Designing a board game is a monumental task. However, you can take one step during the design process that will ensure your game is the best it can be. I want to share how we used that one step to make our game, Loot the Body, better than ever at delivering a great game experience.
Our design team has enjoyed playing Loot the Body since the very first prototype versions. The visuals and exact mechanics have evolved throughout our year long play testing. We recently sent out review copies and the responses have been fantastic. Game play is fast and easy to teach to gamers of all ages. Reviewers and play testers alike have shown a great deal of love for the artwork and style of the game. The themes are fun and work with the game mechanics in a way that make game play intuitive and enjoyable.
But, we wanted more. Like every designer and publisher, we want our game to be the “go to” game on everyones game shelf. With that in mind, we gave ourselves one last design challenge before we get our Kickstarter campaign going. If you want to make your game better, you can take on the same challenge we did.
“Simplify: Remove everything that gets in the way of fun.”
This seems like a no brainer for designing a board game, right? Not exactly. In the process of designing a game, there is a natural tendency to build the game up. It doesn’t matter if you are starting from a theme and then adding mechanics or if you have some great mechanic and you slap art on it later. Creating a game is largely an additive process.
It’s easy for a game to bloat out of control or include parts that just aren’t needed. Do your players really need that extra character ability? Is a third win condition going to encourage people to play a second time? Does your totally functional mechanic add to the game experience or just the component list? Thoughtful game designers keep these types of questions in mind. The answer to most questions like these is to simplify everything you can.
It isn’t always easy knowing where to begin. What needs to go, and what needs to be left alone? You are going to have to get your game in front of people and really listen to what they have to say. It is easy to talk about simplifying, but what does it look like in action? We’ll tell you about what we did to simplify Loot the Body and maximize the fun.
Recognizing the Problem
At its heart, Loot the Body is a card game with a focus on making smart decisions faster than your team mates. The intensity of the game is supposed to mirror the epic battles that occur in traditional Role Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons. Players think on their feet and act quickly. Different cards are better in some situations than others. I won’t bore you with the math, but it was designed so that every player should always have one or two useful cards no matter the circumstances. Real life isn’t always as friendly as the math might lead you to believe.
Married with Boardgames identified one hidden monster in their great review of Loot the Body. Luck of the draw had the potential to do more damage than a grumpy owlbear. Our game relied on two randomizing elements that were mechanically linked together. Randomizing Dungeon cards ensures that every play through of our game is unique. Randomizing the player deck built tension while equipping players to handle what came up in the dungeon. The combination of both mechanics, would occasionally lead to situations where no card in your hand was useful.
The boys in the lab decided what worked best (and was more thematically appropriate) was for our players to have all of their available “weapons” in hand. Instead of drawing cards from a deck, players now all begin with a nearly identical hand which they maintain throughout the game. Players discard each card when played and the cards remain discarded until a turn is spent to bring them back into the player’s hand. Players still have to make smart decisions as quickly as possible, but no one is ever at a disadvantage due to “bad luck.”
Removing the draw mechanic required us to decide which cards our players needed. Before the change, every card in the deck was performing two functions; simulating a D20 roll and acting as the weapons wielded by adventurers. Every card had two separate values for players to keep up with, a D20 based Armor Class and an Attack value. Tracking both values could be a challenge for new players. We dropped the D20 mechanic from the cards and kept only the attack element.
Removing the D20 element from the cards created multiple other opportunities for simplification. Our monster cards were relying on FOUR different numbers to show what they were capable of. In addition to that, some monsters had special abilities that show up in text boxes. Players had to look at how tough the monsters were, compare that number with the two numbers on their cards, consider the monsters ability, and then decide which of their available cards was the best option. The system worked and got easier the more familiar you were with the cards, but the last thing we want is a bias against new players. The first time a player plays your game is always the most important. Changes to the action cards meant we could remove the Armor Class value from our monsters.
We replaced the D20 element with an easy to understand color system. Utilizing the background color of the action cards makes it easy to identify which cards are useful against a dungeon card. This was a great start, but we decided to take the simplification even further.
We were now relying on color to tell us important information about every dungeon card. After several play tests, we discovered that by standardizing reward values based on color, we could eliminate another two values from the monster cards. We then removed all text boxes and replaced them with easy to read symbols. With all of the freed up real estate on the cards, we were able to increase the size of the artwork we so dearly love. We can't show it all, but you can check out the full gallery of art here.
We did more than just simplify the monsters. We removed numbers and anything that might be confusing from all of our dungeon cards. Greater than and Less than signs get confusing when you look at a card upside down. Traps and treasures rely on simple background color to let players know what they need to do to avoid taking damage.
In the Right Place
Older versions of Loot the Body relied on the draw deck and D20 mechanics to create emotional tension and an impetus to act quickly. By removing the draw mechanic, those crucial elements were removed from the game. There was no longer any possibility for gaining an advantage with a Critical Success card, or experiencing the emotional roller coaster of drawing a Critical Fail. These are core elements of Loot the Body that set it apart from other card games. Needless to say, this was an issue we had to address.
The solution turned out to be a simple one. We added a deck of twenty cards labeled from one to twenty. We utilized the same tried and true mechanic of drawing to determine which player gets a penalty for being last. The deck also creates opportunities for players to gain greater success when they draw a Critical Hit, or feel the anguish of a Critical Failure. This deck gives us all of the benefits of the original setup without any of the negative consequences.
Know When to Stop
The changes we made were small but significant. By the end of our process we had a game that utilized all of the original core mechanics without the bloat of unnecessary randomization or information overload. With just a few minor changes and a focus on simplification we were able to turn an already great game into something spectacular. Loot the Body is more easy to learn and play than ever. Gameplay is streamlined without any of the elements that could occasionally feel clunky. Randomization works for the game in creating unique experiences every time it's played without ever making players feel left out of the action. And, in what felt like a bonus to us, the changes allowed two player games to function exactly like games with larger groups. We no longer have a need for a “dummy” hand.
Simplification works! It made our game better than it has ever been. This one design step is a powerful tool you can use in whatever game you are designing as well. Never get so attached to an element of a game that you let it outlive its usefulness. Remember to keep asking yourself those insightful questions as you are working on your game. If something can be made more simple, chances are it's better off that way. We want to hear how a focus on simplification affects your game design.
The Latest Rules for Loot the Body can be downloaded here.