BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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My Games: The Story So Far / Part 1

In which I finally get round to discussing and making notes on all my board and card game designs, principally to stop me forgetting about them.

And, rather like the producers of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, I have decided to split what would otherwise have been an overly long and plot-heavy broadcast into two parts. Part 2 will be along shortly!

I have been meaning to write this post since the moment of BrettSpiel’s inception at the beginning of the year. The blog is intended, after all, to be an examination and discussion of board game design, and since I am a board game designer then the ‘elephant in the room’ has always been my own designs.

In a manner similar, I feel sure, to many hobbyist designers I have a growing ‘back catalogue’ of game prototypes; some, all or none of which would benefit from some significant and dedicated development efforts. Unfortunately I struggle sometimes to even remember them, let alone give them the attention they deserve; hopefully this list will help in these endeavours!

To begin at the beginning

The prototypes are presented here in chronological order (based on when I first had the idea for each game) and for each design I give the intended number of players, an estimate of the typical length of each game and the relative complexity of its gameplay (compared to my other games, not the universe of published games).

In addition I indicate the current design stage of each game: that is, how far I consider the development process to have progressed. Some games are, as far as it is ever practicable, finished; others are little more than scribbles in my notebook. Most are somewhere in between: prototypes that have been tested and found wanting, but that still contain within them the promise of a better game — perhaps even a good one! — and are waiting for me to revisit and revise them… one day…

Loop

Players

2–6

Length

15–30 minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Refined prototype deck and rules

This was my first design, and its conception lead in some sense to all the others. Had I never been inspired to design Loop then I may never have been inspired to discover modern eurogames, nor to persist in trying to design them myself. The game is actually rather elegant and innovative (I think): a card game that plays like a more traditional board game, albeit a board game without dice. Of all my games this remains the one that is dearest to my heart; one day, Loop will rise!

Fun fact! Although there is no way to discern the connection in the final design Loop was born out an attempt to reimagine the Sherlock Holmes Card Game, which always had wonderfully produced cards but unsatisfactory gameplay.

Stack

Players

2–5

Length

10–? minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but critically flawed!

Flushed with the success of Loop I probably imagined that game design was easy. Stack was my next design and ably demonstrated the folly of that intensely naive opinion. Interestingly it remains my only prototype to feature player elimination, but unfortunately doesn’t do that anything like as efficiently as it needs to. Although it went through several playtested iterations I never addressed the central flaw: that the game can, both in theory and practice, go on forever.

Jump / Balance / Switchback

Players

2–4

Length

15–30 minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but deck needs ‘balancing’

As you can see, this next game has had something of an identity crisis, although I am now happy with its latest (and last?) moniker: Switchback. There is definitely a game here and I really like the core mechanism which makes use of both sides of the cards in (as far as I know) a unique manner.

However, the card values and their distribution need to be rethought to create the right level of tension in the game, and to ensure the game’s ‘direction’ takes the players where I want them to go. My most recent iteration somehow managed to illuminate more clearly than any before it the true core of the game, although my reach is still slightly exceeding my grasp. Close, but no cigar.

Loop, Stack and Switchback were a sequence of game designs that seemed to flow from one to the other, although they have nothing in common mechanistically. They are all abstract family card games of a very similar level of complexity, a complexity that is just a little above that of many popular family card games (think Uno but with a bit more tactical decision-making). That style of game just seemed to be hard-wired into my brain at the time.

In developing Loop I had gone through numerous deck distributions and card designs, and the process had allowed me to hone the practical skills needed to produce playable prototype card decks (eventually discovering the best stationery product ever for doing this). And since I had now acquired this skill, and since there was tremendous fun to be had just designing and printing cards, I stuck with card games for my next few designs, although stylistically these designs clearly stand apart from what came before.

Amongst Thieves

Players

2–6

Length

20–40 minutes

Complexity

‘Grown-up’ card game

Design stage

Refined prototype deck and rules

This game had a very long gestation period, starting out as an entirely abstract and relatively simple card game before slowly acquiring a wider array of card types and the trappings of a richer and recognisably ‘eurogame’ theme.

