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Streamlining Oceans with our Designated Blowhard™ (and trait contest winner announced)

June 27, 2017

This post was written by Nick, one of Oceans’ co-designers (Brian, the other co-designer, added remarks in italicized parentheses). 

My favorite thing to do in life is design games. My second favorite thing is to develop techniques for designing games better (His third favorite thing probably has something to do with thinking about how to think about how gamers think about games)

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Here we are designing Oceans using the “Staring Ruefully out to Sea” technique

Now and then I write essays about my techniques. For example: the 100:10:1 method, my most popular technique. I rely on it heavily, and it was a key factor in my decision to work on Oceans, the next game in the Evolution series, the game we’re writing about here today.

In designing Oceans, we’re also relying on another method, which we’ve come to call The Designated Blowhard™. The game has recently changed dramatically as a result. The story behind that change illustrates the method’s value.

What’s a Designated Blowhard™?

Greatness isn’t the usual outcome of game design. Thousands of table games are published each year and how many are truly great? One? Zero? (2018 will have at least 1, obviously) There are dozens of ways to biff a design and it’s achingly hard to avoid them all.

One of the most common biffs comes from ego attachment. You construct some system that you, the designer, personally love, and then stop. If everyone on earth were a clone of you that might be fine, but they’re not. The problem is worse for the fact that most people don’t like to give really broad negative feedback. You can have 100 play testers and not one willing to give that kind of feedback.

Specific negative feedback is easy. The more specific the criticism, the easier it is to remedy. But broad, negative editorial judgement is hard, because it feels like telling someone they’re whole project is crap, because that’s sort of what it is.

But every game designer needs broad negative feedback. You need someone standing over your shoulder, insisting over and over “this isn’t good enough”. That someone is your Designated Blowhard™

The Blowhard’s job is different from normal editorial oversight. It’s editorial oversight PLUS unbending clear-eyed no-bullshit drill sergeant nosebleed standard-setting. Likewise the designer shouldn’t treat the Blowhard’s feedback as like normal editorial feedback. He should treat it as chapter-and-verse capital-T truth. If your Blowhard says it’s not good enough, you don’t question. You go back to the drawing board.

designated-blowhard

It’s hard to find the right person for the job, because:

  • he must feel comfortable telling you you’re failing over and over. Real candor is harder than it looks. (Not for me! I tell Nick he sucks all the time and it rolls right off the tongue.)
  • you have to trust him entirely; enough to 100% believe him EVERY TIME he tells you your project isn’t good enough (like even the 35th time, when you start to wonder if you’re subject to a secret government psychops torture program).
  • he has to fully understand what it takes to make a great game, so he can accurately assess when you meet your standard. Not many people have that understanding. He should have invented at least one great game himself.

For most of my life as a game designer, I’ve not had a Designated Blowhard. Instead, I would take years to design a game, which allowed me to set it aside multiple times, and return to it later with fresh eyes and fresh dissatisfactions, so I could be my own blowhard.

That’s great if you can do it, but if you want to design professionally, you don’t always have that kind of time. You need to maintain a 10,000-foot perspective (I think he means 10,000 fathoms amiright?) and the highest standards without stepping out of a project in which, by necessity, you have completely lost yourself.

A good Designated Blowhard makes that possible, and it’s a beautiful thing. For the design of Oceans, we have one, and his involvement has recently transformed our game.

The Great Streamlining (of 2017)

After working on Oceans from November 2016 through April 2017, we began sending prototypes to North Star Games for assessment.  The main guy doing the assessing is Dominic Crapuchettes, the lead designer on all the other Evolution games. No one understands the system better, and no one is more interested in our success, since his company will publish the game. He became our Designated Blowhard.

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Look how mean he looks

As soon as he began testing, Dom began pushing us to simplify the game’s architecture, but without sacrificing any magic; to distill, nay amplify, the thematic and strategic richness through simplification.

