Designer Diary: Building Boasting Barbarians
This post is all about Boasting Barbarians, the card game I’m currently developing. It details all major parts of the game’s creation and my reasoning behind those decisions.
I hope that you will find it inspiring and take some of the lessons I learned directly to your own designs armed with the wisdom of the world’s greatest barbarian heroes! I did my best to translate my findings into general wisdom that could be applied to any project. Onward!
Cohen The Barbarian and his Silver Horde were a huge influence (Credit: Paul Kidby)
You are the world's greatest heroes, but you are a little... dead. Now you sit atop Valhalla and you're bored out of your skulls. It's time for a competition! Impress the group with tales of glorious feats and battles. Compare your legacies and find out who among you was the greatest in life!
Basting Barbarians is a quick card game for 2 to 5 warriors. Each round you'll be generating one "memory" from your heroic life using interesting combinations of the 90 unique cards. The adventures are impressive but perilous - sooner or later, one of them will be your last! Choose a strategy and tilt the scales in your favor. Grab a Title card and count up the points.
Odin looks at you with his one good eye and smiles... we've got ourselves a winner!
Our tale starts with bees. Yes, the bees!
A little more than a year ago, my father picked up beekeeping as a hobby. He got super into it, reading through dozens of books and talking to old dudes about sugar syrups, hatching new queen bees, and harvesting honey. I gotta say, beekeeping is much more intriguing than I anticipated and now I love it as well!
One day we were coming back home after spending a day with the little guys and my father was going on and on about the worker bees and their short life cycle. He explained they only live for about 21 days, they do their thing, and then they are expected to die. And how that’s perfectly normal.
So, this immediately got me thinking - what if people were like that? What if I had to do a thing and then kick the bucket, and that’s just another day at the office? And it struck me: people are like that… at least fictional heroes are!
I mean, think about it, when you’re a hero in a fantasy world, you go around looting dungeons and killing bad dragons and whatnot, but at the end of the day, you are so high-level, that the challenge just stops being there. Hell, Sir Terry Pratchett has a whole series about Cohen The Barbarian, exploring the whimsical and wondrous concept of the old-age Barbarian hero.
So I figured, what if there was a game, where you have killed all the dragons already, and it’s not about leveling up but going out in one final blaze of glory? That’s a game I wanna play!
Basically this. Minus the sexism.
Hence, the idea was born. My very first iteration was quite literal - you were a hero reaching the end of his days, and the goal was to find the biggest and meanest god-like dragon and just get yourself killed. Valhalla awaits!
But wait, if you die at the end of the game, how do we hear about it? I mean, bards could sing about it, but we already have a game about that! Well, why don’t you tell us yourself!
This is how a slight change in the premise (and basically no change in gameplay) solidified the metaphor - you are already dead and you are roleplaying as a spirit! You sit with fellow warrior spirits and recall all your heroic adventures! Maybe your memory is a bit rusty and some of the details are greatly exaggerated, but you can totally get away with it... unless one of the other ghosts was there and remembers it a bit differently! This is how the Swapping mechanic was born.
Lesson: Inspiration lurks everywhere. Being original simply means combining old things in a new way. Always pay attention to your surroundings and think about how you can put them into a game. And maybe ask your dad about his hobbies more often.
Now I had a solid foundation and a clear vision in my head - a group of mighty Viking warriors sitting in Valhalla, bored to no end. Naturally, I wanted to make the players feel just like those epic warriors, so I thought - what if the characters also played a card game up there? How would such a game even look like? Eureka!
Boasting Barbarians is based on what I like to call diegetic design. You will hear all about it in an upcoming post, but here’s a quick summary. A diegetic board game looks like it’s a piece of the world it’s based in. You are not modern-day gamers sitting around a table, you are the game characters, and your game pieces look the part!
Boasting Barbarians is specifically designed in a way that won’t look out of place on an old wooden table up there in the Halls of the Gods. Of course, some modern elements had to be incorporated as to not completely alienate modern-day non-Vikings. A cynic might call this a compromise, but I say it’s a sweet spot!
This is how the cards look like. Very old-timey!
Lesson: Presentation is part of design. Sure, we can scribble on sticky notes and prototype with ugly cards for months and years, but that's no reason not to think about the final look of the game in advance.
Who Is This For?
Before starting work on the game design itself, I had to take a major decision - who is this game for? Do we aim for a strategic approach, a pure party game, or something in between?
I think making it a simple party game would have been the easiest and safest choice here, and I know I’m right because I have proof. More on that in an upcoming article!
But before opting for the full storytelling nonsense approach, I wanted to challenge myself to make a “real” game out of the concept. That is to say, having an objective win condition and making strategy matter while keeping the fun and whimsical spirit of the game, and keeping weight to an absolute minimum.
Lesson: Know the needs of your audience and make a game that caters to them. Your game should never be for everyone. Find the right people and give them something they'll love!
