About three years ago, two friends and I decided to design a board game together. We had a good game concept, but the process proved frustrating, largely due to the fact that we were each located in a different state (California, Oregon, and Washington). Our enthusiasm carried us at first, but our long-distance game design sessions began to dwindle and then ultimately stop.
By the time that happened, however, I had already been bitten by the game designing bug. The first idea for my own board game came to me while I was struggling to fall asleep one night. That idea would become The Society of Eccentric Inventors.
One aspect that I immediately liked about my board game idea is that the “mad scientist” theme is somewhat underrepresented in published board games. But my game wouldn’t be about mad scientists exactly, more like odd or eccentric ones. Less Frankenstein and more The Absent-Minded Professor.
I knew early on that I wanted to work into the gameplay the notion that the inventors are eccentric. I also knew that the main scoring mechanic in the game would be fairly straightforward—complete inventions to score points. Yet, I figured that having other ways to affect players’ scores would make the game more compelling. So… what if the inventors’ eccentricities affected the score in some way?
My first attempt to accomplish this was to have each player draw a random Eccentricity card at the beginning of the game with a unique set of conditions. If a player didn’t meet those conditions by the end of the game, they would lose points. There were two problems with this. First, during playtesting, players didn’t like being penalized and instead preferred to be rewarded. Second, one eccentricity per player for the whole game just didn’t seem eccentric enough for a game with “Eccentric” in its title.
The first change I made was to have the Eccentricity cards give a bonus at the end of the game instead of a penalty. The second change was to have each player draw two eccentricities at the start of the game instead of one. There were still a couple of problems. First, while playtesters liked scoring extra points for meeting their eccentricities, they sometimes felt that their eccentricities were harder to meet than other players’. This phenomenon seemed to fall mostly under “the grass is always greener,” but I didn’t want players to feel like there was an unfair advantage. Second, the Eccentricity card mechanic still didn’t feel eccentric enough.
The final change I made was to have each player draw one Eccentricity card at the beginning of each round (there are five rounds in the game), which is then scored at the end of that round. This change had the twofold advantage of mixing up the playing field each round so that players wouldn’t fixate on perceived unfairness, while also injecting more eccentricities into the game.
Sometimes Less Is More
Not surprisingly, the central focus of The Society of Eccentric Inventors is completing inventions. As I mentioned earlier, completing inventions is the primary way to score points in the game. But I wanted inventions to be more interesting than just a vehicle to score points. One way I accomplished this occurred late in the game design process, when I decided to tie the number of completed inventions a player has to the amount of income generated each round. Thematically, I liked this choice because it felt like players were receiving royalties from their inventions.
However, the main way I made inventions more interesting was to have them each grant a special ability. There are 57 total inventions in the game, 37 of which are unique. The first iteration of invention abilities had each of those 37 inventions grant a unique ability. However, a funny thing became apparent during playtesting—there were simply too many unique abilities and play was getting bogged because of it. I needed to tighten things up.
An important aspect to understand about inventions is that there are two types: specialty inventions and composite inventions. Each player has access to a deck of eight of their own specialty inventions as well as a deck of 17 composite inventions that is shared by all players. Another challenge of having so many unique abilities, especially with the specialty inventions, was the difficulty of balancing the abilities so that no player had a starting advantage.
The solution was simple—give all of the specialty inventions the same ability and consolidate the remaining abilities into the 17 most compelling and useful ones for the 17 composite inventions. It was hard to remove some of the content I had already created, but doing so made for a better game.
The Problem With Saboteurs
In The Society of Eccentric Inventors, players take actions to research (or draw) inventions and develop (or add) resources. Each player has four inventor tokens to assign to their laboratories for free each round. Players may also hire up to three assistants and one spy to take additional actions. In the final version of the game, an assistant allows a player to take an action at their own laboratory, while a spy allows a player to take an action at an opponent’s laboratory.
But that’s not how it was originally. In fact, there weren’t any spies at all—there were saboteurs. Saboteurs were a little more adversarial. Instead of allowing you to take an action at an opponent’s laboratory, they removed an opponent’s action from that laboratory. I thought this would be a nice touch to encourage player interaction. However, during playtesting, none of the players wanted to use the saboteurs. This was partly because the play style of the group wasn’t particularly aggressive, but mostly it was because the players felt there wasn’t enough incentive to hire a saboteur.
The currency in the game is somewhat limited, so players didn’t think it was worth spending it on screwing over an opponent. My first attempt at addressing this was to create a new card type, Sabotage cards. When a player would assign a saboteur to an opponent’s laboratory, they would draw a Sabotage card, the effect of which would give that player a bonus, or screw over their opponent, or both (such as stealing a resource from an opponent). But playtesters still would not use the saboteurs—they preferred to focus on their own laboratories, inventions, and resources. Also, they didn’t like not knowing what would be in it for them, since the effect was randomly determined by a card draw.
I toiled away at trying to make the Sabotage cards more enticing, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, a simple and elegant solution came to me—the saboteurs (renamed as spies) should function like assistants, except at an opponent’s laboratory. The playtesters took to this change immediately, and now players usually elect to hire a spy every round, because they open up resources available at opponents’ laboratories. But they also maintain the player interaction I was going for, because a spy can also research opponents’ specialty inventions, which can interrupt their plans.
Doubt Is the Father of Invention
There are many other examples of The Society of Eccentric Inventors experiencing game design metamorphosis, but I think I’ve already taken up enough of your time. One thing I learned through all of these changes is that when in doubt about a particular mechanic in your board game’s design, keep tinkering and tweaking, and eventually the correct path will present itself. You just need to be willing to take it.