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The joy of a massive re-write

I recently had a playtest with Mike Hutchinson (Gaslands, A Billion Suns, Perilous Tales) of a game that he was planning to release (and I think by the time this gets posted, has released) in the compilation magazine Blaster. We absolutely tore the game a new one, pretty much everything in it needed changing and pretty fundamentally too. I was talking to Mike after saying sorry if it was demoralizing, but that the game that it could be should be fun. His response was very indicative to me of what makes a games designer, he said “I don’t understand designers who don’t enjoy this part.”.

What he meant there was that he now had a whole list of changes and alteration that were definitely better than what he had before. He was excited, thrilled, to put those changes and elements into play into the new version of the game, we had given him the chance to create again. A designer needs to have a certain sense when someone comes and kicks over their sandcastle that’s something along the lines of “Brilliant, I get to build a sandcastle.”.

It was an interesting comment for me in particular because I get a similar joy from a really brutal playtest, but for a very different reason. There was a film I remember seeing some time ago, it wasn’t great, but it had a scene in it where a woman walking down the road finds a silver bracelet, abandoned, with her name on it. She talks about that as being a moment where she felt like she knew for certain that she was in the exact right place, on the right path. Now, I don’t much believe in that, but in game design I find a real joy in being able to totally gut my game, because in the moment when I re-build it I know for absolute certain that at that moment I’m just where I should be. The rest of the time I’m in the long grass, feeling things out, trying to find the shape of the game. But when I get to hack something totally to shreds, I know that I’ve hit a corner, I’ve defined the space that the game is in absolutely, if only in the negative. When things go right its often nebulous, people are having fun its sort of fuzzy. They like it, but how much? You can have people rate it on a scale, but its hard to really pin down. But when a game doesn’t work, that’s clean, that’s clear, broken is a safe solid signpost as to where the right path is. It might just say “Not here”, but its still definite. What’s great about a total tear down is that it puts up about ten “Not here” signs and its often the most definite guidance you’ll ever get of what your game should be.

Funnily enough, I had meant to write this blog a while ago during a period where I gave Song of Tales, my newest game, a total tear down. Song of Tales is a collaborative story telling game about weaving folk tales around a fire on a dark night. Its collaborative because players can add to each other’s stories during play using additional story cards, the central purpose of the game is to allow players to both play a competitive game with proper, solid scoring mechanisms (no voting on the best story) while encouraging them to build on each other’s stories collaboratively rather than steal or tear them down. At first there was a mechanic where players had seats around the fire and moved around them, which seat you were at both decided which cards you could draw and who you could invite to ‘listen’ and so collaborate with your current story.

I had imagined the seats being designated by thick board cards that were lain out, so the number could be raised and lowered depending on the number of players easily. I went to LongPack, my manufacturer of choice for a quote, and those boards are expensive (relatively), so I was pondering how I could re-design that board, which had been there from day one of the design in one form or another. You see, the game had originally been designed as a version of the Canterbury Tales, and so it had a board representing the journey and back again. I decided to re-theme it more generally to increase its appeal (and because then I could more easily make expansions of other genres) at which point that back and forth board didn’t make much sense, and it was freeing to make the board circular, set around a central fireplace. Coming back to that now much more abstract board though I realised that moving around a board, judging which cards were where and who would be invited to my tale depending where I landed, it was a certain sort of fun, but it wasn’t the fun of Song of Tales. The fun of Song of Tales is about telling stories, getting stuck down narrative dead-ends and essentially needing to pay another player to dig you out of them. So, the board got junked, the game got freed up again, made more the right kind of fun, and cheaper to boot. Everything had to be re-written of course, but the signpost had been dropped and used.

That’s when I was going to write this blog, but it drifted because other more useful subjects caught my eye. I’m often aware that while I think my game designs are fascinating, they lack the broader usefulness of something helping to explain how best to find a quote or get proper CE marking. Also, one of the downsides to having a design style that thrives on being torn down while writing a collaborative story telling game during lockdown due to the Coronovirus has meant that development on Song of Tales has been a little slower than I’d like. Then I had that session with Mike I mentioned and I almost wrote the blog again, but I’ve sat down to write it this time because I had another little design epiphany the other day that has necessitated a new total re-design of the game.

Song of Tales has a set of ‘Story’ cards. The idea is that players have to play the cards out and then make up a story that the words on the cards can fit into. So, if you play down a card that says “…cursed them three ways with this chant…” you need to make up someone to be cursed, someone to do the cursing, a reason why one would curse the other, and then a chant containing three curses. Against a timer by the way. From early on the cards had contained partial blanks such as ‘Person’ or ‘Item’, the idea was that players would fill in those sections with the heroes or other significant elements of the story. Then they would need to come back to those ‘Key’ elements throughout their tale. The idea was that it created a system whereby a tale got harder as more elements were added and also a way that scoring could be measured while also meaning that tales would need to be tied to sort of storytelling landmarks to be made to remain cohesive. On the downside, it necessitated a way of recording those Keys, so there would be a record keeper role and a wipe clean board and pen for them to make the recording. When you’re a self-publishing designer the cost implications of things like that really matter, so it was no small decision, not to mention that while the record keeper role passed around the table and came with a level of authority, it wasn’t really fun in the spirit of the game.

I’d put up a first draught of the rules on BGG some time ago, and people had a range of problems with the concept of the Keys, both technically based on how they worked, but more so in that they could add a memory element to the game that wasn’t intended. As I was working this over in my mind I read an interview with the designers of the game “Once Upon A Time”, clearly a game I’d studied after I got the initial design of Song Of Tales together (Song Of Tales was inspired by the Canterbury Tales, as I said, and another story telling game of stopping other people’s tales to score, but I would be insane if I didn’t study Once Upon A Time, so I wrote the basics of Song Of Tales and then checked out Once Upon A Time, to see how they did it without being overly influenced by them). A passing comment in that interview about the nature of folk tales alongside the fact that I’ve been answering rules questions from my last Kickstarter, Moonflight, made things click, that I didn’t need the Keys at all. Folk tales have Cinderellas and Singing Swords in them, but the fun of telling them isn’t about mentioning Cinderella every so often, or even making her up, its about coming up with the new verse of Rumplestiltskin’s song or the new elements of Snow White’s curse. The Keys were managing to be both too restrictive and too free in the wrong way. So, another of the early core elements goes on the bonfire, and the game is getting a total re-write, and I feel fantastic about it.

How do you feel when one of your projects suffers a scorched earth re-build, if good then do you have a different way of feeling good about it, if bad how do you get over it? If not in relation to game design, then how about in other parts of life?


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