How to make a self-explanatory cardgame
It's like onboarding a new user, really
When I sat down to create a game that portrays the life of a Product Manager, I expected to spend some time working on balancing game dynamics. What I did not foresee was how much fun would be the challenge of making the game as easy as possible for newcomers.
The PM card game does not follow rules most people would know and is not played with common cards . These two facts merge together into a useful insight:
I need to explain the rules to every beginner BUT…
…I have complete control over the cards' design and can use it to teach people while they use it.
This one is promising, right? What about signing up to be in the loop and learn all about the backstage of creating a Product Management Cardgame?
The first “user experience feature” I designed for the game is the simplest. For each different type of card, there's a specific back pattern. This is immediately useful when players need to shuffle each of the stacks (currently 3 types of card = 3 different stacks) and can quickly understand which cards belong to each family. This makes shuffling easier and a task that can be distributed among 3 separate players. The current pattern can also be read from two directions, which is also helpful for players around a table.
After testing the 1st version, I've also decided to have a dominant color for each card type. As I'm working with mainly black, white and yellow, this was very easy. In the current version of the game (3rd version) this principle was a little bit lost, but I'm already correcting it
Lastly, to accommodate color-blind players, colors are not the main distinguishing factor, the card layout is. Colors help, but are not necessary.
The game has two different card types that are often used together: team members and projects. These two card types are different, but share elements that naturally indicate they are to be used with one another.
Helping users manage their resources
The two resource cards are team-members and projects. Team member cards can be of 5 different kinds: Developers, Designers, Data Analysts, Researchers and Tech Managers.
Of the 5, only the Developers have a value score (Jr SWEs have 1 point, Sr SWEs have 3). The other 4 kinds (let's call them multipliers) do not add up as development resources, but can multiply their effect. There are two main design decisions here:
Developer cards have a value printed over a yellow circle but multiplier cards do not have a score (not even zero)
Multiplier cards, instead of the yellow circle present in Developer cards have a yellow polygon, that varies according to the type of multiplier (Design=Square; Data=Triangle; Research=Heptagon; Tech Manager=Pentagon). I've decided to avoid shapes that don't resemble each other too much and will probably swap the Tech Manager and Researcher ones, to make the TM the only one that is almost a circle. Devs have circles, if TMs have the closest shape to it, there's some sort of coherence.
Both the resource card types have all the relevant information at the top, so that players can have them sit comfortably on their hands and make on the fly decisions about how to best use them.
There's a final touch on project cards, but that needs a little more context:
Using cards to track progress
Project cards need to be in play for a number of turns to be considered successfully delivered.
This is a major dynamic of the game and some cards affect this duration, accelerating or slowing down the completion of projects. Play-testing revealed that tracking how many turns are left in a project was cumbersome and error-prone.
To make it easier to track how many turns are left to complete a delivery, project cards now have spaces where a token can be placed. With each completed turn, players can add a token on top of the card. When all spaces are filled, that delivery was complete.
This little innovation (courtesy of a PM friend) made the game easier to follow along, dispensed with any need to write things down and made the physical game easier to ship.
The tokens can be anything, including just beans or coins. Players can use whatever they have on hand (testers used sugar packs at a coffeeshop).
Of the three types of cards, I've explained 2. We need to talk about the last one: Chaos cards.
Using consistent written structures
Chaos cards are the spice of the game, they can affect things such as team formation, pace of the game and project selection. They can both penalize or incentivize some player behaviors (e.g. some Chaos cards grant a free turn-token to ongoing projects of a specific type).
The thing is: Chaos cards can move different needles in different directions and for this reason, are the most diverse of the game. I'm still thinking of ways to make them easier to follow.
The main thing that Chaos cards have in terms of ease of use is that they have a title (funny, hopefully), a short narrative description of something that happened in PM world (e.g discovering an underserved niche) and instructions on how to use the card. In past versions, it was possible to save chaos cards to use later, but this added yet another layer of complexity and currently Chaos cards are used immediately after being drawn.
I'm trying to explore another way to make instructions easier to follow: a consistent way to write all instructions so that they follow a similar structure. Something like this:
Who is affected by the card (e.g. “you", "the next player", “all players”)
What conditions activate the card (e.g. "with/without ongoing projects”; "with ongoing projects of a certain type")
The effect of the card (e.g. “lose a turn", “gain a turn token”, “lose a teammember”)
I want to do this for all 32 Chaos cards, but haven't got around to doing it.
Extra little things
Besides all of these design decisions, I'm thinking of adding the following features:
The back patterns of each kind of card can include simple instructions (e.g. The back of Teammember's cards could say “draw up to two at the start of your turn”)
The back patterns of each kind of card could also include hints on which order they should be drawn (1st Team, 2nd Project, 3rd Chaos)
Can create some cards that are not playable but include instructions. Could include up to 4 of them in the decks and let players keep them around to check up on instructions
I'd like to overhaul all project names to make them funnier too
This was a longer piece than usual, but I wanted to show you all the little things one can do to make the game easier for beginners. I hope you liked it!
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