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Designer Diary: Smoothies, and Carbon-14 Dating

Shei Santos
Spain
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Writing a design diary can be tricky since this is not a thing that we normally do. Sometimes the idea just pops up, and you grab it and go through all the design and development at once, leaving you fewer stories and moments to talk about. Sometimes the idea appears in a moment when you just don't have enough time to bring it to life, but it refuses to disappear from your "idea backlog" for some reason — and that's the story of Smoothies, an idea that came to us two years ago and is now becoming a published game.

The story starts with us brainstorming about an action-selection mechanism that could be original and random enough to make decisions interesting. One day, we took the box of our copy of Empire Engine, pushed the lid and box bottom together, then threw that game's cubes at those items, with the cubes splitting up to fall into the two "trays". That was something that we loved!

Not this!
But no any other idea came with that simple movement, and distributing cubes at random felt too similar to Amerigo and we didn't like that — we loved only "the throw". When you're designing and come up with a cool idea but no application for it, that idea passes directly into the backlog to await its turn. That was what happened here, with "the throw" remaining in our backlog for a year.

When we played other games with cubes, sometimes we remembered the idea and threw them into the boxes, but nothing more resulted from that. We think that the idea was screaming for attention, saying "Please work with me!"

In a design session for a big Eurogame, we recovered the idea of "the throw" — with dice used in place of the cubes — to see whether it would fit in the development. Since we love dice management/selection as in the games La Granja and Marco Polo, this could have been a great idea — but instead it was a failure, and we dismissed "the throw" from that game.

One day, though, we played Ganz Schön Clever, and suddenly everything made sense! Two trays: One for the active player, and the other for passive players! Roll and write! Combinations! Colors! We finally had the spark we needed to start the design of a new game seriously.

The number 14 is very special for us as a lot of good things happened to us on the 14th of May (and in many more months) since we've been together, so we thought we'd use that number as a reference while designing this game. The prototype then was unthemed beyond the name "Special 14", which bothered us a little bit, but since all the roll-and-write games we liked (Qwixx, Qwinto, Ganz schön clever...) were also unthemed, we proceed to design the first sheets.





Our first approach was so messy that we played only once and dismissed it immediately. We don't even remember how the scoring functioned, but the gameplay worked like this: Instead of crossing out squares, we wrote the value of the dice used to create one number. For example, if you made a 10 by combining a white 2, green 4, yellow 1, and red 3, you would write "2" in the tenth column in the white row, a "4" in the tenth column in the green row, etc. It was a nightmare, but we so liked the flow of the game that after that playtest, we always made crosses in the sheets.




Despite having Ganz schön clever as a role model of sorts, one thing we don't like is a game that has a number of rounds based on the number of players, so instead we included a "timeline of dice" as a way to track the progress of the game. If you choose a lid with four dice in it, you cross out four squares. In the long run, you're going to take more-or-less the same number of dice as everyone else, but the number of rounds will vary.

Those tracks have been modified along all the tests adapting the length of the game to make a good balance of up to the player but not-too-long game.




When we had a version of "Special 14" that we were comfortable with, we traveled to a prototype con (CreaJocs in Valencia) and got in a lot of playtests that went very well! In fact, the game got enough buzz that publisher Ludonova got interested. After the con, we sent Ludonova the manual and the prototype, and we signed the contract a couple of weeks later after which things got serious: The development of the game was truly about to begin.




Ludonova asked us to increase the interaction between players, so we jumped to do that, adding a couple of majority scores as well as special actions on large cards the same size of the lids that could be used to modify every game.





After a few playtest runs, they asked us to remove the effect of the number 14, which doubled the number of crosses in that line. They found in their playtests that the game was just "grab as many x2 modifiers as you could", so we decided to go with the idea of a smaller bonus, with the player who performs a "14" crossing out two more squares (after which we immediately set the bonus for the "7" with only one cross). We also changed how the stars are presented on the sheet. Initially, one star = 1 VP, but we realized that players would have a nice feeling by being able to cross out multiple stars in a single move — an idea for which we can thank Ganz schön clever because you experience more satisfaction in that game when you cross out lots of squares with just one die.

So SPIEL time arrived, and a dream came true: We played the game at SPIEL with two representative figures of the roll-and-write world — Suzanne Sheldon and Mandi Hutchinson, who kindly accepted our invitation to play. We had a delightful game in which they gave us highly valuable feedback: The game was a bit long, and the final scoring was too mathy (specifically too much counting as you had crosses in every line and the final scoring required you to count all of those crosses again), but overall they liked it.




With that feedback, we came back to work, trying to resolve the two things that they didn't like. The length part was easy as removing only one square from the tracks worked perfectly and didn't affect the feeling of the game — but how are you going to avoid summing a lot of numbers in a game that at its core has you summing numbers? That was how we developed the idea of having "limits" for every line. While we couldn't avoid having players sum numbers, we could minimize those operations.

Initially, we thought of having a scoring chart, such as "for 1 to 4 crosses in this row, score 1 VP" and so on, but when we tried it, you were constantly checking that table and counting and recounting the crosses, so it was even worse! We then thought that perhaps you should have a minimum number of crosses in order for all of them to score. We worked hard on that idea, packed the version, sent it to Ludonova, and waited for their feedback.




After a while, Ludonova sent us the files of a sheet that was close to the final one. They had removed our "special action" insert boards, instead taking the best ideas of those boards and blending them into the sheet. They adjusted the minimum values for the player count based on their testing sessions. It was an amazing development job for which we are very grateful. We tested the final version, and it felt complete. That's an amazing feeling for any designer!




But wait, what's happened with the theme? That tricky thing. Ludonova asked us for ideas, and after a lot of thinking, we settled on two themes: one more commercial and cute from Shei, and the other nerdier from Isra. Taking into account the elements of the game, here's what we presented to the publisher:

Smoothies:
Victory Points: Flavor points.
Dice: Fruits.
Two trays/two tracks with negative points: Different blenders, with the negative points coming from you spilling juice because you overfilled the blenders.
"The throw": Throwing fruits into the blenders.
The boards with special actions: Different recipes.

Carbon-14:
Victory Points: The age of the object. Older, better.
Dice: Atoms to bomb the object.
Two trays/two tracks with negative points: Two objects to date, with negative points coming from too much radiation in the object since the isotopes are radioactive.
"The Throw": The action of dating something by throwing atoms at the objects.
The boards with special actions: Different objects to date.
Bonus: It has the number 14 in the title...

But there's no need to say which theme won, is there?




After that point, Michel Verdu and David Prieto did amazing work with all the art and graphics. We never would have imagined that our little roll-and-write game without theme would end up looking like this. This "cherry on the top" went beyond our imagination!



Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy Smoothies!

Shei & Isra

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