Design and Development

A few board game podcasts with the Underground

Uplink Underground’s own Arthur Franz appeared on a couple recent podcasts to talk about our projects and game design in general. Check them out below!

Indie Board Game Designers podcast:

Art appeared on Episode 43 (40:32) of this podcast that focuses on indie designers and their products and processes. He and host Patrick Rauland discuss getting started as a game developer, making Breakaway Football, building an audience, and so much more!

Website link here.
MP3 Audio here.

 

The Game Crafter Official podcast:

In Episode 186 (45:07), Art discusses using the Game Crafter website for on-demand printing and fulfillment with the guys that make it possible. Really great info for aspiring game-builders and fans of gaming in general.

Website link here.

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!

Breakaway Football – Origins and Design

Breakaway Football is the culmination of about 9 months of almost daily design and development. We have poured nearly one thousand design hours and scores of play-testing hours into making the game simple and fun.

My first passion is football. I have coached high school tackle and flag for boys and girls ages 13-18. I have also coached adult flag and even a year in a professional women’s tackle football league. My second passion is tabletop gaming. I recall as a pre-teen and teenager playing NFL Quarterback and Strat-o-Matic Football with my friends. So when I decided to start a board game publishing company, my first thought (naturally) was to make a football-themed board game.

But make no mistake – Breakaway Football is an abstract strategy game. The same way you don’t need a degree in Military Science to play Chess or Stratego, you don’t need medical training to play Pandemic, and no astronaut training to play Terraforming Mars. For Breakaway Football, you don’t need to be a former coach. The game mechanisms are deliberately simple – placing cards on a board and performing single-digit arithmetic. Breakaway Football is remarkable for what it does NOT contain – no dice, no spinners, no complex charts to consult, no unique players with rankings, no first down chain, no yards for that matter – and yet the play experience (whatever your football background) feels like you are coaching football.

Breakaway Football is coming to Kickstarter in September 2016. How the heck did we get here? It’s been quite a journey.

DESIGN

The initial (unnamed) concept was intended to be a realistic simulation of football coaching. Players would roll and place dice onto play cards with diagrams and grids (stay with me) and figure out the yardage based on your choice within the play. It was a hybrid of being a player and a coach…and it was complex…and doesn’t Strat-o-Matic Football already exist anyhow?

I showed my design-in-progress to my design partner, Mark Burlet, who like the idea but pointed out that it was too complex for folks not immersed in football strategy. (Mark is the “Developer” of the group.) He envisioned a game on the opposite side of the spectrum, a simple trick-taking card game, no dice, just cards. I liked the simplicity of play proposed and accepted his challenge – we would design a game (at the time called “Lightning Bowl”) that would quickly model football decisions but only via playing cards. But after a few trials, we decided trick-taking did not give the player the feeling and play experience of coaching football, so we went back to the drawing board.

My design process is to start with player experience and work backward from that, selecting game mechanisms that support/create the desired experience. So our first design decision: football plausible decision-making was essential, but not football plausible-results. What I mean by this is… well…football is a really fun sport, both to play and to watch. But it can be rather intricate and fiddly in real life. There are a lot of moving parts – yardage, penalties, multiple Offense and Defense philosophies, variable skill in players, etc. Plus, a real football game takes 3+ hours to play in real time. There are too many challenges for a board game to faithfully replicate. And, honestly, didn’t we already establish that Strat-o-Matic Football is out there to scratch that itch? To differentiate our game from other football-themed games, we focused on the experience of being the Head Coach, the primary strategist and play caller. As a result, we decided to de-emphasize the football player as an influence in the game. Instead, it was all about coaching strategy.

Plenty of football games use different plays, as they should. But in looking for what is new and exciting, we made some key decisions that differentiate our game from other football-themed games.

  1. Offensive and Defensive Play Formations (not just play types) should affect player decisions and play results
  2. Players should be able to make meaningful audibles to adjust strategy before resolving the play
  3. Player decisions must directly create/thwart big play opportunities
  4. Ease of play is paramount

Using strategy requires different plays with distinct advantages and disadvantages. I decided to diagram realistic plays two-to-a-card. I wanted the chance to change my mind at the line of scrimmage – to call one play and then wave it off in favor of a 2nd, superior play. It occurred to me that mirrored plays printed upside down would allow me to rotate the card to change my play, instead of swapping cards, which I deemed too fiddly. Simply rotating a card 180 degrees was a simple way to change my strategy, and it could offer a deeper level of heuristics for football fanatics. That was a decision made weeks into the design process, and it has endured throughout the drafts of the design as a core differentiator. It is also really fun to catch your opponent off guard! But no one was certain it would work until we play-tested it.

Enter our next designer, Michael Caplan. Mike was instrumental in building our first Alpha prototypes and working through the central conceit of the game – to reduce the fiddly nature of real football, to compress and simplify the experience of the game without losing the essence of football. We started with distance, commonly called yardage. In football, the field is 100 yards long with two 10-yard end zones. Naturally to replicate the real scope, you need a decent-size board. But handling 1-yard increments can be tedious. I thought back to some of my favorite football video games and recalled they all have a “Super Sim” function, whereby the action of the game is compressed into a smaller timeframe. It occurred to me that by divorcing yardage from football, and instead treating distance as simply a representative part of the whole field length, I could retain the relative success of a short pass when compared to a long pass – distilling the essence of football without forcing people to count in small increments or single yards. The result was blocks of 5 yards, which is how the board eventually came to be twenty blocks long.

The initial concept, though, was even more abstract – we used a cribbage board as the football field and moved a peg up and down the board to simulate distance gained. It was quite elegant – the initial board length was 15 pegs, seven on either side and a center midfield peg. In the Alpha prototype stage, we modeled this several times and showed you did not need actual yardage to simulate football plays gaining distance. So, quite early in the design process, we embraced the abstraction and removed the constraint of yardage.

We also jettisoned on-the-field players almost immediately, since the focus was on the strategic decisions of the Head Coach. This decision was circled back several times to ensure it was the right direction. (In our design process, we rarely settle on our first choice without testing every possible alternative.) It is hard to remove the variety of human skill and the randomness of real football from a game, however abstract, and call it “football.” In the first two Alpha test plays, we saw good back-and-forth action and clearly spotted the fun of the game. But something was missing, and it was the inherent variables that people bring to the equation.

Enter our next designer, Ben Jennings, who came up with an innovative way to solve this problem within our constraints. Ben envisioned the Game Day deck, essentially a programmed set of random events and results that would, when shuffled, provide excellent replayability while still injecting realistic probability into the game. Conceptually sound, executing that simple idea proved quite a significant task. Ben’s first prototype stuck close to the spirit of randomness, which slowed the game significantly and added more math (not typically a good thing). We noticed that it was possible to simplify the approach by limiting the information on the card, which ultimately led to the design we approved – a single Play Event in the center flanked by four corners of useful, situation-specific data that can affect the outcome. But on any given flip of the card, you are looking for one specific spot. This way we took a 70-card deck and created 350 possible outcomes, all balanced to align with real-world football probability.

When building the Game Day deck, spreadsheets were my friend! Once we had a layout that worked, creating the proper likelihood of a certain result appearing was simple probability. I researched the percentages of occurrences in the NFL – things like Field Goal percentages from different distances, average punt length, Hail Mary success rates from different spots on the field, average kickoff return distance, etc. The results of my research? I had hard targets to shoot for in the Game Day deck – the rest was tinkering with values to get the probability just so.

With a core design in hand, we started test play. And that is a whole other story that we will call “Development”…and save for our next post.

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