Laboratory Mayhem is like Magic: The Gathering, except it’s accessible to everyone and fighting capitalism

Four months ago, a friend of mine sent me a message that said, “Worker cooperative + card game. This is right up your nerd alley.” My friend apparently knows me well, because I was immediately excited by Lixivium Games and their new card game, Laboratory Mayhem.

The first thing that struck me about Lixivium is that they are a worker-owned cooperative: this means each worker has one equal share in the ownership of the business, and the workers govern the company democratically. Make Big Things is also a worker cooperative, and so it was amazing to find another burgeoning game company that shares our principles and structure. And Lixivium’s flagship project, Laboratory Mayhem, was a game after my own heart – a collectible card game like Magic: The Gathering, but more accessible in terms of game play and affordability.

Now, after years of work, the creators are bringing Laboratory Mayhem to Kickstarter. (Join me in backing it – there’s 48 hours left to go! It ends on Thursday, March 2, at 11:40 EST). Several of the worker-owners were also kind enough to sit down with me and chat about why they chose to form as a cooperative as well as their design process for their game.

A Laboratory Mayhem prototype: credit to Laboratory Mayhem’s Facebook.

Brian: So why did Lixivium Games decide to be a worker cooperative?

David: I think workers should always own their work (the normal relationship of owner and employee is exploitation). I also believe democratic processes tend to produce better decisions than autocratic ones, and thus should be applied in the economic sphere as well as in the political sphere.

Greg: We were friends before we were coworkers, so we wanted all of us to be treated fairly. Same for everyone else who contributed to making the game later on. Giving everyone who contributed a say, and compensating everyone proportional to their effort, seemed like a no-brainer.

Brian: Do you think the fact that you are a cooperative has shaped the design of the game at all?

David: In so many ways. Many things from our game name to the number and types of alchemy available were subjected to lengthy discussion, rather than just having one person decide how it should be. Also, very importantly, game play is partly determined by the monetization plan. We were all on the same page to make a broadly accessible game, rather than maximizing profit (the typical decision in a capitalist-owned corporation).

Greg: Absolutely. To add to what’s been said, it’s been a huge factor in bringing in contributors besides us original five. Because we’re self-funded, company ownership is our primary compensation. A lot of our artists appreciate our intent and the spirit behind the game, even if it means they’re not getting sizeable up-front payment.

Myles: We’ve had a lot of practice on our communication skills over the years. When everyone has the right to weigh in, you have to be conscious about your design decisions and willing to defend them.

A prototype of Laboratory Mayhem being played at Victory Point Cafe in Berkeley, CA. Credit to Laboratory Mayhem’s Facebook.

Brian: I can’t wait to get my copy of Laboratory Mayhem. One thing that really appealed to me is how you worked to ensure every card had multiple uses so there are no wasted turns. What drove you to do this, and what’s been players reactions?

David: In any game where you draw cards, there will probably be some element of randomness, and our game still has some. But we really wanted to avoid situations where straight out of the gate you can’t do anything but wait, because you lack the cards or resources to make your first moves. This is a horrible feeling (essentially the game is decided/ruined before it starts) that all of us have experienced at some point playing lots of other games, and that’s why we knew we absolutely wanted to avoid it.

Greg: Games should be fun. But a lot of strategy card games have moments of helplessness, by no fault of the player, and that’s anti-fun. Being able to use any card three ways means you can always do something meaningful to advance your position, so no more feeling helpless, and a lot more feeling fun.

Andrew: Players have consistently given positive responses to being able to play the cards three different ways. I love watching new players realize that they can still play cards as rooms in the endgame – finding uses for cards in their hand even though assembling the card wouldn’t be useful in that situation. And when that extra room suddenly changes the endgame combat math, it’s even more dramatic and exciting!

Cards from Laboratory Mayhem. Credit to Laboratory Mayhem’s Kickstarter.

Brian: One comparison for Laboratory Mayhem seems to be Magic: The Gathering.  I used to be an avid Magic player, but in the last year I’ve somewhat given it up because I couldn’t keep up with always having to buy new cards that were coming out. Your Kickstarter says that all the cards needed to play the game will come in one box in order to make it accessible. Why was this so important to you?

