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Designer Diary: Most Wanted, or The Love Child of Happy Salmon and Evolution: Climate

Dominic Crapuchettes
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Board Game: Most Wanted
This is a story about what can happen when the designers of Happy Salmon collaborate with the designer of Evolution: Climate (a former pro-Magic player). The result is a game that's simple enough for casual families, packed with superfun moments, and a design that grows into a full-fledged game system right out of the box. Casual gaming families can follow a hidden travel guide that will slowly take them into the gamery territories of fifteen additional wild west actions. Serious gamers like yourself won't need the travel guide; just choose the specific actions you want in play at the beginning of each game.

Getting to this mythical place which sits halfway between gamerland and your typical Trivial Pursuit family was not a simple adventure. Here is the story as told by the designers. Happy trails my friend...

•••


Part 1: In the words of Quentin Weir:

From gallery of domcrap
Happy Salmon designers Ken Gruhl and Quentin Weir


I had my first game design idea when I was with my friend Ken in the summer of 2009. We were holed up in his apartment after Ken tore his ACL in a soccer injury (because he plays like a drunken Yeti). After eight thousand games of Catan and Puerto Rico, things got repetitive, so we started designing new games. And then...we never stopped. Nine years later, we've had over twenty games published including...


Board Game: Happy Salmon
We apologize for the disturbances at your local convention

From gallery of domcrap
To be fair, Happy Salmon was also a disturbance at Ken's wedding


I'd like to say I'm creative, but that's a lie. I fake it. Ken, on the other hand, is a creativity champ. You know the training scenes from Rocky? There are scenes like that in Ken's life, except where he trains his creativity. He practices real Eye-of-the-Tiger creativity training exercises. I wouldn't have believed in their effectiveness but for the fact that Ken has become really creative in recent years. We've been refining our process for years, and that has culminated in Ken regularly pitching me scores of ideas — and me rejecting nearly 100% of them.


From gallery of domcrap
This is one of the game ideas I rejected


Most Wanted was born during one of our weekly calls when Ken pitched the bare-bones concept to me: "It's set in the wild west...and you're robbing trains, and dueling each other and bluffing and stuff, and you do it by playing a bunch of simplified poker-style hands, and..." He got about halfway into the pitch when I stopped him: "I love it."

Pitching is a brutal sport for us. We've known each other for 32 years, and we're, um, practiced at giving each other's ideas swirlies. Even the ideas that survive initial criticism tend to die right after. But Most Wanted was a glimmer of hope that afternoon, and one of the few that fulfilled its early promise.

Even in its earliest, sloppiest incarnation, players had a grand time of it, laughing at the heady duels and relishing the chance to run off with the cash from another player's train robbery. The game also created improbably goofy moments, like players tying five times in a row while dueling and, with no cards left in hand, high-carding from the top of the deck.

If starting the design was easy, finishing it wasn't. Though the game had magic, there were niggling imperfections that, combined with our designerly pride, kept us from pitching it to publishers. So when we were prepping for Gen Con 2017, we didn't include it among the games we planned to pitch. Good call, us.

That's when Dominic Crapuchettes kicked in the doors. We were eating with Dominic at the Subway on the first floor of the Hyatt Regency at Gen Con, showing him the games we'd planned to show. "No...no...no...maybe...that looks kinda interesting...no. You guys have any lightweight strategy games?" Ken and I paused for a moment, then grabbed a napkin and pitched Most Wanted on it. "Okay...yeah...that's the one I want to see."

Later that same evening, we sat down with another North Star Games development guy, Nick Bentley, and after pitching him a bunch of other games, gave him the napkin pitch for Most Wanted that we'd given Dom. "Yeah. That's my favorite", said Nick. "Out of curiosity, which one was Dom's favorite?"

The prototype was in the mail the next week.

•••


Part 2: In the words of Dominic Crapuchettes:

Our Gen Con 2018 Release

It was becoming increasingly clear that we wouldn't release Super Wits & Wagers at Gen Con 2018.


From gallery of domcrap


An interesting scientific phenomenon occurs when I design games: the closer a prototype gets to completion, the bigger the scope of the project becomes. I don't think the space-time continuum actually warps (though I'm not ruling that out), but I tend to embellish game concepts when I find them innovative or compelling. It helps distinguish our games from the other four thousand games that get released each year, right? Of course it does! (That's what I tell myself, anyway.)

Super Wits & Wagers was no different. In this case, I decided to include short stories in comic book form to help bring our homegrown superheroes and supervillains to life. And I secretly wanted put the entire rule book into comic book form — a project that was clearly outside of my wheelhouse.


From gallery of domcrap


But if we couldn't release Super Wits & Wagers at Gen Con 2018, what would we release?

I stumbled on the answer at Gen Con 2017 when the designers of Happy Salmon pitched a game called Most Wanted in which players compete to be the most notorious outlaw in the Wild West. Most Wanted had the feel of King of Tokyo but with an old west theme. It was a simple game, jam-packed with fun moments and hilarious opportunities. In other words, it was exactly what you'd expect from the designers of Happy Salmon.


