In this article, you’ll learn why it’s important to kill most of your design, how your game will be better for it, and how you’ll be happy to undo all your hard work. I’m dead serious!
What a title, huh? But there’s no clickbait here. Today I’ll describe how I methodically went back and deleted almost 80% of the design of my work-in-progress game Boasting Barbarians, and why this was the best decision I ever made. I hope you will learn from my experience and translate it to your own project, trimming the fat and leaving only the good parts to create a beautiful, engaging, elegant, and fun design! Let’s dive right in.
Enough with the macabre humor already! (Credit: Ahmed Adly)
A Brief Introduction
I am currently developing a small card game. If you want to read up on all my design ideas and creative process, you can check out the dedicated article on Boasting Barbarians here on my blog. For now, here’s only the context you need to follow along:
Boasting Barbarians is:
A light set collection game with fun interactions
5 mins per player, 2-5 players
Players create stories (Adventures) by combining cards in sets of 3
90 unique cards can be combined in 27,000 different ways
Players have hands of 6 cards, and a Pool of 6 additional cards they could play (serving as a shared, extra hand)
The 3-card combinations (Adventures) remain on the board and can be interacted with
The game is quick and simple. It’s more about telling crazy stories with the cards and having fun with all the combinations, rather than optimizing strategy and fighting to squeeze every last victory point.
Cool Game. Let’s Kill It!
Boasting Barbarians might look simple, but it’s actually very involved. Too involved. Having 90 unique effects and having to account for all combinations, while also making thematic sense, is no easy task, but one I managed to complete. I had a few playtests and decided I should make some changes. Namely, delete most things I had already carefully designed.
Let’s go through the evolution - or should I say devolution? - or my design. How I killed most of it, and how I got a fun game as a result.
The Culling of the Card Effects
Without getting into detail, my design is currently in its 8th iteration. Every version contains major changes to most cards or rules - I don’t count balance tweaks or amending a few cards here and there as a new version.
The first iteration had one amazing feature: all 90 cards had effects.
This allowed me to make cool and wacky combos. You could do all sorts of shenanigans - look at your opponents’ hands, make them discard, look at the top 5 cards of the decks and rearrange them! This was so cool!
The first iteration had one huge problem: all 90 cards had effects.
I was excited to do cool things on each of my turns - sometimes 2 or all 3 effects will go off and something crazy would happen. If an effect was stupid or not useful, I would skip it and get to the fun part. Did you spot the problem already?
Actually, there are two problems.
Problem number one was, players had to read ALL the cards before making a play. Six cards in their hand and six cards in the Pool. And if they had to interact with the opponent’s adventures, which was fun and happened often, they would have to read all of these cards as well. Of course, I had designed every single card and knew what they all did, so I would skim through them real quick, skip half of them and get to the good part. However, anyone that's not me did not know the cards, and was completely overwhelmed with information!
The game looked like this. Fun, but overwhelming.
Problem number two was the skipping. Many effects were cool but situational. They would go off now and then, but I fully expected players to just skip them most of the time. It took me quite a few games to realize how stupid this was. If something's fun, you should be doing it. If something isn't fun (even with the promise that next time it will be), it has no place in the game. Simple as that.
In truth, my funny little card game was advertised as a 5-minute-per-player experience, but people would often take a few minutes just to take in all of the information on the board and then play a single turn. And the worst part was, now and then a turn wouldn’t even be all that crazy, so all that reading was for nothing.
At the same time, all the cool combinations of the cards, even without an added effect, were enough for a great experience.
You might think this was a tough decision to make, but it was quite the opposite. I went back to my spreadsheet and happily deleted 60% of the card effects. Just like that.
A picture of my design doc. Paint it red, baby!
This Game Is All about Heroes. Let’s Take the Heroes Out!
Another really cool thing I had going on (do you see a pattern here?) was a mechanic called Titles. In short, you had a Hero card and you could use another card not only to build an Adventure (a set of 3 connected cards) but to attach it to your Hero for the remainder of the game.