David: For exactly that reason. We don’t want to squeeze uncomfortable amounts of money out of our customers. We want people to spend 30-100$ dollars per year on our game, rather than hundreds or thousands. It seems a fair price for the entertainment they will receive, and a fair price for the work we’ve put in. It should also eventually allow more people to play the game.

Greg: In addition to general good-will, we know a lot of our players will be folks who play Magic or other wallet-hungry CCGs. We don’t want to make anyone choose between our games, so by offering a complete set for a fixed cost, it’s easy to play both.

Brian: What can we look for in the future from your cooperative?

David: I think a second set of cards for Lab Mayhem would be a lot of fun: we’ve scratched the surface of our design space, but as designers, we can all see a lot of unexplored territory, and it beckons to us. Every one of the five founders also has more ideas for other games, so we might also try to put some of those out.

Myles: In the immediate future, watch for our upcoming stretch goals! We’ll also be reviewing the first set for possible tweaks before backers receive their rewards. Most of it will be wording cleanup and small changes, but there’s a chance longtime players will be surprised by a few new cards. (And if you want to be part of that redesign, check the new Kickstarter tier we just added.)

Thanks to Lixivium Games for taking the time to speak with us about worker cooperatives and their game, Laboratory Mayhem! You can back the game on Kickstarter here until Thursday morning, March 2.

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Speculative Game Design: Sex and Death in It Follows

it-follows-chair

Games That Will Never Get Made

There are as many weird, unborn games on this planet as there are grains of sand, and I would love to design them all. I want to design the beautiful, iridescent glassy games and the lumpy ugly games. I want to dump my beach of games on unsuspecting players and I want to sunbathe on the sandy mass of unplayable games I’ve created.

I want to design games about making Frozen a better movie, and 90s Adam Sandler dating simulators, and games about ghost sex. But there are only so many hours in the day, and that’s where speculative game design comes in.

When I first saw It Follows, I was obsessed with the idea of making a game inspired by the movie. It had so many elements I’d want to see in a tabletop game. It used weird metaphors to talk about sexuality and shame, it kept an ambiguous moral stance, it was tense, it had a typewriter! So many elements of a good game!

Someday maybe I’ll make an It Follows game. But I can’t right now, so here are thoughts on what that game might look like if it were to exist. The ideas and mechanics here are under-considered, inconsistent, and half-baked. If that bugs you, welcome to the first stage of game design. If that excites you, or if you like any of the ideas below, feel free to run with them. I’d love to see what you create.

The Movie

It Follows was a one hour, forty-seven minute roller coaster of foreboding-entity-sex-horror that hit all my panic buttons in all the right ways.

I hated the movie, and I loved the movie. I had so many questions, and I appreciated those that went unanswered. It Follows genuinely scared me, and I spent a week glancing over my shoulder expecting my own freaky sex demon to pounce at any moment.

This post will have spoilers, and I’m including advance warning for adult content, nonconsensual ghost sex, and dubiously consensual people sex.

The Plot

After an unsettling interaction with her new boyfriend at a movie theater, Jay and her paranoid bf have sex in his car, during which he chloroforms her, ties her up, and takes her out to a remote location strapped in a wheelchair. He then gives her a “welcome to your new life” monologue:

From this point forward she’ll be pursued by an evil entity. The entity gets passed from person to person by fucking. Now that she’s got it, it will begin walking towards her. It always moves at a walking pace. It can take on the appearance of any person, even family and friends. If it catches up to her, it will kill her. And after it kills her, it will continue down the line, pursuing every person who has ever passed the entity on until…who knows. The only way to get rid of the entity is to fuck someone else, which is no promise of safety. Also, if things weren’t bad enough, no one else can see the entity. The burden of proof is on her alone.

Though disbelieving, Jay quickly comes to realize that she is in fact being pursued. There’s a decrepit old woman shambling towards her on her college campus. A lady with one flopped-out boob finds a way into her house. A too-tall man finds his way into her house. It’s all very spooky, and Jay runs away.

Jay’s friends (some of whom are still skeptical) drive her to a beachside cottage to get away, and to get some space to think. The ghost demon finds its way there, and eventually grabs hold of Jay. If there was any doubt that was telling the truth, her friends literally get to see her hoisted into the air by an invisible entity. Jay flees the scene in a stolen car and crashes into a cornfield.

