This ended up being so much longer than I thought it would be, so I'm breaking this down into multiple posts! Here's part 1 of the development process since Gen Con 2014.
Although Bad Detectives was selected as the winner in last year's Tabletop Deathmatch, it was pretty clear that there were some big issues that needed to be addressed. I got a lot of very positive comments about the game design, but was rightly called out on the visual design of the cards. In the final judgment episode, Bad Detectives was called out as having one of the worst functioning graphic designs out of all the finalists, and I would completely agree. For reference, here's what the cards looked like at Gen Con 2014:
This is literally straight from the rulebook I provided with my submission, in which I explain how cards are played on the table. It's kind of a mess! Basically, the idea is you make lines of cards, starting with one of the Polaroid cards and ending with a bright white Memo card. You can play as many cards in between as you like, but you have to use those two types of cards as starting and ending points. The catch is that each type of card describes a certain type of Element, and that type has to be consistent throughout the entire line. For instance, each card in the Protest Rally line has an orange sticky note with a Compass, so we're all good there. Still with me? Now some of those cards have multiple types, like the blue Person icon. That means that other players can use them in their own lines - if I was playing the Protestor, I could use the first player's "Carrying a Souvenir" card as part of my own Line.
That's not so bad, but things got more complex and the cards did absolutely nothing to help guide the players along the way. The rules said that you could only build in one direction off a Polaroid card, but would you know that from looking at this? The rules also said you can't play multiple Polaroid cards in a single vertical or horizontal line. You can't put lines in parallel with each other, you could start to insert cards into other people's lines, etc. The rules said a lot of things, but you wouldn't learn any of it even from watching the game being played in front of you. This is a huge part of why the game demos during Gen Con took so long. You can't quite tell due to the magic of editing, but there was a lot more of Zach explaining the game than there was of judges playing it.
Despite all of this, the strength of the mechanics really shone through, and it left me with an interesting problem: How do I overhaul the card design without taking away too much of what the judges liked? I got to spend some extra time talking with the judges, and on the drive back to Chicago I identified the key pieces of the game design I wanted to build around:
- The game still needs to feel like an episode of TV crime drama. Specifically, it needs to match the pacing and contain a narrative arc. The players need to solve the case, then watch it fall apart as new facts emerge and old suspects alibi out.
- The players should play three short rounds instead of one long drawn out game.
- The cards need to speak for themselves. A player should have an idea of which cards are helpful, and where they need to be played, just by looking at them.
Here's another blast from the past:
Right? Would you believe this was intended to help players? I wrote this and I'm having a hard time understanding the rules. My main goal was to eliminate the need for a reference sheet altogether.
During one of the filmed playtests, Robert (from TTDM Season 1's Penny Press) mentioned moving the matching-type icons to the side, to reinforce the domino like aspect of the game. I took that advice, went even further back to the one of the first iterations of the game where you were literally dropping pieces of string between cards, and came up with this:
Look! Strings! I was pretty happy with this concept. It eliminates the sticky note that tells you what to match it with, and also handles the intersections of different lines in a way that's much easier to read. It's easier to tell that the "Fingerprints" card connects a Person line with a Weapon line. With more space, I could double up on the scoring icons, just like a typical playing card. This was important, since you could now rotate the cards into any orientation as long as the strings lined up. It also lets you get away with building crazy grids like this:
Which, to be honest, isn't that much better than where I started. While it's easier to see which cards are allowed to go next to each other, the end result is still pretty messy. This arrangement connects the Victim to the Lover, and has room to add an Orange Location or a Green Weapon, but it's hard to read the finished case. It didn't jive with the scoring mechanics, either. Players were rewarded for matching their cards with adjacent ones, so now people were drawn to using their cards like jigsaw puzzle pieces, filling in a hole in the case rather than connecting some new Evidence. The case became tightly built around one suspect or weapon, killing the fun part of the game where the detectives are undercutting each other with new theories and half-baked explanations. The scoring rules also punished too much expansion, which reinforced very tightly arranged cases like this. Players would end up keeping track of only a few relevant cards in a sea of useless ones.
Not to mention, this didn't actually eliminate very many of the rules on that reference sheet! Sure, it took #4 right out, but what else? You still needed to start and end a line with specific cards, but how do you know? Rule #3 says that you can only have one Element in a line, but it says here that I can play the Lover right next to the Loan Shark! Blue string to blue string, right? And it introduces new rules - Lines can clearly go in multiple directions, so we need to change rule #5. And it looks like parallel lines are a thing now too, so let's revisit Rule #6.
This was a good start, but something was still broken - and to fix it, I would need to go back to the very basics and kill a mechanic I had held on to since the beginning of development.