If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about game design it’s that nothing’s ever wasted. The only problem is that it’s sometimes hard to tell the wheat from the chaff.
Recently I have been playtesting two new prototypes, and I think it’s interesting to reflect on my experiences nursing them through their respective infancies. Something common to both is that they are the product of old ideas, which have either been brought back from the grave or reconstituted from the scattered limbs of several other games.
This one is a true resurrection. A long time ago, I created a prototype called Archipelago. It seemed to have a lot going for it. It looked the part. It had a little boat.
I entered it into the 2009–2010 Hippodice contest where it caught the attention of a couple of well-known German publishers on the contest jury. At the time I was very excited. I believed I’d created a game that felt like the real deal.
I was very grateful to Hippodice and to the interested parties in Germany, but I can clearly see now how the game flattered to deceive. Yes, it looked the part, but there was far too much work still to do. It was very attractive, but it was just very attractive chaff.
Roll on three years and things look very different. I dug up the game after its long slumber in November, and re-imagined the game completely. I jettisoned almost everything, and have wrestled the game through repeated and sometimes faltering playtests over the past four months into its current form.
And it’s very close. It’s nearly there. I had an excellent playtest at the weekend in the rarified company of Alan Paull and David Brain and it was interesting and gratifying to see how these two hardcore strategists tackled the game’s tactical core. I like it; they liked it. But I’m not sure I’ve quite excised all the chaff just yet, so there is still a bit of work.
And there’s still a little boat, too. Everyone loves the little boat.
Other than some low-grade sniggering from my game designer chums about my choice of name, this one has gone from start to finish (well, nearly) in just a few weeks, and with very little resistance. Or at least, that’s how it seems. But I think the reason it’s become so solid so fast is because its ingredients have all been stewing in my head for a good long while.
Sparkle is a tile game; and if you want to know what kind of tile game, Pete Burley’s classic Take It Easy! springs immediately to mind as a suitable exemplar. It’s got hexes, colours and connections, and each player builds their own layout of tiles. It’s very different in execution, but is very much (and quite deliberately) aimed in the same direction.
It is the specifics of all those elements — the nature of the hexes, colours, connections and layout — that have all been harvested from distinctly different game ideas and somehow crystallised into a coherent whole. Somewhat miraculously, the pieces fit; and where they failed in isolation they have flourished in combination.
Which means that the journey really isn’t nearly as short as it appears.
I do have high hopes for Sparkle. It plays 2–6; it’s colourful and engaging; it’s permissive — by which I mean that it never tells the player “Don’t do that!” — and has a very short ruleset. In short, it already does everything I want it to do.
And it’s pleasingly light on chaff, I’d say.