2008-08-31 : Killing Darlings

Once, a long time ago, I watched my little brother play Vampire: the Eternal Struggle. This was a game I'd played a lot of, but was not any good at. Glen too. Watching him play, though, I was removed from the urgency of it and I could see how his caution (which was my problem too) wasn't serving him. Like, he (and I, when I played) worked to preserve his resources in the game. Watching it, able to see it objectively instead of distracted by whether I'd win or lose, I could see that what you have to do is expend your resources. Otherwise, you get no return on your investment, right?

So that's a thing.

For the past ten years or so I've had a board game in mind to someday design. It's about the old emperor dying or going mad and who gets to be the new emperor? It's quite an extensive game, which is why it's been "to someday design": it has several different resources, a range of military units with different values, characters whose values change depending on whether you install them as officers of your army, as courtiers in the emperor's court, as administrators in your home provinces, or as priests and priestesses in the temples; it tracks fully a half dozen different values to resolve outcomes, all the way up to who wins the game. Every time I've tried to actually build it, for a decade, I've stalled out on the extensiveness of it. A potential game, not a real one.

Cool things about it!

1) The old emperor lives on a 4x4 grid, with "going insane" across the X-axis and "Dying" down the Y-axis. He starts in the top left, at only a little bit insane, only a little bit dying. Over the course of the game, sometimes he steps to the right and gets crazier (with game effects), sometimes he steps down and his health fails (with different game effects), but either way he gradually marches toward his end. If he falls of the right edge he's mad, if he falls of the bottom he dies, and that's when the game ends and we find out who's the new emperor.

2) When there's a battle, the outcome could depend on a) the compared mights of the two armies, b) the compared tactical minds of their two leaders, c) which one of the two the emperor supports (with his own troops), and/or d) the will of the gods. Each of these are known and static at the moment the battle starts - we might know, for instance, that your army and your general are better than mine, but the emperor and the gods support me. To resolve the battle, though, we determine randomly which actually matter. So it might be that in this battle, the mights of our armies matter a little, but the will of the gods carries it - so I win, at a cost. The next battle, maybe only tactics matter, and you win handily.

3) At the end of the game, there are actually three win conditions. One person becomes the new emperor, one becomes the new high general, and one becomes the new high priest. If one player wins all three, that's a pure win. If one player wins two and another player the third, that's a win with a runner up. And if there's a three-way win, that's a three-way win, with everyone else losing.

Anyhow so that's the second thing, this game I've had in mind for a long, long time.

Then a few days ago I played a board game in development by this guy Slash. It was a cool game, but not perfect. He's in a position I know well, probably we all do: he's just as close to his design goals as his chosen techniques are going to take him. Now he has to decide if it's close enough, or if he's going to go back to the drawing board and redesign from the ground. I didn't quite come out and say this to him, but I found that as we were talking about bringing his game that last 5%, to really nail his goals, we were talking about some fundamental changes. Tweaking with the turn order, committing then revealing, stuff like that, will bring him a hair closer than he is. To 96% let's say. To really nail it, though, he's going to have to tear down some significant design work and rebuild.

So I'm driving home from playing and I can see so clearly in my mind the kinds of changes he'd have to make.

And I'm like, so, Vincent ... anything you feel like learning from this?

Two days later I gutted and redesigned my old game, making a prototype as I went. This was Thursday. We played it today, twice. Between the first time and the second I tweaked some stuff and brought it from 98% to 99%. Friends? It rules. Everything I described above, playable in an hour, suitable for ages 8+, every moment engaging for kids and grownups alike.

The step to 100% will be all in production.

I'm bragging! I can't wait to show you this game. It's a good one. But also I'm trying to say something, maybe tell you something you'll find useful. Something like: you have to learn how to kill your darlings, you do. But you can practice on someone else's.

1. On 2008-08-31, Willow said:

What's the darling you need to kill?


2. On 2008-08-31, Meguey said:

It ruled for Elliot (who is 8 and won both times with his *insane* army), Sebastian (who is 11), Glen and I (who for the sake of continuity are 29 and 37). I'd play again today, it was that fun.