This way, you could use the card's effect only once as part of an Adventure, or make it a passive ability that will trigger every single turn and give you some real value! Nice!
A Hero and a Title. You will be missed, Sven the Mischievous!
People liked this mechanic, and I certainly did. Until we stumbled on the same old problem. I started hearing the same questions over and over again. “How many Titles can I have at a time?”, “When do I trigger the effect again?”, “What happens if a Hero already has a Title?” Of course, I would patiently answer every time, and the game will flow just as intended. But people kept forgetting. Worse, I noticed how one or two playtesters opted not to use a Title, just because they didn’t want to bother with one more thing to track. We had a problem.
Finally, I played a game with my boss, legendary game designer Julian Gollop. He quickly dissected my ideas and I believe he enjoyed the strategic possibilities of the Titles, but his feedback was blunt: "These are cool, but you better remove them to make the game run smoother." He didn't have to say it twice.
Me and my first playgroup for the day
Boom, Gone! Let’s Try Our New Design!
Last week, something amazing happened. We had our first in-person event in more than a year! My good friend Vasil Lozanov from Sofia Board Game Weekend invited a few designers from the Sofia area to present their prototypes in the garden of a cool new bar. A lot of people showed up and we managed to get quite a few games going.
It was hard to believe how many positive reactions I got! I had playtested the game many times before - with players ranging from my girlfriend’s mom to seasoned game designers. It was fun, but people were really hesitant to play one more round. As soon as I put version 0.8 on the table, I saw people laughing, doing cool things, and for the first time, yelling the most important words for any playtest, “Let’s play again!” Hell, one German-accented gentleman even asked, “What do you mean it’s not finished?” Boasting Barbarians had passed the test!
Remind me to forget about reminder text
I am super happy with the development of the project so far. After trimming all the fat and leaving only the fun parts - and most importantly, having this confirmed by unbiased event attendees - I am shifting my attention to balance changes and beautification of the graphic design. Most of the rules design is final, and now I can only improve the handful of effects that made the cut to maximize the fun factor.
That being said, my last prototype showed me one more thing that needs to be erased. The reminder text, of all things.
One might think that reminding people how things work will make the game easier, not harder to understand. I did, and I was proven wrong.
Right now, every Foe card deals a set amount of damage, displayed with a nice red icon on the top right corner (see image above). I figured it would be smart to also put the same thing as text in brackets - after all, I do have the text box on the card. To my surprise, several people got confused and asked if the card only deals the damage on top, or is the “effect” of the card dealing additional damage to make it double. At this point, you can easily guess exactly what I’ll do to avoid this confusion in the future.
Happy ending this way (Credit: Ben Rosett)
The Moral of the Story
If you’ve made it this far into the article, I hope you agree that my wording might be a bit harsh, but my reasoning is sane. We always get excited to make the biggest and coolest game ever. We want it to be intriguing, interactive, thematic, realistic… But we often tend to get ahead of ourselves and overdesign. Overdesign everything. It’s important to take regular steps back, evaluate our progress, compare it with our design pillars and ultimate goal, and really ask ourselves: how much of this is fun and how much is something we wish was fun.
I want to stress something important here. Please don’t get the wrong impression and start designing less. Sure, this article is about making games lighter and elegant (...er?), but there’s one important distinction we must make - I don’t advise you to design less. If anything, I’m advising you to design more and then remove almost all of it.
Hey look, it’s your aunt’s Facebook! (Credit: AZ Quotes)
As cheesy as this quote is, I do believe in it. It absolutely applies to game design.
So please, go ahead, design a lot of things and then keep only the good parts. Start today. You’ll see just how refreshing it is!
And if you’re interested in the game I’ve been going on about all this time, check out my previous article to see what Boasting Barbarians is all about and all my design insights!
See you there!