Tinkering with things that work

In last week’s playtesting two things were universally agreed:
(1) The ‘performance’ expansion is the best expansion as things stand.
(2) The ‘performance’ expansion does not live up to its potential and some of its cards do nothing.
This seems like an excellent time to start thinking about the ins and outs of tinkering with things that work, because sometimes if it ain’t broke it can still be made betterer.


This sort of refinement is one of the trickier parts of design. When you’ve got a blank page you can do anything, but once you’ve got most of a game it’s important not to modify one piece in a way that undermines something else. The more fun people are having with the game, the more that there is to lose by an ill considered change. This can cause design paralysis in which nothing gets done because any change feels like it’ll break something.

Such paralysis is a mistake, because the important thing to bear in mind is that there’s no possibility of ruining everything forever. At a moment like this the first thing that you do is to save all of your design files into an archive folder and stick a current prototype in a box just in case. Being afraid of ruining anything is equally counter-productive – sometimes the best improvement that you can make is a sweeping change which utterly breaks some other part of the game but either produces a change big enough to justify it or turns an unsolvable problem in this part of the game into an easily solved problem in some other part.

The latter approach was necessary earlier today for the violinists. In their first edition the violinists had the power to make players swap seats and had victory conditions tied to the group’s seating arrangement. Thematically this was a representation of violinists fighting over who is the ‘first chair’ and mechanically swapping turn order and having players whose goals are at a tangent to the other players was interesting. However there were some issues.


The physicality of the game didn’t suit everyone, a lot of players didn’t want to stand up again having sat down to play a game. Mechanically it also created some weird exploits, in which a player could abuse whatever version of a turn order rule was in play in order to take several turns in a row. This didn’t achieve much as each of their turns was spent moving into the chair for the next turn, but it could effectively be used to lock other players out of the game which is no fun for anyone.

However the mechanic was entangled in other parts of the game. The saxophone player could swap chairs (because they’re not seated in a particular place in orchestras) but didn’t have a victory condition related to it and so could negotiate with those who did for help. The artiste needs a list of three abilities to help them pretend to be someone else and as the third most common ability this one was included. There wasn’t an easy way to remove it.

In this instance the answer wasn’t to avoid tinkering with anything just because the game as a whole was generally getting very good feedback or to have a tidy solution which made everything work out (though I tried one of these in having a first player card which moved about in place of the actual players) but to slash and burn. All text relating to the chair mechanic was deleted from all cards and replaced on a case by case basis, mostly making use of existing mechanics to avoid any complexity growth from replacing plenty of abilities and win conditions on a variety of cards.


Game design is an iterative process and not all progress is forwards progress. The trick is to engage in constant activity. Whenever a direction is unproductive (as the first player card was) the step can be reversed and whenever it’s productive the game gets a little better. In the long run a game that’s seen a lot of editions and problems and fixes and solutions will be stronger than one which simply works and was left alone once the average feedback started to give the impression that it ain’t broke.

For an inspirational article on getting rid of rules you’re proud of click here.
For a totally irrelevant but cool article on different computer game design jobs I found while searching out the link above click here.

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