From gallery of domcrap
The original game we received from Ken and Quentin


Early Development

Developing Most Wanted was a cakewalk compared to Super Wits — exactly what I was looking for. I wanted something simple so that I could get back to the pet project that had taken over my life. The first development took place at PAX Unplugged. It took Bruce Voge, Nick Bentley, and I one late-night session and a few games over breakfast to streamline the actions. We made them more distinct and thematic, and grouped them in a logical progression that was easier for players to remember. We also removed all of the deterministic ways to get points. It was anticlimactic for someone to win without taking any risks. In fact, all of the deterministic points felt more like earning interest on a bank loan instead of riding into town and robbing the bank! By morning, the game looked like this:


From gallery of domcrap


When I took Most Wanted home to play with my eight-year-old son Daniel over our holiday vacation, something unexpected happened. Daniel became addicted to it, and not subtly addicted like someone who drinks a lot of coffee; I mean over-the-top addicted like it was crack. We played eighteen times on the plane to Florida. Every morning at breakfast. Just once or twice before bed if he could convince us. If we had a spare three minutes, Daniel would look at me and say, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" And sometimes, like once when he was taking a bath, I actually had no idea what he was thinking.

Daniel has been keeping meticulous count. "We've played 78 times together and that's a fact", he tells me. This is why he's the first playtester listed in the credits. Also included in that list are his grandparents, who have played it over twenty times on a family vacation.

Life Lessons

Daniel learned how to trash talk over these playtests. How's that for a life lesson? I'm not normally a trash-talker, but it fits the spirit of Most Wanted and it was part of the fun for us. I started off each game session with a taunt that went something like this: "Daniel, you know deep in your heart that you're wanted, right? You're wanted by our entire family. But I should let you know that I am the most wanted." We would then argue about who was more wanted for a few minutes before starting.

But that's not all. He also learned how to look me in the eye and lie. You see, I used to ask him if he had aces (or a double crosser) during critical robberies and he would answer truthfully like a good, honest, loving eight-year-old — but that changed suddenly in one perfect instant. The first time he misled me without cracking a smile was one of the most fun games I've ever played and lost. We giggled for a long time over that critical hand because he had me completely fooled.

Actually, Most Wanted inspired us to giggle endlessly on many occasions. That's probably why Daniel got so addicted to the game. It's also a large part of why this game is so near and dear to my heart. Playing Most Wanted brought me closer to my son during a time when we were having trouble together. We've been noticeably closer ever since, and for that I feel tremendously grateful.


From gallery of domcrap


The Science of Game Design

Then a weird thing happened. Remember the space-time continuum thing that happens to me around game design? It happened again. This time I decided Most Wanted had to be playable with as few as two people (so that I could play it with my son) and as many as eight people (so that I could play it at a large get-together). Simple, right?

Just taking on that one simple design goal doubled the development time. There's a reason few two-player games play well with eight players. I learned my lesson. Every time I fixed an issue with the two-player game, it caused a more horrible issue for eight players. The obvious issue with any eight-player game is excessive downtime and an over-long playing time. Our first eight-player game took an hour-and-a-half!

I got into a routine where I would play an eight-player game everyday in the office, make some changes, play several games with my son in the evening (and sometimes before taking him to school in the morning), make some more tweaks, and try it again with eight players in the office. I slowly wrapped my head around the tools I could use to fix issues in two-player games that would not break an eight-player game. Although I pride myself on being a good game designer, my greatest edge is probably that I'm willing to test a game hundreds of times — long after most others would have burnt out on the project. One of my favorite breakthroughs during this time was creating a game accelerant that was tied to shuffling the deck. This works incredibly well because the deck gets shuffled increasingly more often with more players.


From gallery of domcrap
Early iterations of the game


Most Wanted had become an wonderful casual game by this time, working exceptionally well at every family get-together we brought it to. One family made their own prototype so that they could keep playing it that night.


From gallery of domcrap
A homemade prototype from an early fan of the game


But for all of our success with casual gamers, Most Wanted lacked some of the strategic depth that hobby gamers seek, so we devised a way to include more actions in the game without complicating it for casual gaming families. In the end, we decided to include six other complete games designed to be played sequentially as incremental steps for a family unfamiliar with poker hands. The space-time continuum did not merely bend at this point — it completely broke!


From gallery of domcrap


We created over one hundred different actions before settling upon the best ones to test. Then we created sets of actions that worked well together. And finally, we worked on the best sequence to go through for families unfamiliar with poker hands. All of this required a tremendous amount of testing. That's why, though we created eight lovable characters, we decided to push back the variable player powers to the first expansion. (Yes, don't worry, they're coming.)


Board Game: Most Wanted

Board Game: Most Wanted

Board Game: Most Wanted


What had started as a simple project from the Happy Salmon guys had morphed into a full fledged production. So much for a quick distraction from a pet project! But working on Most Wanted helped remind me of why I design games in the first place. Nothing makes me happier than thinking other dads might have a similar experience. And hopefully the fifteen alternate strategic actions will bring countless hours to gamers as they challenge other gunslingers to prove who among them is more wanted.

From gallery of domcrap
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Sun Jul 29, 2018 1:05 pm
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Designer Diary: Evolution, or Great Art Mirrors Nature

Dominic Crapuchettes
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Board Game: Evolution
Evolution is the culminating work of three game designers and an entire development team at North Star Games. My part of the story begins when I was a wee child.