Jay wakes up in the hospital and has sex with her douchey friend Greg in a hospital bed. This breaks the heart of her too-sweet friend Paul, who’s had a longtime crush on Jay, and wants nothing more than to take that sweet, sweet ghost away from her. Greg contracts the ghost, doesn’t take the responsibility seriously enough, and gets fucked to death by the ghost—who has taken the form of his mother—later that week. Jay flees and enjoys some r&r at the beach. She sees three dudes float up in a small boat, a ways from the shore. After a moment’s consideration, she strips down to her underwear and swims out to the boat. We don’t see what happens next, but the outcome is implied.

Finally, Jay and her friends devise a strange plan to kill the ghost involving an electric typewriter, some lamps, and an indoor pool. When the ghost reaches the pool, it has taken the form of Jay’s deceased father. Together, the group tries to electrocute the ghost, but bad things happen and their effort fails.

After lots of dodging his advances, Jay and smitten Paul have sex. Paul then drives downtown and solicits a prostitute. The final scene shows Jay and Paul, walking down a quiet suburban sidewalk hand in hand, with a figure walking slowly in the distance behind them.

But What’s It About?

On the surface, It Follows is a movie about being pursued by a spooky ghost. At a deeper level, it’s a movie that explores complex themes about sex and shame—particularly that special brand of millennial sex shame born from abstinence-only sex education. It’s also a movie about sex and death. The eventual death of this entity? Death from sexually transmitted disease? Everyone’s eventual death?

it-follows

We can take a guess that, if everyone in the ghost’s fuckline didn’t fuck anyone new for the rest of their lives, the ghost would eventually kill them all off and then it too would perish.

Or would it? We don’t know.

When in human history has abstinence solved all of our problems? When in human history has having sex solved them?

If we keep going, It Follows is also a movie about mommy issues, daddy issues, who we value in sexual relationships and who we don’t, and who wants to help us heal versus who just wants to get in our pants.

Finally, and this I think is one of the most compelling themes, the movie forces us to think about the inevitability of the diseases we as humans share. But I’ll return to that part later! This was supposed to be about game design, right?

While it may not seem like it at first blush, It Follows is perfect game design fodder! Board game, LARP, RPG, you name it. Not only does the movie cover multiple, complex emotional dramas that could be used to frame the theme of a game—it also offers a complicated problem to solve. Game designers love coming up with solutions to complicated problems.

There are so many different possible games here, and I’ll walk through just a few of them. Will any of these games ever get made? I have no idea! But I think there’s value in speculative iteration. Plus it’s free and fun.


Game #1: Trouble Down Under (RPG, resource mgmt board game)

So, you’ve got a sexually transmitted ghost? Who you gonna call? The person who gave it to you!

This is a roleplaying board game about making lemons out of lemonade—part story game, part resource management. You’ve got a ghost, but you’re fortunately working with a competent group of people who have devised a solution to this problem.

In this game, you enter into a consensual business arrangement with the other living people in the ghost’s fuckline. Knowing that their well-being depends on you staying alive, this group of people plan on pooling their resources to send you across the world to say, Australia. They’ll support your monthly living expenses while you’re there, and they’ll try their best to monitor the ghost’s trek across the globe.

The distance between Detroit, Michigan (where the movie takes place) and Perth, Australia is 11,170 miles (or 17976.372 km). If the entity travels at an average walking speed of 3.1 miles per hour (and doesn’t need to eat or sleep, and can walk under the ocean) it should take it around 150 days—or 5 months—to reach the western coastline. 5 months in Australia isn’t too bad! That’s enough time to settle down, maybe find a job, make friends, and explore your surroundings. You can’t ethically have sex (in fact, the terms of your business arrangement strictly forbid it), but you can certainly get kissy, and the game can take advantage of this temptation with story prompt cards that introduce unexpected social challenges.

After 5 months is up, your benefactors put you on a plane back to the US, and the ghost pivots on its gnarly heels and starts walking again.

Similar to games like Sheriff of Nottingham, which gives everyone a turn in the Sheriff’s seat, the role of the “ghosted” gets passed from player to player after every round. During each round of turns, one player plays the ghosted, navigating day-to-day life in Australia, and the other players play the ghostees—collaboratively managing their finances, tracking the ghost, and trying to work together without blame to keep this wacky system functioning.

