Board games are like novels: loads of people have an idea for one, but not many of us take the plunge & actually create something.
An idea on its own isn’t very useful – it’s stuck in your brain, and it needs to come out! If you don’t write, you’re not a novelist, and if you don’t prototype your game, you’re not a games designer. At least that’s what games designers will tell you, and that’s what they told us.
It turns out that those games designers were absolutely right: if you ever hope to become an actual board game designer, you absolutely must build an actual board game prototype, and fast!
The initial idea for Great Scott! was to make a Victorian themed inventing game where cards combine to make silly inventions. We knew early on, before making any prototypes, that alliteration had to be a thing. To increase the probability of getting those oh-so-whimsical alliterative runs, we had to limit the first letters we pulled the card names from. We settled on five; A to E. We also knew that animal, mineral, and vegetable felt thematically appropriate, and could be used to classify some of the cards, known as “Assets” in the game. To classify the remaining “Concept” cards, we split them into destructive, productive, and risqué (or ribald for a time). All this made naming the cards even harder, but we like a challenge! It should also be noted for the record, that animals and vegetables are a lot funnier than minerals. Sorry minerals, but it’s time someone gave it to you straight.
It started with 75 card names written in pencil on cheap supermarket index cards. We messed with those cards a lot, trying to figure out different ways to play the game and score with different combinations of card names & categories. We also laughed quite a lot, because the “invention” combos that come up can be pretty ridiculous. And that was the whole point of the original idea: funny card combinations are funny. We just had to find the game inside the joke.
We wrote up a basic rule set which involved playing one card per turn face down, and offering unwanted cards for trade to the other players, who would bid & counter-bid on them and create some lively auction action. End of game scoring involved working out the total revenue each inventor got from selling their invention to the public. This was calculated by adding together the monetary values on the Asset cards, and multiplying them by the sales bonus numbers on the Concept cards. Matching categories & alliteration gave you bonus multipliers. We wanted high numbers (because really big numbers are funny, obviously), and by crikey, we got them! In our first playtest, Steve’s winning total was more than the entire global economy in the 1890s (according to Steve anyway, and he’s usually right about these things). This in itself was fairly funny, but our actual endgame was basically a tedious maths-fest that took away from the ‘money shot’, which was the final reveal of the inventions, and having everyone explain how they work.
We playtested a couple of times a week for about 2 months and each time we made major changes to the gameplay. We found that the bidding phase took too long and didn’t have enough action – players actually wanting each other’s spare cards didn’t happen often enough, so instead we introduced a common marketplace drawn from the Asset & Concept decks, which worked a bit better. We had a deck of Progress cards, which were basically fast effects that could be played from hand to help the player or hinder his opponents. In the most recent major change to the game, we got rid of the marketplace and the Progress cards, and added fast effects to all the Concept cards instead. This meant the cards could either be played to an Invention, or used from hand for a useful effect. We added permanent effects to the Asset cards, so when they’re in your invention, they do something useful every turn. We now have a deck of Asset Improvement tiles, which are turned face up in limited numbers each turn, and players can bid on them using cards they have in hand. These tiles give Assets much better powers, and there’s fairly fierce competition for them, which is how we always wanted the bidding part of the game to be.
Right now, we have a much nicer printed & sleeved prototype we’re using for testing. It’s amazing how much neatly printed cards & shiny sleeves make it feel more like a real game! We’re at the stage of balancing all the card effects to make sure the game is as much fun as possible. There is plenty of strategy to think about, and with the numerous card effects available we have noticed a bit of analysis paralysis creeping in. So, our current mission is to simplify the card effects down to a level that has the right balance of speed & complexity.
One thing we noticed is that we were tending to get engrossed in figuring out the best move, getting all serious about tactics & the merits of choosing this card over that one, and then sitting back and seeing the stupid inventions we were building, and bursting out laughing. We think that’s pretty cool and it will be interesting to see what playtesters make of that dynamic. Maybe only we find it funny – that’s a possibility. Time will tell.
If you ever decide to develop that amazing idea for a game you’ve had in your head for years, make a prototype as soon as humanly possible! You don’t even need a finished set of rules, just a vague idea of what components you need, and a rough way to approximate them with bits of card, counters, pawns, dice, stuff from other games – anything! Just make the prototype as fast as possible so you can get down to the fun part: playing with the mechanics of the game. Once you’re at this point, keep a notebook and write down every idea & observation you have while you mess with the prototype. You’ll most likely change things wildly from your original plan, throw out things that don’t work, and find new stuff you can’t believe you hadn’t thought of before.
Think about one of your favourite games, and imagine describing it to someone who hasn’t played it before. Do you think your explanation comes anywhere near conveying the actual experience of playing the game with other people? It’s highly unlikely. You might have had a friend convince you to play a game you didn’t like the sound of, but you ended up falling in love with it. That chalk & cheese difference between what you expect and what you get is exactly the same as when you go from playing a game in your mind, to playing it on a table, with real bits and real people.
So, we’ll keep playing with our bits, and we’ll report back on our progress soon. In the meantime, if Great Scott! sounds interesting to you, feel free to sign up to the Friends of Sinister Fish mailing list. We’ll be looking for blind playtesters sooner or later, and we’d like to make a limited print & play version of the game available to members of our mailing list first. The sign-up button is that big green bad boy below.
See you next time!
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