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Designer Diary: Race for the Chinese Zodiac

Christina Ng
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aka Auntie
Microbadge: Click to see my homepageMicrobadge: Starting Player fanMicrobadge: My lover is also a BGG userMicrobadge: 三國得志愛好者 (Three Kingdoms Redux fan)Microbadge: 生肖決愛好者
It has been more than five years since we shared our thoughts in a designer diary for Three Kingdoms Redux, and now we are back to discuss our second game design, Race for the Chinese Zodiac. In this designer diary, we will share some of the decisions behind its design. We hope you will enjoy reading it!


Our first game design, Three Kingdoms Redux, happened to be a heavier board game. It is also language dependent, primarily due to the 69 generals and 42 state enhancement cards. That unfortunately made it inaccessible for my parents. They were unable to try the game even after the final product was launched, though we did share the progress of artwork with them. They also helped us with the logistics as we had chosen to self-publish our first board game. I always felt it is a pity that they could not get to try our first game design...

During brainstorming for our second game, we decided to aim for something family-friendly so that my parents could join in, too. In addition, my dad retired a few years ago, so I thought it would be a good idea to involve them in the playtesting of our second game. That was when my Significant Other thought of designing a game based on the Chinese Zodiac. It sounded like a fun setting and therefore suitable as a family game. That was how our second game design started...


Brainstorming led to preliminary ideas. Since the game was to be based on the Chinese Zodiac, which in turn was founded on an ancient folk story about a race between the animals, it seemed natural to us that the design would be a racing game.

Other design objectives included a low rules overhead so that it would be easier for my mum and dad to understand and a shorter playtime. With these in mind, our initial plan was for a pure card game.

Here are the core game mechanisms behind these initial ideas:

Number of players
The initial plan was to have a different player count from our first game (which was for exactly three players), preferably with a player count range. We penciled in 4-6 players. As the race revolved around twelve animals, we pondered whether all twelve animals should be included in each play of the game. However, that implied some of the animals would have to be non-player controlled and require certain dummy player rules to control their movements.

The twelve animal sign tokens

Different skills for each animal sign
Each animal sign featured in a different part of the folklore, but with a different twist. This offered us the opportunity to design a different special ability for each animal sign, thereby enhancing the theme and improving replayability. However, these were not included in the initial playtests as we wanted to playtest the core game mechanism to ensure the heart of the game was working before making any further improvements.

Simultaneous card play
With 4-6 players in mind, downtime may become significant. To reduce downtime, we included simultaneous card play as a core game mechanism. The initial idea was for the active player to play an action card while other players played the benefit cards, which would together determine the amount of benefits gained by the active player. Some of the actions available include move, rest, seek karma, cheat, and strategize. The benefit cards are also divided into different sections, including an associated animal sign and the amount of benefits associated with each action.

Special card effects
To enhance the Chinese theme in the game, we tried to include other Chinese-related ideas or philosophies, such as the stars under the Purple Star Astrology (紫微斗數 or Zi Wei Dou Shu). These are special effect cards that players can purchase during the game.


Players felt restricted in their choice of benefit cards to play for the active player. The play of the benefit cards also felt somewhat random as players didn't have much information with which they could deduce the possible action cards that may be played by the active player. Similarly, the active player also found their decisions to be uninteresting as they did not have much control over which benefits they would receive. Overall, the playtesting results were negative, and we went back to the drawing board for other ideas.

The next idea involved blind bidding. After much discussion and a few playtesting sessions between ourselves, which seemed to click, we tried this second idea with my parents.


Here are the core game mechanisms behind the blind bidding idea:

Movement and resource cards
There is a stack of cards representing different movements (either forward or backward) and/or energy collection. As each of the animal signs is associated with either yin or yang, we also tried to incorporate this aspect onto these cards to add an additional dimension to the game.

Closed economy blind bidding
There are two types of resources in the game, namely energy and karma. Energy is used to bid for movement cards, while each karma token doubles the amount of energy used in that bid. The energy used by the successful player in the bid is then distributed among the rest of the players who failed to gain the movement from the cards.