There are great opportunities for resource management on both ends, plus rich story game drama. Do the ghostees monitoring the entity in the United States live communally? How do their day-to-day responsibilities impact their ability to keep track of the ghost’s movement? Out of this group, who still fucks each other, who loathes each other, and who’s all about the hatesex? Calling back to those temptation cards, there’s ample room for underhandedness and deception here as well. The only way to keep this system working is to keep it in the family, and the minute a person fucks someone outside of the circle, the system starts to break apart. Can our Australian ghosted resist temptation down under?

Combine this with dice-based randomization that tells you whether you’ve lost track of the ghost on any given day, and I’d play this game all day.

Game #2: I Came Here to Fuck a Ghost Up and Chew Bubblegum… (Story-driven card game, roguelike)

You’ve got a ghost and you’re running out of all the fucks you have to give. You know you’re going down, so why not go down doing some science?

Game #2 takes a MacGyver-style approach to dealing with ghosts. It’s a game of weird traps, shitty science, and taunting death. It’s pretty gonzo, but so is trying to lure an evil sex demon into an indoor pool filled with electric typewriters and table lamps, so the precedent has been set.

This game assumes that you’ll die at least a few times, and when you do, you’ll pick up where you left off, playing as the next person in the ghost’s fuckline. You’ll carry with you what you learned from your last ghost-killing attempts, and that information will get you one step closer to freedom.

I can see game design elements from Machine of Death working nicely here: drawing cards with bizarre, unrelated objects, and having to construct a plausible ghost plan. For example:

We draw three cards from the deck—candle, field, and mix tape.

Using these cards, we piece together our plan to lure the entity. We’re in the middle of a drought, so lighting a candle in a dry field will certainly start a fire. We lure the entity into the middle of the field, and we test to see if different types of music have any impact on its attention span.

I don’t know what determines the likelihood of success here. Machine of Death trusts you to set these parameters yourself, and players determine the difficulty of any given challenge. Here, I think it’s dice randomization that determines success versus failure, but the range of numbers needed for success increases every time you gain new information about what works and what doesn’t.

You roll. Fire fails. You roll. Mix tape succeeds. What could it mean? You narrate that the ghost seemed momentarily distracted by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Just a fluke, or an essential revelation? Only time and repetition will tell!

This one’s a lighter collaborative game, with everyone working together in the same place, supporting a collectively owned protagonist and her friends in their quest to bring this ghost down. It’s story-driven card game the way Gloom is a story-driven card game: you can dive into roleplay, or you can play it straight. It’s up to you and your friends.

Game #3: What Is sex? What Is Death? What Is This Game? (Freeform LARP)

Game #3 is the most ill-defined of the three games, but maybe my favorite. This game is about immersive exploration of the questions the movie left unanswered, and exploring some of the movie’s more abstract themes.

I haven’t done a lot of live action roleplay, so I’m going to draw inspiration from one of the few LARP experiences I’ve had, the freeform game See Me Now, from Sara Williamson and Liz Gorinsky. See Me Now is a game about friendship, growing up, and gender identity. It plays out through a series of nonlinear scene cards, where players pick a scene card that interests them, then act out the scene. A GM-like facilitator helps guide the action, asks questions, can call for internal monologues, and keeps things moving smoothly by cutting scenes at appropriate moments.

Before I get to the scenes I’d love to see in the It Follows LARP, I’ll run through some of the backdrop that I think makes this game really cool—stuff that’s part of the movie, but isn’t really front and center.

Ambiguous Time & Place

Not only does the movie take place in an ambiguous time period, it maybe doesn’t even take place in our world. The main nod at this possibility comes in the form of a bizarre, shell-shaped plastic compact that one character carries around obsessively, that seems to be some sort of e-reader. Maybe it doubles as a shell phone? It’s really cool, and I want one, but this isn’t a thing that exists in our reality. And that weirdness offers a darkly ethereal backdrop for a LARP!

it-follows-shell

Lack of Adult Figures

There are almost no adult figures present in the movie. It’s a very Miranda July world, but with a different pace and a more definable threat. What does it mean that there are no grownups here? Do we leave them out because we know they’ll deny our reality? If we come to an adult for help we could be grounded—locked in a room, which would mean a non-metaphorical death sentence. A world where adults are almost entirely absent, but occasionally appear as an outside menace, also makes for a great LARP backdrop.

