Guest article written by Nat Levan (designer of New Bedford, Nantucket, and Supertall) on his experinces designing an 18 card wallet game.
Welcome to a new edition of Meeple Speak. This time we have a first, instead of a brand new exclusive article, we are reprinting one recently written by Nat Levan for his blog, Oakleaf Games (more on that below). Nat Levan is the designer of the games, New Bedford and the upcoming Button Shy game, Supertall. He has also written two guest articles for our Meeple Speak section in the past: Understanding the Flow of Decisions in a Game and Nanodaptions (if you like to read more from him).
The following article originally ran in two parts, but here on The Inquisitive Meeple, you can find both parts together. The article has been edited some for spelling and grammar. Also its been updated to reflect being published both in June and as one article on The Inquisitive Meeple. We hope you in enjoy this article and find it helpful. Without further ado…
Breaking the Wallet Game Code
by Nathaniel Levan
I’ve been trying to make a wallet game for Button Shy for about 3 years, and I’m finally about to have my first one. I’d like to say it was an academic effort to understand what makes a good wallet game and using that information to carefully design one. But I must admit that it was mostly accomplished through brute force, and a lot of failures.
Wallet games are difficult to design. The entire game must fit on 18 cards and a plastic wallet with (until recently) no tokens, which is hard enough. But wallet games should also feel like much bigger games than those 18 cards, which adds another level of challenge to the design process. On my journey to meet that challenge, I’ve definitely learned some things that are necessary, some things that help, and some things that don’t, and I’m going to share that journey and the secrets I’ve uncovered.
I’ve discussed part of this journey before, in Learning New Ways to Fail. The very first game I tried to design as a wallet was Shapeshift, a game about monsters. That gradually morphed into Iceburgh and has since outgrown the wallet. And that was the first game I felt really could succeed as a wallet game. But then came a string of failures.
- Space Race 1969: my 2016 Wallet Game contest entry.
- 2 players simultaneously play two cards to choose actions, trying to perform 3 successful rocket launches
- The theme was a muddled combination of cold war sabotage and space race inspiration that felt detached from the mechanics
- This might be salvageable.
- Dossier: the second version of Space Race
- Draft then play your spies to hand off documents, get the right documents in your dossier.
- Thematically way better, with more variety, but mechanically not tight enough. Space Race had a clear mental game that this version was missing.
- Mills of Jajce: Based around a town full of tiny water mills in Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Grinding grain in tiny mills by rotating cards.
- This was a bare mechanic, functional with no interesting gameplay. The game lacked any real arc.
- Brandywine: Inspired by Carcassonne’s River expansion
- Place a card down to form the Brandywine River and to put your mills near the appropriate resources.
- A waste of a much more thematically rich idea.
- I overbalanced it worrying about the 4 player game. And once you put a card down, you basically forgot about it until scoring.
- Fairgrounds: Build carnival attractions
- Build a small tableau that also makes resources for your neighbors to build.
- I couldn’t find the right balance point, so players rarely had decisions about what to play or build.
- And it took too many cards just to make the base mechanic work. This was probably just too big to work in 18 cards.
- Thousand Year Rose: Growing a rose bush for 1000 years.
- Played sort of like Kodama, growing the rose, but with events that made parts of it die
- This game was literally unendable. If your game is about something that grows over time, make it harder to destroy than to create.
- Probably wanted to be a cooperative game instead of competitive.
- Twining Vines: Winemaking game
- Run a vineyard, plant and age vines, sell the grapes or turn them into wine.
- This one nearly worked, but money both felt tacked on and was a component hog.
- It could probably work as a slightly larger game.
- Boundary Issues: Shift the national border between US and Canada.
- Shift the border back and forth to get points for what’s on your side at the end, while granting abilities to your opponent.
- Neat mechanic, but I had no idea what to do about the end/win condition.
- This one might also be fixable if I can give an arc to it
- Surviving Everest: Climb Mountains in the 1950s.
- Solo/Co-op with elements of memory, push your luck, and deck manipulation. Sounds great on paper
- Successful as an artistic representation of the mental challenges of high altitude climbing.
