Board Game Design Diary: Restrictions are good

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What I’ve really learned is about the nature of restriction.  What if there were no lines on the road, no boundaries and everyone could just drive in whatever direction they wanted?  Skilled drivers would probably prefer it, but most drivers would probably find it terrifying.  Most people would rather drive on a road with lines.

This applies to games too.  When you play a card game, you are automatically restricted by the cards in your hand.  That’s actually not a bad thing.  It’s tough to deal with all 52 cards at once, but you can deal with 7-10 at a time.

Background
If you visit this blog with any frequency, you’ve heard I’ve got my own game brewing:  Cage Match! The MMA Fight Game. I’ve been working on it well over a year at this point and seen the game evolve a lot over that time, most notably removing over half the content at one point to make the game simpler and more accessible.  I’ve witnessed hundreds upon hundreds of play tests, played with friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers.  I’ve gotten blind play test feedback as well.  Most of it has been really positive.  Most of it.
I’ve mentioned before how hard it can be to handle feedback.  On the one hand, you absolutely want to get feedback and respond to it.  On the other hand, not all feedback is going to be positive for any game, and you can’t let negative feedback get to you.  There are some people who just aren’t going to like your game, no matter what game it is, and you can only go so far trying to please everyone.  I struggle with negative feedback in this way sometimes — does the game need work, or is the game just not a match for this particular play tester?  As far as Cage Match! goes, I’ve learned over time that MMA fans like the game almost unanimously, but it’s hit-and-miss with non-MMA fans.
Even though I’m a dedicated hobby gamer, this is intended to be a more casual game for a more casual market.  Fans of Star Wars Epic Duels might consider SWED to be a casual game, and while an 8-year-old can play it, it isn’t the type of game that non-gamers would find appealing (though I have found those who love Star Wars to sometimes be an exception).  If Cage Match! is as involved as SWED, that’s too involved for the casual game market we’re targeting.  As a hobby game, it’s a winner, but as a casual game, the feedback I’ve gotten, including what I’ve witnessed in person, raised some questions over whether the version you see here is quite accessible enough:

The heart of the game is the mat + screen, and it has always been the construct I wanted for this game.  Yet, the feedback came in from different sources, suggesting to try it as a card game.  I resisted.  I love the uniqueness of the mat and screen to the point where I’ve considered patenting it.  I remember the first graphic designer I worked with on this project asking me what kind of cards I had laid out, and I was proud to tell him, there are no cards in this game.

Then, I decided that I needed to follow my own lesson of asking “what if?”  What if Cage Match! was a card game?  It might be true that my long-held hunch that it wouldn’t be as good a game if it was a card game, but with success and failure potentially hanging in the balance, I had to know for certain.  So, I developed a card game version, which helped me understand why I did it the way I did it, and what some of the trade offs are.  There are no right answers in game development, only trade offs.  After all that, I’m sticking with the mat + screen format, but not because I didn’t give the card game version a try — I did.

Cards

I was always married to rock-paper-scissors for this game.  For that, I wasn’t interested in a game with a draw pile and discard pile.  Some people might prefer that kind of game, but a draw pile + discard pile really didn’t work well with the rock-paper-scissors format.  As much as restrictions can be a good thing, I did not want there to be restrictions on the moves you can play.  I did not want to have to wait for, say, Jab to return to my hand in order to use it.  It was always part of the game that your opponent can Jab, Jab, Jab every turn if he wants to, not “well he just Jabbed so he can’t do it again for a while.”

Work shopping with others in my company, I figured out a system of 9 cards per player:  5 standard cards, each with 2 options, and 4 character-specific cards:  2 special moves, and 2 combos.  Someone could learn the game by just playing the 5 standard cards against each other, but still using all the focus rules so you could load up your attacks if you want to.

Since there were no special “places” to add focus, we changed the rule that focus would add to dice automatically, but if there was no dice roll, then you add to damage.  It was almost like betting poker chips on your card, so I actually switched the old focus crystals out for small poker chips.  I also liked the added simplicity of the focus rules — having it add to dice if dice mattered but to damage if dice didn’t — and kept it for the current version of the game.  So in the end, trying out the card game version of Cage Match! resulted in a better game.

