Game design essentially becomes problem solving once you know how the mechanics of your game are going to work. It goes from “Ooh, wouldn’t it be cool if’ to ‘right – how am I going to do this?”. So, what you’ll be seeing is a series of problems I encountered and the solutions I came up with.
First, I need my killing card. This was the most important card in the game because it makes you win. At first, I wanted there to be only 1 card that could kill you. Creating a central point like this is very useful because every decision you make is focused towards a single goal. I called my killing card the ‘Bang!’ card.
After I had my ‘Bang!’ card, I needed players to have a way to stop it. The first decision I made was to create the ‘Ready’ card – you need to play 1 ‘Ready’ card before you could play your ‘Bang!’ I was conscious of the fact that this limited the sense of danger in game. You could no longer be shot at any moment. You are safe on the first turn. Why, I hear you asking, did I do this? The answer lies in the build-up of tension that I wanted to create. If Clint Eastwood just shot the bad guy as soon as he saw him, it would be a very different kind of scene. When he doesn’t the tension builds, and we invest. So too, the player emotionally invests in their character. Having a ‘Ready’ card struck a good balance between danger and game length.
Interacting with the ‘Bang!’ Card
Enter the ‘Stare’ card in my Great Western Trail of problem solving. It was called a ‘Dodge’ card at first, but that makes absolutely no sense (this isn’t The Matrix), so it was changed in Version 3.
‘Stare’ cards essentially work how you might expect; 1 ‘Stare’ card blocks 1 ‘Ready’ card, which therefore stops the ‘Bang!’ card. But that creates a problem. There’s no tension if a player still has ‘Stare’ cards because they can block anything. It’s when the ‘Stare’ cards run out that your heartbeat starts to quicken.
To ensure this happened as quickly as possible, I decided to make hand sizes small enough that stare cards are a precious and a quickly expended resource, relative to the ‘Ready’ cards. I also introduced the following rule:
Players get to keep ‘Ready’ cards after they shoot someone, and the person who gets targeted must discard their ‘Stare’ cards (assuming they are still alive!).
I wanted to make sure that you can’t go into a turn knowing you are going to die regardless of what you do or what you draw. No one likes that. As things stood, if your opponent had way more ‘Ready’ cards than you had ‘Stare’ cards, this sometimes happened. So, I introduced the following rule:
A player can block ANY number of ‘Ready’ cards IF they play a ‘Stare’ card the same turn their opponent played their ‘Bang!’.
One trick with these little games is to create a core set of mechanics that work on their own. Whilst the games you play with won’t feel as satisfying, it should create interesting outcomes. This didn’t happen when I tested with 1 ‘Bang!’ card, 3 ‘Stare’ cards, and 3 ‘Ready’ cards.
I knew I needed another mechanic to keep the game fresh.
Enter Sergio Leone’s ending to ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ – the inspiration for my ‘Flashback’ cards. The final showdown involves a flashback sequence. This was a great opportunity to add spice to the game. After all, stand offs, as the name suggests, are generally pretty static until the shooting starts. I could use Flashback sequences to enhance the narrative of each game, making the story of the standoff seem more kinetic. Flashbacks would also encourage players to emotionally invest in their character’s story. You’re more likely to care about your character in the present if you understand who they are and how they got there!
This is where the idea of a ‘Flashback’ card came from. You’d play a ‘Flashback’ card, and draw an ‘Event’ card which would change some aspect of the game. Each player could piece together their character’s past by examining the events that brought them here. However, just having it work like that created problems for the tension and pacing of the game.
This is where card count began to factor into my thinking. The more ‘Ready’ and ‘Stare’ cards you have down, the better you are doing. But, if you have 3 ‘Flashback’ cards down then…well, it’s not a threat. It takes the tension off because those ‘Flashback’ cards are just sitting there doing nothing. Additionally, if a ‘Flashback’ card can only draw 1 event card, then balancing the events to make them worth the sacrifice of not playing a ‘Ready’ or ‘Stare’ would be difficult.
My solution was to create the same sense of growing threat from ‘Flashback’ cards as well. Your first ‘Flashback’ card will draw you 1 ‘Event’ card. Your second ‘Flashback’ card however will draw you 2 ‘Event’ cards, and so on. This creates a tension on both sides, because the ‘Flashback’ cards create an additional commitment that could pay off big. Will you be able to survive to play all your ‘Flashback’ cards before your opponent kills you? You had better, because you are giving up advantage now to get it later.
I also decided that whilst you drew more ‘Event’ cards, you could only play one of them. This is because the game is structured in such a way that doing 2 or 3 things with one card would be too good.
The ‘Event’ cards themselves had to be powerful- but only situationally better than average cards. If ‘Event’ cards were always better than playing the ‘Ready’ or ‘Stare’ cards, then you would never play anything else. Additionally, making the ‘Event’ cards more situational made the payoff of playing multiple ‘Flashback’ cards more tangible. When your opponent plays their first ‘Flashback’ card it’s unlikely they’ll get the event they need. If they are playing their second or third it’s probably going to be good for them.
I’m very conscious that ‘Flashback’ and ‘Event’ cards add an element of randomness into the game. Randomness must be carefully managed. If done right, it can create great comeback moments, and sudden table-turning events (such as when you swap your big discard with your opponent’s little one). If done wrong, players feel like they have had no influence on the game result. Now, there are lots of essays on randomness in games out there, so I’ll just describe two ways I controlled for it in Quickdraw:
1) As described above, ‘Event’ cards were designed to be situationally useful. Since they are more likely to get something useful the more ‘Flashback’ cards you have, then it’s usually not a card out of the blue which can swing a game in a particular direction, but rather a card that has been worked towards.
2) Flashback cards were driven in a modular fashion, meaning they not were ‘if X then Y’, but rather ‘Do Y’, with the implied knowledge that if ‘X’ was true, this would have a greater effect. The aim of this was to make the application of ‘Event’ cards more controlled by the player, and lessen the feeling that a player just happened to pick up the card they needed. For example, if a card reads “If your opponent’s Bang! Card is on their Board, remove it”, then it feels like it’s a card that you have to pick up just at the right time. However, if the text read “Remove 1 card from your opponent’s Board”, then that gives them more flexibility, and more control, over what ways to use that card. It could remove a ‘Bang!’ card, but if there isn’t one, or a player has a different plan, then it could remove something else.
Join me in Chapter 4 where we see how the first implementation of all this stuff went.