One of the playtests involving the closed economy blind-bidding mechanism


We playtested the closed economy blind-bidding mechanism fifteen times. Between these playtests, we made numerous changes to improve the game mechanism as it seemed promising initially. My parents were very supportive of us and offered their time willingly for the playtesting sessions, often trying out the game multiple times in a single session. (At times, we even made minor adjustments on the spot and tested them out immediately.) On the flipside, my parents were reluctant to make negative comments on the game. Each session almost always ended with them commenting that the game was fine as is and therefore ready for publication, though both of us felt otherwise.

Thus, we relied on our own intuitions to assess the state of the game. We discussed what we enjoyed and disliked openly after each playtest, making tweaks along the way. During one of these playtests, my Significant Other and I commented that the game felt boring and repetitive after numerous plays. That was when my mum and dad also professed that they had felt the same way all along. My Significant Other and I looked at each other and chuckled when my parents finally broke the truth to us.

We explained to my parents that they could have been upfront with us about their thoughts on the game, instead of worrying that we may be upset. That would help us greatly to improve the game play experience for players since our aim is to design a family game that can be enjoyed by all. With a unanimous vote, we abandoned the blind-bidding idea and were back to starting point once again.

To be honest, both of us had thought designing a simpler board game would be easier than a heavier game. It turned out otherwise. With Three Kingdoms Redux, our initial idea sort of worked, and we had to make only progressive changes to it. In the case of Race for the Chinese Zodiac, we found ourselves having to throw the entire idea away — repeatedly! Many a time, I found myself running out of ideas, and it was my Significant Other who encouraged me. He would often tell me, "At least we found out what doesn't work. This is also useful information for us."


After yet another unsuccessful attempt, we tried a few other ideas, but none of them lasted beyond two or three playtests before we discarded them. However, in one of those ideas, we felt a sub-idea relating to the play of an action card coupled with an energy card was worth salvaging, so we kept that for further consideration.

Nonetheless, we struggled with how to assign rewards and penalties to the actions. As mentioned, we were aiming for an interactive game with a lower rule overhead. On numerous occasions, I was tempted to include more game mechanisms to solve this issue, but that would defeat the purpose of our initial goal, and my Significant Other would often point out these loopholes to me...

The breakthrough came during one of the days when my Significant Other and I were idling and chatting on the bed. He suddenly asked, what if we had a rewards track for each different action and the reward would depend on the total energy played for that action? This concept tickled my interest, and after thinking about it over the next few days, I proposed the track length for each of the actions in the initial prototype.


Here are the core game mechanisms behind the action card and energy card idea:

Action card with energy card
All players start the game with the same number of action cards and energy cards. Players play an action card and an energy card from their hand each round.

Energy cards with traditional Chinese wordings for the numbers 1 to 6

The actions available to all players are (number attached to each action is shown in brackets):

• Run (1) – Movement action card
• Walk (2) – Movement action card
• Cheat (3) – Movement action card
• Co-operate (4) – Movement action card
• Help (5) – Non-movement action card for karma collection
• Copy (6) – Depends on which action card it is copying
• Rest (7) – Non-movement action card for energy collection

Different reward track for each action
Every action has a corresponding reward track that players refer to in order to assess the potential benefits of that action.

Karma has to be paid when players play a smaller numbered action card than the previous played action card. No payment of karma is required when a higher numbered action card is played.

Karma token with the endless knot design

Exchange to strengthen your energy cards
Players may exchange their lower numbered energy cards for higher numbered ones.

Prototype with different reward track for each action


Things certainly looked more positive with these changes. We continued to playtest with this version while making minor tweaks along the way. Some of the feedback that came up during these playtesting sessions were:

1) Confusing reward tracks
The reward tracks had too many numbers on them, and it was difficult to take in all of them at the same time. In addition, the distribution of the rewards on each track affected greatly how players played their action cards and nudged them towards a certain order or style of play.

2) Replayability
Replayability gradually became a concern with every completed playtest because the reward tracks remained the same in every game.

3) Karma
Karma had limited usage.

4) Energy cards overly abundant
There were too many energy cards available for exchange. As a result, players did not experience any urgency to change for higher numbered energy cards.

5) Numbering of the action cards
The numbers on the action cards may affect how players played their action cards. Coupled with the rewards available for each action card, there were certain action cards that were favored by the players and others that were shunned.

6) No differentiation for movement cards
The movement action cards were not differentiated. Although they have different names, i.e. run, walk, cheat and co-operate, they differed only by each of them having a different reward track.


