Like most of our episodes, this was recorded weeks before it aired. Between the time we recorded and the time the episode was edited and published, 49 people (predominantly queer people of color) were murdered in a dance club. This week has been a time for grief, and while editing the episode, it was hard to connect the crying we talked about a few weeks ago (crying about ghosts, crying over board games) with the crying I’ve done this week—an unstoppable, body-shaking sort of crying. Crying over loss of life.
I did a lot of public crying this week. Maybe you did, too. If you didn’t, that’s okay.
I guess I’ll end with a piece from my favorite Carl Sandburg poem, The Right to Grief. It’s feeling especially salient today.
TAKE your fill of intimate remorse, perfumed sorrow, Over the dead child of a millionaire, And the pity of Death refusing any check on the bank Which the millionaire might order his secretary to scratch off And get cashed.
Very well, You for your grief and I for mine. Let me have a sorrow my own if I want to.
I shall cry over the dead child of a stockyards hunky. His job is sweeping blood off the floor. He gets a dollar seventy cents a day when he works And it’s many tubs of blood he shoves out with a broom day by day.
Good Dog, Bad Zombie is a cooperative game for three to five players. It can be described as Homeward Bound meets The Walking Dead. It’s a game about doing everything you can to build a place to call home. It’s a game about dogs rescuing humans. It’s a game about sticking together, through thick and thin. It’s a game about dogs fighting zombies. It’s adorable and horrifying, all at once.
As I develop the game, I’ll be making periodic updates about the game design process to share. I feel comfortable starting this effort now, as the core mechanics of the game have stabilized (hopefully, fingers crossed), though there will still be plenty of small and medium sized changes to make.
In Good Dog, Bad Zombie (GDBZ), players are chasing away zombies in twelve different locations (ranging from “the Kennel” to “the Spooky Swamp”) in order to save humans, and then bring them back to their home territory. (Kind of like Lassie, but with zombies instead of wells.) Each player is playing as one dog in the pack, and if the dogs bring home ten humans, the humans are able to build a new home – and the players win! However, if too many dogs and humans die (or “go to the farm,” as it’s called in GDBZ) and if there are too many zombie outbreaks, then the feral tracker will reach 10. Once this happens, the pack of dogs becomes feral and wild, and they no longer care about rescuing humans – and so the players lose.
In addition, players must interact with events. Some are good, like “SQUIRREL!”, while others are bad, like “A really, really loud thunderstorm.” These either have immediate effects or present decisions players must make as a team or individual. (There are some occasional longer story-prompt events as well that tell the overall story of the zombie apocalypse.)
Recently, I play tested the sixth iteration of Good Dog, Bad Zombie. Overall, it went really well. (The playtesters even asked to play another round after we finished the first one, which I feel is pretty much the best game design compliment possible.) At the same time, there was still room for considerable improvement. Here’s what I learned about what worked and what needed work.
The flavor. People really seemed to enjoy the cards in the game, and the temporary “art” that is being used until custom art is produced. There’s a lot of humor in the game. The juxtaposition of adorableness and horror also played off each other nicely. There was a lot of laughter, awwws, and groans. People were pretty frequently shouting “YES!”, which felt good
Dogs getting adopted. There’s a mechanic in the game where after your dog rescues a human, the human adopts your dog. You discard your current dog and take a new one. People thought this was cute and also allowed them to see more dogs. (Seeing more dogs had been a request from a previous playtester.) But because most dogs have different abilities, it also made sure the game didn’t become stagnate.
Call of the pack. This is a mechanic that I came up with to try to emphasize participation even if it’s not your turn, while also de-emphasizing quarterbacking (one person telling everyone else what they should do). That’s a general thing that many cooperative games struggle with, and so I wanted GDBZ to address it head on. With call of the pack, if a player plays a card with a dog symbol on it that matches a card with a dog symbol you have, you can play that card with the matching symbol even if it’s not your turn. So basically the current player starts a call of the pack when they play a card, and any player with a matching symbol may respond to the call if they have a card with the matching symbol. This also allows for some fun combos. In previous playtests, I had players say this was an aspect that really kept them attentive and focused the whole game, and they liked being able to contribute on other player’s turns.
Helping each other. In GDBZ, there are some features that don’t give you the choice between helping yourself and helping everyone – you just have to help everyone. For example, there’s a mechanic called “Sniff” – it allows not only you to draw a new card, but all players to draw a new card. This emphasizes interactivity even when it’s not your turn.
