Good Day Internet!
Today we’re going to take a look on how I went through all the design steps we’ve talked about up to this point (Game Basics: Theme, Game Basics: Mechanics, Where to Start: Mechanics or Theme?, Designing Your Core: The First Prototype, and Designing Your Core: Solo Playtesting) for our current project: Pulled into Darkness.
The inspiration for Pulled into Darkness originally came from reading a review on the abstract board game Circular Reasoning. How I came about that part of the internet, I’m not sure (can’t figure out how to get back there either). The important part though is how the game is played.
In Circular Reasoning the objective is to get your three pieces to the centre of the board. There are also three gates, one for each level, that rotate around the board. In order to get to a lower level, your piece has to move through that level’s gate.
I liked the idea that the only goal of the game was to get your pieces to the centre of the board and I also liked that the board was circular. I started thinking of how I could create a game like that. Maybe the goal would be to go from the centre out? That just seemed like the reverse of the same game. What if you were trying to avoid your pieces moving to the outside? Or to the centre? That had some potential, but I needed a reason why you would want to do that--what would really drive the gameplay. In other words, I knew I needed a theme. Knowing so was mostly from my own personal experiences:
The first game that I really worked at never had a solid theme until months into the design. I was only ever concerned with making a game for fun, and for me, making mechanics was fun. I hardly ever care about the theme of any game I play, so why would it be necessary that I come up with one for my game? Once Allysha got involved in the project, she said that there HAD to be a theme and started working on a strong one immediately--I reluctantly agreed.
A year later, I have a game that works, but no one wants to play. Despite our best efforts (Allysha and I), the theme seems pasted on and the game isn’t fun. It’s not that the theme or mechanics are bad (in fact, we’ve had plenty of compliments on the theme and mechanics), but they are better separate then they are together. So for now, that game is shelfed.
Beyond not wanting to make that same mistake again, I had seen how much easier it is to design a board game when you focused on developing theme first for other projects. So, I didn’t act quite yet on that initial inspiration. I just kept it in mind over the next few weeks and thought a lot about it lying in bed at night (frankly, I think about games every night and probably should always be wearing this shirt).
The next inspiration came from a prototype of the soon to be released J’Accuse! by Jonathan Lavallee. We played J’Accuse! back in December 2015 at the Snakes & Lattes Designers Night and Allysha loved it! She is waiting patiently (not really) for its Gen Con release so she can buy a copy as soon as it comes out! The game was really simple, but fun. Each turn you only had 4 choices on what to do. You were either moving evidence around or locking it in (J’Accuse!) on a player. I liked the limitation in play and wanted to utilize that somehow in a game. For some reason I didn’t really think about that until almost a month after playing J’Accuse!
At this point, I wasn’t exactly sure that I wanted to combine the avoiding your pieces moving to the centre of the board and limited moves system. Besides, I still didn’t have a theme for either (which was what I was supposed to be focusing on). So once again I stored those ideas away and kept thinking about them as I laid in bed at night.
Then, one fateful Thursday night in January, I figured out my theme. A whirlpool! No…wait…a black hole! No…whirlpool was right… Okay, maybe I wasn’t too sure at that point which one to choose, but I knew one of them would work. The idea was you were being pulled into a whirlpool (or black hole) and had to do your best to keep your ships alive as long as possible. However, due to the dire circumstances, there was only so much you could do and therefore limited moves available.
Now that I had the theme figured out I could finally start getting into the details. I immediately started scribbling down notes on gameplay…or at least that’s what I should have done. Instead I kept developing in my head that night, which caused issues later for public playtesting. More on that another time.
The first problem to solve was to find a way that the ships would be pulled in at different times so that it wasn’t just everyone getting pulled down every turn (that would suck as a game). This lead to the whirlpool/black hole being divided into quadrants, and the development of what later became Gravity Cards to determine which quadrant would get “pulled down” at the end of each turn. Once a quadrant was pulled down, the corresponding card would be turned over. This worked great because I also wanted each player to only have 4 possible movements. I could now design the game that each player could give out only a single command to all their ships in a quadrant each turn.
But what were those 4 movement actions going to be?
I chose a LEFT, RIGHT, and STAY as my first three and decided DOWN would be the last one. The reason I chose DOWN came back to the theme of you being pulled into a whirlpool/black hole and there’s only so much you can do. Therefore, unfortunately one quadrant has to be sacrificed each turn.
I woke up the next morning still very excited and began creating my game. I grabbed some blank poker cards, chits, and a square card “mat” that we had grabbed at our last Protospiel (thanks again to The Game Crafter) and started designing. Cards and chits were easy. I used different coloured markers to design and colour them and I was done. The board was the tricky part.
I sort of knew I wanted there to be less space to move as you got closer to the centre of the whirlpool (it’s only a whirlpool at this point because I drew it in blue), but didn’t know how to do this. So I started with what I knew: there were four quadrants. From there, I drew the centre of the whirlpool and coloured it in. Then I took one of my chits and figured out how many I could fit in each quadrant directly around the centre of the whirlpool and drew that in. Then I figured how many I could fit above that level, and so on until I used up all the space.
Side note: People have since commented about how well I’ve mathematically modeled the black hole out. I have no problem telling them afterwards that it was pure dumb luck. When Allysha tried to recreate it for our PnP, she had a very rough time because it was dumb luck (you're welcome Allysha).
The first prototype was now ready to play! So I played about 10 games by myself on that Friday and Saturday. Two main problems were resolved through that solo playtesting.
The first problem solved was having the game end prematurely. With the rules I had come up with (and yet to have written down. Bad Kevin!), a player who found a way to have a ship avoid being pulled down by the “Gravity Cards” the first four turns (otherwise known as a round) would ensure themselves at least a draw. This was because the victory condition was to be the last player with a ship surviving. This meant you only had to focus on one ship. To solve this, the outermost available ring is now pulled down after each round. I was worried this would feel like it was punishing players who used a “superior strategy” or outsmarted their opponents. However, because of the impending doom feel to the theme, this has yet to be a problem.
The second problem was briefly shown in our last post which was the game always resulting in a draw situation. Surprisingly, I didn’t realize this until about the tenth playtest. This occurred again because of the victory condition and the nature of the board. Once you got down to the lowest ring, any ships there could find a way to survive to the end and therefore resulting in a draw. The solution was to change the victory condition so that the last player with multiple ships surviving (instead of just one) would be the winner. I chose this because there was no clear way to make it so that the “last one standing” victory condition work. I also knew I could find something in the theme for that (now that it’s a black hole game, the way to explain it is that you need two surviving spaceships to send back the recorded research data--the initial purpose of the mission).
One bonus from this rule change that I didn’t consider was that changing the victory condition to multiple ships not only shortens gameplay, but also shortens the time of which eliminated players have to wait until the end of the game. It also gives players who can no longer win (only have one ship) that option of messing around (in a small way) with those players still jostling for victory. I must say, it’s very satisfying.
I would love to tell you more about how not writing down the rules caused problems on the first playtest with Allysha, but this has been a long post and we haven’t discussed internal playtesting yet, or how to write a useful set of rules. So we’ll leave it at this for now. I hope us putting together our experience with making the first prototype helps you understand why we blog about the things we do!
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.