I come from a European family that did not watch much television. We played board games twice a week instead. Dad taught me chess when I was four, entered me into tournaments starting at seven, and hired a chess tutor for me during elementary school. His dream was for me to become an international chess champion. Sure, my family also played party games and took vacations to the beach, but that's not the part of my childhood that played a role in shaping Evolution.

I started designing intricate fantasy games in sixth grade, and in eighth grade I designed a wargame that was banned from school because too many friends were playing during class! In high school, my final economics paper was a business plan for the game company I planned to start after graduation. But the summer of 1998 is when my part in the development of Evolution kicked into high gear because that's when I decided I would stop playing Magic after the New York Pro Tour. I wanted more time to develop some of my game designs and start a game company. Perhaps knowing ahead of time that New York would be my final Pro Tour took away some of the pressure because I ended up taking second place and winning $15k at that event.

From gallery of domcrap

That's me in (and on) the 1998 Magic State Championship poster; I was Virginia state champion that year


It was from these five years of intense tournament experiences that the deep-seated desire to create a tournament quality game was first planted in my heart — and it's a desire that I've been carefully nurturing ever since.

The History of Evolution

Evolution has an interesting history. Nearly ten years ago, a Russian biologist named Dmitry Knorre created a game to demonstrate evolutionary principles to students. It was very thematic and educational, but since it was designed by a biologist and not a game designer, it fell a little short on game play. Rightgames, the Russian publisher that picked it up, had game designer Sergey Machin overhaul the concept and released it as Evolution: The Origin of Species.

Board Game Designer: Dmitry Knorre
Board Game Designer: Sergey Machin
Board Game: Evolution: The Origin of Species

Dmitry Knorre with his kids; Sergey Machin; Evolution: The Origin of Species


When I came across the published game in 2013, I was immediately struck by how well the theme was integrated into the mechanisms, but there were still some glaring game design flaws that bothered me. I stayed up until 4 a.m. that night thinking about how to solve the problems. This is not unusual for me when I come across a new game that excites my imagination. What is unusual is that I stayed up late the next night, too. And then again and again and again for about two weeks straight. I did this without knowing whether the license was available, which helps explain why my wife says I'm obsessive about game design, although I prefer the term passionate. Suffice it to say, I was hooked.

The biggest flaw of Evolution: The Origin of Species is that the winner gets determined on the last round of the game, making all of the previous rounds feel meaningless. Furthermore, it's possible for that final round to be determined by the roll of a die. This is fine for an educational tool designed to demonstrate evolutionary principles, but it does not make for a great game. The next flaw I addressed is the numerous exceptions to the rules created by the cards. What started off as a very simple design quickly compounded into a complicated web of rules that needed a large compendium to resolve specific card interactions. There were also issues with regards to card balance, luck of the draw, runaway leaders, and excessive text on almost every card.

There was no simple key to fixing these problems. It just took time – a freaking ridiculous amount of time! I have over thirty versions of Evolution saved on my computer and detailed notes recording nearly three hundred different playtests.

The hardest thing to balance was the carnivore trait: If carnivores were too powerful, the game turned into a "take-that" diplomatic game of negotiated wins; if carnivores were too weak, the game lost its excitement and turned into a Euro-style resource management game without any interaction. I wanted the threat of carnivores to be great enough that players had to pay attention to what others were doing, but I didn't want carnivores to be so strong that games would be determined by who was targeted the least instead of who made the best strategic decisions. It was a tricky balance to find, but I think we nailed it. Carnivores are the glue that hold this game together.

From gallery of domcrap

The illustration of the carnivore in Evolution


Designing Evolution

All of my games are designed using a similar framework: Create the most amount of fun (or replay value) with the fewest number of rules. I added one additional criteria for Evolution: Make it as thematic as possible!

• Bursting with Theme
Evolution is my first published game with a theme, and I took the endeavor extremely seriously. I wanted the theme to exude from the game mechanisms, not get slapped on afterwards with flavor text. In fact, I'll go a step further and say that flavor text isn't theme – it's chrome. Theme is designed into the game by the game designer. Chrome is added afterwards by artists, graphic designers, historians, writers, and poets. I'm not against chrome. In fact I love it! It helps immerse the players into the setting of the game. Evolution has chrome in spades, but it is also imbued with theme that comes directly from the game mechanisms. Evolution would feel thematic regardless of whether it was published by Fantasy Flight or Cheapass Games.

Evolution is not a wargame about conquering the environment or a civilization-style game about progressing along an evolutionary tech tree. The heart and soul of Evolution is an ever-changing ecosystem. Players must continually adapt to the environment in order to survive and thrive. The brilliant part (inherited from Dmitry Knorre) is that the act of adapting your species is what changes the ecosystem, so every turn in the game creates a feedback loop which keeps the system in continual flux. When you play Evolution, you'll feel immersed in a dynamic jungle with interesting species and symbiotic relationships.

In some games of Evolution you'll find that herbivores proliferate best; in others, the carnivores rule the day. Most of the time you'll find that carnivores and herbivores cohabitate in a balanced ecosystem that mimics what you find in nature. If you're lucky, you might even witness a situation in which a carnivore cultivates another species for food, just like humans do with cows and chickens! All of these situations arise naturally through the game play. I did not add an event card called "Cataclysm: Every species has a 90% chance of extinction", but you'll experience a cataclysmic event every tenth game (or so) in which 90% of the species go extinct. This will occur naturally through the actions of the players instead of getting dictated externally through a "thematic" event card — and if the surviving carnivores do not adapt after the cataclysmic event, they will also go extinct due to the lack of species to eat within the ecosystem.

