Board Game Design Diary: 3 Key Lessons Learned

If I did what was practical, Cage Match would never be a game.  I was working on another game entirely, one that I was sure would go nowhere, when the idea for Cage Match came through, and it’s a good lesson to learn:  If you want to design board games, Always. Be. Designing.  Like Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Back in high school, when role playing games were big, I created a role playing game based upon the Japanese anime and manga series Saint Seiya.  (Obviously I was a very cool kid in high school).  The Saint Seiya RPG quickly became the game of choice for my playing group, and we took our saints on many adventures.


A couple of years ago, 2 of the friends from that original playing group mentioned that they were interested in possibly re-approaching it, and so I set up a meeting with them to discuss it.  There was little potential in this game, as I saw it.  It would be tough to get the licensing for Saint Seiya and even if I got it, how many Saint Seiya fans are left in the U.S.?  Maybe 500 total?  Still, some friends were interested, and that was something.  The main thing about the Saint Seiya game, as well as the anime and mange, is combat.  Like Itchy & Scratchy, they fight, they fight, they fight they fight they fight.  So I was thinking about how the game used the old Dungeons & Dragons system of a D20 plus bonuses, and thought that it probably wasn’t dynamic enough for such a combat oriented game.  I also wanted an AI that we could do battle with.

So the first lesson here is Always Be Designing.  There was probably little opportunity for a revised Saint Seiya roleplaying game, but nonetheless, my friends had interest, and I therefore felt it was worth trying to figure out a better combat system for this game.  I came up with something just in a couple of hours of thinking about something I could try out with these 2 friends.  It worked well enough that the 2 friends had fun playing it.  I had 2 other friends play it and it went well again.  I started developing the game and calling it Knights of the Zodiac, took it to GenCon 2017, and the play tests went well enough to think it worth pursuing.

Then I was actually getting excited about it and ran into the original problem:  I’ll never get the rights.  Then I figured, the combat system was pretty clever and might be worth something.  Maybe I could take it and apply it to something else?  Like, say… MMA?  Once this idea came together, the project shifted into high gear.

Photo-by-Josh-HedgesZuffa-LLCZuffa-LLC-via-Getty-Images

The game quickly sprouted from a rather simple game of Saint Seiya to a very complicated game.  There were additional moves in STANDING such as Focus, Dodge and Flying Knee.  There was an additional CLINCHING position with its own set of moves, including Collar Ties and its own set of sub-rules.  There was an additional layer of muscle you had to deal with as an attacker, similar to armor in Dungeons & Dragons where if you roll high enough, you could damage the head or body directly, otherwise you only damaged the muscle.  You also had to roll the dice with every attack you landed, even if you got a free hit.  This made the Standing game longer and more involved.  The Ground game was also longer and more complicated.  First you had to pass the opponent’s guard or ground and pound.  In the meantime, your opponent could try for the Reverse, try to Escape, or even try to Submit you from the guard position.  Only after passing the guard could you try for the submission move, and your opponent could then only try to escape back to the guard position.  With all of these additional moves and such, many of the old characters were very different, with different special moves.  Combos also worked differently, not needing to be committed to until after you landed a clean hit.

Then I started getting going on social media, demoing at game stores and going to some cons with the game.  Some really helpful feedback was that my art needed to be taken up a notch.  Kickstarter backers have become really discerning and have high expectations for art.  I also attempted to contact UFC about a potential licensing deal but never got anywhere.  Finally, I figured out how to make the game simpler, which is the current version of the game.  Dystopia Dave urged me to create a “basic” version of the game, and it resonated with other feedback I’d received.  I just didn’t know, could the game actually be made simpler?

So then the next lesson kicked in:  Ask yourself “What If?”  What if I could reduce this game down to its simplest mechanisms, what would that look like?  I tried out a basic version of the game, not all that different from the original Saint Seiya game, and it went well enough to be worth developing.  It was restricted to the Standing game, but I thought, what if I could figure it out for the ground game, what might that look like?  Once I came up with something for the ground game, I realized that I could make the entire game out of the “basic” version, that is to say, the basic game is now the game.  I went from 25 outcomes and 106 possible interactions down to 14 outcomes and just 25 interactions, and 5 fighting positions down to 2.  I took out more than half the game!  The rest might be published as an Advanced Game someday.  The final lesson, that less is more, is what I wrote upon at length in this post.

The one thing I’d say differently now vs. then is this:  I don’t think the old, more complex, more advanced game is necessarily better.  It’s more involved, with more options and more outcomes, and therefore more strategies you can delve into, but I’m not sure all of that makes it better.  There’s more you can do, and therefore more MMA theme involved, but more isn’t necessarily better.  In he final version of the game, your combat choices are streamlined, but there is still enough choice involved to make it a game of intrigue against your opponent.  The simpler ground game is probably better, as it reduces the time spent in a “ground and pound” sort of game, and eliminates the “past guard” stance where the submissive player is basically out of fun options.  Most importantly, the game maintains its heart of having to decide when you’re going to go for it, something I had devised in creating a combat system for that Saint Seiya game that would surely never get published.

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