Now, within this unsettling, grownup-less world, we’re free to explore scenes about…what? Here are some of the scenes that I’d be excited to see:

1. The movie doesn’t answer the question of what type of sex it considers valid for ghost transmission. Just penetrative sex between a penis and a vagina? Can the ghost be caught in a condom? Is the ghost nullified by birth control? Does this entity only pass from cisgendered men to cisgendered women (and the other way around), and if so, is this actually a game about hetero blight? I want to see scenes of rampant sexual experimentation spanning the entries on urban dictionary while panicked ghostees try to figure out whether or not they’ve got the ghost.

2. I love that folks jump in line to take the ghost away from Jay. The first person, douchey Greg, takes a risk because he wants to fuck Jay, and he doesn’t believe the threat. The second person, sweet Paul, takes a risk because he wants to fuck Jay and he loooves her. And his love is so good, and so pure, that he heads right out to pass the ghost on to a sex worker. I want to see scenes about who we value in our sexual relationships, who we don’t, when we deem someone “worth the risk,” and all the collateral damage that ensues.

3. Finally, It Follows may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that has friends almost openly and honestly talking about sexually transmitted disease. It’s one thing that the movie can’t really explore in-depth, because everyone’s too busy running for their lives, but we could perhaps slow it down and leave time for it in this in a game. A scene with a group of teenagers blamelessly supporting a friend through the uncertainty of a life-changing health crisis.

What’s Next?

By premise alone, It Follows walks a razor-thin line between drama and parody. When I think about creating a game inspired by the film, there’s a risk of slipping too far into gonzo territory, which would be both dismissive and dangerous.

The film addresses some intense themes: voyeurism, stalking, abandonment, nonconsent, treatment of sex workers, disease. I want to explore the absurdist elements of the plot, but a game that makes a complete joke out of these themes would be a disaster.

We deal with this often in games that talk about things like racism, sexism, or body-shaming, and the line can be blurry. Games like this require a great deal of nuance and self-awareness on the part of the creator, and if that isn’t hard enough, they require players who are able to recognize that nuance and step up to the task of treating the themes with respect while also recognizing the humor.

If you’re interested in that challenge, my mind goes to a few other films that walk the line between the comical, the devastating, and the grotesque: Happiness, American Beauty, maybe Heathers? Unlike those three films, I’d say It Follows plays it pretty straight. While there are funny moments, it’s not a dark comedy—it’s just dark. But there’s so much to explore in the concept of a demonic STD, and some of those things are quite funny. I hope to someday take that on in a game I create.

Good Dog, Bad Zombie Progress Report: We Need More Zombies

Early good dog, bad zombie prototype playtest.

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.

Gameplay Overview

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.

What Worked

  • 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.
Sample good dog bad zombie cards
The symbols at the top of the card are the symbols used in Call of the Pack. Right now, I’m using bad clip art/random pictures from the internet until our art and graphic design team can start making these look pretty. (A skill I don’t have.)
  • 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.
This is what you want to see when you roll the die to chase away zombies.
This is what you want to see when you roll the die to chase away zombies.

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?
A few Areas in GDBZ
An example of a few areas in Good Dog, Bad Zombie, with the added Clearing Effect to draw events.
  • 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!

Hacking One RPG to Make Another RPG: An Interview with Evan Rowland, Designer of Noirlandia

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 Rowland
Evan Rowland

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!

A figure in a coat overlooking a valley of skeletons.
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!

Noirlanida being played on a corkboard.
Noirlandia being played on a corkboard.

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!

Don’t Make A Mess of Things: How To Professionally Edit Your Game

IMG_20160229_112541992

As game creators, we want as many people as possible to roll the dice and take a chance with our game. And as game players, we know that terrible feeling of sitting down with a rulebook and scrunching up our foreheads in frustration as the words on the page refuse to make sense.