On average, I threw out over twenty card ideas that were mechanically interesting and well-balanced for each card that I deemed thematic enough for the base game. In other words, my desire to maintain a strong theme increased the development time of Evolution by over twenty times! It was a high price to pay, but we think it's a smart bet since we plan to support Evolution with thematic expansions for the next 10+ years. The end result is a vivid game system that mimics many situations you'll find in nature.

• Intuitive Rules
While the number of rules appropriate for a game depends upon the genre, I consider it of paramount importance to always use the least amount of rules possible. If I can create the same effect with fewer rules, I'll do it. Each rule is a barrier that keeps people from entering into your game world. Actually, the metric I use is not the specific number of rules in the game, but how easy it is to learn the game or teach it to other people. Not all rules are created equal. Some rules are very intuitive, while others are very difficult to wrap your head around. In general, a rule that is highly thematic is always easier to learn and harder to forget. My goal with Evolution was to create a game with similar depth to the popular big box games loved on BGG, but with fewer and more intuitive rules. I want the rules to quickly disappear so that players can focus on the deeper strategies that emerge through the card synergies.

• Replay Value and Fun
This is the most difficult thing to quantify in game design because fun is amorphous. I look at this issue from a typical artist's point of view: If your work of art resonates deeply with the human spirit, then people will find the work compelling (fun). It will reflect their experience of the world in some way or another.

In Wits & Wagers and Say Anything, much of the replay value (or fun) comes from the social interaction at the table. Those games are fun to play again and again largely because of the social interactions they generate. On the one hand, Evolution is different because it's a strategy game, which means the activity of playing the game should in some way reflect the players' experience of reality (more on that later), but I still wanted the social interaction at the table to be a large part of the fun.

My model for this aspect of Evolution was No Limit Texas Hold'em. While there is a strong statistical/strategy backbone to No Limit Hold'em, you cannot play at the highest level without profiling the players at the table. The same is true with Evolution. While a large part of the game is adapting to the changing ecosystem, an equally large part of the game is adapting your play style to the players at the table and anticipating their next move.

From gallery of domcrap

Team Wits & Wagers at a local coffee house, and people playing Say Anything in Sweden (Photo by Olov Johansson)


The strategy in Evolution is derived from the emergent complexities of the card synergies. My goal was to create tons of synergies with the cards – as many as the theme would allow. This is one of the ways that Evolution mitigates the luck of the draw because every hand in Evolution can be played out in many legitimate ways. And profiling the players at the table helps you predict the way that each player might choose to play out their cards.

One of my goals with Evolution was to create a environment where people could play in the style that was most comfortable to them and still have a reasonable chance of winning. Gamers who prefer Euro-style resource management games can play defensively and mind their own business, while gamers who prefer aggressive Ameritrash-style games can go on the offensive. But players who change their play style depending upon the current situation are the ones who will win most consistently. At the highest level, Evolution is a game you win by adapting to an ever-changing ecosystem, one consisting of the current cards in play as well as the tendencies of the players at the table.

• Chrome
Evolution is plastered with chrome. We commissioned Catherine Hamilton, one of the world's most prominent nature artists, to hand paint all of the card art for Evolution. It was laborious and extremely expensive, but we wanted the look and feel of Evolution to be reminiscent of scientific journals and childhood dinosaur books. We also included swanky food bags and a HUGE wooden start player meeple. Evolution has about as much chrome as it possible to stuff into a box. The only thing it lacks is scientific flavor text because we did not want our game to become a political hot button. It's a board game designed to be engaging and fun – nothing more.

From gallery of domcrap

From gallery of domcrap
From gallery of domcrap
From gallery of domcrap

From gallery of domcrap
From gallery of domcrap
From gallery of domcrap

Board Game: Evolution


• Mirroring Nature (or Esoteric Mumbo Jumbo)
On the surface, Evolution was designed to mirror nature with its theme – literally. It's a game about nature. But I want to talk about an underlying tension that occupied more of my thought than making the mechanisms fit the theme. A work of art is compelling only to the degree that it resonates with you and your view of the world. That's why you hear the phrase "great art mirrors nature". If the world being depicted is large enough and accurate enough, then everyone will find something they can relate to. I wanted to create a game environment where most people could find something that reflected their view of the world.

Some people believe they are in control of their lives, and others think they are blown around by the winds of fortune. Finding the right balance between control and chaos is the concept that I wrestled with while designing this game. Is our future predictable, or is this an illusion we cling to because the alternative is too scary to face? What of all the plans you made for your future when you were young? How many of them have come to fruition? Thirty years ago I planned on starting a game company and running it for the rest of my life. That company was going to focus on RPGs and fantasy board games. What happened with that plan? You could say nothing happened with that plan — at least for twenty years. Or you might believe that it is slowly coming about in its own way.

Ameritrashers have a vision of reality which puts them in the middle of a chaotic system in which their fate is as much determined by the actions of others (through direct conflict) as by their own actions. Ameritrashers are happy if a game creates a good story that can be talked about. Eurosnoots want a predictable system they can master. When playing Evolution, I wanted Euro gamers to feel in control of their fate and Ameritrash gamers to enjoy the unpredictable chaos of a world in flux. If you play Evolution conservatively, you'll have ample control over your fate in the game, and if you play riskily and aggressively you'll find ample chaos in the game. I wanted both of these viewpoints to coexist in one game. Given the BGG dialogue about this topic over the past five years, it's not surprising that this was something that occupied much of my thought.

