Breaking the Wallet Game Code, Part 1

I’ve been trying to make a wallet game for Buttonshy for about 3 years, and I’m finally about to have my first one. I’d like to say it was an academic effort to understand what makes a good wallet game and using that information to carefully design one. But I must admit that it was mostly accomplished through brute force, and a lot of failures.

Wallet games are difficult to design. The entire game must fit on 18 cards and a plastic wallet with (until recently) no tokens, which is hard enough. But wallet games should also feel like much bigger games than those 18 cards, which adds another level of challenge to the design process. On my journey to meet that challenge, I’ve definitely learned some things that are necessary, some things that help, and some things that don’t, and I’m going to share that journey and the secrets I’ve uncovered.

I’ve discussed part of this journey before, in Learning New Ways to Fail. The very first game I tried to design as a wallet was Shapeshift, a game about monsters. That gradually morphed into Iceburgh, and has since outgrown the wallet. And that was the first game I felt really could succeed as a wallet game. But then came a string of failures.

  1. Space Race 1969: my 2016 Wallet Game contest entry.
    • 2 players simultaneously play two cards to choose actions, trying to perform 3 successful rocket launches
    • Theme was a muddled combination of cold war sabotage and space race inspiration that felt detached from the mechanics
    • This might be salvageable.
  2. Dossier: the second version of Space Race
    • Draft then play your spies to hand off documents, get the right documents in your dossier.
    • Thematically way better, with more variety, but mechanically not tight enough. Space Race had a clear mental game that this version was missing.
  3. Mills of Jajce: Based around a town full of tiny water mills in Bosnia and Herzegovina
    • Grinding grain in tiny mills by rotating cards.
    • This was a bare mechanic, functional with no interesting gameplay. The game lacked any real arc.
  4. Brandywine: Inspired by Carcassonne’s River expansion
    • Place a card down to form the Brandywine river and to put your mills near the appropriate resources.
    • A waste of a much more thematically rich idea.
    • I overbalanced it worrying about the 4 player game. And once you put a card down, you basically forgot about it until scoring.
  5. Fairgrounds: Build carnival attractions
    • Build a small tableau that also makes resources for your neighbors to build.
    • I couldn’t find the right balance point, so players rarely had decisions about what to play or build.
    • And it took too many cards just to make the base mechanic work. This was probably just too big to work in 18 cards.
  6. Thousand Year Rose: Growing a rose bush for 1000 years.
    • Played sort of like Kodama, growing the rose, but with events that made parts of it die
    • This game was literally unendable. If your game is about something that grows over time, make it harder to destroy than to create.
    • Probably wanted to be a cooperative game instead of competitive.
  7. Twining Vines: Winemaking game
    • Run a vineyard, plant and age vines, sell the grapes or turn them into wine.
    • This one nearly worked, but money both felt tacked on and was a component hog.
    • It could probably work as a slightly larger game.
  8. Boundary Issues: Shift the national border between US and Canada.
    • Shift the boarder back and forth to get points for what’s on your side at the end, while granting abilities to your opponent.
    • Neat mechanic, but I had no idea what to do about the end/win condition.
    • This one might also be fixable if I can give an arc to it
  9. Surviving Everest: Climb Mountains in the 1950s.
    • Solo/Co-op with elements of memory, push your luck, and deck manipulation. Sounds great on paper
    • Successful as an artistic representation of the mental challenges of high altitude climbing.
    • But nobody liked it because the first round had no guidance.
    • Still potentially salvageable.

There are a lot of trends to pick up from here.

First, I kept bumping into the size limit. It’s really difficult to make something that needs 12 of the cards on the table at all times. Fairgrounds, Twining Vines, Space Race and Dossier needed a lot of cards in play at one time, which doesn’t leave you much room to actually play with. And putting enough variety within the game and between games is a challenge for every one of these.

Along with the size concern, don’t worry too much about making it a 4-player game. That often requires a lot more cards to work. Accommodating 4 players is almost standard for larger games, but 2 and 3 player games do well for Buttonshy. And there is always the option of adding a 4th player later through a 6-card expansion. Get the core design down first, then worry about adding players.

