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This is the blog of a first time game designer trying to figure out what the heck he's doing.


Seven months or five years...

Working onsite at a job usually involves a lot of “hurry up and wait.” There’s a lot of rushing around for a couple hours, manically diving from task to task, and then there’s a couple hours sitting around doing absolutely nothing, waiting for some vital piece to fall into place and set off another burst of activity.

Those down hours, where there’s nothing to do, but plenty of anxiety about what you’re about to do, those are perfect for card games.  If I had to guess, I’d say cards were probably invented by someone squat in the middle of that particular valley, trying to figure out how to get both the time and the jitters to pass on.  

That valley is where I found myself five years ago, sitting on the faded carpet of the Navy Piers in Chicago, and armed with only a regular deck of cards. Technically that’s where I started work on the board game I’m tinkering with now. 

The crew had kind of exhausted poker, and no one really wanted to bet money anymore, so I started playing around with a weird little Poker variant.  The button player gets a couple of hole cards like in Hold’em, but we deal out all the communal cards, the flop, turn, and river all at once.  Instead of playing their own hands, the other players place bets on which of the communal cards the button player is going to use for their hand. On their turn the other players could pick up any communal card and either place a bet card behind it, or a new value card in front of it, and then place it face down. That way you could either throw your support behind a card, or fake out another player while you change the value of the card they already invested in, all while trying to ensure the button takes your card, but not letting them get too good a hand.

It was a quick weird little bluffing game.  The crew rambled through twenty rounds or so between fits of productivity.  It was easy enough, and kind of fun to spectate on, since you could make side bets or mess with the button player, pushing or pulling them towards a certain card. 

It filled the time and eased the nerves, all without anyone having to ante any actual money.  

We had enough fun with it that I took it back to my hardcore, mini-laden, all-in kickstarting, board game friends, and had them have a go.  

“It’s fun,” they said. “Don’t complicate it.”

And I wanted to listen, but it was just a poker variant at that point, and not its own game. So I went right ahead and complicated the absolute hell out of it.

I put it in space, because…well…space. Instead of just a hand of poker cards, they were ships docking in an international space station, and you were trying to smuggle black goods in and out of the colonies.  I had attack teams, and back alley deals.  There was a complicated internal schematic of the ship, with criss crossing pathways. There were airlock seals and corporate overlords.  Everyone had a full army of flunkies to manage, making sure your smuggled goods got on and off those transport ships. It was a whole thing,  and I was getting a workout just doing upkeep.

At one point, my partner came over while I was stretched out over the whole damn table trying to resolve an attack at one of the loading bays, and she simply pulled me back by my shoulder, looked over the thing, and with one hand, turned the whole thing on its axis as she walked past me into the kitchen.

“Your board game is upside down.”

I looked at my game and blinked. “Yep.”  She was right.  “Cool.”

I was going to have to rearrange everything, so ‘screw it,’ I thought.  I was having more fun playing with the army of flunkies, so why not remake the game and focus on that.  While I’m at it, why not move the whole thing to prohibition era New Orleans instead?  Seemed like a good solid plan.

The transport ships were now Mardi Gras floats.  The flunkies were now bootleggers.  And the dilithium crystals were now whiskey.  Time to make cocktails!

I was definitely having fun with my little armies.  You’d place out agents on the Mardi Gras parade route face down, so you could bluff out who was your buff heavy, and who was your quick runner.  Every particular flunky had their own list of skills.  Every bit of booze needed a few particular mixers to make an effective drink, and the turn order was determined by some form of non-euclidean mathematics. 

I remember explaining the game for an hour, looking up and saying, “And that’s basically it.  Simple right?”  And the looks on my friends faces…you’d have thought I was asking them to tune up a Nascar engine with one hand and a toothpick. 

I went back to the drawing board on the slowly growing behemoth, and after some time came up with a solution.  Obviously what I needed to do here was…add asymmetry!  

By the last version I’d added a bag building mechanic, a dedicated whiteboard for one player, and four different roles with completely divergent rule sets and goals. The damn board covered 288 square inches of real estate.  It was about the cones!

And, absolutely no one wanted to play it.

I sat around looking at the gigantor box I’d used to pack everything up, and wondered what I could even do with this monster.  It seemed like an interesting system, but it was so detailed that the fun was kind of buried. It took so much time to get a group of people up to speed and on board.  I had games like that.  Ones I’ve truly loved.  But they never came off the shelf.

Finally, after another evening failing to get players to dive into my steamer trunk of mechanics, I figured I’d try to simplify everything.  What was the core mechanic?  How would I make this bluffing game fun.  And I boiled it all the way down…

Until it was devoid of all possible flavor. 

I dragged that reduction out to a big board game meet-up and talked a few people into giving it a shot. When we finished, one playtester just looked at me and said “I do not want to play this again.” They promptly stood up and left the table.  Another friend just told me, “It feels random. It doesn’t feel like there’s a way I can make a good choice.” 

And that was the thing.  I’d been playing with this idea for years, trying different formats and themes, but the problem was always the same.  If all you have is a bluff to go on, either yea or nay feels just as valid.  If all choices are equal, there is no choice, just empty actions to run the engine, no matter how you gussy it up.

After everyone left, I sat alone at a big table made for six to eight people, just waiting to see if anyone else would come by and give it a swing.  Hurry up and wait.  

While I was sitting there waiting, I pulled out a deck of cards.

How do you inform a bluff?  Make it feel readable and consequential? No matter how complex the game, it would come down to that.  As I started laying out cards, and pushing some of those wooden bits about, I realized it had taken me five years to go from poking at the game, to asking that question.

That was seven months ago. 

So if you ask me how long I’ve been working on this thing, it’s either Five Years or Seven Months Ago.

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