"That game is just garbage... It's not garbage, it just needs something." - Chevee Dodd
The day I discovered the wonderful Twitter account of Cardboard Edison, they retweeted Chevee Dodd's request for help on the rules for his game Paper Route. I'd just gotten into board game design and, after going through and commenting on that Google Doc, I discovered I really love editing board game rules.
I started chatting with Chevee online about his other board games. Then about life, relationships with our parents, having an obsessive personality, and hundreds of other topics I don't feel like listing out. I playtested the game being discussed in the quote above, Hedeby, and started to read through his blog archives where he discusses his other work. I learned that Chevee thinks most of his games are garbage at one point or another, and I learned that Chevee likes to make grand, sweeping changes to his in-progress games that may or not be broken. And then I stumbled on Dead End.
Dead End places you in a house being attacked by zombies. Each card you play is dual purpose, allowing you to follow card text or introduce zombies to the game to attack your opponents. But if you do end up with too many zombies attacking, you aren't eliminated, you instead spend turns moving zombies away from your house, with 2 chances to return to active play.
You can get a feel for what he thought about the game by reading his last official post about Dead End:
"I couldn't remember how to play my own game after only a month! It was worse than that. What went horribly wrong during this test is that I wasn't having fun. It was dry and boring. Play a card here, flip a card.... blah blah blah."
Chevee implemented some of the changes discussed in that post, but hadn't uploaded version 7 of the print and play files. I begged him to put up the new rules and cards and, on November 16th, he finally did. We then discussed what he was trying to do with the game and why he thought it wasn't fun. I promised I'd take a look at the game over Thanksgiving.
I loved the game. The major ideas were pitch-perfect. Dual natured cards, the action and weapons phases, having two different types of gameplay, all of it. I could see some flaws with specific cards, but the game itself was solid.
As an app developer, I find myself in a similar situation a lot. Some new feature will need to be developed or customers will call to complain about how they can't figure anything out. I'll give it a once over, diagnose the problems, explain how in a book or article I read, they taught me all about it. My solution never goes directly from idea to implementation. We have a team and it usually takes all of us working together to crack it. Even then, the solution is usually the combination of several different proposed solutions.
So after giving Dead End a once over, diagnosing the problems, finding the book or article that taught me all about it, I had a pretty clear vision in my head of how good the game could be. So on December 4th, I said:
"I think I might just make some changes to it myself and see how it plays"
We had a plan. The conversation eventually drifted back to Hedeby, a game he had already reinvented at least one time. I was already worried he was going to do the same thing to Dead End, when he confirmed my suspicions:
"Well, that's my problem with Dead End right now. It needs reinvented"
I knew I had to prove to Chevee that his game didn't need a ton of changes, just some editing. He had already vowed to leave the game alone until March, so he encouraged me to give it a go and see what happens.
I started the process by getting every card into VASSAL so that I could playtest without having to print anything out. One big issue stood out from the early playtests and I'll copy just the most interesting notes from my first few experiences:
- Having Zombies! cards is lame - definitely need to get rid of them.
- Yup, I died with no real way to save myself with 2 Zombies! cards
- Having the Zombies! cards be more helpful to nearly dead player is important.
As I made changes to the cards, I kept checking in with Chevee to figure out why he added each card. I didn't want to destroy the spirit of the game, so I made sure that every change I made retained the spirit of the original. It can be hard to trust your gut sometimes when an idea doesn't work out. What was important to me was to leave the ideas intact and try to mess with the game until I could implement it properly.
I learned that the Zombies! card was added by Chevee so that players would be forced to add zombies to the game to push the game forward. But I had hit on something with my notes; the cards that force you to add zombies took up space in your hand during the time you most needed help. The function needed to remain the same, adding zombies to the game, but I could add a card action that was only useful to players that are almost defeated. By doing this, you end up with a very elegant system of feedback where lots of zombies are added to the game when players aren't in trouble, but players have a way to remove zombies from the game as they risk being forced from their house by the zombies.
Other small issues existed, and I made small tweaks to most of those cards. I made the weapons more varied, made them objects you would typically find around a house, and made some of them dual purpose (skip or discard for other bonuses). I added some cards that allowed you to remove resources from other players to prevent one player from getting too far ahead.
My next solo playtest was already much more interesting. I tried to document some of the new interesting interactions created by the cards:
- Awesome moment: Used Help! to force player with Chainsaw to help (could have gained them 5 zombies)
- Played a Zombies! replacement card because I didn't need the effects. Felt good to have the choice rather than being forced.
- Stupid decision: Was really funny playing Quick Shot with Machete. Machete removed no zombies and Quick Shot penalty added 5 zombies.
I was pretty happy with the game. A couple weeks later, I bought a set of 100 zombie miniatures and a deck from The Game Crafter. Friends stopped by the house and we had a really great time playing it. After the game, I had lots of tweaks to make, but the changes I made were working the way I had hoped.