Although in no sense an auction game (a genre of games that I have never particularly enjoyed), it does have an element of bidding, with some set collecting, hand management, light bluffing and guesswork thrown in, all run through with a wide seam of direct player interaction. In other words, I always thought it would have wide appeal and genuine commercial potential.

And with a little luck that potential could — just maybe — be realised. I entered Amongst Thieves into the 2008 Premio Archimede game design competion in Venice and, has already been reported in these pages, it was placed 9th by the competition jury. Since then the game has been seen by a cadre of European publishers and I remain hopeful that one of them will have the faith to bring Amongst Thieves to market… eventually. Cross fingers!

The Other Hat Trick

Players

3

Length

30 minutes

Complexity

‘Grown-up’ card game

Design stage

Refined prototype deck and rules

This is another design for which I have always had a soft spot. As a card game it is notable: it is for three players only, and uses a deck of just 17 cards. Part of my original aim was to design a game with a minimal deck; the fact that it is three-player only and has such a whimsical theme (and name) both came later, growing out of that primary design constraint.

The Other Hat Trick’s higher complexity and ‘grown-up’ rating is a function of its slightly tricky deduction-based gameplay. It started out as another thing entirely — albeit a design that did indeed involve rabbits — but somehow completely transformed itself during the design process into something quite, quite different.

How Many Beans Make Five? / Run For It!

Players

2–4

Length

15 minutes

Complexity

Children’s card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but needs to be more fun!

The design constraint that provided inspiration for How Many Beans Make Five? (which has only recently acquired a new focus and name) was that this would be a card game in which the players had no ‘hands’; all the cards would be on the table at all times. The beans in question were coffee beans, and I imagined a game that could be played on a coffee shop table, but would, in both senses, be ‘hands free’ for most of the time . Good idea (I think); poor initial execution (I’m certain).

The new name Run For It! reflects a recent reworking of the game, although the ‘hands free’ concept survives. The game was always intended to be a relatively simple set collecting game, but it needs an extra ‘push your luck’ dimension to make it interesting enough; only time will tell if I can figure out a way to make that work as I would like. Until then this one remains half-cooked.

And how many beans do make five? Well, that would be one bean, two bean, one-and-a-half and half a bean, of course!

Treasure Fleets

Players

2–4

Length

30 minutes

Complexity

Family card game

Design stage

Prototype deck and rules, but values need tweaking

Treasure Fleets is very nearly done. I am happy with the overall narrative of the game, and in playtests everything has played out largely as I intended, but not quite. In essence it is a blind bidding game, although if that really was all there was to it I would probably hate it… perhaps ‘half-blind’ is a better description?

As far as I am concerned, players needs to have just enough knowledge about the game to be able to make positive choices, but not so much that it degrades into something closer to a perfect-information puzzler. It is a balance I think I am close to striking, but the values of the players’ bidding resources, and indeed the values of the rewards for which they are bidding, both need tweaking.

Overall Treasure Fleets is a fairly light, fairly quick game with some fun ancillary components and the promise of a surprise ending. And if my game design heart lies anywhere, then it is, I think, mostly likely to be found in that territory!

This seems like a very good place to pause on the jaunt through the byways of my game design career and reflect on how far we've come.

So far, the story has been one of a mild obsession with card games, although for a novice designer I would argue that card games are an excellent place to start. They are portable and hence easily playtested, and they can be trivially easy to prototype. Do you have a few spare packs of regular playing cards lying around? And a marker pen? What about a pencil, some sheets of paper or card, and a pair of scissors? If so, what’s stopping you?

There is also a sense in which the medium itself limits the complexity of your designs; and limits are good, particularly for the novice. Don’t start by imagining how easy it will be to design a board game with hundreds of pieces, buckets of dice, a small mountain of cardboard chits and multiple card decks. Or rather, don’t start imagining how easy that is without first realizing how hard it is to design a game with just a single deck of cards.

I don’t mean to sound preachy, or to discourage ambition, only to pass on the benefit of my experience and hard-won wisdom. Here’s the thing: I started out thinking it was going to be ‘easy’; I was wrong. Big time.

Part 2 will bring this journey up to date, and showcase some games that throw off the shackles of my original card-based mindset. This means, amongst other things, board games with (sharp intake of breath!) actual boards. Whatever next!?

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