In the run-up to Unpub 5, I felt a lot of pressure to produce a second good game. I took two game ideas that I had worked to build a game around. And then I took the prototypes to Unpub, where I played a single game of one, and the other one never got out of the box. Instead, I played a number of games of One Card Wonder, which I literally pulled out of my pocket. So I feel like I overcame the sophomore slump, and I’m not just a one hit wonder. I knew that One Card Wonder was a much better game than the other two, but I didn’t know why I felt that way until I was playing some published games that were polished and mechanically sound but didn’t excite me. I asked myself what those games were missing that I wanted.
My answer was “an experience”. I felt like the games were built around an idea, rather than being built around an experience. You move stuff around, pick it up, and put it down, but it feels a little empty, like I’m more of an observer a participant, unable to shape the gameplay. The experience isn’t quite the mechanics or theme, but both are a part of it. And it’s not just how I feel about the game emotionally, either. I’ve mentioned experience before when talking about game design, but it is hard to define exactly. So I decided to turn my eye back to my own games to see what “experience” they provided.
New Bedford was built around an experience from the start. I wanted something like Agricola, but faster and less frustrating. And I wanted the game to show the rise and decline of the whaling industry. My design efforts were built around making the game play how I wanted to play it. My first attempt after New Bedford, on the other hand, wasn’t built around playing a game. I wanted a game about Pennsylvania in the late 1800s that used a similar base mechanic to New Bedford. Notice that in this case, the theme doesn’t tell you anything about what happens in the game, it’s just a subject. And the mechanic isn’t defined by what I want the player to do during the game, just the abstract mechanisms. I had one piece that was defined as an experience. I wanted to let players build a railroad abstractly, without just building routes on a fixed map. I was stuck on this game idea for at least a year, but now I’ve gone back and redefined what experience I’m trying to capture with the theme and mechanics, and it is a new, interesting game.
Looking at the games I took to Unpub, first was Dressed to the Nines. I never had a player experience in mind, I simply had an idea for a subject (bespoke tailoring) and a mechanic (trick-taking). I was completely unenthusiastic about the game, doubtless because I didn’t have anything the game was trying to accomplish. And so, Dressed to the Nines will disappear. The other game was Porcupine Hill. This did slightly better, because I started from photographs of densely packed oil wells in a suburban development and said “I want the player to experience the feeling of this photograph in the game”. But I filled in the gameplay with mechanics instead of defining the gameplay experience I wanted. Still, Porcupine Hill might return, because there’s still a grain of experience there.
However, I did have success at Unpub 5 with One Card Wonder. [And I’m looking for testers now.] I think it was successful because it started as an experience. I wanted something that took the interesting historic theme of 7Wonders, but played very quickly. I wanted it to be playable while waiting for food at a restaurant. The other restrictions (fit in a pocket, one card per player) helped shape it around the core experience of the difficult choices in drafting and giving players unique powers. Now that I’m at work at expanding the One Card series, I’m already discovering that the some of the ideas don’t have an experience behind it. I started a trading in the Mediterranean game based on the system, but yet again, I was just assembling and copying mechanics, and it just fell flat. On the other hand, I’m already at work on One Card Wonder: Middle Ages, which started with the experience like the first game, but adds Rats that bring the Black Plague. It worked almost instantly.
I’ve gone back and looked at all of the other games I’ve been working on to identify the experience. In every case, I’ve stalled out because I lost the picture of what I want the experience to be. A couple of the games turned out to be just ideas with no experience behind them. But looking for the experience has helped reveal new directions on most of these games. I feel full of ideas, like Leslie Knope after getting a full night of sleep for the first time in years. [I have been working through old seasons of Parks and Rec, and happened to see that episode while writing this.]
So the game experience is hard to define, but I think it comes close to, “how I react to my decisions”. Theme and mechanics by themselves don’t create an experience, because it’s more than just what goes on, it’s my personal connection to it. The theme can elevate the importance of a decision, the mechanics can convert the decisions into interesting results. The experience is part of the feedback loop between myself and the game, and I only want to design games where that feedback is positive and strong. To be clear, I’m not saying this is the only right way to design a game, but it’s the choice I’ve made for myself, and I can already tell it’s a decision I’m going to be happy with.