So I sat down with Joshua Yearsley, an editor specializing in games and scientific literature, to discuss best practices for writing your rulebook – as well as finding and working with a professional editor to help make your game shine. Joshua’s roleplaying game credits include most of the Fate Worlds of Adventure line by Evil Hat Productions, as well as Vow of Honor and Hunt the Wicked by Sigil Stone Publishing. A couple board games he’s worked on are Lagoon: Land of the Druids by 3 Hares Games and Space Cadets: Away Missions by Stronghold Games. At Make Big Things, we also had the pleasure of working with Joshua on our game 14 Days.

Brian: Let’s start with the basics. How would you describe the role and importance of a game editor in making a polished version of a product that’s ready for sale?

Joshua Yearsley
Joshua Yearsley

Joshua: Ever read a bad rulebook? That’s what happens without an editor.

To be a little less brash, what an editor offers is a fresh, professional set of eyes. If you’ve been designing a game for months or years, revising the text all the while, it’ll be really difficult for you to look at it through your players’ eyes, which makes it hard to write clear rules. This is what Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, calls “The Curse of Knowledge.”

Editors don’t just look for typos and grammar errors. We also make sure your rules text is as clear, concise, and unambiguous as possible. This has many benefits: it reduces your players’ frustration when learning and referencing rules, it makes sure your players are actually playing the game you intended, and it makes your game more accessible and more marketable to new players who might be new to the gaming world.

Even better, editing can save you money. Graphic design is expensive, often much more expensive than editing, and time spent on editing reduces time spent on graphic design. For especially large games, editing might even reduce your word count enough to reduce the number of pages you need to print, reducing your manufacturing costs.

Brian: What should someone look for when they want to find an editor for their game?

Joshua: First, look in their credits for the rulebooks they’ve edited and download them. If you like what you see, chances are you’ve found someone worth your while. This isn’t always reliable, because the editor doesn’t have absolute control of the end result, but it’s a start.

Once you’ve found some options, ask them what specific services they offer, such as structural editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. If they’re cagey about any of it, they probably don’t know what they’re doing. A good editor should be able to explain those types of editing and how they do or don’t integrate them into their editing process.

Brian: What should independent game designers do to make working with their editor a positive experience?

Joshua: Get a good idea of what your editor is responsible for. If you want your editor to do proofreading, make sure they’ll do proofreading. If you want copy editing, make sure they’ll do copy editing. Editing is a broad profession that covers all kinds of services. There’s a great summary of the various types of editing here.

When you’re ready to start editing, make sure the rulebook is completely done before you hand it off to the editor. The more changes you have to make after the rulebook gets edited, the less useful your editor is going to be. Also, if you already have a graphic designer lined up, connect them with your editor so the editor can discuss how they can help make the designer’s job easier in their editing.

Brian: What are some key tips for writing good game rules?

Joshua: First, don’t be too specific. This may sound counterintuitive, but consider the following statement: “If no other players placed tokens this turn, leave your token in the same region, on the same town.” The explanation “in the same region, on the same town…” sounds exact, but it takes more effort to digest and, if you leave out any other specifics relevant to the token, might confuse your reader. Better would be to just state “…leave your token in its place.” or “…leave your token where it is.” Say exactly what you mean; no more, no less.

Second, use concrete language. If you’re introducing a part of the board, for example, talk about what it is physically. This is bad: Rivers are impassible. This is better: Rivers, the blue lines separating regions, are impassible. If it’s appropriate, supplement that text with an image nearby showing what you’re talking about.

A screen cap of edits Joshua made to our game 14 Days.
A screen cap of edits Joshua made to our game 14 Days.

Brian: What are some of the most common “big” mistakes you encounter?

Joshua: Bad rulebooks seem to be the result of many small mistakes rather than a few big ones. That’s why good rulebooks are so hard to make. That said, there are a few big problems to look out for.

A big rulebook needs a workable index. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Many editors, but not all, will be able to make one.

Also, it’s really easy to overuse text styling such as italics and bolding. A bold term might draw your reader’s eye, but if you bold half of the things on the page, it turns into a liability. And yes, I’ve seen rulebooks that have half the page bolded.

Brian: Has the rise of Kickstarter-backed games impacted the game editing industry at all?

Joshua: Absolutely. In fact, at least in the board game world, it didn’t exist in any real sense before crowdfunding. You had the big, big publishers like Hasbro or Wizards of the Coast, who would have editors on staff, while small, independent publishers often didn’t have the pre-publishing resources to sink into hiring an editor. Now there’s some money to go around that smaller teams can use to make games with a lot of polish.