It takes a little over an hour to play, and there is enough going on to keep everyone engaged, and everything doesn't quite happen at the same time, but close enough that you're watching everyone's play, not just your own.

One thing I liked was the way it generated a natural 'story', with the oldest child of the Emperor (chosen mechanically) having a specific role. In the first game, I was the Warrior Prince, and the oldest child, and I naturally went for military strength - only to be destroyed by my nearly youngest sibling's stealth army! In the second,  my starting strength was the Great Speakers at Court - all politics - but I was the middle child, and it felt very different.

(Oldest child gets first pick of what's available each round, then next, then next. So it's cool to go first, because you get first pick. But it's cool to go later, because you can choose your battles or maybe snag something uncontested. I like it.)


3. On 2008-08-31, Christoph said:

Yes! I'm still in the process of killing various darlings (also, killing one to give way to another, and then some back and forth killing).

As a regular "euro-boardgamer", your game sounds really interesting! I like the idea of multiple win combinations, neat. We have often played games were at some point it was impossible to win, but possible for the losers to choose who wins. These threefold win conditions could alleviate a lot of that or at least make it a tool for personal gain. If one day you need some outside testers and the construction of the board isn't too complicated, I'll gladly present the game to my friends.


4. On 2008-08-31, Vincent said:

MY darlings, for this game, were all layers of representation. I had some clever money resources - your homeland gave you people, horses, and material in all different proportions, and like a cavalry unit cost you people and horses, while a chariot unit cost you people, horses and material, like that - but they had to go. There were also ways for you to re-contest something you'd fought for and lost, and a pretty cool scheme for differentiating military units on a couple of axis instead of just by which was the mightier, and an interesting currency exchange in the form of sacrificing things to the temples. Those had to go too.

Or Willow do you think there's some overall darling that's holding back my game design? If you do, please tell me!


5. On 2008-08-31, tonydowler said:

That sounds like a blast. The idea of linking your play position to birth position is pretty cool.


6. On 2008-08-31, Porter said:

I can't wait to try it!!

The Utah crowed, many of whom you may recall, have been VERY into Twilight Imperium, and I must admit that my itch for turn-based strategy games now exceeds my itch for roleplaying (mainly because it's SO hard to find a rp group). At any rate, we bounced around an idea trying to resolve the "spoiler" problem with TI (the losing player plays kingmaker way too often). We didn't get the game made, but the idea was to have a game that, instead of trying to eliminate the spoiler role, built it into the game mechanics. We barked up a different tree, but I think your three victory positions is brilliant solution to the spoiler problem—why throw in the towel and backstab someone when you may very well end up in a victory position?

Can't wait to play it! Planning any trips to DC soon? :)


7. On 2008-09-01, Vincent said:

We had a great time in DC a couple of years ago. Maybe again in a couple of years more?

Oh hey, come to think of it, if you feel like it, look up Sydney Freedberg. He lives in DC. Tell him I sent you. He's a good guy, he and I used to argue about religion here a lot.

(Sydney, are you reading this?)

I played the CRAP out of Twilight Imperium ten years ago. That game, yeah. Fundamental to my designing this game is a steely intent to avoid some of the problems with that one.


8. On 2008-09-01, Gregor said:

Sounds great! And the advice is always appreciated.


9. On 2008-09-04, Sydney Freedberg said:

Yeah, I'm here (virtually) and in DC (physically).


10. On 2008-09-04, Vincent said:

Cool! Haven't heard much from you in a long time. How's life?


11. On 2008-09-05, SDL said:

Oh, wow - sounds like just my kind of game!

And you know what?

I've been tinkering with my own not-so-ambitious, not-so-clever boardgame design based on a ruler's demise (in my case, the Ashikage Shogun). But your cool point #2 up above is just exactly the thing I've been stuck on!