Core System. Even though there were plenty of rough patches and things to fix, people commented that the gameplay was fairly smooth and easy enough to pick up, and that the core system of the game is solid. That’s a relief.
Chasing Away Zombies. In order to chase away zombies, you roll a custom “dog die.” Four sides have a paw. If you successfully roll a paw, you remove a zombie token from your area. However, one side of the die has a HIT, and another side has a DOUBLE HIT. If you roll a hit, your dog takes one wound and you don’t remove the zombie. If you roll a double hit, it’s the same but your dog takes two wounds. This means that the attempt to chase off a zombie is likely to go your way, but there’s the possibility that a zombie could harm you instead and you’ve lost one of the precious actions you get on your turn (measured by “sleepy tokens”). This can ruin the best laid plans. This balance seemed to go well and was fun.
What Needed Work and Possible Solutions To Try Out
Problem – too many dice. There were too many dice in this version of the game. The primary culprit was the fact that at the end of your turn, you had to roll two dice: one was to determine if you were drawing an event card or adding zombies to the board, and the other was determining what places you were adding zombies to if you were adding zombies. Two sides of this die said E (draw an event), three sides said Z1 (add one zombie to each place you’re adding zombies to), and one said Z2 (add two zombies to the places). Besides having too many dice to roll and pass around, that’s just a clunky and un-intuitive and confusing way of doing things. Solution to try out: Eliminate the zombie/event die, and just roll the number die at the end of your turn, and always just add one zombie to each Place that has the corresponding number. This means drawing event cards needs to be triggered by something else. (More on that below.)
Problem – Scaling of the game was a bit off, it needed more zombies! Once the players got the upper hand on the zombies, the game was pretty much on lockdown. And while it was still fun to play, their wasn’t much tension. This even happened when we played a second time, at a harder level setting. Solutions to try out: I actually think the above solution with altering the dice will help out with this problem too, as it’ll ensure that zombies are added to the board every turn, no matter what, instead of there being a 1 in 3 chance that it’ll happen. But also, I think reducing the number of zombies there are allowed to be on a space from four to three will be a big factor. Once a place is maxed out with zombies, any human on that place gets eaten, and there’s a zombie stampede – which means zombies spread out to all adjacent places. Only a couple stampedes happened in the last version of the game. With this new model, I think we’re more likely to see the spread of zombies. In addition, I’m scaling back some of the power of some of the dog’s cards, which will make it harder to remove zombies.
Problem – Ambushes, a boring and clunky mechanic/gameplay feature from an old version of the game. In the very first version of Good Dog, Bad Zombie, the whole game was based around ambushes. You went into a place, you found a human that needed to be rescued, then you were ambushed – maybe by zombies, maybe by evil humans, maybe by a colony of feral cats, a zombie with no legs, and so on. This was a completely different game. But this mechanic was so important that dogs even had special stats based around ambushes. Slowly, as the game adapted, ambushes became less important, and they were even folded into the events deck. But still, they were there, and the dogs stats based around them were still there. But eventually this feature got stripped down so much that the ambushes just became boring cards that made you roll the dice a whole bunch of extra times. The difficult thing about just deleting the ambushes, though, was that they did serve one important role: giving dogs extra wounds and making it so you had to occasionally discard rescued humans you had (and send them to the farm). Solutions to try out: Delete the ambushes entirely, and then increase the difficulty of the event cards themselves, thereby transferring the role the ambushes served into the events. Also delete the Dog Stats that had to do with ambushes, therefore making the dog cards simpler, too (another pro!)
Problem – when to draw events. As mentioned above, drawing events was previously a part of rolling a zombie/event die at the end of the turn, which was way too clunky. It also turned out to be unreliable. Sometimes we were drawing way too many events and not adding enough zombies, sometimes we weren’t drawing enough events at all (and sometimes, too many of those events were ambushes, which wasn’t fun). Solutions to try out: Instead of rolling the die to see if you’re drawing an event, incorporate the events into the Places. A few places had “clearing this place of zombie” effects – namely, drawing a Reward card, healing all dogs (like at The Vet), and so on. So in dialogue with my playtesters, we determined that it’d be fun to actually make you draw event cards after you clear places of zombies. I did have to do some tweeking of the rules to make sure players couldn’t just avoid clearing spaces and therefore drawing events. But hopefully this will now turn into a strategic decision: do we unnecessarily leave zombies on the board, which is a risk, or do we draw an event, which is a different risk?