Evolution Tournament Structure

You may have noticed that I'm extremely passionate about Evolution. I love this game. It has occupied nearly every waking hour of mine for the past two years (and unfortunately there have been many sleepless nights over that time). We are now in the process of creating a tournament structure for those interested in exploring what it has to offer. Ask your local game store if you would like them to run an Evolution tournament. We will support them with prizes.

The First Expansion

I am happy to announce that our first expansion will be available at Gen Con 2015: Evolution: Flight. Will the ability to fly allow your species to soar to new heights? Or will it bring about your downfall?

Dominic Crapuchettes

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Sat May 23, 2015 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: The Suit of Clubs Finally Gets Some Respect!

Dominic Crapuchettes
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Board Game: Clubs
First there was Hearts, then there was Spades, and now we have Clubs!

Clubs is a card game about taking calculated risks. The goal is very simple: Win as many club cards as possible. (That's the only suit that scores points.) The lower the club, the more points you could win – but there's a catch (as there always is): The last player to go out for the round does not score ANY points. So players who get too greedy might pick up a pile of clubs, but end up with 0 points for the round!

The Back Story

About seven years ago, I fell in love with the card game Tichu. Like many gamers, I get excited to discover games that are simple enough to teach my relatives, and strategic enough for me. Tichu seemed like the perfect candidate because it's similar to the trick-taking games I grew up with. When I received Tichu from my Secret Santa several years ago – thanks, Santa! – my parents were visiting, so I decided to teach it to them.

From gallery of domcrap

Opening games from my AWESOME Secret Santa: Ubongo, Through the Desert, and Tichu!

I knew the four special cards would be difficult to explain, so I set them aside to talk about at the end. Instead, I explained the different sets of cards that can be lead in Tichu. I assumed my parents would know the terms singleton, pair, three-of-a-kind, and four-of-a-kind, right? Wrong!! These are terms many of us learned from poker, and it turns out that my mom doesn't play much poker. The ensuing discussion got further derailed when I told them you could lead with a full house. "A full house?!" My mom smirked at me like I was trying to pull one over on her. "Right... so when you put a pair with a three of a kind, it's called a full house... Of course! And it's called a halfway house when you put half a pair with half of a four-of-a-kind," she says as she nods in mock understanding. Needless to say, the eyes of both my parents increasingly glazed over as I explained each new set. Mom and Dad politely suggested playing another game well before I got to the four special cards...

From gallery of domcrap

Playing Ubongo instead of Tichu with my mom, dad, and son.

We ended up playing Ubongo. It was a lot of fun, but I was hoping for Tichu because I wanted a portable game for our day trips. The full story is posted on the North Star Games blog.

Designing Clubs

That night, I started thinking about ways to capture the essence of Tichu without the confusing rules. I considered how the target market would differ from the typical Tichu player. There is no reason to design a game that scratches the same itch as Tichu. Tichu already does a great job of that! My goal was to design a strategy game that could be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers together. Furthermore, I wanted something that gamers could play while they waited for others to arrive or finish another game. To that end, Clubs needed to be playable by two to six players, and always take 30 minutes regardless of the number of players. This last aspect was very difficult to incorporate into the game (more on that later).

Bridge to the Familiar

Most casual gamers are familiar with Hearts, Spades, or Gin Rummy, but probably little else, so to create a bridge to the familiar, I decided to draw upon mechanisms similar to those games. At the same time, the game had to feel completely different from anything they had seen before. The climbing genre is unknown to most Americans, so that coupled with a unique deck of cards would suffice for that feeling of freshness. We chose the name of Clubs because it nicely captures that feeling of being both familiar and new.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

The first thing I did was remove the special cards and reduce the number of playable hands from six types to two. Then I figured out a simple scoring structure that created interesting game play. The scoring systems for most climbing games are very convoluted (especially Tichu). I wanted a scoring system that did not make you refer to the rulebook, and one that was simple enough to remember after the first play. I settled upon Bonus Cards for playing out your hand as quickly as possible, and printing different point values on each of the Club cards:

Board Game: Clubs
Board Game: Clubs

Pictures by EndersGame

Sixty-Card Deck

I chose a sixty-card deck because it can be dealt evenly between 2-6 players, but I learned through testing that fifteen cards is too unwieldy for most casual players, and a six-year-old cannot hold more than seven cards without difficulty. We tested variable set-ups depending upon the number of players, but casual gamers didn't like it. They don't want to refer to the rules each game to see how many cards to deal.

We tested tons of options. For a long time, the rule was to deal out all the cards every round. These cards were placed in a face-down deck in front of each player. Then players drew seven cards for their hand, and replaced a card from their personal deck each time they played a card. The game worked great for the most part, but there were a few minor problems:

-----1) With six players, your draw deck only contained three cards, which is weird.
-----2) Casual gamers AND gamers often forgot to replenish their hand. This is what finally killed this version of the game.