1) Simplify the reward tracks
The various reward tracks were combined into an inner wheel and an outer wheel. The inner wheel contained the actions and total energy played for the corresponding action while the outer wheel reflected the reward available for each action.

On the outer wheel, the initial change was for two bands, with one band for non-movement actions and the other band for movement actions. This was subsequently simplified to a single band based on playtesters' feedback. The inner wheel would turn at the end of each round so that the rewards for each action would shift. With one combined wheel, this made it easier for players to assess potential rewards. Furthermore, the rewards change after each round, lending a stronger story arc to the game.

One of the initial versions of the inner and outer wheel

2) Increased replayability
Special abilities were added for all animal signs.

3) Increase the usage of karma
An additional use for karma was introduced. Besides using it to play a smaller numbered action card, a few of the reward spaces on the outer wheel were based on payment of karma, i.e., players could discard karma in exchange for additional movement.

4) Limit the number of energy cards available
The number of "2"/"3"/"4"/"5"/"6" energy cards available in the game was now limited, though the number of "1" energy cards remain unlimited. We hoped players would have an increased urgency to exchange for higher energy cards due to the "while stocks last" effect. The energy "6" cards were limited to one per player.

5) Changing the number associated with each action
With the various reward tracks, some of the action cards were favored by players due to more movement potentially being available via those actions. After the implementation of the wheel, which rotates by one segment after each round, the rewards became more dynamic. Game play now depended largely on the position of the wheel during a particular round and the cards played by other players. Players also have a bigger incentive to look around the table to check what other players have played before deciding what they should play.

Previously, players had preferred to focus on movement instead of collecting energy and karma. We therefore re-numbered the movement and non-movement action cards, spacing out the movement action cards, with non-movement action cards associated with karma and energy collection being assigned smaller numbers. If players would like to go for the higher numbered movement cards but do not have any karma or limited energy cards on hand, they would be restricted in their choice of actions in later rounds.

The re-numbered action cards are (number attached to each action is shown in brackets):

• Cheat (1) – Movement action card
• Help (2) – Non-movement action card for karma collection
• Run (3) – Movement action card
• Rest (4) – Non-movement action card for energy collection
• Co-operate (5) – Movement action card
• Walk (6) – Movement action card
• Repeat (7) – Depends on which action card it is repeating
• Strategize (8) – Non-movement action card to collect previously played action and energy cards

6) Differentiating the movement action cards
We made small revisions to each of the movement action cards to differentiate them from one another and also to add to the theme.

Only the player with the single highest energy card receives the reward on the wheel. Other players move back one step, which is thematically associated with the penalty for being caught cheating!

Only the player with the single highest energy card receives the reward. Other players move forward one step (thematically associated with moving forward a little bit, since an attempt to run was made).

The player or players with the highest energy card receive the reward (thematically associated with expending the same amount of effort to receive the same amount of reward). Other players receive no reward or penalty.

Only the player with the single highest energy card receives the reward. Other players receive no reward or penalty (thematically associated with not moving, since only an attempt to walk was made, as opposed to running).

Action cards


Subsequent playtests with the above changes yielded favorable results. We therefore continued with this core game mechanism, and playtests were now geared towards game balance and replayability.

1) Increasing replayability 1: Breaking up the inner wheel
During one of our playtest sessions, my brother commented that the planning aspect of the game felt a little similar after numerous plays. My brother is an excellent player of the game and would often plan several moves ahead, i.e., envisioning how the wheel would turn during the next few rounds and planning which actions to go for in those rounds. This aspect of the game felt samey for my brother after many a playtest with us.

From that feedback, the idea of "dismantling" the inner wheel by breaking it into separate pieces was broached. Specifically, each action would be a separate piece, shaped like a slice of pizza; these pieces are then placed together to form the inner wheel. For the purposes of our prototype, we purchased soft magnetic strips and pasted them on the underside of the pieces as well as on a circular inner wheel. That way, it is easy to change the set-up for each new game.

After implementing the above change, the order of the actions on the inner wheel became different for every game, and the replayability of the game was greatly improved as a result. My brother now had to plan in a different way from game to game.

Four-player version wheel, with inner wheel pieces broken up

2) Increasing replayability 2: Variable starting positions
Every player had until now started the game on a clean slate with nothing in the play area and with a fixed number of karma tokens. This gave the start of every game a somewhat familiar and repetitive feel. We therefore tried to make the starting position of every player different instead.

