This is a post about the development of one particular game – from inspiration to final (prototype) form.
Inspiration for a recent game design came from watching my son Bertie perform various tricks and stunts while jumping into a swimming pool on holiday. He’s now 15 and my role as poolside spectator is into its 2nd decade. I’m a veteran.
He is over confident. If I give him a challenge to do, he believes he can do it, whether he has the skills or not. This is true not just in the water, but everywhere. He sees a man on YouTube pogo stick over a car and says, “I could do that”. He doesn’t pogo.
The day inspiration struck
It struck me as I was watching (not watching) that this might be an interesting basis for a game: making a claim about what you can achieve, without practice, just on a hunch. So I grabbed my notebook and started mapping out the game.
It’s a dexterity game where you are building towers with oddly shaped components – but importantly, you personally decide the scale of your challenge, based on what you think you can achieve, without testing how the components stack.
Version 1 had players grabbing cones in the order they completed their towers.
Version 1 was completely simultaneous. All players start with an identical bag of the basic wooden components. Each round a challenge is revealed – showing specific components that must be placed together and a base for the tower. Players select several components and reveal them simultaneously – these are the components they’ll use to create their tower. Tower building is simultaneous and you’re encouraged to build fast, because you’ll get first pick of the upgraded tokens on offer if you do. In future rounds, for each upgraded token you use, you’ll get a point. The last player to complete their tower, gets no choice, but has to take whatever components remain and scores no points.
It was obvious within 2 rounds of the first playtest that this wouldn’t work. There was no real incentive to be first – only an incentive not to be last. You’d end up with more upgrade tokens than you could use and you’d select the same ones each time. The game got repetitive and predictable. It felt like the whole structure of the game needed changing.
In Version 2, play was no longer simultaneous. Instead, each player bid for the right to take on a solo challenge each round. A precedence track gave players who hadn’t completed a challenge in several turns a higher base bid than others. Players bid with components which they must use in their tower. The highest bid wins the right to take on the challenge, but will have a lot of components to stack in the tower. Completing the tower successfully would give the player points and new components, failing would give all the other players components.
Again, this version was disappointing. The precedence weighting gave some players an advantage that couldn’t be outweighed. If you missed your chance to bid big, you didn’t have enough components to catch up. Changing the weighting disadvantaged trailing players in a different way. One dominant strategy emerged. On top of that – it was only really fun when you were the active player. You could go for many rounds without the excitement of a building challenge. This structure was not working either.
Watch Me version 2 board
I don’t mind admitting, I was flummoxed. I still loved the idea of combining bidding and dexterity, but couldn’t see how to pull it all together. The holiday a distant memory, I was back to the daily parental routine of taxing Bertie to water polo training sessions. While I often lose him to whatever he wants to listen to, sometimes I get to talk to him on these trips! On one such occasion, I described the game and the two versions I’d tested. Annoyingly, he immediately shot back with, “Well, it’s totally obvious, isn’t it?” Er, no. That’s why I wanted to talk about it…
His idea was an active player on each round – passing clockwise. They get to set the challenge for themselves, which they alone take on. If they fail, all other players are rewarded, but if they succeed, all other players now simultaneously try to beat them. So if the active player gives themselves an easy challenge, it’s easy for everyone to beat them. If they make it too hard, they themselves won’t complete it. The sweet spot is to choose a level of challenge that you can just complete, but that makes it too hard for players to beat you.
It worked, of course it worked. In Version 3, the active player is given a challenge, they decide how many pieces they’ll use in their tower, whilst also being able to complete the challenge. When they fail, all other players are given points. When they succeed, all the other players bet points on how confident they are that they can beat the active player’s performance – completing the challenge while stacking more components. If they are successful they retain their bet and double it from the supply. If they fail, they lose their bet to the active player.
Betting points for challenges
Version 3: A happy playtester
Playtesting was exciting and successful. There was high tension. You’re more likely to win if you’re good at dexterity games, of course, but player’s points are hidden behind screens, so it’s not annoyingly obvious. There’s a huge flaw with my prototype – the pieces are too easy to stack. Most standard wooden pieces have flat sides, making the challenge not as interesting. But I knew that. I needed to prove that the gameplay would work. Playing with less regular pieces will reduce the number of components you can stack and only make the betting more interesting.
I thought it might be useful to share the evolution of this particular game because the only element that really changed was the game structure. When you get the structure right, the game feels more streamlined. The final version uses fewer components and the rules are more succinct.
The game is now pitch-ready – save the sell sheet and sizzle. I have Bertie to thank for the original idea and for the final game structure. Time spent at swimming pools is clearly worth it.