Dealing ten cards to each player regardless of the number of players was a nice solution to all of these problems. The biggest detriment in my eyes was that it reduced the edge you could get from counting cards – but then I learned that some people preferred the uncertainty of not having the whole deck in play each round. After polling 30+ people, I learned that both gamers and casual gamers were split on this issue. Many people prefer a game in which counting cards does not lead to an advantage (more on that later).

When Is a Game Done?

The game hit its stride when I figured out a simple way to simulate the tension you feel when you are worried that someone might play a "bomb" on a trick that you are expecting to win. That version of the game evolved into Clubs (more on that later). By this time I had played the game several hundred times, so I knew it was good – but there were four specific signs that lead me to believe that Clubs was ready for publication:

-----1) Several casual gamers asked to play again immediately after their first encounter with it.
-----2) My parents started asking to play every time they came over.
-----3) It was the hit of a summer vacation at a large beach house. Clubs was played over thirty times by the kids (ages 7-12).
-----4) When our Internet went down at the office, an impromptu Clubs session broke out.

By this time I knew that Clubs was simple enough to teach to kids and casual gamers. It had passed the "let's play again" test on many occasions. I also knew that there was enough strategy to keep the interest of the gamers in the company, but I still didn't know how the larger BoardGameGeek community would react to it. Many finer details are brought to light on BGG once a game is released.

BGG Testers

Over thirty people responded to my blogged request for testers, even though it required people to make their own prototype. BGG users recorded their games on this GeekList. At this point, I had two main goals:

-----1) Ensure the game had enough depth for gamers.
-----2) Ensure consistent playing times regardless of the number of players.

Board Game: Clubs
Board Game: Clubs
Board Game: Clubs

Prototype and pictures by Mike Hulsebus

The last goal required everyone to record the number of players, the scores, and the time it took to play EACH round. I put this information in a spreadsheet, then I tweaked the point values for the clubs, the Bonus Cards, and score that triggered the end of the game. Those spreadsheets quickly turned into a nightmare! But it was essential to figure out a configuration that would result in a 25-35 minute game for two players as well as for six players. This was important to me because I wanted gamers to be able to play Clubs as a filler when they were waiting for others to finish a game.

Although I accomplished the second goal, I noticed an interesting observation in regards to the first goal. Tichu and Haggis players were not impressed with Clubs. This makes sense. If someone has already taken the time to learn the rules to Tichu, then the simplicity of Clubs holds no value to them. So let this be fair warning to you. If you are a Tichu whore, don't buy Clubs before playing it!

Board Game: Clubs
"Ameritrash" versus "Euro"

The final decision was a difficult one. We had developed two versions of the game. One of them was more Euro. You could plan ahead more precisely by counting cards, as in Hearts and Spades. The other version was more Ameritrash. It led to more bluffing, more risk-taking, and more table talk, as with Poker and Texas Hold'em. Both versions were preferred by roughly an equal number of people. In the end, we went with the Euro version because it feels more similar to other trick-taking games.

To be honest, more people in our office prefer the "Ameritrash" version of the game, so we did not feel good about making it a variation to Clubs. We've noticed that very few people play the variations which we included in Wits & Wagers, so we wrote a standalone rulebook for a game called Crazy Clubs. We gave Crazy Clubs a separate BGG entry so that people could give it a different rating than Clubs. Hopefully after several hundred ratings of each game, we'll finally learn which version most people prefer.

The Pre-Launch Hype

Clubs had the best reception at NY Toy Fair and the GAMA Trade Show out of any game we have yet released. We had so many pre-orders that we started working on the second print run before the first print run even arrived at our warehouse! (Don't blink or you might end up with the second edition,which I can assure you won't be worth a million dollars when you retire.) Two companies are interested in the European rights, and Cartamundi is interested in the worldwide rights in order to place Clubs next to every rack that sells a normal deck of cards!

Read that last sentence again. Wow. It barely makes sense to me, but that's what they said. We will see whether anything comes of it (highly doubtful). We are also in negotiations to have a mobile version of Clubs released by the end of the year, and you can subscribe to the North Star Games blog if you would like to be kept informed.

Dominic Crapuchettes

Board Game: Clubs
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Fri Apr 5, 2013 7:43 am
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Designer Diary: Keeping the Sacred Cows While Slaughtering the Rest, or Redesigning Wits & Wagers from the Ground Up

Dominic Crapuchettes
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Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
In the Beginning...

Wits & Wagers Party is a simple game with a dark and stormy past. The saga begins in 2004 when Wits & Wagers was still a prototype drawn by hand.

My business partner and I had just graduated from school. We were working 80-120 hours a week. We were lost, lonely, and low on blood sugar. That's when we decided to attend a craft festival to sell our first game, Cluzzle. (Yes, a craft festival. Like I said, we were low on blood sugar.) While there, I was going to drum up some support for our next game, Wits & Wagers. This was my first foray into the bizarre world of non-gamers. I was prepared. I had spent hundreds of hours streamlining the rules until it was idiot proof – simple enough for a small child (or perhaps a precocious puppy).

I enthusiastically showed Wits & Wagers to the first people we could rope into our booth. After a pithy two-minute explanation, one of the girls looked up at me and said, "Wow, that's the most complicated game I've ever seen." Huh?!! The most complicated game you have ever seen? I called her on the exaggeration, but she stuck to her guns. This was indeed, the MOST complicated game she had EVER seen. I quickly dismissed her as being "on the slow side".

