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


The First Test in Someone Else's Basement

I’m not sure I’m ever going to know what any game I design will end up being. They keep kicking me in different directions than I expect. Half the time I’m scribbling out new rules I feel like Wile E. Coyote, absolutely sure the next attempt is going to blow up in my face. (Don’t buy meeples from Acme.)

When I first started working on The Last Summit, I had one goal that I thought was fairly simple. I wanted to make a game that was equally legit to win cooperatively or competitively, and I wanted to leave it up to each player to decide what they were going for.

No traitor cards. No diet coke victories.

What’s followed has been one of the weirdest studies of human behavior I could have ever imagined. It turns out there’s a lot to be considered when you make temptation and the social contract a fulcrum of your damn game. So I figured I’d talk about some key playtests that shaped this game by showing me a little more of what you can expect when you ask gamers whether they want to play well with others.

One of my playtesters asked me,

“What is the mechanical advantage of winning on your own?”

“There is none,” I replied.

“Then why would you do that?”

It was a fair question. It still is. For a lot of people that’s honestly confusing. Why would anyone try to win on their own when they could win as a group? When I first came up with the game I figured that was the response I’d be hearing most of the time. I thought the social contract was strong enough that people probably wouldn’t even consider going for the individual win unless they got spooked away from the group win. I spent a lot of my energy at the start trying to make the puzzle of the group win so monstrously difficult that a few people would drift towards the individual goal. There were at least five versions of the game that never left my table because I didn’t think it was hard enough. I turned the game into this delicate puzzle box that could crumble under the weight of one mislaid card.

Then I brought the game out for its first big playtest. For some reason, I didn’t ask my friends to try it, or bring it to my local game store. Instead I brought it to the basement of one of the most august universities in America. LIke you do.

I’d heard this one college had a dedicated game design lounge that they opened up to everyone on game nights. It seemed a little fishy, but a friend of mine pursuing a PHd there insisted my ragged prototype would be welcome fodder for the design majors and engineers who piled in on Friday nights to play some extremely competitive games of Terra Mystica. I wasn’t sure how well this would go over, but I figured there was no harm in seeing if the future leaders of the country could build world peace in my little card game.

“Nope. No. Absolutely not. You are not winning again. Not today.”

Within two rounds it was chaos.

“What are you talking about? I’m playing nice here.”

“Not a chance, Ashley. I know what’s coming.”

“So you’re just preemptively betraying us?”

“Not us. You! I’m not letting you win another one.”

Then Ashley smiled, and turned over a couple cards. She’d been stockpiling Food cards for a couple rounds.

“See! I friggin knew it!”

“Look, I only decided to go this way, because you were already considering it!”

“You’ve been planning this from the moment we sat down!”

This went on for a while. A few students in the next room who’d been heads down in the guts of a Nintendo Switch for the last hour or so, actually looked up to see what the commotion was all about.

I tried the game three times that night, and we didn’t get near the group goal. No one even attempted it. What I saw instead were old rivalries in play. I saw grinning professors and upstart students clashing cards. This was a group that knew each other really well. Or at least, well enough to know that none of them would pull their punches.

But it wasn’t so much that these players were intent on winning at all costs. It was that they refused to be the loser. The game I made was so hard to win as a group that no one could put any hope into world peace. It was so easy to bring everything crashing down, that it seemed foolish to build at all. Everyone refused to be the chump building sandcastles,when the tide was inevitably going to come in. I’d build the game assuming everyone would be desperate to win together, but everyone was just desperate not to lose.

Riding the subway home, I opened my notebook to a blank page and wrote “2.0” at the top.

I was starting over.

Check out our new game, The Last Summit.

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