- But nobody liked it because the first round had no guidance.
- Still potentially salvageable.
There are a lot of trends to pick up from here.
First, I kept bumping into the size limit. It’s really difficult to make something that needs 12 of the cards on the table at all times. Fairgrounds, Twining Vines, Space Race, and Dossier needed a lot of cards in play at one time, which doesn’t leave you much room to actually play with. And putting enough variety within the game and between games is a challenge for every one of these.
Along with the size concern, don’t worry too much about making it a 4-player game. That often requires a lot more cards to work. Accommodating 4 players is almost standard for larger games, but 2 and 3 player games do well for Button Shy. And there is always the option of adding a 4th player later through a 6-card expansion. Get the core design down first, then worry about adding players.
Next, a lot of these games were missing a clear goal. Figure out what makes the game have a beginning, middle, and end, and how they differ. Again, variety within the game is a challenge. Jajce Mills, Thousand Year Rose, Fairgrounds, Twining Vines, Boundary Issues, and to a lesser extent Brandywine, all had good mechanisms with no real long-term gameplay. Just repeat until some arbitrary end.
And many of these games failed to give players choices for a substantial portion. Brandywine was often an obvious choice, Surviving Everest didn’t give the player enough information early on (although that is totally thematic), and Fairgrounds often left the player able to perform no actions. Decisions are the lifeblood of an engaging game, so it’s not enough to rely on end scoring, or theme, or clever distribution to make them occur.
After all of these failures, I finally made a game that I was happy with. I had worked on the idea in my head for quite a while before getting on the table, but it needed tokens to work for tracking resources. So when the Wallet+ option was announced, I was ready. Garnet, MT is right out of my standard playbook. Develop a 1900’s Mining town before it burns down. Historical setting, action drafting, resource management, tableau building with permanent effects. It’s totally my type of game as a designer and a player. The main concept worked, and I’ve been working on improving the balance, making the decisions more challenging, and bringing in more strategic elements, and it is scheduled to appear later this year. So that’s 1 in 10 attempts.
But wait! This month, Button Shy will be Kickstarting my game Supertall, about planning skyscrapers. But instead of 2 years of development Supertall took shape over a few months. It started as a nanogame inspired by Button Shy’s Sprawlopolis. But when playtesters said “this would work a lot better if it was on cards”, I expanded the game from 1 card and 15 tokens into 18 cards.
Both of these games avoid the problems I addressed above. Garnet was designed so the 15 cards represent the 15 years the town was in its prime and contain the 13 saloons and 13 basic buildings that are central to the history. Supertall started with a limit of 15 tokens, so easily fit in the 18 card limit. I actually had more trouble figuring out which 3 cards to add. Garnet was designed as a 2 to 3 player game from the outset. Supertall was likewise designed for 2 to 3, and the first 6 card expansion will accommodate a 4th player.
Garnet also had the hard time limit from the start, and as a tableau building game, naturally has a progression. Plus there’s a great end-game twist I’m really proud of. Supertall has a natural direction as you build taller and taller. The end was a little challenging because you can return cards to a draw pile, but I included a simple rule that cleans up the ending. Finally, Garnet loads all of the available actions onto each card, so there are always options for everyone. And Supertall gives 3 ways to use each card, plus makes any player’s skyscraper a possible placement option, so there are choices on every turn.
So after all those failures, does that mean I have finally revealed the secret for making a wallet game?
I’ve been working with Button Shy for over 2 years, so I had a good idea of what they look for in a game, and I knew that Garnet and Supertall would definitely fit in their lineup, but that only helps for the pitch, and doesn’t mean you’ll have a good game. The lessons from above are all absolutely necessary if you’re interested in designing a wallet game [or really any game] worth making. But these just make your game playable. Button Shy wallet games always feel like bigger games, and I think I’ve finally figured out the element that makes the difference.
I’ve also found common ground in a number of Button Shy’s most successful games that I think really embodies what makes Button Shy 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 Button Shy, 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 microgames (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 on 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 Button Shy 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.
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