Bad Detectives was originally submitted for the first Tabletop Deathmatch in 2013 under the working title Procedural Crime Drama. I felt pretty good about the entry at the time, but after a year of improving the game I could not be happier with the direction the design has taken. I've saved all of the cards I've created over the last year just to show how far the game has come.
From day one, the core idea of the game has always been about players using individual building blocks labeled with some classic murder mystery tropes to build a murder investigation together. Each trope would have a few themes attached to it, and players would get rewarded with both scoring mechanics and a more cohesive story by keeping the themes consistent. I envisioned a Beautiful Mind-esque board of index cards and strings that everyone would build upon, with some path-building mechanics to separate the relevant evidence from the chaff. In one of the earliest designs, I even experimented with pieces of colored yarn to literally string clues together. It was a visual mess in terms of playability, but I loved the aesthetic.
The Detail and Link cards on the far left are the original cards used in the 2013 Deathmatch submission. I settled into the web-of-evidence aesthetic pretty early into the design, and if I couldn't have my physical string on the table I was going to at least draw it in somewhere. The combination of manila folders, polaroids, and cork board stayed throughout most of the design. One of the first things to go, however, was the massive amount of text per card. The original game called for detail cards to be tucked partially behind other cards so that the words stayed visible, so you had text repeating itself taking away valuable real estate for artwork. The links were a design nightmare. To keep them visually distinct from the details, they became a giant polaroid photo? But they were also full of text? I didn't really know what to do with them at the time other than show that links needed to connect to specific types of clues.
Moving forward, I chose to reduce the amount of text by removing the names of the themes and replacing them with symbols. I liked this because it gave the player more liberty with the storytelling. If a card literally says "Betrayal" on it, then more often than not the player is going to use the word betrayal when describing the suspect's motive. Replace "Betrayal" with a broken heart, though, and it's up to the player to fill in the blanks on how that heart got broken in the first place. I still couldn't figure out what to do with links. I couldn't figure out how to cut the text out of them, so I changed the floating polaroid to an index card of instructions and left it at that.
Throughout all of this, the biggest design problem that was causing headaches was the pacing. The game would always start out with this wild free-for-all world building as players eagerly played new evidence to the board. As the case grew, players would end up fishing through the draw decks to try and find the specific link they needed to tie it together. Nobody wanted to just draw and pass their turn (and who would blame them?) so instead they would introduce more evidence. You would get this giant pile of unlinked evidence on the table and the game devolved into waiting for someone to draw any card that would end it. I tried splitting up the types of cards into different decks - at one point there were six different decks to draw from - which tried to allow the players to decide to draw what they thought they needed most, but you seemed to always be drawing details when you needed links, or vice versa. Instead of fighting this, eventually the links and details were combined into the same card type (the third prototype). Instantly the game improved. Nobody was drawing dead cards anymore and you always had something constructive to do on your turn.
This also allowed me to reduce the number of total cards in the game, something I was growing increasingly concerned with when researching production costs. Since links and details both worked as descriptions and could be played in the same positions, I could reduce the number of each type without sacrificing much variety in storytelling.
Now we were getting somewhere. I was able to get a lot of playtests with this prototype, and could spend less time building new cards and more time getting the linking mechanics clear and concise. The playtests also revealed two design items that I would have never even considered without handling the physical cards. First, if we were going to be moving cards all over the board but remaining adjacent to each other, it would make sense to have all the sides the same length. This frees up more space on the table and allows for more freedom of movement. Second, if you're right handed and you fan your cards out, there's a good chance you'll hide those icons in the upper right behind another card. For the next set of square cards, all the key information was moved to the left. To save time, I stripped out the theme completely and just stamped placeholder letters to make 400 new cards in less than two days. This was probably the best thing I've ever done during this process and I am still kicking myself for not doing this earlier. Not only did I get more time to test mechanics, but it also let me focus on whether the core mechanics were actually enjoyable. If you took away all the storytelling and context, is it still fun to try and match letters? I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to find that the answer was "yes." This was the push I needed to nail down the linking mechanics for good.
This brings us to the final card type, which keeps the pile of documents visual theme while relying heavily on images instead of text. The specific subtypes of each card are color coded to help the player process information faster. The yellow Links are distinct enough to pick them out at a glance, but share the same layout with Details to remind the player that they use the same mechanics. The wording of the tropes on the Links were also rewritten to help tell a story even if the Links were not connected yet (for example, The Lawyer was seen dumping an unidentified object or the Handgun was haphazardly disposed by a shadowy figure yet unknown).
The Evidence Markers, however, were a no-brainer from the very beginning.