Let's Get Inspired!
Referencing other games is critical when building something new. We have to make a fresh and original game, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s go get inspired!
One decision I made early on was trying to help people build amazing stories without putting them on the spot. As I said, a typical party game would have a rule like, “invent a story using this loose clue. Talk for 1 to 2 minutes.” I know a lot of people enjoy this kind of thing - I certainly do! But I also know a lot of people don’t like the spotlight and feel pressured by games like this. I wanted to build a game for those people. So all stories would be combinations of cards. I’ll do the heavy lifting and build a robust system. Then, my players will create the stories and take all the credit! Great, we've got ourselves a deal!
As I was thinking about the direction I was heading, few games immediately came to mind, namely Once Upon a Time and the Epic Spell Wars series. Let’s examine them real quick.
Once Upon a Time
What I love:
The amazing free form storytelling the cards facilitate
All the crazy places the game takes you
What I don't enjoy:
The interrupt cards can derail the game really quickly
Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre
What I love:
The three-card combination mechanic
What I don't enjoy:
Too much reliance on humor and randomness
Many card combos look ugly
Lastly, my game had to feature player elimination. And since this mechanic seems to be almost a taboo these days, I had to put a twist on it and make it a reverse player elimination - you want to knock yourself out of the game! As much as I wish I invented that, others have done it before, like Redshirts or more notably, Gloom.
What I love:
The premise and the tight mechanics
The storytelling is supposed to be optional but is actually the game's best feature
What I don't enjoy:
Could feel dry if played with the wrong group
I took inspiration from these games. Thought hard about what makes them special and what can be improved, and tried to steal their good ideas and weave them with my own!
Lesson: It's important to carefully study other games. If you have a great idea, chances are it's been attempted before. Look for a way to make it fresh. This can only be achieved by knowing what's out there.
We have the theme, we have the feel, and we have the inspiration. Let's build a game!
The core loop is as simple as it gets: Play some cards, disrupt the board to optimize your position, continue until you die. Let's discuss each core mechanic very briefly.
Adventures are strings of 3 cards - an Action, a Boast, and a Foe. All cards in the game are compatible with each other, allowing great replayability and (optional!) roleplaying potential.
Sets introduce the set collection element. An adventure in which all cards belong to the same Set (starting with the same letter) score double points! This very simple-to-teach-and-understand rule is where half of the fun lies. It works, and people love it.
Swapping is the ability to switch the place of a card with any other card on the table. This provides interactivity, uncertainty, and rewards careful planning. It can be used to rob an opponent of a set, score you a set, or - if timed precisely - do both!
Titles are the endgame cards. I noticed many playtesters intuitively call them Achievements and I like that a lot. These are hard-to-get cards that you need to work towards. You can only pick one and it will score you a lot of points at the end of the game. If you pay attention, you might even grab a Title that another player is working towards before letting them claim it. This rewards skill, encourages long-term strategy, and makes players feel smart.
What Makes It Fun
This is a storytelling game disguised as a set collection puzzle. You think you're fighting over points, but the different stories told through gameplay get your imagination going. I like to think this is a creative experience for people who think they are not creative. The very same people who refuse to play a round of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen will quickly get into a game of Boasting Barbarians and have fun without feeling pressured to entertain their friends like a circus animal!
Cha-ching, 20 points!
Big, bronzed, braid-bearded, blasphemous, and brutally blunt, Bauran's bestial, barbaric being begets a bombardment of beautiful ballads bestowed by bookish-but-brilliant bards. - Bauran the Boasting Barbarian
You may have noticed that cards score points if they share the same color, but they also happen to share the same starting letter.
Alliteration is a creative tool I often employ in my writing to the praise of my readers and editors. I’ve found that for whatever reason this isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. Since I was having tons of fun with it, I thought of a way to turn it into a game mechanic and assist other people in their quest for hilarious wordplay. That’s how a unique set collection element was introduced to the game, elevating it to a new level and adding something very original to the experience, while keeping the spirit of a tested-and-true game mechanic.
I knew I had struck gold when my boss, legendary game designer Julian Gollop, called this idea "genius". Blush!
Lesson: Make sure your game has this little extra thing that makes it truly special. Listen to your playtesters carefully and look for the one thing that really got them excited. That's the thing you're looking for!
This post is tagged as a Post Mortem, but the game is very much still in development. It needs a few tweaks for balance and maximizing the fun factor, and a lot of the graphic design work (possibly affecting gameplay!) is yet to be completed.
That being said, the project has come a long way since its inception more than a year ago and holding up during gameplay, which makes me happy and I hope justifies this long and in-depth designer diary.
Now, the next grand adventure is about to begin - the quest of finding a publisher! Let's see if the Gods will smile upon me yet!
If you enjoyed this deep dive in my creative process, you might also like this old designer diary taken from BoardGameGeek detailing my musical journey with the award-winning game The King of All Bards. See you there!