Problem – Dog Stats. Certain dogs were overpowered or underpowered. Certain dogs had too many abilities or not enough. And if one dog had two abilities, and the same number of actions as every other dog, well that the player playing as that dog was just going to have a lot more to do. Solutions to try out: Diversify the dogs a bit more. If one dog has a lot of abilities, scale down how many wounds they can have and the number of sleepy tokens (actions per turn) they can have.
Problem – Too many humans: The inverse of the zombies problem was the humans. Once you rescued a human, you rolled the die and added two new humans to the board. And remember, you need to save 10 humans to win the game. While this had a multiplying effect, I figured it’d actually make the game harder, because there would be more humans to be eaten by zombies, which would cause the zombies to spread and the feral tracker to move up. But because the zombies weren’t totally working out, there were just a ton of humans and it was way too easy to win. Solutions to try out: Make the game have more zombies (see above), and limit the number of humans there can be on the board at a time to five. Also, only make a Place able to have one human at a time. This means if another human would be added to, say, The Old Downtown Now Covered in Wreckage, but there’s a human already there, you just don’t add the human to that Place.
Problem – a lack of balance between abilities. There were way too many cards that allowed you to heal dogs (which made it so people never lost a dog), and not enough cards that allowed you to do some of the other game mechanics (like bark, bite, sniff, etc.). Some players ended up with just a huge amount of healing cards in their hands, which didn’t feel great. Solutions to try out: Pretty simple, just try to redistribute the number of abilities between the different cards and see if it feels any better gameplay wise.
Problem – discarding didn’t feel very fun. Even though players didn’t mind it, I didn’t like Events that made players discard cards. It just felt non-interactive; I don’t like taking away players opportunities to do things. The game should be able to punish players, but just like the mechanic of “skipping turns” – which is probably one of my least favorite of all time – I don’t like making the game harder by making it less playable.
Well, those are the highlights of many of the things that went well, in addition to the problems and the solutions I’ve brainstormed. Hopefully these work out! Find out next time on… Good Dog, Bad Zombie progress report!
As of writing this blog post, Noirlandia has 677 backers on Kickstarter. (Whoops, make that 678!) We’re simply blown away by the support and enthusiasm our friends and the larger indie gaming community have shown for our creation.
There’s 32 hours left to go for Noirlandia’s Kickstarter, and we just got past our stretch goal to include amazing casebooks with every level that gets a physical copy of Noirlandia. Now, we’re on to our final stretch goal: at $22,500, we’ll produce these amazing custom Noirlandia playing cards for the Private Eye ($75) level and above.
While we’d love to create these playing cards, our main goal is get Noirlandia into the hands of as many people as possible. We’d deeply appreciate it if you helped us spread the word to anyone you think would like the game, as well as on your social media platforms of choice.
We can’t wait to share the final product with you, and hear all about the mysterious cities and murder mysteries you dream up. Thank you so much once again.
Earlier this year, Make Big Things launched an interview series to strike conversations with indie game insiders, discussing their process, hopes, and work. For this installment of the series, we decided to sit down with one of our own: Evan Rowland. Currently, we’re running a Kickstarter for the game that Evan is the lead designer and artist for: Noirlandia. We thought this presented a great opportunity for Evan to share his insights on how to create a roleplaying game.
Brian: What inspired you to create Noirlandia?
Evan: Noirlandia was, in part, inspired by a single mechanic present in the earliest drafts of Questlandia.
This is how it worked: When creating the main characters of the game, the rules had you use some tables and randomizers to generate as many people are there were players at the table – plus one. Everybody chose their favorite, and then there’d be one extra character left behind. In Questlandia’s final ruleset, that character is just cleared away. But in the early draft, that character was killed. The death of this character would kick off your story.
We eventually decided that we didn’t want every game of Questlandia to be a murder mystery. But the seed was planted…
Much later, Hannah and I decided to simultaneously create two hacks of Questlandia for an upcoming convention. Having recently rewatched Chinatown, I felt ready to do a full-fledged murder mystery conversion of the system!
Brian: What was your biggest challenge designing Noirlandia, and how did you eventually overcome it?
Evan: From the start I wanted the game to center around the creation of a crime board – a corkboard with polaroids and newspaper clippings all pinned up and strung together with yarn.
