About a week into November, I heard about a blog post by Nathan Russell that discussed National Game Design Month (hereafter referred to by its Twitter hashtag of #NaGaDeMon – Mr. Russell apparently wasn’t concerned that participants might also be Catholic or be concerned about what their Twitter-illiterate Catholic family and friends might think of the hashtag), a spinoff of National Novel Writing Month in which people, are encouraged to take the month of November to design and playtest a game of their own design. At the point I heard about the challenge, I had already been working on a number of games, two of which qualified for being started in November, for an upcoming convention. The goal was to have the games playtest-ready by November 10, playtest the games at the convention, review feedback, and have a prototype copy ready for second playtest by the end of November.
Part 1: Designing the Games
The first game I worked on for NaGaDeMon coincidentally lined up with a game design contest run by The Game Crafter. The premise of the contest was simple: use 30 resources from the website’s selection of resources, with at least three different resources used. I expected that many of the people involved would be making a game that fit into the typical resource management genre: Collect resources to gain advantages over your opponents and earn Victory Points (otherwise known as “Catan Copy”). I chose to instead turn those assumptions on their head – first, instead of collecting resources, you would be trying to keep them; second, instead of being competitive, the game would be cooperative.
This led to a concept for a game called Besieged in which the players took the role of Heroes working together to defend a castle against fantasy monsters (looking to my Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manuals as inspiration). Each Hero had powers making them distinct, and each Monster was a single card in a deck full of Monsters. Some Heroes were more effective against particular Monsters than others, with the design goal being that the Heroes would need to run from turret to turret to gain the best advantage. If the Monsters reached the castle wall, they stole a resource (designated by the Monster card), and if the Heroes ran out of resources before killing a certain number of Monsters, they lost.
During the planning stages, Besieged felt like it was missing something. In the end I decided that the idea suffered from some critical flaws:
1. The resources did not contribute to game play. In fact, it seemed like the resources got in the way of the point of the game, which was to defend the tower against the monsters. By making the objectives about the resources rather than the tower itself, I was adding a layer of complexity to the game without any real reason as to why.
2. I wasn’t doing anything with the resource tokens that couldn’t be done just as easily and more cheaply with cards (this, by the way, is why I’m not entering anything in the Game Crafter contest – I couldn’t think of *any* games where this wasn’t true).
3. The entire game concept – from start to finish – felt like I was trying to take the D&D Adventure System board games, make the heroes defensive instead of active, and take away all the elements of complexity that made the game fun (random dungeon, Encounter cards, scenarios). That wouldn’t be the kind of game I’d want to buy, so it couldn’t be the game I was designing.
4. How different is the idea of defending yourself against monsters? The whole game was just a card game variant of any $1 tower defense app. That might be something to try to get away with later, but I didn’t want it to be the first game I tried to make.
Then I tried a trick I learned in improvisational acting and literature interpretation in college Forensics (speaking, not CSI): to make things more interesting, reverse the roles. What if I, instead of having Heroes defend a castle against monsters, have the Monsters defend the castle?
This reversal led to Hunted Castle – a card-based cooperative tower defense game in which classic horror monsters are trying to defend their castle from a mob of humans by scaring them off or killing them. The players could lose by getting attacked enough by villagers that the villagers are no longer afraid of the monsters. This had a couple distinct advantages over Besieged. First, monsters are usually more interesting than humans; this allowed me to put the complexity on the roles given to the player rather than putting a lot of text on the cards drawn each turn. Second, it allowed for more theme-led variation and creativity on the player cards – the Ghost could gain points by possessing or driving away the humans, while the Werewolf just tore them to pieces. So, armed with four characters (ghost, witch, vampire, and werewolf) and a deck full of Villagers, I made Hunted Castle ready to go for the convention.
The next game I started working on had a bizarre source of inspiration – an NPR story that discussed the difficulty of finding the right balance of fuel, heat, and pressure when trying to create a fusion reaction. This got me thinking about a set-building game with blinds, one in which you weren’t necessarily certain whether you had completed the set until you tried to play it. A couple hours of thinking later, I had Subterfusion, a set-building card game in which physicists are trying to create as many viable formulas for fusion as possible by acquiring sources of heat, fuel, and pressure rated from 1 to 6 that add up to 10 or 11 through research and theft from other players. Basically, you were able to either draw more cards by drawing them blindly and get in the way of other players by stealing random cards from opponents. This design was complicated by timing – the NPR story aired two days before the convention – but I was still able to get a playable prototype done in time.
Part 2: Playtesting and Feedback
During playtesting at the convention, I got a couple pieces of solid insight on Hunted Castle:
First, I had given the castle wall cards different abilities, which all the players completely ignored or never noticed, so the next draft is just going to use face-down cards from the top of the deck as walls (and removing random villagers from the game).
Second, the monsters were too similar. I needed to incorporate something unique about each monster. I had already done this with the werewolf (which transformed from beast to human or vice versa each turn), but needed something similar for the others. In the end, I ended up getting rid of the ghost and witch (which were replaced by the zombie and the creation of science) so that I could have unique mechanics for the other monsters – zombies couldn’t generate fear and get fewer actions, but turn killed villagers into zombies; the creation of science doesn’t have an attack of his own, but creates fear whenever he moves to a new wall and can destroy walls.
Third, the villagers were too easy to kill. Just like I had weapons to make the villagers more threatening, I need to include items to make the villagers harder to kill.
Subterfusion, on the other hand, got no bites for playtesting at the convention. While I didn’t have feedback from players, after I played Zombie in My Pocket and Panic Station at the convention, I realized that what I had developed wasn’t necessarily a themed board game by itself (although I suppose it could work as a variant rule or an abstract game); what I had designed was an objective in a larger game in the same vein as these other games. Now, instead of creating fusion being the goal of the game, it’s one of a number of things the scientists must do (along with locating a spacecraft needing the fusion reaction to work) in a game in which the players race to escape a hostile planet.
Part 3: Redesign
Hunted Castle’s redesign, while simple, still hasn’t been fully implemented due to my preoccupation with other projects (finishing an iOS app related to my day job and doing some freelance work for D&D). I did complete the new monster cards and updated rules, though.
The next step for Subterfusion is developing the rest of the redesign – I’ve completed rules for exploration and a deck of room cards. I’ve got some ideas as to how to further develop, including a possible deck building mechanic to maintain the guesswork element to generating the fusion reaction. I’m also polishing the “abstract” rules in the event that it’s a reasonable design on its own; when I playtest again, I’ll likely be playtesting both versions.
Part 4: To the Future
The goal for both these games, as well as another game I’ve been working on, Gnomekiller Ale, is to get all the rules and revisions complete by the end of January. Then, I’m going to get some copies out to friends to playtest in their gaming groups, and hopefully this will lead to identifying which games have the most promise to develop a fully fleshed out prototype with stock art for testing at Protospiel this summer.
So, did I “win” NaGaDeMon? I think so. I designed a game, with all the parts, and playtested it within the month. I didn’t complete my personal goal of getting the second prototype playtested, but I think what I did fits in the guidelines of “winning” the challenge. More importantly, I think that participating was a good experience for me; I learned a lot about the pitfalls of game design and a little about where I need to improve in my own creative skills. I’ll certainly be participating again next year, hopefully with a little more success.