of three treasures to win the game. Costing ten tokens each, the treasures were expensive, so you had to build your money engine to get them before your opponent.

I used poker chips and a regular deck of cards because I felt like it would be more confusing to make up a deck while I was still establishing the foundations of gameplay. This choice was helpful for easy prototyping, but it also limited what I could do. In retrospect, I think that limitation was fine as a start because having too many options in the beginning would've given me the designer version of analysis paralysis; that being said, the 52-card deck stopped being viable after two months of using it.

This simplified a lot of the side goals I'd been putting in the design, such as trying to gain popularity, favor, or goodwill to get the throne. All of that was extra fluff I had added to make the role seem interesting, but it wasn't needed. Alone, I found myself engaged with the simplicity, but I still felt something was missing.

From gallery of Shintotchi

The Next Hurdle

My biggest concern was making both roles interesting, and that was something that I, as one person, could not solo test. I resigned myself to showing my ugliest darling, and nearly a month later I tested Wicked & Wise with other people.

I was lucky in that all three of those people were game designers, who gave very insightful feedback. My game was so rough that I stumbled through half-formed rules and realized only then that I hadn't written any rules down. I apologetically tried to answer why players did X or why I chose the rules that I did, and somehow got through it.

What shocked me is that they genuinely enjoyed the game. I expected the "I didn't quite get it" or "You have to find the fun", but that never came. They agreed it was all over the place, but what caught their attention was that it was a trick-taking game in which one player didn't have to play tricks. I had never seen it as a selling point when brainstorming because I love trick-taking, but to someone who isn't fond of it, my game still gave them a viable role. The asymmetry of the roles ended up being more of a strength than I had anticipated.

Another thing they pointed out was the light deck-building element I had stumbled upon. Wise, the trick-taking role, starts the game with a hand of cards that ranges from 2 to 9 from the diamond, heart, and club suites. Wicked has access to a shared deck of spades (the trump suit) and a shared deck of face cards. They can buy these cards and pass them to their partner to win tricks. At the end of the round, however, those face and trump cards get shuffled into the main deck, which means they could be dealt out to either team in the next round.

My takeaway from the night was that I had a game somewhere in the mess, and that game had some unique things going on within it.

I was invigorated and encouraged to work on it anew. Metatopia was happening in two weeks, so I made the changes I could before Wicked & Wise made its first con debut. Mostly I removed half of Wicked's action cards and tweaked the scoring and money system. I increased the press-your-luck element for the betting mechanism I'd introduced for the Wicked players. I also increased the reward for the bidding mechanism used by the Wise players.

From gallery of Shintotchi

A Surprising Turn of Events

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Metatopia was unlike any con I'd been to. You schedule your game times and have open slots for people to sign up for your game. I had only one time slot for Wicked & Wise, but that one slot was enough to change my life. (I sound super dramatic, but just roll with it.) I actually had only one person sign up to play Wicked & Wise, but I showed up, and the Metatopia staff did their thing and wrangled an extra player. Also, a publisher friend made the time to stop by and sat in as our fourth.

Once again, I stumbled through the rules. The unfortunate thing about basing a game on Spades is that everything feels familiar, and it can get confusing as to what needs to be explained versus what doesn't. (I have since learned to explain everything, including what a trump card is.)

The game was still all over the place, but once again, the players enjoyed the game. Dare I say, they had fun? My publisher friend got very excited and ended up introducing me to another publisher, who played and ended up loving the game. He then mentioned it to his friends, and suddenly I found myself with an abundance of playtesters.

From gallery of Shintotchi

Even two weeks later at BGG.CON, I found respected game designers who wanted to sit down for a game. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of these designers and publishers giving me shout-outs, I was able to make much progress on the development of Wicked & Wise.

One designer played my game, and after giving me an amazing level of feedback, he did an all-call on Twitter for people to check out my game. After that, for the rest of the con, I never had to ask someone to test my game. Thanks to that, and the many others who passed the word, I was never low on playtesters.

One designer was kind enough to math out all the probabilities of player advantages depending on turn order, in addition to calculating the true balance of player options based on card values. He played my game one night and literally emailed me the next morning with so many analytics that I'm still digesting them two weeks later.

It would take another two pages to detail how much each designer helped me, and honestly I'm not sure whether it's proper to drop names here, so just know that the gaming community has many kind souls in it. I continue to be amazed at how much I have been welcomed into it, and how good it feels to be a part of it.

Post-con to Present

As for the suggestions from the cons, I ended up changing the game's money system, working out the turn order, creating multiple treasures worth victory points, and having them give one-off abilities. In the span of those two cons, I was able to workshop my game to have a much smoother flow and evolve it without overloading the gameplay. It was the ideal situation in which to add one new element each game to see what worked and what didn't.

One issue that always came up was that players felt a disconnect from the theme. The game is called Wicked & Wise, but no one felt very wicked. In fact, most Wicked players said they felt like some sort of awesome support team or like a puppetmaster controlling the flow of the game. I can only agree. The game outgrew its theme, but that's a bit exciting, too. With a new theme will come even more things to immerse you in the gameplay, so I'm eager to explore that.

Wicked & Wise still has a lot of room to grow, but even so it has been given so much support and interest that it dazzles me. Games are a reflection of the people who play them, and without all of the support and goodwill of this community, my games wouldn't exist. Thank you all, and thank you so much for taking the time to read this novel.

Fertessa Allyse
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