How a Professional Game Designer Iterates on a (Promising?) Concept.

What I Learned Making a Treasure Hunt Roll & Write Game — Chapter #2

Jean-Baptiste Oger


What’s the difference between Monopoly and the new game I’m making? Monopoly isn’t much fun, but at least it’s simple.

As explained in chapter 1, I built a cool riddle generator with Unreal Engine, a good first step for a pirate-themed treasure hunt. Throwing a bunch of mechanics together was easy to make for a mildly entertaining experience. I could settle for this and jump to the next exciting idea, but there is more potential to scratch here. It just requires a lot more work.

How to approach iteration

Plants with too many branches exhaust themselves; they don’t have enough sap to distribute and yield fruits. So in gardening, trimming isn’t about aesthetics & elegance; it helps the plant thrive.

In the gaming field, most designers (including myself) start by exploring in more directions than needed. As a result, the game is full of disjointed, unequal ideas. The reason why it’s so essential to prototype fast isn’t to prove to the world you can implement mechanics quickly but to figure out fast which parts to trim to let others flourish.

In this second chapter, I’ll take you through five significant cuts I made, why they were necessary and how I replaced the mechanics. At the end of this devlog, you’ll also read about the best part of this process: how I found a breakthrough idea in the debris of trimmed ideas. Because however scary cutting your ideas might be, it only gives more room for the best mechanics to grow and shine.

#1 —The Map

The main issue when playtesting was the lack of space. With an island too small but a scoring system that encouraged longer chains, players were forced to make convoluted twists & turns before reaching the central cavern. It felt weird, and you could easily block yourself on top of that.

To address the issue, I made the island a larger rectangle. Instead of going from the edges to the centre, players would now go from left to right. It dramatically increased the readability and clarified the flow of the game.

As a result, the map also takes most of the sheet, thus clearly reinforcing it as the game’s central aspect. And as you can see, it gave me a good reason to cut the unnecessary secondary systems. The ship & the bonus coins were mere distractions that didn’t bring anything to the experience; they weren’t exciting, strategic or even fun. Cut.

#2 — The Crew Symbols

This second cut was harder to nail, but I can explain the thought process in hindsight.

Unlike video games which can challenge players on their physical aptitudes, almost all board games are based on decision making, a mental challenge. Therefore, the bulk of the design work is to make sure that this aspect is neither boring nor confusing. It must shine the brightest.

I had decided that players would flip three cards each turn and pick among those options. Why choose one over the other?

I invented the crew mechanic to complement the movement shape: three different ‘teams’ all need to reach the same goal, and basically, your choice would be which to advance. It then evolved into “the symbol indicates where movement can start” and added a bit of strategy to expand your options.

The mechanic only gave an illusion of decision. It was hollow, and now that the ship was out of the sheet as well, it felt even more useless. The only satisfying part was to anticipate future cards in order to keep the flow.

So, I decided to keep only the fun part. In the new rule, the movement depends directly on the terrain type. It’s a bit weird thematically, but not less arbitrary than the crew symbols. Anyway, that made the game more straightforward and more fun.

#3-The Starting Points

With the removal of the crew symbols, it became apparent that the game’s central mechanic was the movement, and it raised three follow-up questions: where do you start, where do you go, and how so? To maximize the game’s potential, I had to find the best possible answer to each of them.

The starting point of the exploration was the easiest to figure out: it barely changed but taught an interesting lesson nonetheless; I just figured that without the three separate pirate chains, there is no reason to give players three options at the beginning.

Except if you come from a really hardcore school of game design, there is no reason to give players more choices than they need at first. Start small and let the range of possibilities expand as the game unfolds, it’s better than paralyzing players right their first decision.

That being said, the key takeaway I got from this simplification was to realize that when you iterate on one aspect of your game, you should take time to re-evaluate the other mechanics to see if they still make sense. Sound simple on paper, but it’s equally easy to get lost when many changes are happening simultaneously.

#4-The Cavern

In the first version, I added the cavern to provide players with something to aim for when picking movements. I didn’t want them to err while waiting for the clues. When switching to the rectangular map, the cavern moved to the right of the sheet, but it still made no sense.

I realized that filling a hole with a thematically weak mechanic brought more issues than the initial problem. Thus, in the most meta moment of my design career, I felt like my players trying to circumvent an issue that exists only due to a mix of (self-imposed) conflicting rules.

When in doubt, go back to the roots. The game’s goal is to explore an island to get clues & discover a treasure; that is the target I can give the players to kickstart their movement.

I placed the clues directly on the map and removed the unnecessary cavern mechanic. It’s simple; it fits with the theme and leads me to figure yet another critical aspect of the game.

#5-The Rum

Photo by Marvin L on Unsplash

The initial idea behind the Rum mechanic was to provide the players with a side goal (collecting barrels) and give bonuses when they spend them (make a free move, get a clue). It’s not a particularly innovative feature to add to a board game but it avoided some situations where you could get blocked.

Still, it was another instance of mechanic which brought bloat more than depth. While the intention was valid, the mechanic introduced exceptions, and it could almost feel like cheating at times: knowing that you could bypass the challenge made the puzzle less tense.

I cut the feature & later re-used the idea of collecting rum barrels with a new scoring mechanic, the “crew strength”. Yet again, that instantly made the game simpler and more fun. Too simple probably, but that’s a problem I’ll explore in a future devlog.

That being said, cutting this aspect of the game also had the side effect of removing a neat little mechanic: some cards would award rum if you finished on a specific terrain, thus making you think twice about your moves. A naive idea that I had no idea it would become crucial to the experience at the time.

Finding the breakthrough

For the sake of readability, I described all these steps as if they happened sequentially. In reality, iteration is messy: the process isn’t as smooth as taking features one by one, identifying the problem and nailing the right solution. Instead, iteration is incremental, with some back &forths and lots of testing in-between changes.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

As I was cutting mechanics, I felt that the core mechanic was thriving more and reaching its potential. With less clutter, I finally saw that I had intuitively added (and now removed) several mechanics that revolved around the same idea: chaining moves.

Having to select the right crew to continue the “chain”, the ability to spend rum to make a second move during the turn and the bonus for ending on a correct spot: these mechanics were all about combos.

Combos have been part of gaming for a long time, and lots of Roll & Writes put them to good use in the form of rewards: showering players with satisfying cascades of bonuses. As a challenge, however, there are none that I’ve heard of, so it could easily make for my unique twist of the genre: instead of figuring which is the best option, you’d try to find how to use them all.

Unsurprisingly, the first playtest we had with this concept was broken but also a lot more fun. The streamlined experience put the focus on a core decision loop that was finally decluttered from the distractions. We loved it.

First physical playtesting with all the changes: success!

Now that the core gameplay had improved tremendously, it’s time to give more love to the game structure: the choices you make, the scoring system and how to add depth to the experience.

But first, you can expect in the next chapter to read about getting your prototype in front of unknown playtesters and participating in game design contests to gain visibility. Making a game is a long journey.

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Jean-Baptiste Oger

Game Director. I write mainly about the design of video & board games. Aspiring to better understand the world around & human psychology.