The 2nd season of Tabletop Deathmatch has just wrapped up and, while I felt the first season was a little more genuine and less staged*, I maintain this is must watch viewing for all tabletop designers and cage fighters out there, but before we go any further: SPOILERZ! Watch the season and the finale before continuing! Or decide you’re too lazy to and just read my breakdown.
Tabletop Deathmatch is recommended viewing on your imaginary game design curriculum for a few reasons.
- The judging panel features some very prominent game designers and their opinions. Leech industry experience for free!
- The games submitted give you a good overview of what’s happening in the minds of emerging game designers.
- The twenty minute episodes make for great lunch time viewing. Eat your cake and soak up delicious game design knowledge.
And, as always, the following is my opinion, which is often wrong. Please argue with me and add your own thoughts in the comments.
Luke Crane is the tabletop game guy for Kickstarter. Want a staff pick? Give Luke what he wants! Also, holding an edge weapon lends your opinions gravitas.
The Cards Against Humanity people are doing good stuff. If you’ve dismissed them for their dick jokes, give them another chance. They’ve made a simple party game successful across a broad demographic and are now funnelling the profits to make the game industry and the world a better place. Max Temkin serves as the rock throughout the series, standing apart but making some really insightful comments without getting too caught up in his personal reaction to the games.
Design mechanisms follow trends, just as much (if not more) than themes. Max characterises a few of the games (The Siblings Trouble and Charm City Blues, I think !) as derivative from Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game and it seems like there’s a whole lot of Funemployment / Snake Oil types games out there that are essentially trying to take Cards Against Humanity to a less offensive, more gamer-friendly place (Skiptrace and Shut up & take my money).
If you’re going to write a blog post about something, you should probably think about it beforehand so you can reference appropriate stuff, and provide timed links to Youtube videos with quotes.
Create a cohesive game design. This was a judge favourite but couldn’t win because the game wasn’t finished. It also seems that part of the reason why they were a favourite is that they were honest and humble. Designers beware, leave all hubris before entering further.
Two key lessons from this: get your pitch right and short games aren’t necessarily light games! I think the industry as a whole needs a little more clarity about the difference between a filler game and a gateway game, and the designers really got caught up on their misunderstanding of this (or possibly their misreading of their own game). They were pitching a reasonably thinky filler game as a a light gateway game. For me, filler refers mainly to play time and teach time. The 20 minutes of filler podcast helps sum this up with their title. If it’s around 20 minutes, it’s a filler. Gateway game mostly refers to complexity. If a game is simple enough to teach that players can understand and play it without previous gaming knowledge, it’s a gateway game.
- Games that are gateway and fillers: Love Letter, No Thanks!, Sushi Go!, Get Bit!, For Sale, Exploding Kittens (yes, if you’re going to design a gateway filler game, it should probably have an exclamation mark in there!)
- Games that are gateway but not fillers: King of Tokyo, Settlers of Catan, Machi Koro (these are easy to teach and not too long, but generally above 20 minutes! Some people will disagree with me on these!)
- Games that are fillers but not gateway: Knight Shift, Hanabi, Council of Verona, 7 Wonders, Entropy
P.S. your pitch once a game gets onto shelves will mostly be your game art and the box itself. Note, filler games often have a cartoony style which tells people picking up the box they can expect a fun and light game. Love Letter breaks this rule. I still have no idea how the art or theme makes sense for that game. It’s almost like the publisher could release a whole bunch of variations on the game with more approachable and appropriate theme and artwork to better appeal to a gateway market…
Charm City Blues
Cooperative games generally need a quarterback solution. We all knew this! Moving on.
Failure needs to mean something, especially in storytelling games (this also came up in Siblings Trouble). As a complete and utter tangent, this is part of what makes Resistance so engaging in my view. Failure is terrible, but it also gives you what you need to succeed (knowledge).
Success also needs to mean something, other than just succeeding. Most role-playing game give you very obvious rewards for success (levelling up and general cool magical stuff), and so do most board games. You can easily tie this into acceleration, each success makes you more powerful, or even decceleration, each success makes you less powerful, but cruise control isn’t fun. Civilisation building games generally tie victory points to building your civilisation but also keep some points out of the economy of your civilisation, forcing you to make interesting decisions. Dominion breaks the mould and makes success (getting victory points) actually impede your engine and limit your ability to get more points.
The Siblings Trouble
Already mentioned, failure and success need to mean things. Narrative games need a narrative arc!
Get your audience right and test with your audience. The judges may have picked up on an offhand comment, but Eduardo seem to have mainly been aiming the game at kids and testing with kids, but the game was actually far more appealing to adults (and adults have disposable income).
Shut up and take my money
Being singled out as bad, or singling out others as bad, doesn’t feel great. This was primarily Annalisa’s point, and I feel it’s a subtle one that probably got glossed over by the more system-focused judges. If you’ve got a voting system in regards to other players, positive or negative, you should at least consider making it a blind ballot, or possibly simultaneous selection (so it doesn’t feel like you’re piling on one player until you’ve already made the pile). This does have strategic as well as emotional repercussions.
I really don’t have much more on this one. It seemed okay, the judges disagreed on a few different things.
If you want to develop a game quickly, stand on the shoulders of giants. I really want to stress how many times people were surprised about how polished the game felt in regards to it’s development time. The game had only had a couple of months of development but felt pretty finished compared to other games in the contest. Brewin’ USA didn’t reinvent the wheel, it took apart the wheel, re-assmebled it and then put a shiny new paint of coat on it. The wheel is Ticket to Ride!
For me, the key takeaway for this was: innovation matters. Of all the games in the contest, Bad Detectives seemed like it was the only one with a true innovation. It wasn’t a ground shattering one, but while most other games were just remixing elements, Bad Detectives created a whole new element. With a panel of mostly game designers, it seems pre-ordained that the no. 1 spot would go to a game that was pushing design boundaries, and I am super glad that it did. I feel that, ironically, that Kickstarter, the big game-changer of the past few years, is actually a little broken in the change section. It seems that success in Kickstarter is often tied to theme and artwork, and that innovation is more likely to come from the old guard of game design, who see past the fluff and into the heart of games.
Where are they now?
I’m not entirely sure, and would love to link to a wrap-up list, but couldn’t find one. Still, I think I’m gonna back The Siblings Trouble Kickstarter, mainly because I have friends who I think the theme will appeal to. I also backed Edo’s previous project, Lift Off, and it just arrived and it’s pretty good. I would’ve thought the project would be performing better though, judging by the exposure he’s got so far from Deathmatch plus being part of 2 PAXes and already fulfilling a successful project. I’m guessing he’s going to get a big bump once Lift Off arrives in the US. I asked Rodney on Twitter whether the revisions lived up to his dreams of awesomeness, but unfortunately he hasn’t played the new version.
*Seriously, they need a drama nerd to step in and teach them some things about blocking. Also, stop shining those lights on Mike Selinker‘s eyes, you monsters! And. the text below the episodes on the actual website also doesn’t really make sense. I might have read it if it was better categorised or presented. It currently seems to be there just because someone wrote some stuff and wanted to put it in a place. Okay, enough complaining, as this was a great series and a great benefit to the industry.