So we’d return with something simpler, and he’d tell us it wasn’t simple enough and it wasn’t good enough. So we’d redo it again, and he’d tell us it wasn’t simple enough and it wasn’t good enough, so we’d redo it again, and he’d tell us it wasn’t simple enough and it wasn’t good enough. And again. And again.

What he was looking for was starting to feel like a pipe dream.

This is where the trust comes in: he kept believing it was possible, and we kept believing him. His standards became ours. I spent a lot of time angry with myself for not seeing the way through (I spent those days bipolar, swinging from excited about the fun we were having playing to being depressed about our lack of progess)

But that anger became fuel, and the fuel lit the afterburners. We got to playtesting every day, often in multiple locations, Brian doing tests in one place and me in another.

Then, one day, after another futile 7-hour design session (That session SUCKED), we broke through. It felt like a rainbow after a storm.

Here’s what the turn structure used to look like:

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 10.31.49 AM

Here’s what it looks like now:

 

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How it works

Notice there are no discards in the current version of the game. In Evolution, as well as in previous versions of Oceans, players discard from their hand for the right to upgrade their ecosystem in various ways.

We had a realization about these discards: they were the least fun way to use cards. There’s no pleasure in paying for something. To pay is to sacrifice. However, there IS pleasure in building your ecosystem. It’s the heart of the game. So what if you incorporate all your cards into your ecosystem and use none to pay for it? Would that be more pleasurable? Answer: yes, emphatically. It’s also smooth and simple.

In the current version, the only thing you do with your cards is give your species traits, but when you give a species a trait, that card also gives you the right to change that species’ population and/or body size by up to a certain amount.

A single card in Oceans now has the same total power on average that 4 cards do in Evolution, which has two other benefits (besides simple turns):

  1. each played-trait feels BIG
  2. your ecosystem can be built out quickly, which means you can get into the heart of the game, the combos and synergies, quicker. Each round, you give your ecosystem the equivalent of 16 Evolution cards’ worth of development, with just 4 cards. The system we were using before felt like plodding drudgery in comparison.

This is, frankly, the best idea we’ve had so far. Our playtesters, gamers and non-gamers alike, are unanimous in the opinion it’s our best version yet.

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Eating some well-deserved alewives to celebrate our breakthrough

It’s unlikely we would’ve hit on it without Dom’s goading. And THAT’S why, if you design anything, you should find a good Designated Blowhard™ and then lean like hell on his judgment.

Trait Design Contest Winner

Congratulations to the winner of our trait contest, William A. (Acreman), whose Algae Bloom is the winner of our trait contest.

Algae Bloom – Add plankton to the reef equal to the number of players

“Wait a minute!” you might exclaim. “Isn’t that an event card? How can it win a trait contest?” Well, we turned it into a trait called Massive Spawning (you can read about the biology here):

Massive Spawning – When revealed, put plankton into the reef equal to the population of this species

massive-spawning

It provides a thematic way to add plankton to the reef, which can create nice dynamics in the context of the game’s other cards. Transparency for example. A species with Transparency is protected from predators only so long as there’s plankton in the reef (Transparency only works in murky waters). Massive Spawning allows a transparent species to regain its protection after having lost it. (in a recent playtest, one player flipped a Massive Spawning to protect someone else’s Transparent species with population 1, just so he could eat it to extinction later in the round. BEAUTIFUL)

Acreman will receive a free copy of Oceans, and if we use his idea in the game, we’ll credit him for the idea in the rulebook. Thanks for being brilliant Acreman!

From the Sea,

Nick (and Brian)

P.S. It occurred to me after writing this that the Designated Blowhard bears similarities to Pixar’s famous Brain Trust, to which many people at Pixar attribute the company’s success. Check that out for another perspective on the same ideas.

P.P.S. fabulous final tentacles art from artist Catherine Hamilton, who is clearly on something:

Tentacles-final-600

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