Brian: How does your experience being a game-player impact how you edit games?

Joshua: What an interesting question! I’m not sure that being a game-player changes how I edit games too much, but what does is my experience in teaching games to people and in reading lots and lots of rulebooks. Some of my editing habits are influenced by what I’ve seen to work in teaching games aloud: show what you’re talking about, explain early about how to win, use examples, be sparing in specificities at the beginning, and many other things. Many things, big and small.

***

If you want to find out more about Joshua’s work, check out his website.

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A Guide to Awesome Playtests

Wooden game pieces and cards on a table, with out-of-focus person in the background.

What makes for an all-around great playtest?

Inspired by our Metatopia critique panel (co-run with Joshua A.C. Newman and Rachel E.S. Walton), I’ve compiled some thoughts about playtesting below. The first section is about how to be an awesome playtester. The second section is about how to run an awesome playtest.

I hope these guidelines will serve as a useful jumping-off point in your future games!

How to Be an Awesome Playtester!

1. Bring your best self.
Before the playtest, assess whether you’re physically and emotionally up for the task. If you’re hungry, tired, sick, or having a bad day, try to fulfill your own needs before coming to the table. If you need to skip the playtest, skip it!

2. Ask what kind of feedback would be helpful.
If you don’t know what type of feedback a designer is looking for, just ask! Once you have that answer, cater your feedback accordingly. If a designer is just hoping to playtest mechanics, avoid giving feedback about tone. If a designer wants to know if the game feels scary enough, limit your feedback to the spook factor.

3. Monitor your mood.
Remember that playtests can be mentally demanding, and they’re not always fun. If you’re feeling tense or impatient, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this isn’t a finished game. If this really isn’t the game for you, it’s okay to leave.

4. Save feedback until the end.
Take notes as you play, and wait until the end of the game to share your feedback. It’s important to play through the whole game to get a sense of scope, and stopping every few minutes for critique will ruin the flow.

With that said, it’s important to ask for clarification when something is unclear. Questions like, “Wait, what am I supposed to do during this turn?” or “How do I decide which card to put down?” are valuable to a designer.

5. Play the game, but don’t try to design it.
Do not give rule suggestions unless asked for them. Your design solution may be something the designer has already tried, and even if it isn’t, these conversations can quickly slow a playtest to a halt. It’s okay to say that a certain mechanic felt clunky or confusing to you, but leave it to the designer to fix it.

6. Play the game as it’s meant to be played.
Don’t try to root out the edge cases, fractures, and loopholes. Don’t act adversarial or obtuse in order to test the game. Play it straight.

Let yourself get swept away! A designer needs to see when and where you’re having fun just as much as they need to see when and where you’re struggling. Your sincere engagement with the game will be enormously helpful to the designer.

7. Start and end with something positive.
After the game ends, begin your feedback with something positive. This sets a good tone for the entire table and shows the designer you appreciate their efforts. Don’t let broken mechanics get in the way of your appreciation of the game’s goals, themes, presentation, or setting.

8. Speak to your own experience.
After the game, say what you thought was awesome, what felt like it needed work, and what you found confusing. Speak for yourself, and never argue against someone else’s experience of the game.

Don’t speak to the experience of an imagined player, meaning don’t try to find rules that might be confusing, or that someone might find boring. If they worked for you, that’s what the designer needs to see.

9. Be specific.
Specific, qualitative feedback is always more useful than general feedback. “The rules are good but still need work” isn’t very actionable. Try to figure out exactly what was working or not working for you. Did character creation feel too slow to you? At what point did it feel slow? What were your expectations about the speed? What happened as a result of the slowdown?

10. Be considerate.
Make sure to ask about what’s okay to photograph and what isn’t, and make sure everyone’s okay with where you’ll be sharing photos. This goes for audio and video recording as well. If you can, silence your phone and keep it stashed away.

Be good to the people around you, don’t interrupt, and remember that someone has put a lot of time and hard work into this game.

How to Run an Awesome Playtest!