Next, a lot of these games were missing a clear goal. Figure out what makes the game have a beginning, middle, and end, and how they differ. Again, variety within the game is a challenge. Jajce Mills, Thousand Year Rose, Fairgrounds, Twining Vines, Boundary Issues, and to a lesser extent Brandywine, all had good mechanisms with no real long term gameplay. Just repeat until some arbitrary end.

And may of these games failed to give players choices for a substantial portion. Brandywine was often an obvious choice, Surviving Everest didn’t give the player enough information early on (although that is totally thematic), and Fairgrounds often left the player able to perform no actions. Decisions are the lifeblood of an engaging game, so it’s not enough to rely on end scoring, or theme, or clever distribution to make them occur.

After all of these failures, I finally made a game that I was happy with. I had worked on the idea in my head for quite a while before getting on the table, but it needed tokens to work for tracking resources. So when the Wallet+ option was announced, I was ready. Garnet, MT is right out of my standard playbook. Develop a 1900’s Mining town before it burns down. Historical setting, action drafting, resource management, tableau building with permanent effects. It’s totally my type of game as a designer and a player. The main concept worked, and I’ve been working on improving the balance, making the decisions more challenging, and bringing in more strategic elements, and it is scheduled to appear later this year. So that’s 1 in 10 attempts.

But wait! Next month, Buttonshy will be Kickstarting my game Supertall, about planning skyscrapers. But instead of 2 years of development Supertall took shape over a few months. It started as a nanogame inspired by Buttonshy’s Sprawlopolis. But when playtesters said “this would work a lot better if it was on cards”, I expanded the game from 1 card and 15 tokens into 18 cards.

Both of these games avoid the problems I addressed above. Garnet was designed so the 15 cards represent the 15 years the town was in its prime and contain the 13 saloons and 13 basic buildings that are central to the history. Supertall started with a limit of 15 tokens, so easily fit in the 18 card limit. I actually had more trouble figuring out which 3 cards to add. Garnet was designed as a 2 to 3 player game from the outset. Supertall was likewise designed for 2 to 3, and the first 6 card expansion will accommodate a 4th player.

Garnet also had the hard time limit from the start, and as a tableau building game, naturally has a progression. Plus there’s a great end-game twist I’m really proud of. Supertall has a natural direction as you build taller and taller. The end was a little challenging, because you can return cards to a draw pile, but I included a simple rule that cleans up the ending. Finally, Garnet loads all of the available actions onto each card, so there are always options for everyone. And Supertall gives 3 ways to use each card, plus makes any player’s skyscraper a possible placement option, so there are choices on every turn.

So after all those failures, does that mean I have finally revealed the secret for making a wallet game?

Nope.

I’ve been working with Buttonshy for over 2 years, so I had a good idea of what they look for in a game, and I knew that Garnet and Supertall would definitely fit in their lineup, but that only helps for the pitch, and doesn’t mean you’ll have a good game. The lessons from above are all absolutely necessary if you’re interested in designing a wallet game [or really any game] worth making. But these just make your game playable. Buttonshy wallet games always feel like bigger games, and I think I’ve finally figured out the element that makes the difference.

Which I will look at in part 2.

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3 comments

  1. Nate, you mention it being a challenge to design a game with 12 cards on the table. What about a wallet game where all of the cards start the game in play? Coming from my family’s perspective, you could have a game about cleaning up the playroom or the back yard. Putting away tools on your workbench, untangling extension cords, etc.
    Perhaps you start the game with a 3×5 grid of double sided cards with 3 scoring cards on one end. The goal might be to move cards into one of the scoring bins. Maybe each player gets one bin and both players share a bin with some type of bonus for who moved the card in there. Or maybe each card has a special ability…just spitballing.

    • Oh yeah, that definitely sounds workable.
      Nothing wrong with having all the cards on the table if they are in play. The issue is more about a situation where the cards are in use but unavailable to the player. Circle the wagon has you building a Tableau but you can change pretty much any part of it at any time, increasing your options. The games I call out used the cards as additional restrictions on top of already having a limited number of cards to choose from.
      Maybe that’s a hidden secret. Cards in play should, generally, give you more options than fewer.

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