Breakaway Football – Testing and Development

In the “Design” post for Breakaway Football, we talked about where the inspiration for the game came from, the different constraints that helped us find something unique, and finally how the four of us contributed specific items to the core game, creating a fun football experience.

End of story, right? Now we go to market and sit on a mountain of gold? Sadly, no.

We experienced multiple moments where the game felt finished… until it didn’t. And it was often me, as the lead designer, proposing a “What if…” scenario, and feeling very sheepish about it in the process. I have a habit of questioning everything, even decisions we have “locked” in the past, in order to re-validate our assumptions. Usually we arrive at the same answer, but when we don’t, the mere act of asking the question permits collaborators to challenge assumptions, offer new suggestions, and make the game that much better. Stripping out needless complexity is perhaps the most important thing a developer can do.

For instance, our first layout of the board included three separate zones to place coach cards – one for each formation. And while it worked, and was sort of cool, it was ultimately unnecessary, just adding clutter to the board. Because it was not essential to game play, we jettisoned three slots in favor of one spot on the board.

breakawayboard_original

Original design for the game board

Another board evolution: Football games have a tough time managing a very straightforward task – keeping score. Some games print numbers on the board and slide a clear disk on the track, but it doesn’t look right. Thematically it is not the way scoreboards work. Other games use the spinning disks/wheels to keep score, but they usually need to stand upright and tend to stick. We ultimately settled on cardboard markers for the scoreboard numbers, which works very nicely. There is an open spot on the board with double 0’s in the same style, so players know where to put them. And it feels like a scoreboard, which was the whole point.

Development is also about improving component use. Mike Caplan suggested the play names in the upper-left corner of the play cards so that users could quickly scan all plays available in their hands. Ben Jennings improved the breakaway mechanism on Defense, establishing the upper-left corner of the Game Day card to replace the play result (rather than adjust it up or down). Mark Burlet pushed to blunt the power of the Game Day deck, which overshadowed strategy in our earliest play tests, as well as put logos on the team helmets (saying, “No one wants to coach Team Blue.”). All of these changes made the Breakaway Football easier to play and more immersive in the football theme.

Of course, the later you get into the process, the more solidified things get. Sometimes it is hard to move off of a conceit or assumption that is 6-months-old and has test played successfully over 20 hours. But we ran into two such challenges rather late into our development cycle.

  1. For the longest time, we provided equal number of Offense and Defense cards. Both sides would discard a card, to maintain a balance, which created a constraint for the Defense that they would run out of certain types of cards as the game progressed. During later play tests, we heard players softly lament that they had “nothing to fit this down and distance” situation in their hands, and wished they had access to all their defenses. Mike Caplan and Ben Jennings both decried this as well at various times during development. Finally, we looked at how thematically this made more sense, that it would be incongruous for a Defense to “run out” of a certain call. So, while the mechanism worked perfectly fine, it did not align well with the theme. We ultimately changed the mechanism to allow the Defense to retain all its plays – now they do not discard at all. The change required us to redesign the card layout on Defense, shrink the number of plays offered, and fix the rules, but it was the right choice. Oddly enough, we saw overall scores drop in future play tests, suggesting we had better balanced the game as a result. It was no longer a shootout, it was more like real football.
  2. Breakaways were initially called “blow ups” and we had a number of proposed ideas on which Offenses “blew up” which Defenses. This chart has been changed a number of times, too many to count, which led to version control issues. In one play test, I personally lost a game where a Power Run blew up an implausible defense and cost me the game. Toward the end of development, right before the Kickstarter, we brought in an outside consultant to review the breakaway play alignments. This review allowed us again to ask the right questions, get objective feedback from a trusted source, and consolidate our misgivings into a final push to the summit. The result is thematically sound and well-balanced. Most importantly, it is fun.

All throughout the development phase, rapid prototyping and test play was our most valuable activity. Talking and thinking about the game is not enough. Get it on the table, push some bits around, and work it out.

Oddly, our first test play with the original Game Day deck was excruciating. The game’s playing time ballooned out of control and the amount of math was unpleasant. However, we saw the potential quickly and built a new deck immediately. A central play event was added with trigger logic, resulting in less math and faster play.

Early incarnations of the Game Day deck were actually too powerful. For instance, we had not made distinctions for penalties, so whenever a penalty card was pulled, it would apply. This guaranteed 15 penalties or so per game, an outrageous amount. One out of four plays should not be a penalty! Each iteration of the Game Day deck got better, especially when incorporating feedback from test play.

I once lost huge, 35-7, to my daughter (who is a gifted play caller, without question) and then witnessed another test play loss by multiple scores. Though plausible for real football, I saw it was not fun for both players. This led to our development of a blowout preventer we call the “rally token,” as it must be earned by the losing team. It allows a coach to nullify a Game Day card’s play event. This offers the coach choice and control, and can help extend a drive, dodge bad luck, or avoid a turnover. Since then we have seen consistently close games often coming down to that final drive, just like a tug of war.

Development is hard work but we are thrilled with the results. We hope you agree. Our next blog post will cover the publishing side of the house, including preparing files for the printer, prepping the Kickstarter, and more. Thanks for joining us on the journey!

Arthur Franz

Arthur Franz

Resident Star Trek and football geek.
Arthur Franz

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