Week 1

Week 1 - Prototyping a Game by Bob Jamison


Josh, an old friend of mine, and I have been kicking around board game ideas for a while now.  

We're long time tabletop gamers who've been playing games together for more than 20 years, though these days we don't get together that often because we live in different cities.

We started, sort of jokingly, tossing ideas out for board games, via text, for a couple of months...when one of the ideas, about crime lords vying for control of a city sort of stuck.  We talked mechanics, about the setting and characters.  Before we decided, "What the hell, let's try a Kickstarter project."

This blog is our attempt to document our journey through actually making a real life thing...that will exist...in the world.  Whether we eventually succeed or fail, I hope it will be interesting to others interested in making games, or [fingers crossed] to future fans of our new game, Kingpin, who wonder how it got made.  

Okay, so back to week 1.

Josh was planning to visit me in Seattle for my birthday, and we decided to turn that into a game design workshop.  We started with a big piece of paper, and talked about the games we liked what was great/sucked about each.

Pluses and Minuses

Pluses and Minuses

We agreed on a few points.  We wanted to combine elements of cooperative games with more competitive games.  We didn't want to make a resource management game, though there are some great examples, like Dead of Winter, we worried that that style of game could degenerate into a math equation and we wanted the game to be centered on open-ended player interaction.  

We wanted to have a map with characters in locations, we like games like Pandemic and Arkham Horror that are character and location centered.  They create an environment with a lot of strategic possibilities, while allowing you to build a strong narrative.  

Narrative was important to both of us, as some-time writers and movie lovers.  It's what really got us excited about making a game, we loved the crime genre and our imaginations were pouring out ideas for characters.

Our First Game Board 

Our First Game Board 

Just as a skeleton, we started with a big piece of paper and started putting on sticky notes to make a map.

We built out a basic framework of rules.  The players could move characters, they'd have a range of actions they could perform.  There should be Kingpins that represent the player, and lieutenants that they control. Potential actions started flowing from the setting:

  • Characters should be able to buy/sell drugs.
  • They should be able to attack each other.
  • They should be able to take over locations.

Goals flowed from the actions:

  • Players should win if they collect enough money.
  • They should win if they kill all the other players.
  • They should win if they control the map.
Prototype Cards

Prototype Cards

I cut a bunch of card shaped bits of paper, and we started writing down characters we liked from movies as placeholders.  We gave them stats based on a simple roll dice combat mechanic, and added a "rank" mechanic where players could level up their characters.  A baseline character would have stats like +0/+1/+2/+3 which would give them more dice.  If we added a beneficial ability, we'd bump those down, if we added a detrimental effect, we'd boost them up.

We wanted to force the players to cooperate, all great crime movies have an element of "are they good or are they bad?".  So we added NPC cop characters to the game.  They would interfere with player actions and if they got out of control, all the players would lose the game.  We needed some mechanic to move them around the board, and decided on an event deck that would trigger cop movement.  It occurred to us also that this could also provide a timing mechanic, to ensure that games wouldn't end in a boring stalemate.

So we tried rolling a game.  It went okay, pretty vanilla.  We'd thought up some interesting actions, but even with the cops, there wasn't a lot of reason to cooperate.  They just created changing conditions for the players.

After tossing around a few ideas, we tried throwing in a "heat" mechanic where players would accumulate heat as they performed actions and make a roll at the end of their turn.  If they failed, they'd have to draw a heat card with a negative effect (lose money, drugs) and this would also drive how cops came out on the board.  

A Playtest in Progress

A Playtest in Progress

On our next playthrough, things started feeling right.  The heat mechanic meant that player's choices drove how cops came out on the board.  Players could be assholes and pull heat down on everyone, or play it safe.  Heat "costs" on actions definitely added another layer of strategy, allowing us to balance stronger and weaker actions.

We went back and forth like this for the next 36 hours, except for a brief break, more a long nap than sleep.  We added stuff, threw a bunch of stuff in the trash.  Accumulated content by adding locations, characters and actions as we went.

By our final play through, it was solid.  It had a semblance of balance with lots of interesting strategies.  Most importantly, it was fun.  So what the hell do we do with it?