Our initial idea was for each player to play an action card from those numbered 1 to 6. The player with the highest number would collect the largest number of karma tokens, but the cost of doing so would be starting the game with a high-numbered action card in their playing area.

This certainly improved the repetitive issue at the start of each game — until my dad started playing the highest numbered action card allowable — 6 "Walk" — almost every time. He explained that it was "riskless" anyway. We reasoned that the penalty of having a high-numbered action card as the first card was not high enough, and therefore came up with an improved version that builds on the initial idea. After collecting the karma tokens, all players who played the highest numbered action card (6 "Walk") had to give one karma token to all who played the lowest numbered action card (1 "Cheat"). Similarly, whoever played the 5 "Co-operate" has to give one karma token to all who played 2 "Help", and whoever played 4 "Rest" has to give one karma token to all who played 3 "Run". There was now really no gain without taking any risks!

3) Reduction in energy while in river
We observed after many playtests that the actions giving energy cards — "Rest" in particular — became progressively less important as a game developed. (After players have exchanged up to the higher energy cards, they would focus only on the movement actions and the collection of energy became less important.) To maintain these actions' relevance, we added a rule whereby one energy card has to be returned to the general supply each time a player plays 8 "Strategize", which allowed the player to collect all of their played action and energy cards, while in the river section.

Four-player variant set-up with finalized prototype

Playtests with these subsequent improvements went well, and we knew that we were firmly on the right track. These developments made us feel comfortable enough to affirm the core game mechanisms for Race for the Chinese Zodiac, and we could then move on to playtest other aspects of the game.

All of our playtesting sessions thus far were with four players. Upon settling on the core game mechanisms, we started keeping track of our playtest results. This was for the purpose of testing the power balance of the animal sign cards. The four-player variant ultimately saw a grand total of 124 playtests with many different players. A large portion of those were played with my parents.

With the core game mechanisms nailed down, we were ready to expand our horizons and ponder other player counts, e.g., five or six players. We were both skeptical about playtesting with three players due to the suspected lower player interaction but still kept our options open for that possibility.


We fully expected that minor tweaks to the four-player variant would be required to cater to different player counts. For the five-player variant, we roped in my brother to help, starting without making any changes to the four-player variant to identify any potential issues.


1) Exchange of energy becomes tougher
The first thing we observed during the initial playtests with five players was that exchanging for higher energy card(s) became much tougher to accomplish. You had the same number of ways to get an energy exchange action, but now one more player was competing for it.

2) Tighter resources
Resources also felt tighter due to the non-movement action cards providing an additional benefit only to the individual player who played the highest energy card. As before, with competition from an additional player in the game, it became more difficult to receive this additional benefit, thereby reducing the number of resources per player in the game. For the same reason, collection of all previously played action and energy cards also became more challenging because only the individual player who played the highest energy card with 8 "Strategize" would collect their played action and energy cards.

3) Balance of animal sign skills
The balance of the special abilities of the animal signs was affected. Some of the special abilities became more powerful with the higher player count, while others became weaker. This implied more playtesting and rebalancing of the special abilities would be required.

An example of this would be the monkey's special ability, which gave the monkey player an additional "1" energy card if they resolved the same action as another player. With an additional player, this special ability is strengthened.


1) New outer wheel
A different outer wheel with one more way to get an energy exchange was designed to cater for the five-player variant. The four-player variant's outer wheel has three energy exchange icons while the five-player variant has four.

Five-player version wheel

2) Reducing the resource tightness
We did not have a solution for this issue initially. Indeed, this issue was to remain the main reason for my Significant Other's dissatisfaction with the five-player variant for a substantial period of time. The eventual solution came as a by-product from our playtesting for the six-player variant, but I will jump the gun and elaborate on that change here.

A different set of non-movement action cards was designed for the five-player variant. The additional benefit would now be awarded to all players who played the highest energy card and not only the player who played the individually highest energy card. This not only reduced the tightness of resources, players would also experience less difficulty collecting their played action and energy cards with 8 "Strategize".

3) Balance of the animal signs' skill
The five-player variant was ultimately playtested over 83 times to ensure that each animal sign was adequately powered. After these playtests, we adjusted animal sign special abilities fairly frequently (and the rules less frequently) to ensure the game balance.

