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Designer Diary: Top This! – In which I drive recklessly, teach you some math, and do a bit of boasting

Yves Tourigny
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I get a remarkable amount of game design work done while I'm busy doing something else. In this instance, "something else" involved driving home at 120 kph (72 mph) after meeting with a publisher, while balancing a notebook on the steering wheel. Like a crowning baby, or maybe a less polite bodily function, the game was ready to come out NOW.

Quality of handwriting decreases as car velocity increases

Games sometimes make themselves known to me in feverish sessions which, once finished, expunge all trace of their passage. If I don't write the ideas down, there's no guarantee that I'll remember them later. Headed back to Ottawa, I sketched out the basics for a game inspired by a child's wooden playset I had purchased a few hours earlier in a discount store. I'm a flicking game fanatic, so it was natural that my mind would turn there when presented with a bunch of discs.


The first step in any design is to work out the math. The playset came with 54 discs in three types. I decided right away that I would use five types of toppings instead, with ten copies of each topping. It was clear from the start that players would be flicking toppings onto a pizza, trying to place specific combinations of toppings onto slices to claim order cards. How many combinations could be made with five toppings?

A knowledge of basic combinatorics is essential to a game designer. Combinatorics is the branch of mathematics that deals with counting without counting, or finding out how many members are in a set without having to identify and count each individual one. Thankfully, combinatorics is mostly intuitive, and it allows you to play with factorials, which is the shoutiest of mathematical notations. "n factorial" is written "n!" and equal to "n (n-1) (n-2) (n-3) … (n-n)". For example, 5! = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. It is also the number of different ways you can line up five items in order, which comes up more frequently than you would think.

There are 119 other possible posters, is what I'm saying

If I used two toppings on each card, how many order cards would that make? There would be five cards with double the same topping (because there are five toppings). How many cards with two different toppings? I have five choices for my first topping, and for each of those I am left with four choices for my second topping. Easy enough: 20 cards. There would be duplicates in those cards, though, because "Pepperoni - Mushroom" and "Mushroom - Pepperoni", which are the same for game purposes, is being counted twice. In fact, each combination is being counted twice, so we end up with ten different cards, making a total of 15 cards with two toppings.

With three toppings, things get slighly hairier. There are still only five cards with the same topping repeated three times. For two toppings, I have 20 different cards now, not 10. Why? Because the order is actually important; the first topping is being repeated twice, so "Pepperoni - Mushroom" means 2x Pepperoni and 1x Mushroom and "Mushroom - Pepperoni" means the opposite. For three toppings, I have five choices for the first topping, four choices for the second topping, and three choices remaining for the third one. That's 60. I could divide by two because I'm counting the same combinations more than once, but that would lead me to the wrong answer. In fact there are six different ways of lining up the same set of three toppings in order (see two paragraphs ago for the exciting reason):

-----• Pepperoni - Mushroom - Peppers
-----• Pepperoni - Peppers - Mushroom
-----• Mushroom - Pepperoni - Peppers
-----• Mushroom - Peppers - Pepperoni
-----• Peppers - Pepperoni - Mushroom
-----• Peppers - Mushroom - Pepperoni

Sixty divided by six leaves me with ten cards with three different toppings, for a total of 35 different cards with three toppings. This is what I was writing down while barreling down the highway, dodging cars and large Canadian mammals. (In order to keep the game lean, I ended up losing the five cards with the identical toppings.)

The Honorable Minister of Highways and Berries

Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, I made my first prototype of the game and started playing it. The first version of the game was enjoyable and worked well, but a good designer doesn't stop when his game is merely "okay", and neither do I.

Collector's edition – price negotiable

I'm fortunate enough to be a member of the Game Artisans of Canada, a national collective of game designers with local Chapters across the country. In Ottawa, we meet on a weekly basis to playtest, dissect, and critique our designs. Online, members from other Chapters weigh in with their opinions and suggestions. Additionally, the game was played regularly with my two sons and with other local game groups. A few basic but ultimately crucial changes were made to the game, to add some excitement while retaining a dead simple ruleset.

Game Artisans of Canada

First, the discs were made double-sided, which removed the need for actions which allowed you to exchange your hand of toppings for another, or for a "market" where you could trade toppings. Second, I ruled that discs flicked off the board became property of the player to your right. Third, I ruled that the discs on the board – all those of one type chosen by the player – could be flipped to reveal the topping on the reverse side. Taken together, these all but eliminated the frustration of not having the right topping.

Next, to emphasize the boasting that typically occurs in dexterity games, we added Tip cards. These are bonus points awarded when a player either completes more than one order card on a turn, or when a player takes a "Top This!" turn. To do the latter, the player has to call out which specific order card he will complete, then add a single topping (instead of taking the usual two actions). If he succeeds, he receives a Tip card; if he doesn't, he is jeered by his opponents. Finally, to add a bit of a challenge, I ruled that a topping added to the board needed to touch a disc already on the board to be legal. These little touches took Top This! from "good" to "delightful". I think you'll agree.

Yves Tourigny

The latest prototype, which is close to what the final production will look like

P.S. Incidentally, when you ask your local store whether they have my latest game, the name is pronounced "TOO RINGY".

Much, much too ringy
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