Getting this to mesh with the rules and work properly was a long process. I started with a sort of absurd, prescriptive system: First, you find a connection, then you’ll find a clue, which then allows you to pin up a lead, which finally supplies you with an answer. You’d repeat the process four times, once for each district of the city. It was a bad system. I made bad rules.
But I playtested them anyway, and modified them, and playtested some more. I’m lucky to have many resilient and open-minded friends who were willing to try the game over and over as I iterated through rulesets.
As they stand now, I’m finally happy with the corkboard rules – they feel quick and intuitive to me. The boards actually end up looking like the tangled, paranoid boards you see in films. It’s gratifying!
Brian: What do you hope people feel after they finish a game of Noirlandia?
Evan: I hope they feel like, somehow, all the clues and mishaps of the case have somehow, miraculously, become understandable. The best games I’ve played have taken complicated crimes and puzzled out a convincing solution. And those solutions, more often than not, have been indictments of large-scale societal structures – systems of poverty, oppression, or consolidation.
I don’t know the word for that feeling. A sort of hopeless defiance. “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.”
Brian: What’s something you learned about game design while creating Noirlandia?
Evan: In roleplaying games, you don’t make a closed system of rules. You have an additional input – the imagination of the people at the table. Your rules have to make space for the players to add their own ingenuity to the scene. And you can shape the space – it’s like drawing with negative space. This is a part of all the rules in Noirlandia, but in particular, I grappled with this concept when designing connections.
Connections, in the game, are when two different leads on your board are tied together with string. You learn how they’re related – for instance, maybe the ivory eagle was hidden away in Ms. Beuville’s attic. This is an ideal place for player input – human brains are fantastically talented at making connections. But the task actually gets tricky when it’s in the context of a larger mystery – what connection fits the information we’ve learned so far? What connection will progress the investigation?
So the task has to be opened up again to give the player some freedom in choosing the best connection to make. Normally, when this comes up in a game, there are 3 or 4 pairs of leads to choose from, which seems to give enough freedom to make a relevant choice, without being overwhelmed with options or too tightly constrained. Creating the right constraints for those moments took a lot of trial and error!
Brian: What advice would you have to people looking to design their own roleplaying game?
Evan: Start playing the game as soon as possible. Get a playtest scheduled immediately. Then do everything you can to make the game playable by that point. Let your playtesters know they’re trying something incomplete. Play the game, take notes, what went well, what was broken. Then immediately schedule the next playtest.
Playing the game with other people is how you’ll find out what your game is about, what makes it special, and the bizarre consequences of your rules. Play it!
Alanna – 1970s longitudinal study, high SAT scores in math lead to academic and professional success (this study began with a talent search specifically for gifted adolescents, so probably shouldn’t be used as a comparison study given the sample group)
How do mysteries work in games – RPGs, board games, and video games alike? And how do these different types of games use their mediums to explore and eventually answer mysteries? Does the game have to know the answer to the mystery, or can the game leave that up to the players to determine? What happens when the point of the game is the mystery itself? And why, exactly, is Clue the best game ever? (Just kidding… or are we?)
Since we’re kickstarting Noirlandia, our newest game about solving fantastical mysteries in strange cities, these were questions we wanted to discuss! Luckily, several other people wanted to chat about them with us too during our second monthly Make Big Things teatime. Watch the video of our great conversation below!
I’m a big fan of simple games. I know some gamers pride themselves on being able to play the most complicated and intricate games there are – and don’t get me wrong, I love those too – but sometimes I just want a game to be quick and easy to learn and play. I call these my “weekday games” or “zone-out games” or “I’m going to have a glass of wine with this game, games.” After a long hard day of working, the last thing I want to do is struggle with a game that’s going to use the same parts of my brain that have turned to mush and therefore further mush-ify them. No, I want to play a game that helps me relax. Generally speaking, though, I also like to play games with a wide variety of people, including those who aren’t big game players. Getting less experienced players into a game that takes five minutes to explain is going to make for a much better night than trying desperately to jam thirty minutes of rules into the brains of people whose eyes glaze over as soon as they see how many pieces there are. It’s important to make sure everyone’s having fun, and simple games are sometimes the best way to achieve that.
Machi Koro was given to me by some friends for my birthday earlier this year. I don’t think it’s a game I normally would have picked up on my own, given its ultra-capitalism theme, so I was intrigued to give something I wouldn’t normally indulge a whirl. What I found was a game that was mostly fun, and definitely simple.