The Sinister Fish board game development team gets together twice a week, more or less. What actually happens is my friends come to my house & we goof around in my kitchen with bits of cardboard. It’s fun, and you should try it. In the meantime we talk over Facebook messenger about new ideas we’ve had for the game, and these get collated & written up into an ever-evolving rules document. The image above was taken during a playtest of the v0.3 rules, with our first set of printed cards. I’m not saying index cards don’t have their place in game design, but damn it feels good to see everything in Helvetica instead of handwriting 😉
Playing with printed cards in plastic sleeves is a massive step up from pencil scribbles on index cards – it makes it feel way more like a real game, and it’s still a simple matter to make notes on the cards that need to be altered for the next version. We’re currently using an Excel spreadsheet to keep the cards up to date – it’s handy to be able to see them all in a row, especially when working out points values where there’s a need to keep things balanced. It’s also quite simple to control the physical size of the cells in Excel, so our template prints out A4 sheets of nine 3.5″ x 2.5″ US poker sized cards that fit perfectly in standard card sleeves. It’s nice & easy to export from Excel to a PDF, so the files can be passed around the whole team to view on any device, and it also lets us share out the printing & cutting duties. I use a cheap rotary guillotine from Staples for cutting the sheets up, and I can slice & dice the whole set of 150 cards in about 10 minutes. Putting them in sleeves is usually a team effort though.
This version of Great Scott saw us add game-changing effects to every single card, and abandon the separate Progress deck we’d been using previously. This decision added the deeper gameplay we’d been looking for. Now, all our Asset cards have a permanent effect on the game when they are in play. The Concept cards can be played directly from hand as fast effects, or built into an invention. This creates a host of tactical decisions, and actually took us a few games to get the hang of, which we hope is a good sign! We also changed the auction system, using a deck of 24 unique Asset Improvement cards to form a marketplace, instead of unwanted cards from the players’ hands. We much prefer this method as there’s no other way to get the Improvement cards, and they’re always more powerful than the standard Assets.
There’s also a character card in the picture, which is another element we added for this version of the game. Instead of having a limited list of actions players can do on their turn, such as ‘play a card’, ‘discard a card to draw a card’ etc, we now have an Inventor card with a portrait, a Pressure Gauge, and a Reputation Track. Asset & Concept cards all have values from 1 – 3, and playing them increases the pressure gauge by their value. This system works thematically and allows for more tactical options; do you max out your pressure by playing one high scoring card, get more cards out by playing several cheap ones, or play conservatively and leave enough room on your gauge to play fast effects on other players’ turns? Going over pressure stops you from playing any more cards for the rest of that round, and the higher your pressure goes, the more parts of your invention break down, or ‘go wonky’. There might be situations where it’s worth pushing your pressure up too high, but since pressure only decreases by a limited amount each turn, it’s something you’ll have to plan carefully. Naturally, there are cards that can be played to reduce pressure, or to increase your opponents pressure. We’re also toying with giving each inventor a unique ‘once per game’ ability, but this is on hold until we get closer to a final version of the rules & we have a better idea of what will & won’t break the game.
Something else we’re having to balance is the duration of a game versus the estimated retail cost of the game. It seems odd to have to consider economic factors into the gameplay design, but we find ourselves doing it quite often. We’re pretty much settled on Great Scott having 150-175 cards. It’s actually not possible for us to have any less with the way our different card categories are set up, and for the game to be still playable by 5 players. We could lose some cards if we made it a 2-4 player game, but we really want that 5th player! We also really like the fact that it is possible to build over 24 million different inventions with the current card count!
So, producing a game of 175 cards has a certain cost, far more than a simple 54 card game, which is mainly down to the cost of the larger box. With that extra weight in the box, I think there’s an effect on people’s expectations of gameplay. Personally, I wouldn’t feel all that great about a $30 / £20 four or five player game that’s over in 15 minutes. It depends on how much fun the game is of course, but I feel like the sweet spot is probably somewhere between 30-60 minutes. Earlier versions of Great Scott played out really fast, and didn’t give us the depth of gameplay we wanted. It felt like a cheaper game, which we wouldn’t be able to actually produce cheaply without going right back to square one. The game we want it to be feels right around the 10 minutes per player mark, with the full 5 player game weighing in at around an hour. Given the number of cards & other components in the box, we are currently looking at a retail price of around $30 or £20 – depending on shipping costs & component quality etc. We are also trying to include world-wide shipping into that price for Kickstarter backers – more on that in a later update.
Since we started playing with the v0.3 rules & cards, we’ve been making fewer sweeping changes to the game, and getting more into the nitty-gritty of individual card effects, finding broken card combinations (Dave T is the master of this!), and getting to grips with the tactics that are emerging from repeated play. It’s almost certain that many of the card effects of v0.3 will change in v0.4, but they add so much to the gameplay that it’s very unlikely they’ll disappear altogether. It appears that we are zeroing in on a playable version, and so the next step will be to finalise as much as we can, and create a playtest kit that we can start taking out into the wild for the first time!
We’d be really interested in hearing from our readers on some of the points covered in this blog. How much does the price of a game effect your expectation of the depth or length of gameplay? Would you be annoyed if you’d bought a $30 game that was over in 15 minutes? Sound off in the comments if you have any thoughts.
I’ll see you in Part 3 of this series, where I’ll talk about the creation of artwork for the eventual v1.0 of Great Scott!