Breaking the Wallet Game Code, Part 2

Last time, in Part 1, I looked at some of the lessons I learned from a pile of failures, and how my upcoming games Garnet, MT and Supertall avoid the same problems.

I’ve also found common ground in a number of Buttonshy’s most successful games that I think really embodies what makes Buttonshy Wallet games feel like bigger games. I wasn’t really able to put this into words until after developing most of Garnet and Supertall, but it’s something I’m now starting to look for to make sure my games have, too.

Now, after designing so many wallet games, and talking a lot with the folks at Buttonshy, I’ve found some common threads running through the games. Multi-use cards are common. That’s almost a baseline requirement, that if your card isn’t performing 2 or 3 different functions, you’re not making use of the space. But if your only feature is being able to use a card in multiple ways, you’re not doing enough.

Most of the games have a strong mind-game aspect. If that seems like a circular explanation, it sort of is. With so few components, the game has to fit somewhere, and you can add a lot by making the player question themselves. For the same reason, a lot of micro games (especially after the release of Love Letter) relied heavily on bluffing and social deduction. But just as with multi-use cards, that doesn’t automatically do it.

Variability is really important. This should be obvious, but is worth reiterating. Variable setup and unique (and distinct) cards help with replayability. But with so few cards, it is important that you don’t fall into the same pattern of actions in every game.

Those three factors: Multi-use, mind games, and variability, can be distilled into a single idea, that I refer to as multi-decision cards.

A multi-decision card is one that participates in a number of decisions at multiple times throughout the game. The value of the option(s) on that card change with each decision. The result is that the card creates different choices over the course of the game. And it makes it difficult to guess what factors the other player is weighing, since the decisions are changing all the time.

A few examples from some of the most popular wallet games.

In Avignon, you choose actions from the same set of cards multiple times. The value of each action changes depending on the current arrangement of cards on the grid. Slowly, cards come in and out, but the same cards will be part of your options 5-10 times in any given game.

In Circle the Wagons, that re-use comes by giving a different “map” every time you consider a new card to draw. You can’t just place the card and forget about it.

In HeroTec, first you choose the card, but later might use it for its current resources, build it for its permanent effect, or use it for a one time resource boost. The best use depends on the state of the other cards you have in play, and whether you still want to use them.

As I mentioned before, I had mostly completed Supertall before I really developed the idea of multi-decision cards. But I think it achieves that goal. Drawing a card gives you the first choice of how to use it. You have a choice of where to play, which depends on the cards other players already have in play. You can use it for the action, which depends on not only the top cards, but the cards that could be revealed. And using the action returns the card to the draw deck where it can come back into play at a different time. And you can change the game end scoring, which potentially impacts every card on the table.

Supertall does a great job of making the cards multi-decision. A card is never entirely out of play, and the changing layout and card draw means every turn is a new puzzle with multiple good options. I don’t want to play a game where there’s really only one correct choice each round, and I wouldn’t be happy with that in my design, either.

What do I do now?

A good multi-decision card will be important over and over again during play, not just presenting one really good choice. I’ve used the rule of thumb that a bigger game has at least 12-15 turns. More complicated games can be two or 3 times that. (7 Wonders has 18 turns. New Bedford comes in at 24. Puerto Rico lasts around 11 or 12 rounds of a few actions each. Agricola is usually 30 to 40, depending how fast your family grows.) With 18 cards, if each card is only used once, that’s at most 9 turns for 2 players. So finding ways to get more actions from a single card is key.

At a higher level, what is it about multiple-decision cards that make a Buttonshy game feel like a bigger game? In bigger games with more components, you are able to leave more information on the table. You can track changes by moving wooden bits on a board, creating a pile of resources, building a stack of cards. One of the defining features of heavier board games is the persistent game state that slowly changes, forcing different decisions at different times. And the decisions aren’t solely based on the micro level of what resources and actions are presented to you on your turn, but also a macro level of how each decision will impact the wider game over future turns.

Creating a successful wallet game is not about strictly following some formula of how to create a card. And it isn’t just about cramming more information onto the card. And, it should be noted, this isn’t the only way to make a good wallet game, or a fun wallet game. But having seen a lot of what makes a successful wallet game, the best games give you a bigger experience beyond just the 18 cards. You want a player to consider the same card and say “What do I do now?” because it means that even though the card itself hasn’t changed, the player is looking at it differently. You’re effectively increasing the number of components beyond the 18 cards.

So the secret to making a game that feels like a much bigger game, is to take a fixed set of choices and make them act differently in more than one decision. More decisions = More game isn’t radical advice. But it’s easy to make bad games that fit in 18 cards, and a lot harder to make a really good game that just happens to be 18 cards. Don’t design easy games. Design good ones.

  1. #1 by Brandon R on June 17, 2018 - 5:40 am

    Hey Nate, thank you so much for these two articles. I am brand new to game design and decided to give Buttonshy’s GenCant 2018 Game Design Challenge a go. Nothing to lose, right? And it’ll be good practice. I was struggling to fit enough gameplay and options onto so few components until I read these. Your insights are super helpful.

    I do still have a problem, though. My game has characters, and a fear mechanic that should build over the course of the game. I am not sure how to track it without some kind of marker or token. Are these legal to the contest? If not, do you have any advice?

    • #2 by Oakleaf Games on June 19, 2018 - 9:58 am

      As far as I know, tokens are not allowed for this contest, but may be considered if it makes sense for the winning games.
      I can’t give any specific advice, since I’ll be judging, but I’ll generally point you toward previous Buttonshy games, like Ahead in the Clouds for some good examples of different ways to track information. You can track a lot of information by using different orientations and covering only selected portions of cards. Good luck!

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