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  • Writer's pictureIan

Design Diary - Ukiyo

One of my current projects is a short puzzle-based card game called Ukiyo. So far nine months in the making, I thought this would be a good time to blog about the experience of coming up with a game, from start to (nearly) finish. This was the first game where I tried to engineer the ‘having an idea’ process rather than just waiting for something to pop into my head (blog post next week about how to have ideas). I started from the point of view that I wanted to design an abstract 18-card game that could work both as a solo puzzle game and as a very quick multi-player game. To an extent this felt like cheating – I’ve always been lucky enough to have ideas pop into my head on a regular basis, seemingly without any involvement from me, so trying to force the creative process felt odd, but turned out to be really useful – more on that next week.

The start points therefore were having cards with different combinations of four different symbols – I went for six symbols on a card to roughly match the dimensions of a poker card. I wanted there to be a range of specific challenges to work towards rather than a single win condition. So I knocked up the usual Powerpoint & cardboard first version and cut the cards out with scissors:

So only about three hours work to get from initial idea to something playable. The basic game was in place very quickly and the game today is quite similar to the first version – the main changes, as a result of the playtesting, has been about subtle changes to the frequencies and arrangements of the symbols, and particularly getting the sixteen tasks into a genuine order of difficulty (a key point of the game is that harder tasks are more valuable, so I needed to get this right)

Solo games are much easier to playtest, as are quick games. Consequently I was able to move through several hundred playtests before exposing the game to the wider world. This isn’t necessarily practical for ‘big box’ or longer games but works well with smaller, simpler ideas. They’re also much easier to get into virtual format. If you've got a bigger, more complicated game, it's worth considering whether you can break off a part of it, and test that separately, to try and speed things up a bit.

In this version, icons were downloaded from Noun Project, still arranged in Powerpoint. I had a vague idea from the start that this could be Japanese-themed, and with one eye on the Tokyo Olympics (which should have happened in July 2020, I thought this might be a good time to make that happen. It was at this point that I started to find a conflict between what worked as a solo game and as multiplayer – some of the card tasks were mutually exclusive tasks, others were easy in solo but much more difficult in multiplayer, so I spent quite a lot of time trying to work through this.

Next was version 3, now about 3 months in. By now I was ready to get some prototypes on proper card stock from TGC, using free stock art from Adobe, which I got through a trial subscription, and icons again from Noun Project. I assembled and coloured the card images using Pixlr Editor, which is a nice free utility. I’ve since moved on to AI, which has been worth every penny, but Pixlr is still a great free option - see below.

The original intention with solo mode was to be able to draw any three cards at random and try and complete them, with your score being the total of the three task numbers (higher being harder). I hoped to then be able to have clear difficulty levels, eg under 25 total = easy, 26-32 = medium etc. Two problems – some combinations didn’t work at all, and changing the tasks would unbalance the multiplayer game; and secondly, the difficulty of combining tasks was more about the specific combinations, rather than just how difficult they were individually. The solution was to curate and test specific combinations of tasks into puzzles, and organise those into difficulty levels.

Version 4 (above) was ready in June, and as much as anything this was a chance to practise on Adobe Illustrator, and to get a better idea of what I would want an artist to do. Getting a real illustrator involved is one of my favourite parts of game design, when you start to see your ideas and cardboard really come to life. I’ve worked with a number of great illustrators and every time, they’ve managed to get my vague descriptions into something better than I could possibly have imagined myself. Worth every penny. The artwork below was done by Janette at Imaginaires, and I'm sure you'll agree it's a huge step up from what I'd done previously:

One caveat - it's probably best not to engage an illustrator until you’re sure you are planning to publish your game in some form; you don’t need artwork for prototypes and there are loads of great free resources that can get you to an advanced prototype. Especially don’t pay for artwork if you’re intending to pitch to a publisher rather than crowdfund, as it won’t get used. Publishers don’t need professional artwork to work out whether your game is viable or not, and you can get a 'good enough' version using stock art and creative commons licensed resources. But if you're going to, say, Kickstarter, proper art is essential.

And then – horror – this very weekend, just after sending out a newsletter confirming a Kickstarter in November, I found a game that looked an awful lot like mine, only much better - the wonderful Philosophia: Floating World. (Ukiyo means Floating World). I got in touch with the creators, Joe and Maddie, to let them know my plans - thankfully (as so often in boardgaming) they were absolutely lovely about it, and wished me well. Do check out their project - it's a work of art.

Next came more playtesting, via Virtually Expo and Tabletop Simulator. Playtesting increasingly indicated that the solo version was better than the multiplayer version, which was odd as the solo bit was something of an afterthought. But I've made a few minor changes to balance this up, and still have a lot of work to do to smarten the TTS version up, but it's coming along nicely:

Final prototypes are currently on the way from Gamecrafter and; then I'll get some more formal reviews done, and carry on getting ready for Kickstarter.

So what did I learn from all of this?

  • You can make yourself come up with ideas rather than just waiting for them to happen: more on this next week

  • Designing a solo game is not the same as a multiplayer game. I got into a bit of a rut here by trying to reconcile two sets of conflicting demands. Sometimes, you need to go back to first principles and redesign the game from scratch to work with a different player count.

  • Prototype quickly, test and fail fast. A hundred other bloggers and designers have said this before but that’s because it’s good advice.

  • There’s a lot to be said for making smaller, simpler games. They’re quicker to prototype, much quicker to test, cheaper to make and far easier to get playtested (Ukiyo takes about 5 minutes to play, so even the grumpiest playtester will usually be prepared to give it a go). If you’re getting stuck with a complex game, can you extract one element or one mechanic from it and test it in a standalone way?

  • Simpler games are also much easier to get into Tabletop Simulator (TTS) or Tabletopia format, which increasingly is an essential step in getting your game playtested in these strange times. If you’ve not already done this, try these tutorials here and here and Gabe Barratt's podcast on TTS from last week.

  • Designing a game that’s different from your usual preferred ‘type’ can be a really good mental exercise and can broaden your design perspective.

  • Initial feedback on this from playtesters was underwhelming, but I persevered because this is a game I actually enjoy playing myself. And this is a great principle for designing games – listen to what people are telling you, but ultimately, do what you enjoy and see where it takes you.

  • I found a lot of great design resources – Adobe Stock, Noun Project, Pixabay, Pixlr Editor. But don’t forget humble Powerpoint – for me, this is still the fastest way to get that first prototype into a playable state.

That's it for this week. If you'd like to know more about what we're up to, drop your details in at the ‘Subscribe’ tab above.

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