My first game design was not fun, but moving on from it was the best thing I could have done.

I started with a game idea around 6 months ago. That game never really worked, but I got far enough with it that I felt confident at trying another design. Now, I’ve got a document with almost a dozen game ideas (and counting) that I hope to bring to tables in the future.

Let’s not jump too far ahead. I want to begin this journal by talking about my first game, and why it’s important to know when your idea doesn’t work so you can move on to something new.

Outbreak One Page design.
Outbreak: Disease Control one page design document from class assignment.

What came out of that was a clunky game with too much going on. Players took on a role from the main Pandemic game (plus a few my Subject Matter Expert/sister-in-law added). Each turn players would play a single action card from a hand of 6-8 cards, which represented doing something specific to that roll. A Quarantine Specialist would build up barriers to new infection, while a Public Health Administrator would work to advise the public how to stay safe and lobby for funding. The disease played itself via a deck that played one action card on every player turn. It could hamper the players or increase its own infection rate. For scoring, I lifted the idea of two markers on a single track moving towards each other from FFG’s Star Wars Rebellion. The disease worked down the track from 100, while the players tried to work a cure up the track from 0. If the markers met above 50 the players won, and if the markers met below 50 the disease won.

I spent about 2 months crunching numbers in a spreadsheet. Based on pure math, the game was well-balanced. Based on my first playtest, the game was a hot mess. We never made it out of the first turn. The game worked, in that you could play it. But my attempt to stick to realism also made the game unfun.

The feeling of being behind until the very last minute, or just never catching up at all because curing diseases is legitimately super difficult, was not fun. After Round 1 my playtesters were miserable. The disease had moved from 100 down to 80, and had destroyed a decent chunk of their starting resource pool. That meant the players would need another 2-3 full turns to build enough resources back up to get any sort of progress happening on their own scoring marker, and that’s assuming the disease simply left them alone for that time.

First prototype cards for Outbreak game.
Early Outbreak prototype cards.

The starting draw was the most fortunate unfortunate draw I’ve seen in my playtesting. Four of the eight most punishing cards had come out first. My playtesters couldn’t have been more unlucky in the first round. I couldn’t have been more lucky. Seeing your carefully crafted game suck the fun and excitement out of a room in less than 10 minutes is a clear and brutal wake up call. On his wonderful podcast, Gabe Barrett refers to games as “Fun Engines”. That’s as spot-on a description of a game as I have ever heard. But I hadn’t made a fun engine. I had made a brutally efficient Unfun Engine.

I did a bunch of tweaks to the game over the course of a few weeks. It certainly helped, and the game lasted a bit longer, but the reality was that the game was still unfun. The main issue seemed to be how brutal the disease deck was, which was concerning because I had designed decks even more punishing than the test deck.

I started coming up with a different concept for how to simulate a disease outbreak. Instead of cards and a track, what if there were tiles and the disease spread to them from a central Infection Tile? What if those actions that everyone feels are too simple, too specific, or just not worth using went away?

Then it hit me: What if I took those ideas, and used them to make something different?

The Time To Move On

In hindsight, moving on from Outbreak was the correct decision. At the time it didn’t feel like the correct decision. I’d asked family and friends to volunteer their time. I spent money printing cards on paper at Staples, and then spent an entire night at the kitchen table stuffing them in sleeves with my old X-Wing game cards. I lost sleep trying to figure out how to make the game work.

After the last playtest, when I felt like I’d streamlined as much as I could, only to see the game fail again, I felt all sorts of negative emotions. Failure, frustration, a bit of embarrassment. I questioned if designing games was for me. I questioned whether I am simply a hobbyist playing designer.

I didn’t have an answer to that question (and I still feel like I don’t). What I did have is another idea and an itch to try it. In a few days I was putting together a one page design document to capture the feel of that game.

As I said in the beginning, I’m almost ready to turn that idea into a printed prototype. If I had kept going with my first idea I would still be struggling to get players through a single round. Instead I have a different game almost ready for UnPub events and a conference in Vegas where I hope to sneak in some blind playtesting.