1. Bring your best self.
Are you stressed? Tired? Anxious from staying up all night rewriting rules? Playtesters will be looking to you to set the tone, so muster up your enthusiasm! If you’re sick or exhausted, you’re not going to get what you need out of this playtest. Reschedule and try again soon!

Disparaging your own work is a surefire way to set the wrong tone. Remember that this is a playtest; it’s not a glossy, finished product and the people at the table are here to offer you support. Players need to feel like you’re up to the task and able to accept critique, so present your game with confidence!

2. Offer snacks and breaks.
If you can, bring sustaining snacks and water. A grumpy playtester is sometimes just a hungry playtester. If you know who’s coming to the game, ask about dietary needs in advance. If you’re playing with strangers, avoid bringing major allergens (like peanuts) into a small room.

Even if you’re on a tight schedule, everyone needs stretch breaks and pee breaks. Let playtesters know you’ll be breaking at the 1 or 2 hour mark, and make sure folks feel comfortable leaving the room if they need a break in-between.

3. Say what kind of feedback would be helpful.
Think ahead about the type of feedback you’re looking for and write down some questions for playtesters. It’s okay to ask for as much or as little as you want in the way of brainstorming, critique, or suggestions. If you’re not ready for heavy critique, you can say, “Just tell me what’s working!” If you want to test a specific mechanic, make sure playtesters know that that’s the focus.

You don’t have to use every bit of feedback, and some feedback might be wrong for your game. If someone says your horror game should be played for laughs, you can thank them for the suggestion and move on. You don’t need to defend your game or entertain conversations you don’t want to have.

4. Observe reactions.
Watch what players are doing, the choices they’re making, and how they’re responding to the rules. Carefully observing where people are laughing and delighted, or where they’re bored or uncertain, is some of the most valuable feedback you can get.

In-depth, analytical feedback is great, but if you’re paying close attention, you can get a lot of what you need from observation.

5. Keep the game flowing.
It’s okay to accept questions when things are confusing, but save longer feedback conversations until the end. Feel free to redirect the focus if you see a quick question turning into a critique.

6. Recognize overlapping feedback.
It can be overwhelming to run a playtest for the first time. You’ll get hit with a wall of feedback, and you may wonder how you’re possibly going to incorporate it all into the game. The answer? DON’T! It’s important to playtest multiple times to learn where feedback overlaps, and to find themes in the type of feedback you’re getting. If ten different playtesters loved the ridiculous monsters, you don’t want to throw them out for the one person who thought they were too over the top.

There’s no such thing as a universal audience, so don’t try to make a game that will be universally adored.

7. Monitor your responses.
In general, it’s best not to respond to critique. Just say “thank you” and write it down to consider later. Don’t let yourself get defensive about your game. You don’t need to explain your intentions.

Be careful of questions from playtesters like “Why do you think we need another zombie game?” These can sidetrack the conversation and may leave other players in the room behind. It’s okay to redirect back to the kind of feedback that will be useful to you. These are conversations you can have one-on-one later if you’re interested, but they usually don’t belong in a playtest.

8. Invite a buddy.
If you’re feeling nervous about your playtest, invite a non-player buddy who can monitor the table, refill the snack bowl, and offer support as needed. If you want to focus on running the game instead of feverishly taking notes, ask your friend to write down player comments and reactions throughout the game.

9. Remember, you’re in control.
If a playtest is going in the wrong direction, you can pause the game and talk to players about refocusing or changing course. You also have the power to end the playtest early. It may feel disappointing, but there’s valuable information in watching things go wrong, and it’s okay to return to the drawing board.

10. Follow up.
If players are excited to try the next iteration of the game, get out your calendars and schedule the next playtest before anyone leaves the room. It’s much harder to schedule after the fact by phone or email, so strike while the iron is hot to ensure a second (or third!) playtest. Make sure people have a way to contact you if they have feedback they’d like to share later, or if they’d like to talk one-on-one.

And finally, remember to give your playtesters a big THANK YOU!

For other great playtest resources, check out:

Want a printer-friendly version of this guide to share at your next playtest? Here’s a link to a downloadable PDF (Dropbox).

Thanks to Evan Rowland, Moyra Turkington, Rebecca Slitt, Sarah Richardson, Rachel E.S. Walton, Joshua A.C. Newman, J Li, and Marshall Miller for awesome input and thoughtful suggestions.