“Did I really try and make yet ANOTHER post-apocalyptic tabletop RPG? Aren’t there about seven million of those?”
Step one for me is one that I’m sure has a lot of variance for designers and would-be designers alike. It’s like an origin story (except we don’t get to see Bruce Wayne’s parents die for the eight thousandth time) and each one is unique.
For me, it’s choosing which game in my head I want to really drive into over the next couple years.
I’ll get into what I chose tomorrow, but today- to start- I wanted to talk about the games I dreamed up (and even wrote entire rule sets for) that never saw the light of day. I think this is probably not unique to me, and hey, if you’ve tried and failed, I’m here to let you know that it’s ok to try again.
In fact, even as a beginner, I bet more games never get past a rules draft and half a test session before dying on the beach like a horde of baby sea turtles. I know at least one of mine didn’t.
Failure To Launch #1 (The Puttering Out)
This one is near and dear to me. In 2013, I was working in finance in Colorado. Colorado is excellent. Finance is… not excellent. The game was titled Darkest Before (a title I’m not sure if I love or am mortified by) and was an entire tabletop RPG designed around a post-apocalyptic America plagued by magic. The hook was that magic wasn’t an enchanting, powerful force, but effectively a disease that altered the infected.
I remember spending about five weeks writing a quite-large rules manual, setting up character sheets, figuring out some mechanics to playtest with. I was incredibly excited. I was especially proud of the lore, which fluffed out 90% of the rules.
And that’s where things went wrong. I learned then that what I had been doing was designing a setting. Unfortunately, I learned this in the middle of a playtest that did not go well. Mortified, I crawled off to lick my wounds, and instead of taking the work I had already put in and iterating on it to get something serviceable, I fell into real-life distractions like seeking a better day job. Had I continued, I might be working on a version of Darkest Before or one of its successors today.
Lesson 1: Roll with the punches, because there WILL be punches, and don’t give up when it gets hard. You’ll regret it later.
Failure to Launch #2 (The Logistics Flop)
In 2015, I completed an entire prototype (albeit one with borrowed art for the intent of testing) that was actually fun! The game had a working title of “Raid Party” and was a competitive battle take on Concentration (called Memory where I grew up) where players would send characters with unique abilities into resource camps controlled by other players and could only bring back resources they matched in pairs. Players could use abilities and cards to do minor swaps to their own board or redirect enemy raiders to other players’ camps.
The game was quite a lot of fun, but the rules could- at times- become a bit onerous. Nevertheless, after much editing with a co-designer, we decided to try and see if we could make it a reality.
Neither of us knew a thing about the logistics of a purely card-driven game.
It is INCREDIBLE how expensive a thing can appear to be when you A) aren’t willing to commit to it financially, B) simply lack the resources for a proper test run and C) don’t have the slightest f***ing clue what the flow-through for development of a game should be once the game itself is in a state to be shopped around. The game was entirely card-based, and we’d managed to find printers that would end up costing us more than we’d make per deck.
Having worked for a much, much larger entity now- and realizing just how production schedules work in a company working with far more complex pieces than we had even thought to bring- the missteps are much more obvious. Hindsight is quite clear, but at the time, my co-designer had a new child on the way, and I was switching into a day job that heavily discouraged any public persona.
I’ve since received the blessings of the co-designer along with all of the original files, and I’ll be genuinely surprised if I don’t revisit the project at a later date. With far, far more of an eye for everything on the back end that isn’t visible to the consumer.
Lesson 2: Do your research. Your game is worth it.
(Right here I have to suggest the particularly wonderful blog of Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games which has been quite the inspiration to me. Specifically, take a look at this with regards to this hard lesson.
Failure to Launch #3 (The Postponement):
Rumble! is a competitive luchador-kaiju-themed wrestling game that takes place on a small build-as-you-play island nation where monsters develop mutations and abilities mid-fight. The game is fun, it’s fast, it’s simple, it’s perfectly balanced (so far) and outside of its theme, it is utterly unoriginal.
King of Tokyo does it quicker and simpler. It’s also on the shelves of practically every place that even mildly sells board games. And it’s absolutely excellent. It is also, by no stretch, the only game that does it.
That isn’t to say that being the second- or third, or fourth- horse out of the gate means that there’s no place for Rumble!. But I genuinely believe there’s a better, more unique design to be had than more wrestling giants. Maybe a game where the player controls districts on the island, and they aim to influence the kaiju to smash up other areas instead of their own?
Maybe they aim to get their own area smashed up the most so that they can have all the new buildings when repairs are made? Maybe there’s an economics game in this somewhere. (I would absolutely love feedback on these concepts, as well!)
At the end of the day, I am excited to do this because it is something I love. It would be easy (relatively) to shove this out the door after talking myself into its more unique selling points. But that’s not what I want to do.
So I’m not gonna.
Lesson 3: It’s ok to want to be different.
So that’s where I’m at now. Three prior attempts, all three of them… well, non-starters, really. I don’t think that’s a weird place to be at the beginning of a career in design. Or, if it is, then it’s clearly one of many obstacles to turn into opportunities.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about the game I’ve decided to start building and where I’m at in the process. And, as always, I welcome thoughts and guidance!