The Board Game Design Course

Where great games begin

Game Design

How designing with restrictions can give you more freedom

Have you heard of played an 18-card game? They are exactly what they sound like, a game comprised of just 18 cards. No other components. Well, occasionally there may be a small number of tokens other objects, but typically there are just 18 cards.

But why would someone want to make a game so small-scale?

I recently listened to a podcast on the Board Game Design Lab with Jason Tagmire from Buttonshy Games. His company makes nothing but 18-card games.

It was fascinating to hear the story behind this company.

It turns out he found a printer in the US that could make decks of 54 standard playing cards relatively cheaply and quickly. If you do the math, you’ll see that you can get three 18-card games from one single deck. He simply orders however are many decks are needed and then separates out three sets of the game and boxes them himself.

This way, he can make and publish games inexpensively. But he wasn’t just looking to make cheap games, he wanted to make good games that people want to play.

And he doesn’t call them micro games. He says they are small games that pack a big punch.

They release a new game every month, usually through Kickstarter, and have over 40 titles published. They can make and sell games inexpensively and keep funding goals very low, as they are not restricted to minimum print orders of 1,000 or more games. They can print off just as many as they need, and being so small, they take up little storage space and they can also reuse the same box size over and over.

Well, that’s great for a publisher, but what about for a game designer?

From a game design perspective, it may seem very restrictive to make a game with only 18 cards. However, this comes with some great benefits.

When you work with zero restrictions, anything is up for grabs. Your game can go in so many possible directions, use just about any component you can think of, and the scope and scale of the game can become enormous.

This is not so much the case when you give yourself a strict constraint. You really have to think imaginatively and push the boundaries. You have to find ways to make cards do multiple things. But at the same time, your scope is limited, so you can’t just add whatever you’d like at anytime.

This keeps the design process very much under control.

Some may feel a card has little versatility and they may only use a card for one purpose. But you have to remember there are two sides to every card, four edges on each side, and lots of room in the middle. There’s still plenty of space to explore!

It’s also surprising how much you can pack into such a small package.

Finding inspiration

Prior to listening to this podcast, I had thought about making an 18-card game, but it was never more than a fleeting idea. Right after listening to this podcast however, I immediately started have ideas for a specific game, and shortly thereafter my first 18-card game was born.

The premise was an escape. I didn’t know right away who was escaping or how they would do so, but my idea was that players would have to get rid of all their cards and use plenty of bluffing in order to do so.

I figured out in my head how the mechanics would work, then I set out to find the theme. After brainstorming a long list, I landed on animals escaping from the zoo, which sounded like fun premise and have the added benefit of being family-friendly.

After playing the prototype once of my wife, I could see it had a lot of potential. The name also came shortly after that – Zoo Year’s Eve. The animals have been planning their escape and decided to pull it off on New Year’s Eve, when the zoo keepers were busy partying it up.

My game has the added benefit of being quick to play, which makes it easier to squeeze in more playtests. There’s also a lot of bluffing and calling people out, which makes it really engaging. Everyone is involved at every moment of the game.

I am continuing and will continue to tweak and make Zoo Year’s Eve better, but so far it has been a great experience working within these restrictions and finding creative ways to work around them rather than just adding or removing cards or components to fix a problem.

Future inspiration?

I was fortunate to also listen to John Coveyou’s recent podcast on the Board Game Design Lab, in which he talks not only about making educational games that are fun, but about restrictions he put on himself early on in his game design career.

It was fascinating to hear John speak about forcing himself to first make a game with dice only, then to build on this idea. The natural tendency is to create a game where the dice are rolled, for example to attack other players. But he took this a step further.

John even restricted himself to making a dice game in which he wasn’t allowed to roll the dice. “But what else can you do with dice” you may ask. Well, you can use them as counters, you can stack them, you can flick them, or figure out some new use for them.

He does the same exercise with the students in his game design course at Webster University. They start by making a dice game, then other dice games with another restriction added with every new creation.

Using this approach, John was able to explore so many different mechanics that can be used, not only with dice, but other components as well.

I’ve also used dice in nontraditional ways, including using them as counters, timers, and pawns, along with dice-drafting. I was excited about other possibilities after hearing John’s interview and can’t wait to apply these same restrictive methods in my game designs.

What restrictions have you placed on yourself that made your game better? What ways do you use restrictions in your game creation process?

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