Positives:

  • Much more familiar format which would appeal to a wider audience.
  • More restricted.  Restrictions make it easier on players, not harder.  The reduction of choice and options makes their decisions easier to make, and makes them more confident in those decisions.  It’s unusual to be able to play the same cards over and over again, but I’ve seen it and it works.
  • Made the game a little easier to learn.  We could play, for example, without special cards initially, and then add them in as we learned.
  • The cards offered a little more space to write out the outcome descriptions.

Negatives:

  • Far less unique. Everyone has a card game.
  • Fewer choices and less strategy as a result.
  • Still be a little wonky for people to play a card and then immediately get it back, every round.  Not what people expect in a card game.
  • No reason not to completely focus on either the head or body, and exclude the other.  The old version had the Jab as a head attack and the Block+Counter as a body attack, so you were always going to do some damage to both the Head and Body.  With cards, you’d really just focus on one and exclude the other.  I had to implement some kind of incentive to attack both, and for a game that already had enough going on, this seemed like it could be overload.
  • Going from Standing to the Ground was so much less smooth.  You had to drop your hand of cards, and start over with a new hand of cards.  There would be a 3-card hand for the submissive player, and a 4-card hand for the dominant player, plus any Ground specials that they might have.  It was effective enough, but clumsy.
  • I really didn’t like the way combos played out at all.  Truth be told, I’m not thrilled with them in the current game either, but in a card game, it’s like, you want to get a pair of cards and then play that as a combo.  A card called “combo” just doesn’t really deliver the right experience.

Current System (Mat + Screen)

Positives:

  • Easy transition from Standing to Ground. You just flip over your mat, which even has a bit of “MMA feel” to it.  This is the most critical element, and why the current mat + screen version of the game prevailed.  MMA has to transition easily between standing and wrestling, or it’s just not MMA.
  • The image of a fighter shape is memorable and what the game is all about.  You lose that in a card game.  Again, this is critical.
  • Offers a lot of options, few restrictions and a lot of flexibility. You do kind of feel like you’re in a MMA fight. You can do whatever you want, but so can your opponent. This loss of restriction is overwhelming for some players, but is ultimately a key to the game experience.
  • Unique and different from the thousands of card games out there.

Negatives:

  • It’s an unfamiliar format to the casual gamer.
  • There’s not enough restriction for the casual gamer.  The wide-open, flexible mat + screen system might appeal to more experience gamers, but to a casual gamer, the lack of restriction is actually daunting, i.e. “You mean, I can choose anything?  But what if I choose wrong?”  I’ve witnessed many first-time players go through this process, where they’re overloaded and nearly paralyzed at first.  Restrictions are actually a good thing. The less you give people to worry about, the better. This is a trade-off I now recognize, but one I’m willing to live with. Losing restriction is bad, but in this case, it feels more like being in a fight, which is what we’re trying to capture.
  • There’s a matrix of outcomes with small font that needs to be read.
  • There’s a learning curve around focus, a big enough curve that I recommend playing the first game without it.

Would cards, dice and poker chips make a light MMA strategy game more accessible to a wider group of people? Or would it still be limited in appeal to the hobby game crowd? We think it’s the latter, therefore we’re sticking with the mat + screen format. It’s very unique and interesting and a lot of people have had a lot of fun playing it.

In the end, switching to a card game added restriction and familiarity, but removed some key elements from the game experience that robbed the feeling of being in a MMA fight, and that wasn’t something we could live with. The solution was actually to upgrade the User Interface, as detailed in this post. Making the above “Fight Card” into a durable, free-standing piece (it used to be part of the screen which frankly didn’t work) has been met really well by play testers.

When we do launch this game in early November, know that we have made the game the best way we could, leaving almost no stone unturned in reaching as many people as possible with it!  We tried it as a card game but we think you’ll like this version better.  Can’t wait to hear what your playing experience is!

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