Then a weird coincidence happened. Someone in the very next group laughed about how complicated the game was. Similar things kept happening throughout the day. Part of me was confused, part of me was frustrated, and part of me was wondering if I was in the Twilight Zone. I could not wrap my head around what was going on. By the end of the show, I had stopped teaching people how to organize the answers around the median, and I had stopped telling people about the payout odds. I took this as a sign that maybe I should think about removing these aspects from the game.

That night I started thinking about versions of the game that would be easier to teach. The goal was to remove the confusing elements of Wits & Wagers without removing any of the fun elements. This was back in 2004, a full year before the original Wits & Wagers had even been published. And so the idea of Wits & Wagers Party was born...

From gallery of domcrap

From gallery of domcrap

Redesigning from the Ground Up

Over the next eight years, I looked closely at two things: Which aspects of Wits & Wagers did people like, and which did they dislike? Learning the rules always falls under the category of "things that are not fun", so I paid special attention to the aspects that people find confusing when they are learning how to play for the first time. Although I spent a lot of time designing the original Wits & Wagers, I had never deeply analyzed why people had so much fun playing the game. As is the case with most beginning game designers, I was focused on the game mechanisms, not on the user experience. With my newfound experience, I would attempt to create a game that gave the same experience as the original Wits & Wagers, but with fewer rules, and ones that are more intuitive.

•••

NB: The colored section below covers the nitty gritty of the rule changes. I would skim it unless you are a major fan of the original Wits & Wagers and want all the details...
•••


The Sacred Cows (The Fun Stuff)

The following are things that people enjoy when playing Wits & Wagers. They are the sacred cows that I did not want to lose in a re-design. In fact, a good re-design would accentuate as many of these elements as possible.

• Interesting questions: As Aristotle said, people are curious by nature. When people hear a good question, they are immediately intrigued, and start wondering what the answer might be. They want to talk with others about the question, and are curious about what others think.

• The Guesses: It's fun to see everyone's guesses to a question laid out on the table. Why? I'm not sure. I guess we're a social animal and it's fun to see what our friends think (though I suspect J.C. "clearclaw" Lawrence would disagree with me on this). The answers often reveal something about your friends: what they are interested in, and what they couldn't care less about. It's always fun to see the outlier answer that's three times greater than the next highest answer. The banter that follows is often hilarious.

• The Betting: Simply put, gambling is fun. It's especially fun to gamble on something you're unsure of because you're taking a risk (as opposed to gambling on something you know nothing about, or on something you are absolutely sure of). It's fun to think about who wrote each answer, look at the odds, then decide how much to bet. Sometime you bet based upon the odds, and sometimes you just bet on the friend you think is most knowledgeable on the subject.

• The Anticipation: The anticipation of hearing the answer is exciting when you've placed a bet upon the answer. People can get addicted to taking risks. This is where the adrenalin rush is highest. I often wait a few extra seconds before reading the answer if a few players have something riding on it.

Board Game: Wits & Wagers

• The Reveal: There is often a mixture of cheers and curses when the answer is revealed. This is where the tension gets released. The best questions lead to surprised expressions and lively conversation. It's fun to look around and see whose answer was closest, then wonder whether that person is knowledgeable in the subject or just lucky. It's especially fun when the outlier guess turns out to be the winning answer, and the person you just made fun of gets a chance to gloat. People act in surprising ways, and any game that can prompt the unexpected is sure to be entertaining.

Board Game: Wits & Wagers
Tom Vasel & Alan Moon

So those are the elements that a re-design had to maintain. Everything else was clutter that could obscure the fun aspects of the game.

The Slaughter Cows (The Not-Fun Stuff)

The next thing I looked at were the aspects of Wits & Wagers that people did not like. The first four points pertain to game play, and the remaining things pertain to learning the rules for the first time.

• A Runaway Leader: It is not fun when players know who will win the game before the game is over. This happens when the chip leader wins a large bet on a x4-x6 payout answer. I've seen this happen halfway through the game, making the remaining questions less fun. This issue was addressed by not allowing players to bet their previous winnings, and by removing the high payout odds.

• Accounting: Waiting for the banker to clear all of the losing bets, place them in the tray, and pay out the winning bets is boring. This issue was also addressed by not allowing players to bet their previous winnings, and by removing the high payout odds.

• Losing Chips: It sucks the wind out of people to lose their chips before the final question of the game. You can see them losing interest in the game. They will be less jovial, less playful, and less vibrant. This issue was addressed by not allowing players to bet their previous winnings until the last question. We found that most people didn't care about losing all of their chips on the last question. In fact, going out in a blaze of glory turns out to be fun for a lot of people.

• Referring to the Rule Booklet: It kills a fun evening when someone has to pick up the rules during the game to resolve an issue. It happened a lot for the "ordering around the median" issue, but also sometimes for the other issues. We addressed this issue by simplifying the confusing aspects of the game. This helped in two ways. First, people do not have to refer to the rules as often, and second, it takes less time to look through the new rules booklet. It is VERY simple and straightforward.

• Ordering Around the Median: This is the most confusing part of the original Wits & Wagers. Most people know what "average" means, but a lot of people aren't too sure about what "median" means (or how it's different from the "mean"). The fact that the center space is left open when there are an even number of unique answers is an exception that makes this part extra confusing to people. We addressed this issue by removing the board and simply ordering the answers from least to greatest.