I might even be able to make it work now... ;)


12. On 2008-09-13, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

So, here's the thing about this process:

You decide at this point if you need the game to be 100% and are willing to accept re-development costs, or if you're satisfied with the game being 96% and are going to roll over these lessons into the next one.

Because particularly with Slash, who's publishing his first game - a boardgame, to boot, which none of us have any experience to share! -??there are still a *lot* of lessons to learn. I don't think putting off those lessons for the design of what would essentially be a *whole new game* is a good idea.

There's a thing you learn when you're studying art, which is that sometimes you have to stop going around the block and just walk into the restaurant already and see if the girl is going to like you. Sometimes she doesn't, but then you can go meet someone else. When you're creating the whole world around yourself, it's easy to meet someone else.

I think what Slash needs to do - I'll invite him into this discussion in just a minute - is to finish the game as it exists (making the little tweaks we discussed), go all the way through publication, and start applying lessons, from turn order to marketing, to the next game. No matter what, it'll be better, and it seems a shame to waste all that effort on one game when it could be spent on two.


13. On 2008-09-13, Vincent said:

I don't have any opinion one way or the other about what Slash needs to do. I've only met him the once so far, but my STRONG impression is that he'll do exactly what he feels he should, to publish a game he's proud of.

He can already be proud of the game he's got; whether he wants to change it from here, and how much, is between him and his own vision.


14. On 2008-09-17, Slash said:

I hope I'm not too late to jump into the discussion but I only just now ran across the thread on the western massive. I am very much looking forward to checking out this game Vincent, its sounds cool and I agree with the notion of killing darlings and have been on a quest to simplify things without sacrificing game play with my game.

I would also say that at least with respect to me I like blunt comments and harsh criticism because I don't feel I can really improve without them. I also agree with you about the game being at 95% and have debated back and forth about whether its worth tearing it down to get it beyond that or whether this is the time to stop and move this onto publishing and leave the improvements for the next game.

On another note, I have been contacting printers in the US and in China and have found one in china that is willing to print small runs at a reasonable price. They are willing to print 500 copies of my game at $8 per box or 1000 copies at $5.59 per box (the best US offer I've gotten is 1000 for $14 per box). If you're interested in more info or if you know of any printers worth contacting (I believe you mentioned talking with someone at AEG?) please let me know.


15. On 2008-09-17, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Slash, those prices are very good for this kind of thing.

I spoke with a box manufacturer in RI a couple of weeks ago and they have a minimum order of $2500, whatever the project. They seemed hesitant to get involved in boardgames, but only because they tended to be too physically large for their machines. I'm sure we can work around that.

I also agree with you about the game being at 95% and have debated back and forth about whether its worth tearing it down to get it beyond that or whether this is the time to stop and move this onto publishing and leave the improvements for the next game.

Only you can answer that, of course, but internal dialogue will neither improve the game nor will it get people playing it and handing you money.

You have a game you can be proud of now. If you make it better, you will be prouder of it, but it will take you more design and testing time when you could be applying what you've learned to another game. It's a hard question!


16. On 2008-09-17, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

(those last two paragraphs aren't a quote. Oops.)


17. On 2008-09-17, Ben Lehman said:

My advice?

Don't release a game that's %95. Wait until you're at %101 or more. You'll feel a lot better about yourself for years to come.

If that means just sitting and thinking about it, that's fine. If that means annoying all your friends by making them play it constantly, that's also fine. If that means ignoring it for a year until suddenly a good idea comes to you in the middle of the night, that's also okay.

Just release your best game. That way, you won't spend a lot of time going "if only..."


18. On 2008-09-18, Matt Wilson said:

"To really nail it, though, he's going to have to tear down some significant design work and rebuild."

Oh... oh... argh. I hate knowing that feeling.


19. On 2008-09-25, Corbin said:

Your brother brought this back to MA with him and we played it a couple of times.  Asside from the overwhelming reaction of "We love this!", the one thing that we all noticed was a lack of player-on-player interaction.  The strategy is excellent, and we loved the mechanics.  I'd love to help out if you're willing.  I certainly am!


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