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Subject: Director's Commentary (Part 4) rss

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A. B. West
United States
Beech Grove
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Why aren't you PLAYING a game?
Drop Out

Of course, in previous attempts at this design, there was no dropping out. We have dropping out as a way to accrue failure because this is a hand of cards. You play until you can't play any more, but you do play as a team. It's a co-op - so the idea here is dropping out is a bummer, but since you are working as a team, it doesn't sting as much. If the team still wins, you all win. And it's fast: a hand of cards is over in a few minutes at most. Then you're back in again with a fresh hand. That last bit is *really* important in the design. You get a fresh start - any bad cards are gone. I think that's what makes card games work in general: each hand might be the *one* hand that is fantastic. But some hands are bad too, so being brief is important.

When you drop out, you also have to play a plot twist - if you can. There are a few cases where you can't - like when you have 2 in front of you already. This also came through a bunch of other versions refined over a long series of tests. The big thing to balance in the game is these 'bad' cards - how many you can have in the total game? Does it work well with 2, 3 and 4 players? When does it get too hard or too easy? Is it fun? That has been arguably the hardest part to figure out and still the part that scares me. I mean you can *crash* in this game if those plot twists get too far along and that just doesn't feel fun; it feels frustrating.

Early on, we had I think endless plot twists - you could end up with any number in play. Then we tried stacks of plot twists - one stack, two stacks. Stacks proved to be bad because it created a pit of problems - you could never dig out of it. Then we had shared plot twists and personal plot twists. In the end, we found that a max of two per player was right.

We did have a few plot twists that made it impossible to play certain cards - e.g. "You can't play a card with a hat on it." That was in the game for awhile - but it was never fun. It mainly stuck around because I liked what it did and couldn't think of anything better (eventually we did). But it's an important design lesson in this space: don't take away choices if possible! Choice is so important in gaming and a game this tight, with this few options, needs choices wherever it can find them.

We added the note about telling players you don't *have* to drop out if you can't play a lead card. Of course you want to play lead cards to get the clue - that's the motivation. But there are times - if you are crafty - when using hot tips is better. There's lots of craty plays with hot tips - it's a really fun part of good play to me. And of course you can use your ability instead of dropping out. I think players forget these other options so we thought it important to set out a reminder.

Last little tid bit. The examples in the middle of the page 3-4 spread. We had it running like a hand of play. But then we really wanted to show all the ways you could play lead cards on page 3 (I think we covered them all?). So we ran out of room a bit and the examples now are remnants of that decision. Still reads pretty well I hope. This games seems simple but there's a surprising number of spots you could misunderstand. How many examples are enough in a rulebook anyhow? I dunno.

Ending the Round

Getting all the symbols into play gets you the clue. It's easy! Well, it's easy at times, but then it's *really* hard too. Hopefully you'll get the swing of that after a few rounds and also you should have more than one clue to choose - and that should generate conversations around the table (see Part 3). And if it works out, you get a success and read the clue. The Chief Detective reads the clue too - that gives everyone a chance to read aloud. I guess if someone is shy they can hand it off to somebody else, but I like to give everyone a chance for the spotlight. It's fun! And as said before, you get to keep the clue - no note taking!

So does that make the case too easy? I mean you can just *read* all the clues again, right? In fact, some early versions - that's what happened. Players played the game and never read the clues until the end. That doesn't happen any longer - you need to pay attention during play because you can *lose* clues too. But anyhow, Deadline has what are called 'fair play' mysteries. These have a long tradition behind them. Each mystery contains everything the detective knows. There's no hidden information - it's all available and the answer is 'in there'. Here's a more formal history: "In 1930, during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a number of famous British writers (Christie, Sayers, Chesterton, and Orczy to name a few) formed the Detection Club. During one of their dinners they wrote the rules of fair play. These rules were meant to allow the reader a fair chance of figuring out who committed the crime before the end of the story. While the rules have relaxed a bit over the years they are still relevant in mystery writing today." (taken from Seatle Mystery Bookshop). So all of our mysteries follow this concept. I don't want players to feel like they were cheated or that the solution is impossible to get from the story. We've tried hard to give you that. Instead, we want players to say, "Wow! I should have known that!"

A failure happens if all players drop out. In that case, you have 3 'free fails' represented by bullets. Before Zev was involved, the game scored your answers at the end - like Consulting Detective where you're scored against Holmes. When the game worked like that, bullets were negative points. And you 'took' bullets instead of got rid of them - you got shot! It was a little odd thematically I always thought. And that was also the time when the game ended after you went through the deck twice. Dan never liked that ending - it felt abrupt and unsatisfying.

So I figured out how to make it end when there were no clues left. If you run out of bullets - the three 'free fails' are gone - you then start losing clues. But which clues? That's why we numbered them: you lose the biggest numbered clue. How does that work? Well, the clues come out in a tree of sorts - a clue gets you more clues. And we don't want to take away those forks in the mystery - we don't want to remove clues that get you more clues. So the clues are numbered this way - the clues at the end of a line of clues is a larger number than those earlier. This isn't the same as saying they aren't important nor does it mean they are critical. It's just a listing - so they might be very important or not at all. The way this works in play is if you follow a thread deliberately, you'll get to the end of it - hopefully without failing too much. That drives the game really, really well - you really *do* need to consider which line of investigation is important. And neatly, the game no longer ends when you go through the deck a number of times. It ends when you have no clues left!

Start the Next Round

And this made starting the next round pretty easy: just deal out a new hand of cards. One subtle part here is if you didn't drop out, you'll have cards left - including any plot twists. Over time, these build up just by odds - and at some point, you'll likely get more plot twists and be less able to play and more likely to drop out. That gives the game a rhythm - the game sneaks up on you. Most tests prove this out very well. I'm sure there can be a bad run of cards still, but over a given game, it generally balances out very well. And there are actions that allow you to control that rhythm - hot tips and detective abilities.

That's it for now! In the last installment, we'll go through the wrap up, detectives and plot twists in detail.
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