• Closest Without Going Over: People who are not familiar with The Price is Right television game show have a hard time with this concept. It's not unusual for a player to look at me halfway through the second game and say something like, "If I think the answer is 150, should I bet here, or here?". We addressed this issue with Rule Set #5, but then decided against that rule set at the last minute.

• Pay-Out Odds: People who are not familiar with gambling odds are confused by them. Even after an explanation, they forget whether their original bet is included in the payout, or whether they get their original bet back in addition to the payout. We addressed this problem by removing the payout odds (though we did keep one variation in which Elvis "pays double" since that's a term that people understand).

Cows, Cows, and More Cows (Versions We Tested)

The road to the final rule set was long and winding. It starts with several years of testing before releasing Wits & Wagers Family and continues with several more years of testing until the 2012 release of Wits & Wagers Party. Here is an outline of the major rule sets we tested over the past eight years. We also tested 20+ other versions that mixed and matched from all the different options.

• Rule Set #1: Changing the odds so they are not ordered around the median. We tried versions of increasing odds (from the "1" answer card) and of decreasing odds (from the "1" answer card). There was still a board in this version.

• Rule Set #2: Changing the odds to points. We tried versions of increasing points (from the "1" answer card) and of decreasing points (from the "1" answer card). This version did not need poker chips to keep track of the score (a big expense), but it still needed a board.

• Rule Set #3: We removed the board, so all answers were worth the same number of points. Instead, we assigned a specific amount of points to each betting chip. This rule change was independently suggested by Greg Daigle (Hawaii), Brett Myers (The Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game and Nanuk), and Matt Mariani (Pepper & in-house development) because the arbitrarily assigned point values to answers rubbed people the wrong way. We tried all sorts of combinations of between 1-4 betting chips worth between 1-5 points each. Wits & Wagers Family ended up having a one-point betting chip and a two-point betting chip.

From gallery of domcrap

• Rule Set #4: Allowing players to bet their points on the last question. In order to bring this option back into the mix, we had to keep track of the points with poker chips instead of on a score board.

• Rule Set #5: Allowing players to bet on the ranges between answers instead of on specific answers. This was very visually intuitive, and allowed for us to remove the "closest without going over" rule. The problem is that it creates an exception that has to be addressed: What happens when someone writes the EXACT answer? While it was easy to address this exception in person, it was confusing when we addressed it in the rules and led to a rule booklet that looked significantly more daunting. We were also worried about creating confusion by having too many different versions of the game available for sale, so we backtracked at the last possible moment and went back to Rule Set #4.

My Dream Cow (A Television Game Show)

Part of the reason I was pushing for Rule Set #5 was because it would make more intuitive sense to channel surfers if they stumbled upon a Wits & Wagers television game show. The host would not need to explain why a bet paid out every time (like they do in The Price is Right) because it would be visually obvious from looking at the screen. The bet paid out because it was in the range containing the correct answer. The host would explain the exception only if it came up, which would be infrequent.

Other people in North Star Games, LLC thought the TV game show was too much of a long shot and that it should not affect our current decision. In the end, I had to relent. If we succeed in getting a Wits & Wagers television game show at some point, the first introduction of Rule Set #5 will be with the board game spin-off: Wits & Wagers: The Game Show Edition. (A board game spin-off of a television spin-off from a board game.)


The Graphics

We wanted to spice up this edition with fun art, so we scoured the web for hundreds of artists. After several internal votes, we decided upon an artist that one of our employees has followed for several years: Ali Douglas. A few phone calls later, and she was on board with the project!

Quick Sketches

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The Next Iteration

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The Color Roughs

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The Final Art

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The Final Graphics

Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party

The Final Product

I no longer think that people who are confused by Wits & Wagers are "a little slow", especially since have taught the original Wits & Wagers to many brilliant people who also think the game is complicated. Now I understand that gamers are quick at picking up a new game because most "new" mechanisms are simply variations on mechanisms with which we are already familiar.

Contrary to some comments I've read on BGG, Wits & Wagers Party is NOT a dumbed-down version of the game. This version demands the same amount of intelligence as the original. Players still need to make good judgments when estimating answers and placing bets. It gives nearly the same game experience, while eliminating several unnecessary layers of complication. It was not easy to streamline W&W, and I consider it an impressive feat to have done so.

Since Wits & Wagers Party does not have a board, we were able to include higher quality components. The answer boards are more than twice as big, the poker chips are twice as thick and twice as heavy, and the dry-erase pens have erasers on them! We were also able to get some fun graphics for the answer boards and the rules.

Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party

The Moment of Truth

Releasing a board game upon the world is the moment of truth. Did I dig deep enough to find an activity which is genuinely captivating to people? Did I work hard enough to refine the rough edges? While there are other factors that determine whether a game succeeds (like marketing and timing), the speed of propagation and the longevity of my creations are things I care about. That's the feedback the world is giving me about my skill as a game designer. I want to create games that touch the most number of people and last as long as possible before they are forgotten.

There are many ways to make your mark on the world. I have chosen the world of board games. Here's to hoping my small contribution is worthy!

Dominic Crapuchettes

Board Game: Wits & Wagers Party
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22 Comments
Mon Nov 5, 2012 9:24 pm
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