Design Tips: (Diary) Numbers Solve Design Problems

This is a personal story.

So I'm designing a "dicebuilder" game inspired by Splendor and Century. It also involves a lot of cards. This particular game involves five different dice colours and four different factions, each of which aligns to a colour. Cool. 

I set out on a quest to make this dice game interesting and decided to make a bunch of cards that let you exchange dice [among other effects]. The idea was this: 
- make generic cards that helped you gain dice.
- make faction-specific cards that did neat effects with your dice.

Both types of cards are placed in a pile, then the top six are laid out on a trade row a la deckbuilders. This means players will see six out of ~100 cards at a time.
I was wrong to think it'd be that easy.

Playtest 1

Problem: the faction-specific mechanics weren't useful. They didn't do much on their own and required you to have more of each other. But because of the trade row size, you'd often be stuck with either generic-but-useful or cool-but-useless cards.

Solution: design new faction cards that made cool synergies with existing faction cards. Players would now be able to make more synergies happen.

Playtest 2

Good thing I printed out 19 sheets and spent half an hour cutting them into squares before considering alternate solutions!

Good thing I printed out 19 sheets and spent half an hour cutting them into squares before considering alternate solutions!

Problem: nope, still not useful. The cards kinda just sat there in hand, not having good synergies 90% of the time.

Solution: design MORE new cards! More bonkers combos! This'll work now!

Playtest 3

Problem: ...and nope, still not useful. Sometimes you go off, but mostly it's just janky half synergies that you can't capitalize on. The new cards I made were awkward as I stretched to make something new.

I hope that at this point, you as the reader figured out the solution before I did. The problem was that I was stuck in the mindset of qualitative, generative design. I thought that the problems could be solved through more creative thinking, more designs, etc. But nope - the solution is in fact much easier.

Solution: get rid of the awkward cards made in a desperate attempt to bring faction synergies. And then... just clone the most versatile of the faction cards x3. And then, just increase the amount of visible cards in the trade row for players to choose from. 

Yes, I would need to do further tweaks, but the game became much smoother right there - and for way less work and complexity. 

The ideas I want to pass from my experience are:

1) Realize when a design problem can be solved by tweaking the quantities of existing variables, instead of wasting time making something new.

This problem seems more prevalent for people with a Humanities background: the problem-solving approach where we try to change the inherent qualities of a thing, instead of messing with its quantitative values. But the latter is extraordinarily efficient with regards to its impact on development logistics: brainstorming, art, animation, modeling, bug testing, and many other time/effort factors can be mitigated when opting to modify the frequency of objects instead of objects themselves.

2) Realize how much you can use quantity manipulation to make gameplay feel different. You can impart tone/mood without needing to do a whole design process - without making the game unnecessarily complex.

This is hard to describe because it's so obvious when spoken that it's hard to properly internalize as new information. At its most simple level, it's making an assassin character have a higher damage value and a protector having a higher health value. But on a more complex level, you can creatively increase the assassin-vibe with numbers by [ie] secretly widening the timeframe window of counterattacks, making daggers spawn just a little more often, or trimming a few recovery animation frames after an attack.

Summary: look at your numbers! Make sure they're at the right amount! Remember you can change them!

And see you next time!
 

Design Tips: The Batting Cage

So I'm not a baseball player, but I do perform some great work in the batting cage. It's a word that I made up on the spot that accidentally stuck even though I'm 100% sure there's a better metaphor somehere.

batting cage.png

The Batting Cage

not to be taken literally

 

Definition

Batting Cage Idea: An idea that is not meant to be a proposed solution, but rather meant to inform the brainstorm session in case there's a good idea that can be birthed from it.

 

(Why not just brainstorm? Why the separate term?)
To be totally transparent about this, I think it's mostly psychological - I feel that a lot of the time people are scared of saying their idea because it's obviously not going to be the solution needed, and people are just going to judge them for saying a 'waste of time' proposal. The "batting cage" disclaimer lets your idea be heard for the sake of inspiration instead of for the sake of evaluation.

Example

"Okay, so what other levels could we make for our protagonist 'MatchEars'? Other than avoiding methane houses?"
"More fuse lighting? A lamp level?"
"I feel like it'll get old if we do that again, and the paper lamp level sounds already a lot like the hot air balloon level"
"OK, batting cage: underwater level. Or something with water, I feel a nug there."
"Oh, what about a level where it periodically rains, and he needs to hide underneath awnings?"

This isn't to say that MatchEars should ever be made into a game, or that any of the above ideas are good. But this should hopefully exemplify how a batting cage idea can be useful to conversation when with people who can appropriately spring from it.

Benefits

1) The main reason you do this is to inspire others. If someone else had a half-idea but were missing a piece, now you'll maybe indirectly deliver that piece!

2) If you know there's something good in the idea, but you're not sure how it can be shaped, it shifts the conversation away from why it's bad (because what a waste of time -- you already know it's bad) and towards how it can maybe be good.

3) Sometimes it actually is a great solution, and your doubts were just because of how buckwild an idea it was. The "batting cage" disclaimer gives you the courage to say your ideas, and it happens more often than you'd think that a batting cage idea is actually the perfect solution as-is. 

Drawbacks

1) If people don't know what "batting cage" means, then they'll just critique your idea and not realize that you weren't doing a proposal in the first place. It ends up wasting time.

2) It gets easy to just slam "batting cage" in front of all your ideas as a means to protect yourself from critique -- don't do that! It'll lose its 'power' (so to speak) if you aren't honest with yourself when you're actually giving a proposal.

3) At some point, people need to start synthesizing all these ideas into real proposals. A team's workflow is best when there's a good group of people who are actually capable of drawing inspiration from what you're saying.

 

Give it a shot!