Returning to the example with the monkey, we eventually included a hand size limit of twelve energy cards per player. This naturally limited the strength of the monkey's special ability at higher player counts.

Five-player variant set-up with finalized prototype


Playtesting continued for both four-player and five-player variants every week. We also planned to give the six-player variant a try to test the limits of the core game mechanisms, but the main challenge was finding a sixth playtester who was able to commit their time to repeated plays instead of simply a single play. After all, only with repeated plays can we get a better feel of the feasibility of the six-player variant.

Our hope was answered when my brother introduced his girlfriend to us! We started by introducing other board games to her to test her interest in gaming because if she didn't like those, we wouldn't want to bother her with a playtest. Happily, she did enjoy the board games we brought to show her. My brother then helped us check whether she was keen to participate in playtesting, and she readily agreed to the prospect!


The problems that existed in a five-player variant were amplified greatly in the six-player variant. Everything felt tight, so much so that we introduced another action card to try to address the issue. This action card, which we named "Sprint", is a separate movement card and does not appear on the inner wheel as we didn't want to create a new outer wheel if we could help it. With two outer wheels, we could use the two sides of the same board, but three outer wheels would not enjoy such synergy.

The additional action card seemed to work initially, but we soon realized that its reward was too situational. We went on to playtest the six-player variant 11 times, but decided not to force the issue in the end. We concluded that the game design could not support this high a player count unless we upsized every single game component, but that would make it technically a different game.

We don't think it's fair to the end customer to add an additional player count to the box for the sake of more easily marketing the game. Being board gamers ourselves, we often found ourselves questioning the player count claimed to be supported by a particular board game (in our humble opinion) and do not wish to repeat such an error ourselves.


What remained for us to playtest was the three-player variant, which you may recall both of us were skeptical about. We had earlier playtested the three-player variant a few times, but it turned out rather bland, with a strong multiplayer solitaire feel due to reduced player interaction. This removed a big part of our enjoyment in the game.

In between these playtesting sessions, we approached Capstone Games (publisher of the second edition of Three Kingdoms Redux) to assess whether they might be interested in publishing Race for the Chinese Zodiac. Initial discussions with Clay Ross, president of Capstone Games, indicated that he preferred a game with a wider player count range as a 4-5 player game would be a much harder sell. We understood his stance and told him we would give the three-player variant another try.

Our main challenge was to retain most of the core game mechanisms and make only minor adjustments to accommodate the different player count. For the case of the three-player variant, we needed to increase the player interaction between the players as well as to tighten it up. We first tried one of the obvious ideas, i.e., removing one of the movement actions (we chose 6 "Walk") from the three-player variant.

Three-player version wheel


1) Reduced tension
The removal of one of the actions helped in tightening the game play. Nonetheless, players were still able to avoid each other a little too easily. Certain decisions also became a lot more obvious with the current form of the three-player variant. In short, part of the tension and excitement in higher player counts was now missing.

2) Balance of animal signs' skill
As before, the animal signs' special abilities would have to be playtested and potentially be rebalanced.


1) Increase the reward for outbidding other players on the same action
In the four- and five-player variants, whenever a player played a higher energy card than someone else for the same action, the player would gain one additional movement for each person who played a lower energy card. With the three-player variant, we increased this bonus to two additional movements to make the reward of outbidding other players much more attractive.

Based on feedback from players, this was a favorable change, so much so that my brother declared the three-player variant his favorite as we wrapped up playtesting. The three-player variant was ultimately playtested over 33 playtest sessions.

Three-player variant set-up with finalized prototype


With the completion of the playtesting across all viable player counts, we are happy to introduce Race for the Chinese Zodiac as a 3-5 player board game. We have worked on the game for over four years, playtesting it a total of 279 times with our family and friends. As with our first game design, we are very grateful for the time spent and the valuable feedback from all playtesters!

We had initially set out to design a board game that my family could enjoy together, especially my parents. We are happy to declare that we have achieved our goals because my parents would still routinely ask to play the game — and get really aggrieved when they narrowly finished second. This is despite them having played it over two hundred times with us over the four years of game development. How cool is that?!

Her animal sign
His animal sign

Game set up (four-player version) and ready for play!
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